Sunday, January 26, 2014

Peter receives OAM 2014

I am very proud to have received the MEDAL (OAM) OF THE ORDER OF AUSTRALIA IN THE GENERAL DIVISION today.  This award is a testament to the organisations listed below who have supported me in the many ministries and activities that have blessed me in my life.  Thanks to you all and the many more people in my life - too many for the citation itself.  
Thanks so much to all involved in the process of nominating me for this award - you are very kind.  See full citation below.  

Thankyou party at Tandoori Hut go to:

The Reverend Father Peter Desmond MAHER, Newtown NSW 2042
For service to religion, and to the community through a range of programs promoting acceptance and diversity.
Catholic Chaplain, University of Technology, Sydney, 1995-2009; also established/Head, Multifaith Chaplaincy, until 2009; Minister of Religion, Human Research Ethics Committee, since 2012.
Parish Priest, St Joseph's Catholic Church Newtown, since 1997; provides weekly Friday night mass for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Catholics.
Co-Founder, Benedict Barkat Foundation, since 2009; supported children’s education at St Mary’s School, Hafizabad, Pakistan.
Chair, Rachel's Vineyard Ministries, Sydney, since 2001; a healing ministry for men and women touched by an abortion experience.
Chaplain, Palms Australia, since 1998; supporting overseas volunteers.
Co-Editor, The Swag, National Council of Priests of Australia, since 2010; quarterly magazine.
National Board Member, InterPlay Australia, since 2009; global social movement dedicated to ease, connection, human sustainability and play.
President, Transforming Practices; fostering personal and social transformation through pastoral supervision.
Member, Organising Committee, National Conference, Tertiary Campus Ministry Association, Sydney, 1998; and Brisbane, 2004.
Current Supervisor, Australasian Association of Supervision.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

No more secrets
 A homily for Child Protection Sunday at St Joseph’s Newtown Sept 9, 2012

I almost never read a homily but I want to speak on a topic that requires more than my normal confidence to preach without notes.

This is child protection week and I want to say something as a response to the tragedy of the destruction of people’s lives through the sexual abuse, especially of the young, by people representing the church.

I have found this particularly challenging.  Why?  Well priests are seen by society, and indeed by many Catholics, as the problem or a potential danger in this regard and thus the least qualified to speak. I have a real fear of making matters worse.

Priests are supposed to be leaders; spiritual guides and prophets.  I feel like the prophets of old when they claim not to know how to speak.  I am called to proclaim the truth and be prophetic in the light of injustice and oppression but on this occasion I only know that not to speak is no longer an option.  And yet to say something as if I know what to say might just offend further.  My initial response is to say I don’t know what to say or how to say it. 

In thinking about this, I have come to see that as a priest, I am part of the institutionalised structure in which clerical abuse has been able to live and grow unstopped even by those trying to help.  I have to come to realise that the culture of clericalism is responsible for the ongoing tragedy that has left the vulnerable unprotected and unhealed by a leadership too willing to be hoodwinked by the doctrine of a priesthood that places priests above other human beings and what they call “the good of the church” above destruction of lives.  I have come to see that the need to maintain power and control left the vulnerable without a voice – unsupported by the very people who claim gospel authority.  For this - I am sorry.

I have recently had to admit to myself that my failure to speak clearly about this tragic injustice has been because I am confused about what to say and how to say it.  I am somehow caught in the system and I am afraid I will sound phoney and defensive - adding to the problem rather than advancing the healing. It is difficult and confusing – but this is no excuse to stay silent.

Church spokespeople have all too often tried to make sense of the role of the church and its representatives in this crisis only to appear defensive and thus insult those who have been abused because the church and its “good name” remain privileged in the discourse rather than allowing the pain and despair of the victims to be heard and respected and honoured, as it must be, if justice is to be done.  If there is to be healing we must be clear that honesty and justice must come first.  South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commissions may not be perfect but they have succeeded far beyond the church’s efforts which many victims see as defensive and in the church’s interests first. This is one thing that must change.

What is missing for many victims abused in the church is any form of dialogue that might privilege the victim’s stories.  Yet this is the first step in healing and reconciliation. Why is this?  I think it is because church representatives are still trying to address this tragic abuse from a position of power – that is to say, maintaining its distance from the problem by the insistence on institutional innocence.  I think it’s time to be more real and recognise that it is primarily an institutional failure: a failure to recognise that unfettered clerical power created a climate in which on-going abuse could go on unabated; a failure to recognise the victims plight; a failure to speak up on behalf of the victims and a failure to act in defence of the victim rather than the institution.  

In the light of this reality, I have been struggling to find an image that might facilitate a genuine dialogue with people so profoundly ignored and left to heal themselves.  I am working with the image of the wounded church offered by Adrian McInerney, Parish Priest of St Alipius parish in Ballarat East.  He recently wrote that we might reflect on the Pauline image of the church as the “body of Christ” and begin to accept that none of us is immune from the difficult malaise we are in.  We are in it together as a theological imperative and we need to accept that we are a wounded church – that is to say a wounded people.  Then he goes on to say we might find a way of acceptance, not in a passive or defeatist way, but in actively embracing the figure of Jesus who, “like the suffering servant of Isaiah, took our sins upon Himself.  The Passion of Jesus offers us a model of how we might act, for surely we will be stripped of our garments of pride and power and position” (Article to be published in The Swag, Summer 2012). 

And all this without trivialising the woundedness of the victims. Their space often seems to have been taken over by a communal outpouring of a shared grief and loss as if their the victim’s loss can somehow be subsumed into everyone else’s.  That shared space must now give way to privilege a space for the victims and their woundedness.  This must be always over and above the larger narrative of a communal woundedness. Our communal shame, our move toward humility must always be in service of the victims of abuse.

Taking on board this attitude might lead to a healthier dialogue.  This approach reminds us we are all complicit by our inaction, we are all involved by our being church and we are all responsible for creating a safe place for the vulnerable.

I recently spoke with a woman who found the touch of a work colleague uncomfortable. She said, “it’s not sexual abuse – I just don’t feel comfortable when he does that”.  I reminded her it was sexual abuse.  Maybe she did not feel in danger of being molested or sexually interfered with but it is sexual – every touch and word comes from who we are and we are sexual beings.  We are responsible for how we interact with others making sure our words and actions are not over-reaching into other’s personal space. This is especially true amongst the young and vulnerable – those who are unsure about themselves or who are still searching out the meaning of their identity in the world.  We are all responsible for this safety everywhere in the world, but especially in church settings where an offensive word or action may leave people whose space has been invaded turning away from themselves, the church and God.      

