BY DAMIEN F BRENNAN
I have been challenged by some recent world events. This has made me ponder on the way that I live and the values that I aspire to uphold. It has provoked me to admire again the people who are closest to me.
It shows in striking relief the positive experiences that I had of colleagues in my thirty-plus years working in Catholic Education and the Church in Australia prior to embarking on my leadership consultancy business three years ago.
The specific catalyst to this deep reflection was the Boston Marathon violence, which presents as an intended and evil act presumably fired up by some sort of misguided retribution or misdirected anger.
This and other senseless and carefully planned violence reported on locally and internationally (such as bikie wars, kidnappings, rapes and murders) are so foreign to my experience of life and of the people who surround me – family, friends and work colleagues.
You might feel similarly.
I have reflected on whether I have lived my life in a cocoon; in a kind of Catholic sub-culture where even those who may present as particularly challenging would not cause a ripple in more robust organisations. This does not imply that we are free of difficult personalities, nor are we immune in our tradition to some who have committed senseless and evil acts upon others – the current and commissions of inquiries are examples of this.
My experience is that such acts and similar betrayals, such as financial misappropriation, stand out as exceptions to the norms of high ethical standards and a desire to work in the best interests of those we are called to serve.
Sometimes it is incompetence or clumsiness by those working in Church leadership more than evil intentions that prevent the best outcomes for others. The recent Papal election process suggests that this is a commonly held view by many electors about some Roman Curia operations.
Similar observations can be made more locally at times. It can be galling to many of us in the pews when the two big ‘Cs’, Catholic and Competence, do not align.
But back to Boston, why did it impact upon me so much?
I have never been to this city but many of my close friends and colleagues have studied and worked there. They have all spoken glowingly about the experiences of community, the beauty of the place and the generous warmth of the Bostonians.
Secondly, it has shaken again my normal predisposition about the innate goodness in people and where I try focus upon this more than upon their negative aspects (sure it can be hard on some days or in some situations).
Finally, it brought me back to teaching Biblical Studies classes in Melbourne in the late 1970’s, where I had to prepare Year 12 students for their state exam to deal with the ‘Problem of Suffering and Evil’ as presented in Sacred Scripture and a range of Faith Traditions.
As you would know, many luminaries over the centuries have tried to explain why some appear to have a propensity to do evil acts. Those of us who have been fortunate to study theology know that giants in the early Church, such as Saint Augustine, struggled with this. His concept of concupiscence, transmitted through humanity because of original sin was partly formulated to counter Pelagius. Augustine considered Pelagius did not acknowledge enough humanity’s need for God’s grace to overcome what Augustine considered as a predisposition to evil.
Modern day psychology, psychiatry, the evolution of studies on the brain and scripture scholarship of the twentieth century bring many other research findings to contemporary theological developments on this problem.
The two abiding questions appear to be: Are we essentially flawed and need God’s grace to be redeemed? Or, are we essentially orientated to goodness and some have a more innate orientation to evil or become so through conditioning?
I suspect that we don’t really know, which is why events such as Boston are so troubling? It will be a conversation I hope to have with God one day.
What I do know is that I respect the Catholic cocoon that provides a safe haven for many of us. We do live in a world where God’s grace is experienced each day, more often than not in acts of human kindness and through communities of faith who try to do good for others. We also know that a cocoon is temporary, a transition point.
Boston has challenged me to focus upon overcoming evil acts through defiance - that goodness will and can win through as communities like ours become known better and experienced more positively through our good works – our mission in and to the world.
I imagine this is part of the missionary challenge being put before us by the new Bishop of Rome, or as Archbishop Coleridge repeatedly states, ‘This is not the time to circle the wagons.’ It might not be the time to stay within the safety of the cocoon either, no matter how cosy or insular it is.
‘By their fruits you will know them.’ (Mt 7:16a)
Damien F. Brennan is a consultant and writer and provides leadership development services primarily to education, welfare, Church and not-for profit sectors.
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