The Church as agent of hope:
What can religious faith contribute to life in contemporary Australia?
Mark Raper SJ
19 May 2004
Lecture delivered to mark the
fiftieth anniversary of the Catholic Institute of Sydney
Vol 39 No 2, Winter 2005. Compass is a review of topical
theology published quarterly by the Australian Province of the Missionaries
of the Sacred Heart
Those who are separated from a society can help us to understand
that society. Refugees, by definition, have been rejected by society,
and my reflections on society tonight will begin with their perspectives.
Indigenous Australians also experience a separation from the society
that inhabits their land, and so their experience and perceptions
can reveal much about that society.
Speaking here in the Catholic Institute about religious faith,
one may assume that we refer principally to our own tradition of
belief within the Catholic Church. Yet faith may be considered not
so much as a set of concepts or beliefs, but rather as the disposition
and attitude that committed, converted, and loving people hold towards
others and towards the Other. This living faith is provoked and
revealed in many of the ordinary encounters that each of us experience
even in our day-to-day living. Living faith is the light that guides
the commitments we make out of love. In commenting on the interrelationship
between faith and our culture, I will draw from Catholic social
teaching, in particular the Second Vatican Council which spoke so
richly about engagement in the modern world.
May I recall one conversation with a refugee, which was a moment
of insight for me, and may help to inform our reflection on the
interaction between faith and society.
Throughout the 1990s, while I lived in Rome, I helped to set up
and to monitor Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) teams in front line
humanitarian situations across the world. We worked, for example,
in the Balkans, with a program in Sarajevo throughout that period
of intense conflict. In the early 1990s, the fighting raging in
Bosnia-Herzegovina was of such ferocity that the United Nations
(UN) created several enclaves or 'safe areas'. We now know that
this policy was a disastrous failure, since the UN and NATO were
not prepared to protect these enclaves. One enclave was at Srebrenica
where 7,500 Muslims were slaughtered, another at Zefa, and a third,
near the town of Velika Kladusa, was referred to as the Bihac pocket.
This territory in the north of Bosnia, holding 180,000 people, was
wedged between the secessionist Serbian controlled Krajina region
of Croatia, and Bosnian Serb territory, and accordingly between
the Croatian Serb army and the Bosnian Serb militia. The Bihac leader,
Fikret Abdic, was either installed by the Serbs or had done a deal
with the Serbs in order to keep the Bihac pocket safe. When the
Bosnians finally took control of the Bihac pocket in August 1995,
Abdic and the other leaders did deals and left to safety elsewhere,
but a large group of people crossed into Croatia and lived for several
years in a refugee camp of tents. Our JRS team, young German and
Croatian men and women volunteers, went to assist them and set up
a primary school and many other activities.
When I visited the camp about 18 months later, in early 1997,
the number of refugees had diminished to a couple of thousand, since
those who could had slipped home, and the most acceptable refugees
had been selected for resettlement in third countries. The agencies
assisting them were also reduced to just the Red Crescent Society
and ourselves, the Jesuit Refugee Service. The teachers at the little
school prepared a lunch, at the end of which, the principal of the
school, whom I shall call Vildana, a blue-eyed and fair-haired Muslim
woman, said to me: 'When all those people and agencies came to help
us in the beginning, the last group that I expected to stay with
us Muslims was the Jesus Refugee Service. Now I see that not only
did you stay with us, but you love us.'
Somewhat foolishly I replied: 'But is it not true that we are brothers
and sisters, and do we not have the same Father, the same God?'
Vildana looked at me, or rather through me, for what seemed like
five minutes, as she digested this. Finally, and with immense surprise,
she concluded: 'Yes!' It was a radiant moment of warmth in an environment
created by years of betrayal, terror and distrust.
What gave Vildana, after all the violence, terror and betrayal
that she had lived through, much of it at the hands of Christians,
whether they be Orthodox Serbians or Catholic Croatians, the ability
to recognise that our Christian God could be any match for her great
God, her Allah Akbar? Only the lived faith, which means faith in
practice, the constant love of those young volunteers who stayed
with her people, could give this experience of solidarity. The volunteers
were attentive to the needs perceived by the refugees themselves.