But if we are to privilege the victims, the last word must be that of the victims and so may I read a poem by a victim and survivor of clerical sexual abuse written for this weekend.

No More Secrets

No Hidden secrets: one, facelessly Breaking Silence
on 'wrong' touch (AND word/s).
About & for ALL Children of God especially young & vulnerable.
One, given just that much voice, saying otherwise
cannot now, know, offer or receive love.
One of us one of you. One abused. A call, "SPEAK OUT"....
loudly, NOW..... on " wrong touch  AND word/s ".
Proclaim, loudly right word & touch.
Can't express ? Love ? No time ? No energy ? No Value ?
No... voice ? Don't touch ? Too much 'risk' ? Can't touch,
too many broken pieces ! 
Too broken, now ?! Lifeless ?
This can be a time to notice continually, choices in words touch & Love.
Daring to care, enough. (Then, of the next " day of remembering ?)
For me, it is to now facelessly break-in to my own, silence.
This, although we have so frequently shared.
This year, season or week or simply this day
we can know closeness and love,
be active witnesses to it and bannish silencing & silence.
Silence, bullying & silencing, clearly the fertile ground for abuse.
Inappropriate touch or word
the sexualizing of unequal or professional / pastoral
or family or therapeutic relating or relationships.
Fertile ground for abuse to occur & grow.... into local culture/s.
Do we approach & question & put & name
Truth, Light & Love where shadows cannot, can NO LONGER, EXIST ?
OUR Love, light & voices, ( here, locally); precious,
to be known, seen, heard, and guarded. Love, touch, speech & closeness never to be hidden but proclaiming & loudly (?) Proclaiming.
& so, yes, loudly we ALL CAN cry out & yell,
naming ALL that does not seem or feel right or true or fair or loving.
NO MORE..... hidden. No more in secret.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A reflection on homophobic attacks towards Newtown Catholic Church’s Mass for Lesbian and Gay people. Written for Spirit Life In Marrickville Multifaith Roundtable Community Arts Project Exhibition August 24 and 25, 2012.
 An uncertain world
Gay Catholics in Newtown

Religion for all its poetry and pity
Can sometimes be a place of judgment and complicity
In the cool dark place where real lives struggle
And pray for more than just another haggle
Over words – shouted in market squares
Battles producing endless judgmental stares
Clouting fragile people with blunt exceptionalism
Rather than rainbow colours within the prism

At Newtown on a Friday night
Gay christians gather – not to fight
But in mutual support befriending
And with a quiet voice ascending
Seek hope for a world made anew
Everyone included no matter what the hue
When protested, critiqued by the certainty
Strangely out of touch with all reality

There is a spark breaking free
Hesitating, straining to see
A truth - what self is all about
Accompanied by some healthy doubt
About God and me and us and the world
From a starry mouth gently unfurled
A whisper gently claiming safe space
It is not a federal case
But a celebration of what is God-given
Finding confidence - not hidden

Peter Maher 2012

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Newtown parish responds to video vilifying ministry to lesbian and gay Catholics

After last Sunday’s homily there has been some interest in the thoughts I expressed.  Far from judging and vilifying lesbians and gays, as we heard from Michael Voris in his video about the Newtown parish Friday night Mass, I suggested that hearing the stories of lesbian and gay Catholics and how that had influenced my reading in order to better pastorally care for all Catholics might offer a new way of seeing lesbian and gay Catholics as gift rather than “the other” for whom we might feel sorry.
What I learned from hearing these stories was that lesbian and gay Catholics are like all people trying to live their faith – they are searching for meaning and joy and authenticity in and through the Catholic community and the spiritual wisdom of the bible and church tradition. Catholics expect to find guidance and encouragement, as well as challenge, but  lesbian and gay Catholics find all too often that they are asked to deny their sexuality or, at best, to be invisible.
Theologians and spiritual writers are beginning to write from the perspective of the world in which we live and the life stories of lesbian and gay Catholics. If sexuality is a gift from God and if psychology and science are correct in finding that homosexuality is God-given, that is not chosen, then homosexuality must also be a gift from God.  What might this gift be?  Those doing theology with the insight of the stories of lesbian and gay Catholics and modern science suggest such areas as intimacy, friendship, faithful love and personal growth might be a gift to the church and indeed the world. 
Where traditional sexual ethics has dominated church teaching about heterosexual relationships and marriage; homosexuals have had to find the meaning for themselves of their God-given attraction and have made some astoundingly good gospel-based spiritual discoveries.  While heterosexual relationships are struggling in the current climate of distrust of church teaching; homosexual relationships, lived according to gospel principles of love, seem to be finding a beautiful expression.
But what of the scripture passages that seem so damning of homosexuality? Through scripture scholarship which emphasizes the meaning of the text in context, it seems that all the texts referring to homosexuality, and there are not many – indeed, none in the gospel, all refer to abusive sexual relationships.  In times when people did not identify as gay, as they do today, it is reasonable to infer that the texts referring to homosexuality refer to people being used and abused.  Scriptural texts do encourage intimate and caring relationships and these can often be found among lesbian and gay couples.
I don’t pretend we have found a path forward yet but there are many within the church exploring these ideas.  What we try to do here at St Joseph’s Newtown is to support, and walk with, lesbian and gay Catholics as they try to faithfully live their faith authentically.
Including the outsider is a common theme here at Newtown parish and so it is not so surprising that we might explore such a ministry.  Let’s hope the likes of Michael Voris, and his Opus Dei money, don’t destroy this emerging gift for the church.
Peter Maher, Parish priest, Newtown

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Gay and Lesbian Catholics becoming equals at our Eucharistic tables - A book review

