Called to look..and look again

"The presence of this child reminds us that we are always at a new beginning, yes even in our darkest moment. And this is reason to light a candle for joy." 

17 December 2017 General Interest

Third Sunday of Advent Year B
17 December 2017

By Very Rev David Ranson VG

This Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, we have lit a candle representing one of the primary fruits of our Christian life of waiting and watchfulness for the way in which God’s life is birthed anew in our hearts and world. It is the candle of joy. However, given the release of the Final Report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses into Child Sex Abuse on Friday, there is little for us to be joyful about this weekend.

In the Preface and Executive Summary to the Final Report, the shame we bear as a community cannot be avoided. There are 17 volumes to the Report; the sixteenth deals with ourselves. As at May 2017, of the 6,875 survivors who shared with the Commission their experience of abuse in provate sessions, 2,489  (almost two-thirds, 61.8%) told about abuse in Catholic institutions. This translates into 4,444 alleged incidents of abuse, with the average age of victims at the time of the first abuse just 10.4 years. Seven per cent of clergy ministering during 1950 and 2010 were alleged perpetrators – an appalling number of 1,880 priests and brothers. Subsequently, out of its new 189 recommendations to Government, and out of the 58 devoted to religious institutions generally (Vol 16.), Recommendations 16.6 to 16.26  pertain to us as directly as the Catholic Church.

Though it is highly regrettable, though perhaps predictable, out of the 17 volumes and all its recommendations the media has seemed to focus exclusively on the issues of the Catholic practice of celibacy and the confessional, with the unintelligent premise that all the children of Australia, 80% of whom are not Catholic, would truly be protected by changes in their regard. The media is thus doing an enormous disservice to the scope and breadth of the work and importance of Commission. Nonetheless, regarding ourselves there is no space to say anything other than our fault in the hurt caused to others is unacceptably substantial. Figures such as those that have been detailed cannot be gilded. They cannot be rationalised. They reveal a dreadful sore in our family that has festered by denial and dismissal, such that we are all infected. We ourselves may never have been personally affected by the experience of abuse. Yet, everyone here cannot escape the pall of shame under which we who live by the Catholic Tradition seek to live out our Christian discipleship. Such statistics understandably can make us shy from proclaiming our religious association. They question our identity; they compel us to a radical re-think of what we believe. I am sure that you, along with me, have often had to stand before others those who query how we could possibly continue to identify with an institution that, under the pretext of its moralising code, failed to defend the safety of children, betrayed their trust in an appalling way, and condemned them to life lived in confusion and pain – all under the banner of Christian love. We have sinned, grievously sinned, by what we have done and what we have failed to do.

And today we light a candle for joy. Either this is an act of incredible arrogance or one of remarkable humility. If it is an action undertaken in denial of our reality then it is blasphemous hubris. If, however, it is something that we find the courage to do in the face of the darkness which enwraps us, might it not have some other meaning? I come back to the words of the Anglican writer, John V Taylor, many years ago when he wrote:

The Spirit does not give itself where our encounters are glib, masked exchanges of second hand thoughts. Our defenses must be down, broken either by intense joy or by despair. One way or the other we must come to the end of ourselves. So this shameful humiliation of Christians, not only in our generation but at all times, is better than self-congratulation, for it is the pre-requisite for a renewal of the Holy Spirit. It is worth remembering that the root of the word humiliation and humility is humus. To be down in the straw and the dung and the refuse in Paul’s words is to become the soil in which the seed of Christ’s manhood falls and dies and brings forth the harvest.

We accept that we have sinned, we acknowledge our vulnerability. We recognise the fear that can rise in us. And yet at the same time we hope. Our hearts long for something new, a new way of being together, a new way of being Church, just as the people around John the Baptist in today’s gospel longed for a different world. Underneath the questions about John’s identity we hear in today’s gospel runs his contemporaries’ own experience of fear and hope. They have an intuition that they themselves stand on the precipice of dramatic change – one realised in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD – and they look for something to hang on to, something which might promise them more, something different.

The answer that they are given by John is the answer we, in our own context, are given today. John points his finger not skyward but in a circle around them. “But standing among you - unknown to you - is the one who is coming after me.” Thus, in the midst of our questions and our anxiety, we are called to look, and look again. We are called to be not unlike those who are peering in front of a hologram. A hologram is one of those pictures which on the surface seem a confusing set of colours. However, when you look at it in a certain way from a certain distance, it discloses a picture inside it. In the light of the work of the Royal Commission, that is the way we must look at ourselves now as a Church, and wonder at what new beginnings are possible.

In other words, though shamed, we are not to sit around in despair. We must act, because if we want something different, it will only occur if we commit to what we need to do. John the Baptist is clear: change is not delivered to us from above; change comes about as we take up our own responsibilities seriously. Where we commit to changing blindness of vision into fresh possibility, transforming despair into promise, converting paralysis into movement, the Kingdom of God will be birthed again in our midst. When we truly admit what must die, in order to celebrate what might rise and live, then faith does not die, but becomes reborn over and over again.

We are on the eve of celebrating the invitation of God given to each of us. It is an invitation that is addressed to us not in our splendour, but in our lowliness. It comes delivered not through the strength and power of Tiberias, but through the simplicity and poverty of Bethlehem. The sign of this invitation is a baby: a sign of a possibility which does not overwhelm, or which creates yet further despair, but the sign of a possibility which invites us to stop and think again and act with openness, receptivity and vulnerability towards one another. 

The presence of this child reminds us that we are always at a new beginning, yes even in our darkest moment. And this is reason to light a candle for joy.

1. John V. Taylor, The Go-Between God (London: SCM Press, 1972), 128.


Catholic Diocese of
Broken Bay

Building 2, 423 Pennant Hills Road
Pennant Hills NSW 2120

PO Box 340
Pennant Hills NSW 1715

Phone 02 9847 0000
Fax 02 9847 0001

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