Through daily encounters and conversation they became kindred spirits
with one another. Once the normal barriers had been broken down
by meeting face to face in trust, a new realisation was possible.
Surprise enables new connections, gives new hope and energy, and
introduces a readiness for change.
Australian Society: Experiences of Separation
Let me reflect on society seen from Vildana's perspective. Invariably,
as for Vildana and her group, an experience of violence is at the
beginning of a refugee's journey. If not always physically violent,
the refugee experience is an experience of rejection. The refugees
and displaced are often made the scapegoats for the ills of society.
Though they are the victims, they are the most identifiable features
of a social disorder, they are a nuisance. Somehow they are blamed
and held responsible for many social inconveniences.
Zygmunt Bauman in his recent book, Wasted Lives: Modernity and
its Outcasts1 makes the connection between refugees and the societies
that produce them. He speaks of the production of human waste, or
more precisely 'wasted humans' as the inevitable outcome of modernization.
The drive for economic progress and building of a human order devoted
to economic development, leaves these people as the cast-offs, discarded,
thrown-away lives. Forced by rejection to leave their own country,
refugees and immigrants are also frequently the scapegoats for problems
of the society which hosts them.
So let us turn to Australian society. And let us begin with the
contemporary scapegoats, those corresponding to ancient societies
in which they chose a victim, loaded their problems on it, and killed
or drove out that victim. By separating itself from the problem,
the society sought to remain in peace. In last year's Manning Clark
lecture, Judy Davis remarks that separation has long been an Australian
way of dealing with problems 
Separation by sea and by force was the foundation upon which
the colony of misfits, the colony of the unwanted, was built.
The nail in almost every coffin of the convicts was the fact that
they were never likely to return to England. It's not surprising
that we have re-visited the theme of separation as though it were
the panacea for any social problem that might come our way. From
the stolen generations of Aboriginal children, to the Pacific
solution for asylum seekers, we appear to be congenitally pre-disposed
to the medicinal benefits of isolation. But building walls of
legislation to protect our island has never worked. Our history
is pock-marked with attempts at 'border protection', that sombre
term which hides a plethora of racist attitudes.
Our indigenous people repeat the example of Vildana. Despite all
the atrocities they have experienced since European settlement,
they have survived and maintained their humanity. Despite massacres,
stolen land, enforced separation, brutal discrimination, they have
sustained their belief in connection and its power. Yet they have
reached out the hand of friendship and they keep on, 'longing for
the things we have always longed for—respect and understanding.'
Miriam Rose Ungunmerr speaks about this invitation with exquisite
We hope that the people of Australia will wait. Not so much
waiting for us—but waiting with us as we find our way in
the world. My people are used to the struggle and the long waiting.
We still wait for the white people to understand us better. 
Asylum seekers also live the story of Vildana in their own lives.
They are scapegoats. Politicians' approaches to control of borders
and immigration reveal a coldness of heart towards the relatively
small number of asylum seekers who arrived on our shores. Boundaries
are maintained around Australia and simultaneously around our hearts.
The blame which immigrants are made to carry is out of all proportion,
or is simply a ruse, a deception. The few thousand Iraqis and Afghans
who reached Australia were spoken of as an 'invasion'. Seeing no
choice but to leave their home country, increasing numbers become
more desperate and seek clandestine ways to reach a safe haven.
Bishop Eugene Hurley of Port Pirie, who regularly makes pastoral
visits to Baxter, put his finger on the debilitating effect of such
policies, 'The policy is toxic. Everyone who comes into contact
with it gets sick.' He further describes it as making '… prisoners
of everyone. I am afraid that we will look back at this chapter
in the history of our nation with the same sadness, shame and regret
as the White Australia policy.'