Setting the Table, Preparing Catholic Parishes to Welcome Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People and Their Families, James A. Schexnayder, 2011.
Reviewed by Peter Maher
Jim Schexnayder is a retired priest of the diocese of Oakland, California who has spent over 30 years ministering to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics. He is co-founder of The Catholic Association for Lesbian and Gay Ministry (CALGM) and is presently their resource director.
He has written this resource book for parishes seeking to find right attitudes, language, knowledge, strategies and skills to become sensitively inclusive of the many people who feel excluded by church language and practice around sexuality identity. He has enormous pastoral experience and reflection on experience to build real and achievable outcomes for parishes. Indeed they seem sometimes to be a little too simple and achievable.
As someone who has tried to do this in the inner city suburb of Newtown, I am well aware of the pain this ministry can cause in even the most gay-sensitive suburb in Sydney. Even when parishioners are on side, as they most certainly are in Newtown, the catholic protestors from outside the parish who harass catholics leaving the church on Friday nights has meant calling the police to ensure the safety of people attending the Mass. So Jim’s encouraging words and fine strategies are not without some cost to parishes trying to implement them.
That said, this is a fine and very readable book with a compassion that hides the pain of his personal journey. Schexnayder has managed to transform that pain into a very useful practical manual for parishes. This is a book that stays pastoral and positive, emphasizing the best pastoral elements of the church’s teaching, while not hesitating to challenge the church to do better with its language and practice.
On the CALGM website, Schexnayder says: “I wrote this new book to be a resource for parishes which would like to explore how their communities may become safe, supportive and healing places for people whose lives, faith, and spirituality have been challenged and enriched by their sexual identity and personal integration. Setting the table is creating a spiritual and communal environment for welcome, growth and participation.”
“This book attempts to consider the questions: who, why, and how. It offers resources from Scripture, Church teachings, human sciences, and effective diocesan and parish models of ministry. My hope is that this book will contribute to the core mission of each parish as it speaks the good news of Jesus Christ and the universal and surprising love of our God for all people.”
A strength of the book is Schexnayder’s stories – the stories of the pain of exclusion and fear of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics, their families and friends. They ring all too true for me as I reflect on my ministry in this field. The saddest stories are of faith filled young people who in coming to acceptance of their sexuality are rejected, thrown out home and church, alienated by their youth groups and left alone, afraid and lost. As one young man said to me recently when I asked him what the church meant to him, he replied “I don’t think I can live without the Eucharist, but I can’t deny who I have found myself to be either”. Schexnayder’s book opens up a way to say to them “You don’t have to give up either. We have set a place at the table for you too”. Sadly we are saying goodbye to many of these young people, and equally sadly, their parents and friends as well. The logic is if the church can’t accept my son or daughter, then they can’t accept me.
I still meet lesbian and gay catholics working for the church, especially in education, who are very afraid that if their sexual identity becomes known by their employer they will be forced to resign their job. There are recent stories that make this fear quite founded and real.
You can purchase this book online for US$15 by contacting Fr. Jim at rd@calgm or from the website:
Published in the Swag later in 2012

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Letter to Cardinal Pell on Mass attendance at Newtown

Recently Cardinal Pell invited me to explain why we have had an increase in Mass attendance at St Joseph’s over the last 10 years so that others could learn from our experience. With the Parish Team’s assistance I sent this letter with our reasons

12 November 2010
Dear Cardinal Pell

Thank you for your letter regarding Sunday Mass attendances at St Joseph’s Newtown.

Firstly I will address your question about the accuracy of the survey numbers. The 2006 numbers seem high. This may be because one strategy at Newtown is that all Baptisms are celebrated during the Sunday Mass. If the survey Masses were Masses with Baptisms that would inflate the numbers above the average. Having said this, it is very obvious that the numbers have increased significantly over the last 10 years. Our average numbers now would be around 150 per weekend. When I came to Newtown the numbers would have been more like 80.

You asked us to share how this increase happened. I engaged the Parish Council on this question and below there are a number of strategies they suggest have helped in this respect.

1. Developing an inclusive sense particularly for women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and gay and lesbian people: this is found in our mission statement which appears on our parish bulletin: We acknowledge the Cadigal people of the Eora nation as the traditional custodians of the land on which St Joseph’s stands. St Joseph’s aims to provide a safe place for all people to pray regardless of age, race, creed, gender, cultural background or sexual orientation.

2. Including all parishioners in the various aspects of parish life. For example, all parishioners are welcome to all parish meetings especially the Parish Council. Opinions, ideas and strategies for parish life and liturgy are taken seriously.

3. Simple but effective and wide-ranging liturgical life. We celebrate Mass simply but with a variety of musical styles. There is regular Rosary, Benediction, Reconciliation and children’s Liturgy of the Word. Music is mostly in a modern style but traditional hymns and even a small amount of Latin is sung. This openness to all types of music is appreciated.

4. Good communication through the parish bulletin which is also available electronically each Friday.

5. The parish is theologically inviting – emphasising God’s love and inclusion. Preaching connects the readings to all aspects of life – religious, spiritual, family, Church, social, political and psychological.

6. Women are included in all the ministries in the parish.

7. Community development is a priority. The “cuppa” after Sunday Mass considered important strategy. Regular parish parties develop good relationships. Parish projects such as community garden, Spirituality in the Pub and a public park developed co-operatively with local council has extended good relationships with the broader community.

8. There is a serious commitment to Social Justice. We include social justice at all levels of parish life. The Parish Council includes updates on Social Justice issues at every meeting.

9. Educational opportunities include regular Advent and Lenten Biblical Programs; Forums and other technologies for raising important issues.

10. The Baptism policy is very welcoming and accepting and the preparation program is flexible and simple. We invite all families who have celebrated baptism over the past 12 years to our Christmas children’s Mass with great success. Some join us more regularly because of this simple invitation by mail or email.

11. A Mass specifically inclusive of same-sex attracted Catholics, their families, friends and supporters every Friday night has significantly increased numbers on weekend Masses. Some people who have come to the Friday Mass are now members of the Parish Council, acolytes, readers, cleaners and willing to help with various parish activities.

12. Welcoming the Indonesian Catholic Community in a pro-active way has helped the parish to be more open to people of various cultural and social backgrounds. Celebrating some liturgies together has helped us be a more welcoming community in general (for example, we always join with the Catholic Indonesian Community for the Good Friday Liturgy).

13. My involvement in other ministries has helped increase numbers although maybe only in a small way. Some parishioners come from my involvement in the university chaplaincy ministry and the Rachel’s Vineyard Retreat Ministry. These may be small in number but they contribute greatly to the parish and help the parish develop as an open, thinking, inclusive, caring and socially aware parish that is attractive for many of our parishioners.

These are just some ideas the people of Newtown have identified to explain the increase in Mass attendance in this small inner city parish over the last 10 years. As one person said we are a “modern church in an old building”. The building is deeply loved from the longest serving parishioners to the last person through the door. Personally, I have followed the principle of leaving it much as it was when I came in structure and accessories, despite some keen suggestions to move the altar. I think it has been a significant strategy in maintaining many traditional Catholics here at Newtown. Apart from regular maintenance, I have carpeted and relit the church to great success and approval.

I hope these ideas assist your efforts to encourage greater participation in our parishes as we bring the great Catholic tradition to a new generation in this Archdiocese.

Thanks for the opportunity to contribute to this discussion.

