CathBlog - Godless Canberra in the Year of Grace

BY DONELLA JOHNSTON

In the middle of the week during what seems the coldest Canberra winter on record, I rugged up and slipped out of my office and down to St Christopher’s Cathedral. 

The warmth of the packed Cathedral fogged up my glasses. Peering around for a seat, I could see the egalitarian congregation. It was somehow very Australian to see a former prime minister and other prominent civic and religious leaders sitting in the same pews as we “ordinary” folk. 

I was there to join my fellow Canberra citizens to celebrate Bishop Pat Power’s retirement Mass

The week after Bishop Pat’s retirement, the Australian Bureau of Statistics released its latest census data and Canberrans learnt that we were becoming increasingly “godless”, with now almost 29% of us claiming “no religious affiliation”, overtaking Catholicism for the first time. 

Yet conversely, following Bishop Pat’s retirement, the local media – including, interestingly the ABC – gave Bishop Pat glowing tributes. 

It’s timely to note that the apparently irreligious, secularist, pluralist, relativist Canberra community also identified Bishop Pat Power as its 2009 Canberra Citizen of the Year. What does this mean?

There was obviously something about Bishop Pat that captured the hearts of we hard-hearted, cynical, anti-religious Canberra-folk. Perhaps we can find the answer in his motto, “God is Love” (1 John 4): 

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them…there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say ‘I love God’, and hate their sisters or brothers are liars

John is pretty unequivocal here. Fear has nothing to do with love. Anything that propagates fear is therefore against love. If God is love, anything that is against love is against God – in other words, it is anti-God and therefore anti-Christ.

Bullying, harassment, intimidation and any use of power to “lord it over” others has no place in our Church. We are called to be a Church of Love not a Church of Fear. Fear is anti-Christ. We can’t fulfil our Gospel vocation to “love one another” if we are fearful.

Sadly, however, we are living in fearful times. Just about every Catholic woman I know has been watching very carefully since April the unfolding of the face-off between the Leaders Conference of Women Religious and the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in the United States. 

At first, we watched in horror as the LCWR was put under the control of an Archbishop and now we are watching with increasing admiration and awe as these courageous women use their “feminine genius” to prayerfully and peacefully discern the way forward.

When confronting fear, we usually respond in one of two ways: flight or fight. We either run away from it or we respond with verbal or physical violence. Jesus taught us another way to deal with fear. He called it “turning the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39). 

Jesus was no stranger to fear. Remember, he was so sick with fear on the night before he died he sweated blood in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22: 44).

But somehow despite all the opposition he faced during his ministry, he devised the perfect way to dispel fear; confront your attacker/bully/ harasser with love: “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile” (Mt 5:41).

Going the “second mile” or “offering the other cheek” does require some courage and it must always be authentic but it always works – somehow, sooner or later. Retaliation never works. As Gandhi famously noted, “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”. 

The poet-mystic Michael Leunig summarises the antithetical dichotomy of fear and love (A Common Prayer: A cartoonist talks to God, 1990):

There are only two feelings.
Love and fear.
There are only two languages.
Love and fear.
There are only two activities.
Love and fear.
There are only two motives, two procedures, two frameworks, two results.
Love and fear.
Love and fear.

The Year of Grace prayer talks of a Church transformed, relationships healed and a nation that grows in compassion and justice. Here’s how we transform our Australian Church. Ready?

Identify your fear. Name it. Hold your ground and confront it (him/her) with love – always love. No put-downs. No threats. No intimidation. No bullying.

Ask yourself the hard questions. Do a risk assessment. What’s the worse thing that could happen to me if I confronted my fear? I could lose my job? I could get excommunicated? I could have the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on my back? I could be de-frocked/ laicised? I could be crucified? Really? Try it.

Be the change you want to see in the world (Gandhi again). It makes sense, doesn’t it? If you want more love in the world, be more loving. If you want more peace in the world, be more peaceful. If you want more humility and gentleness, be more humble and gentle to others. You will change the world. Jesus understood this and he and his scruffy little band of disciples did just that. Amazing! As anthropologist Margaret Mead said:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has. 

May the fruit of the Spirit be with you,

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5: 22)

Donella Johnston is Director for the Office for the Participation of Women (OPW) and as the Executive Secretary to the Bishops' Commission for Church Ministry (BCCM)

Disclaimer: CathBlog is an extension of CathNews story feedback. It is intended to promote discussion and debate among the subscribers to CathNews and the readers of the website. The opinions expressed in CathBlog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference or of Church Resources.

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