Australia is, as Arnold Zable describes, a nation of immigrants
and indigenous people. 'A new world with an ancient past. A grand
symphony with many melodies.' Of our 20 million people, almost
a quarter were born overseas. We speak around 200 languages in our
homes. Over the last 30 years, those claiming Christianity has
fallen from 96% to around 70% while there are now 3 to 4 times the
number of Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims. Multicultural society
offers a challenge; we must lose a part of what is familiar in order
to embrace the unknown, and to become larger as a consequence. Yet
the legacy of 'White Australia' appears to still be a force in our
nation's life. There is a yearning by some for when Australia comprised
less varied cultural backgrounds, a yearning, as Robyn Nevin in
her Australia Day Address described it, for '...an altogether neater
The forces in contemporary Australian life are those affecting
other developed nations. For most Australians, things seem to be
going well. Economic growth has been steady at around 4% per annum.
There have been constant promises of a higher quality of life. But
economic globalisation has also meant that Australia, along with
most industrialised societies, has been significantly restructured,
leading to perceptions of social breakdown. Urban centres may have
benefited, but rural and regional communities have suffered and
feel neglected. Health and education systems are seen to be in crisis.
Urban crime is said to have grown out of control.
Social change often generates a feeling of uncertainty. The major
political parties lose credibility. Indeed there is a crisis of
trust in leadership of all forms, politicians, sports persons, church
leaders. This is serious: As Confucius told his disciple Tsze-kung,
three things are needed for government: weapons, food and trust.
If a ruler cannot hold on to all three, he should give up weapons
first and the food next. Trust should be guarded until the end,
'...without trust we cannot stand.'
Australia is profoundly affected by the spread of a global culture
of efficiency. Thomas Merton considered efficiency to be the major
spiritual disease in the western world. It leaves little energy
for much else. The speed and scope of communication technology,
central to modern culture, has transformed our human consciousness
- our way of thinking, how we perceive time and space, how we relate
to others. The result is that many prefer change to stability, would
value the new rather than the old, tomorrow rather than yesterday.
Excessive energy is consumed in maintaining efficiency, leaving
little space for hope. Moreover, look at our suicide rate, the incidence
of alcoholism and drug addiction, the incidence of boredom and of
what might be called starvation of the spirit.
In brief, we do find in Australia the deceit of separation, the
failure of trust, the distortion of truth. To find healing, we need
to return to the story of Vildana and ask where we can be led to
surprise, solidarity, hope and energy, and who can be the agents
of that hope? I believe the Church can be an agent of hope.
Religious Faith and Society
To be an agent of hope, the Church itself needs to be surprised
and energised. We find energy when we acknowledge our limitations
and recognise the problems we face. As a Church, we are liberated
when we acknowledge our mistakes and the harm we have done. When
we seek to reconcile the estranged, the stolen generations, the
exiles, the survivors of sexual abuse, the Church itself is surprised,
it is transformed, becomes inclusive, respectful, and closer to
its gospel imperatives.
Surprise leads to solidarity. In faith, we know Christ as the victim,
who invites us to identify with the victim, a stance which will
sometimes disturb the peace. But Jesus does not come to bring the
peace that comes through being able to blame someone or something
else. The Christian's stand for peace acknowledges truth, includes
all, and by preference stands by the weakest. Indeed it is in the
face of those like Vildana, those who have been victims, that we
can discover the truth in all its beauty.
That commitment to '... accompany people, in different contexts,
as they and their culture make difficult transitions' applies
to the presence of people of religious faith in the fields of scientific
research, in discussions on bio-ethics, as also to the presence
of those young German and Croatian volunteers with Vildana and her
fellow refugees who escaped the Bihac pocket and took refuge in
Croatian Krajina. It is a model for the role of religious faith
in contemporary Australian society. This practical faith is reflected
not just in Christian organisations, but also in simple actions
of individual Christians.