Yours sincerely

Fr Peter Maher

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Submission to the Bishops Commission for Pastoral Life

Newtown Parish Submission to the Bishops Commission for Pastoral Life

Any suggestions gratefully received by September 5 : or 9557 3197

Bishop D Eugene Hurley
Bishops Commission for Pastoral Life
GPO Box 368

Dear Bishop Hurley

Development of Pastoral Letter on affirming the place of Catholics identifying as same sex attracted in our Church

Newtown Parish in the inner west of Sydney has a long history of providing pastoral care for gay and lesbian Catholics, particularly during the early years of AIDS in Australia when there was a healing service and counseling service provided for people diagnosed with HIV and AIDS.

More recently, over the past 5 years we have been privileged to have been able to provide a Mass with a special ministry to same sex attracted Catholics, their families and friends each Friday evening. This ministry has taught us much about the hopes, challenges and faith of this group of our fellow Catholics. We have also discovered the many ways in our Church has discriminated, marginalized and actively excluded these fellow Catholics.

In March this year, we were visited by "protestors" outside the church at the Friday night Mass where we conduct the special ministry to gay and lesbian Catholics their families and friends. The protestors later posted a facebook page which included comments such as "burning down the church"; "killing the fags"; and "excommunicating the parish priest". This highlights the need for pastoral care guidelines in a pastoral letter to the Australian Church.

As outlined in the attached submission, we write to invite the Bishops Commission for Pastoral Life to develop a Pastoral Letter affirming the place of Catholics identifying as same sex attracted in our Church. We would welcome the opportunity to work with the Commission’s Executive Secretary and Secretariat for Pastoral Life on the development of this important Pastoral Letter.

The development and release of this Pastoral Letter by the Australian Bishops will greatly assist parishes, Catholic ministries, Church agencies and Catholic organizations and services to provide a welcoming ministry to same sex attracted Catholics, their families and friends which affirms their dignity and Catholic identity.

While developed to meet the needs of the church here in Australia, the Pastoral Letter will complement the landmark statements made by our Church in England, Wales and the United States.

Through our pastoral care and ministry in Newtown, Sydney we have witnessed the strong faith, the commitment to the gospel values and a desire to reconnect with their Church of same sex attracted Catholics.

Unfortunately, we have also witnessed the hurt and the damage done to so many same sex attracted Catholics, and to their families and friends through marginalization, discrimination and exclusion in our Church across Australia.

Guided by the Spirit, we feel strongly that the time has come for our Church here in Australia to remove these barriers separating our Catholic sisters and brothers from their Church and their faith, to heal the hurt and discrimination and to affirm their dignity and Catholic identity.

We propose that the Pastoral Letter outlines ways in which the Church, its people and its ministries might reach out to same sex attracted Catholics with two core audiences in mind - same sex attracted Catholics and their families. The attached submission outlines some potential key points that might be covered in the Pastoral Letter for each of these audiences.

The pastoral council of Newtown parish would appreciate a chance to assist the bishops in formulating a pastoral letter. Please include us at every stage of the consultation process as this matter progresses.

We look forward to working with you and with our Australian Church community in developing this Pastoral Letter.

Yours sincerely

Newtown Parish Team

Why the need for a Pastoral Letter?

Bishops, priests, Catholic school principals, teachers and counsellors, university chaplains, Catholic health care service staff and pastoral care and other staff in a wide range of Catholic agencies have all encountered or know of same sex attracted Catholics who have been marginalized, discriminated, rejected and excluded in our Church and the hurt, harm and pain that this causes. Equally, we all know of the hurt, harm and pain that has been suffered by their parents, their brothers and sisters and their friends. It is a tragedy that this has lead to an estrangement of Catholics from their Church and, sadly for so many a lasting separation from the sacraments and participation in the life and ministry of the Church.

We feel strongly that the time has come for our Australian Church to reflect on this discrimination and to now actively reaffirm the dignity and place of same sex attracted Catholics, their families and their friends in our Church. The time has come for our Church in Australia to examine the many ways, both intended and unintended, in which we do not make welcome and seek to put barriers between same sex attracted Catholics, their faith and their participation in the life of our Church.

In developing a Pastoral Letter for our Australian church, the Bishops are complementing the work undertaken in other parts of our worldwide Church. A Pastoral Letter in 2011 will build on the landmark statements by the Bishops of the United States in 1997 with the release of Always Our Children ( and the Bishops of England and Wales in 2006 with their release of Everybody’s Welcome (

We are confident that Catholics across Australia will resonate with what the Bishops in England and Wales heard. Our experience in Newtown, and the experience of our parishes and Catholic communities in Australia confirms that authenticity of the following words:
“As a group that has suffered more than its share of oppression and contempt, the homosexual community has a particular claim on the concern of the church.” CBCEW Catholic Social Welfare Commission, 1979

During Listening 2004 we heard that:
“The continual message from the church is that homosexuality is so, so dreadful. Our gay son just hasn’t stood a chance.”
“My brother is gay; the church has been very intolerant of him.”
At one diocesan family listening day participants listened to the hurt experienced by a family as a result of prevailing attitudes towards homosexuality.
“Mr D discovered some years ago that his son was gay. He tried to talk to a fellow parishioner about his concern, but quickly realised from the extremely hostile, disparaging remarks made that this was not a good idea. The parish priest reacted in a similarly prejudiced way. Mr D’s wife chose to ignore the situation. Mr D feels angry, frustrated and totally rejected by the church. He now knows to follow his wife’s lead and keep quiet. There seems nowhere to turn. In his mind there is little hope for the future.”
And we also heard that:
“If we are to reach out to all, we must dare to hold out our hands. …We must respond to people who are gay or lesbian. They should not feel marginalized.”

We are confident that Catholic communities will welcome a Pastoral Letter from the Bishops Commission for Pastoral Life. Importantly, we are also confident that same sex attracted Catholics, their families and friends will welcome a Pastoral Letter and the invitation it extends to them to reconnect with their faith and their Church

A Pastoral Letter is consistent with our calling as people of faith

In inviting the Bishops Commission to develop a Pastoral Letter, we submit that, as with the statements of the Bishops of England, Wales and the United States, a Pastoral Letter is entirely consistent with our calling as people of faith .

It is consistent with the Bishops’ Commission for Pastoral Life of Australia mandate to promote “the life and mission of the Catholic Church in Australia in the following areas …. groups that may be or are perceived to be marginalised in Church life.( 2.11)”
As people of faith, we believe that a Pastoral Letter is consistent with gospel values and the ministry of the Church. While not experts in the study of theology we simply note the following points to support our belief:

• God's love and grace is indiscriminately extended to all people. This is affirmed in both the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures (e.g, Lamentations 3:22,23 and Romans 3:15). Furthermore, the Church teaches that "grace responds to the deepest yearnings of human freedom" (Catechism, 2022). No one who desires to share in God's love can be excluded from it.

• Jesus’ practise of inclusion (eg the leper, the woman with the haemorrhage, the woman at the well and Matthew the tax collector) and summarised as “Everyone who comes to me I will never turn away” (John 6/37).

• The Church, as Christ's bride and body, has a responsibility to display and model his embracing love to everyone, regardless of their situation in life (Matthew 9:12,13).

• “As a group that has suffered more than its share of oppression and contempt, the homosexual community has a particular claim on the concern of the church.” (Catholic Bishop’s Conference of England and Wales, Catholic Social Welfare Commission, 1979)

• “Friendship is a gift from God. Friendship is a way of loving. Friendship is necessary for every person. To equate friendship and full sexual involvement with another is to distort the very concept of friendship. Sexual loving presupposes friendship but friendship does not require full sexual involvement. It is a mistake to say or think or presume that if two persons of the same or different sexes enjoy a deep and lasting friendship then they must be sexually involved. (Cardinal Basil Hume, A Note on the Teaching of the Catholic Church Concerning Homosexuality No 8:

• “God loves every person as a unique individual. Sexual identity helps to define the unique persons we are, and one component of our sexual identity is sexual orientation. Thus, our total personhood is more encompassing than sexual orientation. Human beings see the appearance, but the Lord looks into the heart (cf. 1 Sam 16:7). God does not love someone any less simply because he or she is homosexual. God's love is always and everywhere offered to those who are open to receiving it.” (Always our Children, United States Catholic Bishops’ Conference ).

• Respect for the God-given dignity of all persons means the recognition of human rights and responsibilities. The teachings of the Church make it clear that the fundamental human rights of homosexual persons must be defended and that all of us must strive to eliminate any forms of injustice, oppression, or violence against them. It is not sufficient only to avoid unjust discrimination. Homosexual persons "must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2358). They, as is true of every human being, need to be nourished at many different levels simultaneously. This includes friendship, which is a way of loving and is essential to healthy human development. It is one of the richest possible human experiences. Friendship can and does thrive outside of genital sexual involvement. (Always our Children, United States Catholic Bishops’ Conference ).

• "Homosexuals . . . should have an active role in the Christian community" (National Conference of Catholic Bishops,To Live in Christ Jesus: A Pastoral Reflection on the Moral Life, 1976, p. 19). Same-sex attracted Catholics have a right to be welcomed into the community, to hear the word of God, to engage in ministries according to their gifts, to celebrate the Sacraments and to receive pastoral care. (cf Always our Children, United States Catholic Bishops’ Conference ).

Suggested areas of content of the Pastoral Letter

While by no means intended to be an exhaustive list, we respectfully suggest that the Pastoral Letter might cover the following issues, strategies, skills and opportunities to affirm the place of same sex attracted Catholics in our Church and to guide and enhance the pastoral care of same sex attracted Catholics, their families and friends.

• A clear statement of affirmation that same sex attracted Catholics are welcomed and invited to live their faith as part of the Church community
• Liturgies, homilies, ministries of the Church and pastoral plans support the Pastoral Letter and demonstrate awareness and appreciation of the gifts that same sex attracted Catholics bring to their faith community
• Recognition of the diversity of backgrounds, cultures and relationships in our Church community and avoidance of stereotyping, judgement and marginalisation
• Eradication of homophobic language, actions and attitudes
• Access to safe and supportive pastoral care for same sex attracted Catholics, their families and friends
• Inclusion of same sex attracted Catholics in liturgies and ministries
• Welcoming access to the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Initiation for same sex attracted Catholics and children and their partners
• Recognition of important events in the lives of same sex attracted Catholics, including death and/or serious illness of a partner
• Specialised training and ongoing support for priests, chaplains, parish staff, counselors, youth workers, teachers and other key staff in Catholic agencies and ministries to ensure that they are able to provide safe, supportive and skilled pastoral care to same sex attracted Catholics, their families and friends
• Building an effective network of “gay friendly” parishes across Australia to enhance the opportunities for same sex attracted Catholics, their families and friends to join in regular Eucharistic celebration of the Mass, participate in parish life and reconnect with their faith
• Maintaining a website resource and listings of agencies, community groups, support groups, counselors and other experts to whom same sex attracted Catholics, their families and friends might be referred when they ask for assistance
• Establishing new and/or supporting and promoting existing support groups for same sex attracted Catholics, their families and friends
• Development of a resource kit for parishes and ministries and for families with a son or daughter who is same sex attracted or coming out
• Reinforcement of the place of same sex attracted Catholics, their families and friends in our Church through appropriate Prayers of the Faithful, celebrations such as Mothers Day, Fathers Day and Social Justice Sunday and marking of events such as World AIDS Day

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Spirituality and Learning - Peter's book

I have been privileged to join a group of great adult educators authoring a book just published called Spiritulaity, Mythopoesis & Learning. It is an academic book in the field of adult transformative education edited by Peter Willis et al from the University of South Australia. It is about how people make and remake meaning through imaginative ways of using personal narrative. It explores how this area of education theory intersects with spiritulaity. The book has a number of chapters where authors explore their use of these processes in practice. My chapter explores how personal story and imaginative narrative tools are used with a gospel spirituality of detachment and healing to transform grief and loss after an abortion. This is explored in the context of the Rachel's Vineyard Healing Retreat.
Copies of the book will be available soon from Post Pressed

Just a small taste of my chapter:
"The retreat uses storytelling and Christian symbols to empower those caught in the trap of grief and guilt. When I was first introduced to the Rachel’s Vineyard Retreat in 2000, I was intrigued by the enthusiasm of the participants and the clarity of their healing. As a retreat facilitator, I was struck by the transformative power of storytelling in the retreat process. I remember hearing participants recall on the Saturday the horror of the abortion event, what led to the abortion and its effects, with predictable expressions of hopelessness, pain, low self-esteem, and inability to find healing, forgiveness and love. Through the retreat process there was almost equal certainty that their stories of fear and loss would be transformed into stories that held out hope for change, recognition of the reality of what had happened and a chance for healing from the debilitating grief and loss that had been a constant part of their lives, bearing scars of varying degrees. I became interested in what brought about that change. The storytelling process has the power to help participants see the story again from a new perspective; recognise who is suffering and in need of healing; and rewrite the story in a way that is more truthful and helpful. They now hear themselves describing the event and its effects with greater compassion for themselves and others in their story.