John Paul II's word for accompaniment is solidarity. Solidarity
concerns a fundamental vision that we are born into a web of social
relationships, that our humanity ties all people to one another,
that the Gospel consecrates those ties, and that the prophets and
all of Scripture tell us that the way we honour those ties is the
test of authenticity of our faith.
Solidarity... is not a vague feeling of compassion, or shallow
distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far.
On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to
commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good
of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible
The Church That can Offer Hope to Society
When we move from the living of faith to reflection on it, we
are soon led to discern the relationship between secular culture
and belief. It is a complex relationship. In the experience of Vildana,
it involves the relationships between the Christian volunteers,
the Muslim Vildana, and the world whose enmities and whose generosities
brought them all together. Reflecting on that story, we can attempt
to identify what factors might lead any of us, within our own social
contexts, to surprise, solidarity, energy and the desire for change.
Speaking abstractly about faith and culture means to ask about the
conditions under which lived faith can provoke solidarity, can enable
surprise, can give energy, and can lead to change. These after all
are contributions that lived religious faith offers to any contemporary
St John saw a contradiction between the demands of 'this world'
and the demands of faith. At times secular society has been broadly
supportive of religious faith, for example during Europe's age of
Christendom. Modern secular society, including contemporary Australia,
tends to be alien to faith. How do we act in the face of this tension?
Let us go back to October 1958, when an elderly Italian peasant,
Angelo Roncalli, dressed in white, climbed up on to the throne of
Peter and beamed on the world with warmth, good humour and kindness.
It seemed a new era: for the first time for 200 years, humanity
was introduced into Church leadership. He himself was a surprise
and he gave new energy to the Church and to the world.
John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council. On the penultimate
day of the Second Vatican Council, four documents were promulgated.
The last two of them, Gaudium et Spes (The Pastoral Constitution
on the Church in the Modern World) and Dignitatis Humanae (The Declaration
on Religious Freedom), constitute arguably, the high water mark
of the Catholic Church's efforts to come to terms with the modern
world. They were the Council's endeavour to read the 'signs of the
times', and to address finally the ideals and aspirations of the
French Revolution—liberty, equality, fraternity—the
history of the Industrial Revolution and of the Enlightenment, the
separation of Church and State, and the evolution of new patterns
of authority and community.
Since that high tide, the waters have ebbed and flowed. Vatican
II launched the Church into a complex dialogue with the modern secular
world. The period since has been perceived very differently by different
people within the Church, by some as a period of hope and development,
and by others as a period of disintegration.12 Some have hankered
after a clerical Catholic world.
But Gaudium et Spes continues to call the Church to dialogue and
openness to social and political pluralism, to service and the recognition
of the dignity of all people, to insistence on international cooperation
and to hope in the future of the human family. It invites us to
a conversation modelled on Paul's address on the Areopagus. He was
appalled by the idolatry that he witnessed, but he did not attack
that, he looked for the good there, using the philosophy of the
time, and he drew his listeners to conversion.
If we are embarrassed or depressed by reactionary elements in the
Church, it is inspiring to return to the liberating text of the
Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World. For example
in Chapter III it speaks of human activity throughout the world,
and specifically to the autonomy of science and technology,
...whoever labours to penetrate the secrets of reality with
a humble and steady mind, even though he is unaware of the fact,
is nevertheless being led by the hand of God, who holds all things
in existence, and gives them their identity. Consequently, we
cannot but deplore certain habits of mind, which are sometimes
found too among Christians, which do not sufficiently attend to
the rightful independence of science and which, from the arguments
and controversies they spark, lead many minds to conclude that
faith and science are mutually opposed.
As the horrific wars of our time demonstrate, and as the lives
of the refugees teach us, and as our own failings in life bring
home to us, we are engaged in a struggle between good and evil in
our lives and in our time. This is not the simplistic presentation
of one empire, the coalition of the willing, against some other
sinister force. The struggle runs through human hearts. As The Church
in the Modern World says,
For a monumental struggle against the powers of darkness pervades
the whole history of man. The battle was joined from the very
origins of the world and will continue until the last day, as
the Lord has attested. Caught in this conflict, man is obliged
to wrestle constantly if he is to cling to what is good... That
is why Christ's Church... acknowledges that human progress can
serve man's true happiness, yet she cannot help echoing the Apostle's
warning: 'Be not conformed to this world' (Rom 12:2). By the world
is here meant that spirit of vanity and malice which transforms
into an instrument of sin those human energies intended for the
service of God and man.
The contest between modernity and fundamentalism that we witness
in the response to the Vatican II teaching is characteristic of
societies around the world. In our Australian society, not just
in our Church, the thrust towards modernity is being challenged
by various forms of fundamental conservatism. In more conservative
cultures, patterns of imposed fundamentalism are being challenged
by a forward-looking hunger for more liberal solutions. 'The aspiration...
is to seek, not polarisation, but organic growth, and to see the
movement from ancient certainties into the world of modern complexities
as a necessary pilgrimage of growth.' Vatican II moved simultaneously
in two directions, backwards to our sources and roots, and forwards
towards the challenges of modernity.
Religious congregations have felt the challenge of this double
call, from yesterday and tomorrow, as a core and driving feature
of their spirituality. Last week we buried a great figure in our
Australian Jesuit province, William Dalton, a renowned scripture
scholar and the founder of our Jesuit Theological College, which
is engaged in an ecumenical enterprise and like CIS, set in the
city and able to bring theological formation to a wide range of
people. Bill had the beaming largesse of John XXIII. He trusted
his students to own their vocation, to live faithful to it, and
to adapt it to modern needs. He was a man who gave himself both
to the institutional conversation of the Church and to the smaller
conversation with God.
Catholicism, of course, is institutional by instinct and by nature.
Institutions are the way you grab hold of life, the way you lay
hands on complex social questions. Its welfare, educational and
social service institutions are the hands of the Church, its means
for engaging not only in response to the needs of people, but also
in the processes of our society as it changes. They are the stables
in which surprise, solidarity, hope and energy can be born. But
stables, of course, need to be cleansed for the purpose.
For that reason we need an overarching strategy for the institutional
Catholic social presence, in education, health care and social service.
By linking ourselves to the engine of upward social mobility, through
education, thereby educating a quarter of the population, the Catholic
Australia embarked on a risky strategy. It has been rewarding. But
it also must be subject constantly to the revision afforded by the
Church's preferential option for the poor. And the educational base
is only one of many bases: the Church's strategy will be correctly
rooted in the parish base of Australian Catholicism, even if that
parish base appears to be diminishing in strength and numbers. And
it should be rooted in the popular movements, wherever surprise
Our faith urges us always to overcome any divisions in our society.
In 1986, addressing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
at Alice Springs, Pope John Paul II had also spoken of a similar
goal for us all: 'You are part of Australia and Australia is part
of you. And the Church herself in Australia will not be fully the
Church that Jesus wants her to be until you have made your contribution
to her life and until that contribution has been joyfully received
May I conclude by quoting from our most recent Jesuit General Congregation
which resonates with the magnificent text of the Vatican Council
The aim of an inculturated evangelisation in post-Christian
contexts is not to secularise or dilute the Gospel by accommodating
it to the horizon of modernity, but to introduce the possibility
and reality of God through practical witness and dialogue.
It is part of our Jesuit tradition to be involved in the transformation
of every human culture, as human beings begin to reshape their
patterns of social relations, their cultural inheritance, their
intellectual projects, their critical perspectives on religion,
truth and morality, their whole scientific and technological understanding
of themselves and the world in which they live. We commit ourselves
to accompany people, in different contexts, as they and their
culture make difficult transitions. We commit ourselves to develop
the dimension of an inculturated evangelisation within our mission
of the service of faith and the promotion of justice.
Mark Raper is Provincial Superior of the Australian and New Zealand
Province of the esuits. Previously he was International Director
of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) based in Rome.
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