Many events occur in our lives that disorient us. It might be falling in love, a car accident, taking an overseas holiday or losing a loved one. These events can have a transforming effect in our lives or leave us overwhelmed and unable to function, even if only temporarily. In transformative learning theory, these events can be referred to as the ‘disorienting dilemma’ (Mezirow 1991). The disorienting dilemma can be used to help someone grow or it can be a missed opportunity for growth. Many participants on Rachel’s Vineyard Retreats report that they found the abortion experience to be a time of diminishment rather than growth. Those working in this ministry have been privileged to facilitate processes that can turn that around and allow the disorienting dilemma to become a moment of growth.

The learning/healing approach used in the Rachel’s Vineyard Retreats is one of mutual nurturing and storytelling. This learning takes place through a series of processes that identify a more connected way of imagining and understanding the story, its veracity, its actors and its aftermath in the participant’s life. This is achieved through mutual respect for the participants’ personal stories and practices, enabling their story to intersect with some key Christian rituals and symbolic practices. These include reading stories from the gospel with a meditation and ritual that help bring the story into the participants’ lives and various imaginative prayer practices including guided meditation, music and song.

We also use the Catholic sacraments of anointing of the sick, reconciliation and Eucharist. Anointing of the sick emphasises healing from grief and loss. The sacrament of reconciliation focuses on healing guilt, not just around the abortion itself, but around the ongoing poor self-image that seems so common among participants. This sacrament invites participants to embrace a God who still loves them no matter what and we then invite them to re-imagine themselves as good, loving and lovable, which we consider a key element in the meaning of this sacrament. It also symbolises a re-connection with the church, which for some is extremely important as they feel alienated from their faith. The Eucharist is also a sign of re-establishing ties with the community from which they feel alienated. In the Catholic symbolic story world, receiving communion is the ultimate sign of acceptance, something they feel they have lost through their past actions." (p230-231)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Re-membering Beauty – a Reflection on Priesthood

Re-membering Beauty – a Reflection on Priesthood in the Year of the Priest
Peter Maher

“A priest is not special kind of man; a person is a special kind of priest” noted Tom Bass, the Sydney sculptor, as he reflected on his journey through Christianity some years ago. (Sunday Arts, ABC TV. 19.11.2006)

In the year of the priest this comment reminds me that the primary understanding of priesthood in the Catholic Church begins with that shared by all the baptised. Tom Bass confronts the binaries of doctrinal and theological language that would have us fight over who is the greatest (Mk9/35). Bass encourages us to talk of a deep spirituality born of the imagination, poetry and art as we try to make sense of the mystery of the church and the relationships, ministries, power and status of its members.

I want to explore the notion and place of priesthood as expressed in Lumen Gentium (LG) (Nos 9 - 10), the Second Vatican Council document on the Church. How can we honour the complexity of the two notions of priesthood using a poetic lens? I want to honour the theological notions while situating them in contemporary experience and its consequent questions. I will approach this with a skepticism worthy of our faith and by honouring the mystical nature of the reality these concepts aim to convey. Let’s walk gently and without undue certainty on this sacred ground. My hope is that by exploring this terrain poetically we might address the questions with openness and wonder freeing us to see new ways of understanding the reality of the relationships between the People of God, the priesthood of all believers and the ordained priesthood. Then drawing from my experience, I want to review present trends, signs of hope, some implications and new possibilities.

I want to reflect on ordained priesthood as a way of collaboration for creating a better world rather than a competition for status or a cause for reinstating ordained priesthood as superior or of greater importance.

What is at the heart of the notions of a “common priesthood” and the “ordained priesthood”? The church document notes: “Though they differ from one another in essence and not only in degree, the common priesthood of the faithful and the ordained or hierarchical priesthood are nonetheless interrelated: each of them in its own special way is a participation in the one priesthood of Christ” (LG 10). This fails to address the problem faced by those who use and abuse the power of the ordained priesthood over the common priesthood. My approach is to begin with the fears and hopes of the People of God as seen in LG 9: “At all times and in every race God has given welcome to whom so ever fears God and does what is right. God, however, does not make people holy and save them merely as individuals, without bond or link between one another. Rather has it pleased God to bring all together as one people, a people which acknowledges God in truth and serves God in holiness… …calling together a people made up of Jew and gentile, making them one, not according to the flesh but in the Spirit. This was to be the new People of God”.

Despair and Beauty
Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, The Leaden Echo & The Golden Echo, offers a poetic exploration of our common fear and our common hope. He begins by asking us to reflect on the beauty-less landscape with which we are so familiar: “How to keep - is there any any, is there none such, nowhere known some, bow or brooch or braid or brace, lace, latch or catch or key to keep Back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty, ... from vanishing away?” and how this has brought us into the pit of despair: “O there’s none; no no no there’s none: Be beginning to despair, to despair, Despair, despair, despair, despair”. (Hopkins, Gerard Manly, Poems and Prose of Gerard Manly Hopkins, WH Gardner editor, Penguin classics 1953, p52-4)

But there is in our memories a hunger for the beauty only just beyond our reach. Hopkins believes we are capable of recalling this beauty not just as backward memory but as a co-creative project with “the one”: “Spare! There ís one, yes I have one (Hush there!)” This “one” is the key to the undoing of the haze of despair so that we might in some way re-member beauty: “Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver ….. When the thing we freely forfeit is kept with fonder a care, Fonder a care kept than we could have kept it, kept”. Hopkins invites us to dare to look beyond our broken dreams in a courageous journey to find an answer: “Where kept? Do but tell us where kept, where. - Yonder. - What high as that! We follow, now we follow. - Yonder, yes yonder, yonder, Yonder”.

This poem expresses the dark despair we might feel as we gaze upon the world of war, desperation, disadvantage, discrimination, poverty, environmental disarray and endless dispossession and vulnerability. Hopkins calls us to be immersed in the futility and helplessness of the decay of beauty, yet to compel us to find energy to act. But there is one, ‘a golden echo’, still hiding in the dark sun. He calls us to sense that echo of a glorious reality bathed in sunlight and deep-blue sky. Hopkins strains to enkindle in us the energy to recall beauty by literally breathing it back into existence in a kind of emergency resuscitation. We can re-member a world of beauty if we try. There is enough breath to clear the air and make a blue sky appear once more. It is the quality of care that gives back beauty when breathed in concert with ‘the one’. Somewhere within the human heart and the universe hunger there is a memory so sacred that it can restore life into a broken despairing world.

Maybe some of the difficulty of the theological terrain of priesthood in Lumen Gentium could be overcome if we begin with Gerard Manly Hopkins’ poem. Then we might read Lumen Gentium as a call to work together as a people of the Spirit, purchased by beauty for the purposes of resuscitating beauty by breathing life into the despair on the faces of a broken people. Read in this way the collaboration would include all, not just Jews and gentiles, but Muslims, Buddhists and environmentalists, those protesting war’s futility and pain, those working to bring people out of the slavery of refugee, war and poverty camps, those seeking equality and human rights for Indigenous people, the disabled, the elderly, the sick, gays and lesbians, the unemployed, the disadvantaged and the exploited.

Then in some kind of symbiosis, the priesthood of all believers would work with its co-relative, the ordained priesthood, to enact the renewal of the heart of the world. Only together can these two realities, the second a subset of the first, be a force for engaging Hopkins' ‘the one’, ‘the key’
who partners God’s people in the sacred art of calling humanity back from the brink of despair by gently pointing to the beauty glimpsed by yonder shore. Surely we can together make beauty visible enough, just enough to rekindle a hope, even if still darkly. Any notion of priesthood as power, control or self-claimed authority would break the fragile membrane of a recalled trust, clouding its very beauty and the hope of vulnerable people.

Unmasking the Beauty
The mystical union of Christ and the People of God enables a partnership between humanity and ‘the one’ to continue the task of unmasking the beauty within and without, the divine presence in all things. Only together and as equals can the People of God work towards their calling. Together as one humanity we share Hopkins’ pit of despair. While often frustratingly out of reach, there is only one deep common cause and aching that joins us all. We might therefore seek to enact together a priestly re-membering of beauty.

Let’s have no argument about who is the greatest, who gets called by names of principalities and powers, or more truly, long-dead empires. If our deep Christian tradition is to be honoured we must all be servants and willing to lay down our lives for care and nurture of one another and the earth. Until we are strong enough to lay down titles and honour systems that divide, let’s at least accept that the division of ‘priesthoods’ these create are surely counter to the spirit of unity and service in the gospel. The distinctions within our notions of priesthood must never set us apart and thus cause scandal and cloud the call to beauty, equality, justice and love.

My experience as an ordained priest is littered with examples of honour systems that divide, leaving the People of God in grief and confusion at being cut off from sharing equally in our sacred call to unmask beauty. Poor decisions, negligence, laziness or just having a bad day are human but if this is combined with a deeply ingrained and unhealthy culture of deference to ‘Father’s decision’ members of the ordained priesthood in our present system may deeply fracture the path to beauty.

I recognise that it is not solely the fault of the overworked or stressed ordained priest when we all inhabit an unhealthy culture of ordained priesthood. However, there is a growing awareness and indeed a clarion call from the people of the common priesthood for ordained priests to become aware and take responsibility, indeed co-responsibility, for the sacred trust we all share. It is no longer acceptable for ordained priests to fail to update educationally or ensure appropriate self-care, spiritual direction, consultation and pastoral supervision. These have been seen as essential helps for decades in the helping professions.

All other helping professions require a certain standard of on-going education and self-care. Ordained ministers who lag behind in this betray their partners in the common healing purpose. Human foibles can be forgiven, but not making use of the readily available and proven methods of learning from experience, professional supervision and opportunities to grow holistically must now be considered culpable negligence.

I have had the privilege of many sacred partnerings that express in some ways the common journey of hope. I am deeply aware that in my early months as an ordained priest, sensing the loneliness, the ill-preparedness and dysfunctionality of parish life, I found the parishioners I befriended and with whom I shared personal and professional goals indispensable to a healthy ministry. Together we achieved such things as an ecumenical letterdrop to all homes in the parish; a parish prayer group; a successful partnership in managing the Catholic Youth Organisation, a weekly parish bulletin and a small youth choir, These were real partnerships in gathering the whole People of God in our common sacred co-responsibility.

Another enduring partnership has been in youth ministry . I have enjoyed working with many teachers in the Catholic and State systems. The most enlightening times were when we worked together to create meaningful rituals appropriate to the ages of the children with whom we were working. I also worked for 2 years with the Marist Brothers Retreat Team assisting 15 to 18 year old students to articulate their journey in search of a hope-filled future. It was not just the partnership with the teachers, but also the students that enabled me to reflect on and engage with the reality of our common fear and pain and notice how together we could address their meaning in the search for wonder.

This experience was repeated in a marvellous way at the University of Technology, Sydney where I was chaplain for 14 years. As part of a multifaith team I found the dialogue with ‘every race’ (LG 9) including many creeds a chance to experience the greater call that unites us all in the way of larger service. Partnerships with administration, staff, students and other chaplains proved to be an unmasking of beauty for all involved. It was also a privilege to work cross-culturally with students and chaplains through the International Movement of Catholic Students and the National and Global Chaplains’ Organisations. These stretched my imagination, co-operation and education in the mentoring and journeying-with enquiring and justice-focused minds, hungering hearts and activist bodies.

Rachel’s Vineyard Healing Retreats ease the burden for men and women suffering trauma and pain after an abortion experience. I was encouraged into this ministry by a marvellous woman, Julie Kelly, who has enabled this ministry to spread throughout Australia. It is another example where collaboration has brought tremendous healing and hope to many. The common priesthood of all believers in a dialogue with the ordained ministry is able to reassure these broken people that there is still beauty in our fragile world and they are called to be a part of it.

As I reflected on positive partnerings, I noticed the ministry of parish priest conspicuously missing. This is partly because I have been very privileged to minister in so many diverse and authentic ways other than as parish priest. However it also reflects the danger in the parish/hierarchical system which leaves parish priests more like managers and building/maintenance consultants than engaged in a co-operative ministry of healing and hope. When those in traditional parish leadership are saddled with the vestige of hierarchy and submission these can subvert the co-operative and collaborative sharing in the common priestly mission.

Parishes can be a very unsatisfactory way to live the “People of God” dream poetically and with imagination. Where the system denies equal voice to all who participate in parish ministry, this leaves the parish priest the last resort for every problem and question and when decisions are taken, he routinely becomes the final arbiter. If conflict occurs he may become the fulcrum of complaints and stands in a no man’s land either at the mercy of the people or the bishop. A system that lays all responsibility, and thus power, at the feet of the parish priest can become a recipe for failure as it easily breeds distrust and disunity.

However I don’t believe parish ministry is irredeemable. We should reform the system along collaborative lines including more sustainable, equitable and shared power structures. The inclusion of all, irrespective of gender, race or sexual orientation, in all ministries including ordained ministry is essential. While awaiting these developments, there are ways I have experienced a deep and wonderful co-operation in parish ministry.

In my current appointment at Newtown there is a wonderful growth of compassionate ways to be in ministry together. Women minister communion to the sick regularly and compassionately. There is a series of events that foster a more socially just world and a shared ministry offering educational opportunities. There is a regular support group for gay and lesbian Catholics, their families and friends. A community garden is a shared project between parishioners and local residents. These are just a few examples.

Local parish ministry is by no means discounted as a locus for co-operative ministry but it is hampered by an overly hierarchical system that leaves many priests overly tired, bureaucratically exhausted, emotionally wrought, spiritually dry or organisationally suffocated. And for all the bishop’s words of thanks and support, the priest is only too aware that the next phone call could be the bishop or his office with another form to fill in, some charge to answer or other ‘matter of state’, rather than a real support that acts as a pointer to beauty.

Possibilities and Dreams
How might we move forward in these times when imagination and creativity seem swamped by an unhealthy demand for an orthodoxy of enthusiasm which is no orthodoxy at all? How might priestly ministry in its wide meaning negotiate the fragile patterns of relationship in creation? How can we together become facilitators, leaders, co-operators and signs counter-cultural to war, greed, power and destruction maintained by the principalities of the world? How might we better reflect and live the gospel values as an invitation to the world that another way is possible, rather than regurgitate its words packaged in empty lofty worn-out church speak, pietism and dry doctrine?

I find the pre-conscious, intuitive insight and skepticism of youth inspire me and invite me to seek another paradigm in which to engage with the sacred trust of all believers. It is a courage and lightness of being that calls us to be beacons of hope in a despairing world and to seek ways that empower the voiceless and lost to recall and re-member the “beauty-in-the-ghost, deliver it, early now, long before death Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver. (Hopkins, The Golden Echo)

What some see as signs of fear in our church, I see as signs of hope. The refusal to submit to uninspiring and un-poetic liturgy, especially the Sacrament of Reconciliation, is really a hopeful resistance to a monochrome and deadly view of ritual. The utilitarian approach to church attendance reminds us to take a collaborative approach to ritual that reflects the real issues of people’s lives and the need to imaginatively create ritual space in which people can integrate their questions into their lives. The passion for justice and fairness without reference to stifling Catholic guilt is a hopeful sign where people consider the oppressions and hurtful relationships in the world and take time to address, analyze and consider action.

The refusal to enter priesthood and religious life, especially by the young, when the church refuses to question its understanding of equality, authority, sexuality and gender remains an open challenge to the deeper and broadest nature of priesthood. These questions confront the notion and exercise of authority and hierarchical power that is alien to our world and, many would argue, the gospel. Many are scandalised by these gaping wounds and either completely reject the institutionalised Church, move aside or silently wait in the pews for a more enlightened time when their ‘common priesthood’ is more respected. Meanwhile they maintain their baptismal right to the Sacraments which they hold deeply sacred. I find amongst those who have abandoned the institutional Church because it is too manipulative for their spiritual health, the celebration of the Sacraments are often deeply missed. This is clear when working openly in public institutions as was my experience in university ministry.

Many people across all age groups, cultural backgrounds and sexualities are reassessing their relationship with the institutional Church, but the most healthy hopeful sign is among the youth who do this without regard to destructive Catholic guilt and its authoritarian culture.

Sin, Power and Authority
Some Church leaders like to talk about a ‘return to an appreciation of sin’ as an answer to the disaffected. By this they mean that priestly authority and status might be restored where ‘the sense of sin’ requires ordained priestly forgiveness. They believe that maybe a healthy round of Catholic guilt might kick start a return to traditional church. However I believe that re-membering beauty is precisely in rediscovering a way of seeing sin as the dysfunction of beauty and love. This may be done by pointing, now and then, to the signs of hope enacted by the common human struggle for justice and love rather than a disembodied doctrine that is so disconnected to the reality of people’s lives that they either rile against it or ignore it. It is the manner of communication, the superior tone and the language used that leaves church-speak languishing, rather than the underlying curiosity around the values they seek to address.

Today Catholics tend to refuse to be scolded back into the shopping list of sin and generally ignore any form of the Sacrament of Reconciliation that requires such thinking. Catholic thinking today is more like the reflection of Rodrigues, the Portuguese priest detained under the Japanese persecution of the Christians in the 1590’s in Endo’s novel. “Sin, he reflected, is not what it is usually thought to be; it is not to steal and tell lies. Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind. And then for the first time a real prayer rose up in his heart.” (Endo, Shusaku, Silence, translated by William Johnston, Taplinga Publishing New Jersey 1969, p86)

In these times of brutal war crimes of mass murder of women and children in Iraq and Afghanistan by both sides, suicide bombing and “collateral damage”, it is not surprising that ordinary Catholics are far more in tune with Endo’s chilling definition of sin than the pietistic antiseptic form in the return to Confession. Jesus reference to forgiving a brother seventy seven times (Mat. 18/22) seems more in tune with a notion of sin that is about being unaware, than a list of minor transgressions. The seventy seven times is more likely to reflect a lack of awareness of the ways we could invest in restoring beauty. It turns our attention to the strategies of denial and distraction that keep us from owning up to the signs in our physical world and our bodies that are calling us to act justly and compassionately rather than with the apathy of sinful silence. Examples include a refusal to notice our role in wars, global warming, poverty or injustice. It is either beyond our small vision, too painful to include, too time consuming to consider or excluded from our spiritual search.

That many Catholics reject the shopping list notion of sin and the mechanistic forms of Confession and embrace the larger notion explored here might be viewed as a positive call to change and indeed to restore the social forms of the Sacrament. Then this important priestly task would become a collaborative effort to speak bravely to ourselves and our world in a Sacrament of healing and mercy. At the moment it can sometimes more resemble the brutality that is ‘quite oblivious of the wounds … left behind’ (Endo).

Here again we can be mired in a tangle of power relations of the who and when of forgiveness. We might turn our attention to pointing directly to the source of shadowy despair while recognising that lack of awareness of the brutality is at the heart of sin. All are called to share equally in the process, method, ministry, responsibility and sheer joy of being shepherds of liberation. This task is for all to share because it is too much for only a small elite, no matter how much power is unfairly thrust upon them.

This brings us to what continues to bedevil the chance of true collaborative ministry. In the Catholic church’s hierarchical model that is born of the Roman Imperial system and has forgotten its gospel roots we still see power and control enacted by “ordained” edict. Parishioners to this day are told to obey the priest because the Church says so. Even when the priest is ‘right’ this is blatant spiritual abuse. Generally, such manipulative attempts are ignored. Although where a culture of fear and power still exist some parishioners are still unable to act authentically with horrible consequences. If we must retain this language, is there a way to redeem its meaning? How do we stop the toxic mix of obedience and authority being little more than “kings lording it over those beneath them and those who have authority being given names of honour”? (Lk 22/25) We must discover the way of authority and obedience where the chief is like the servant (Lk 22/26) not by sophistry where the reality of domination does not change, but by an honesty that is transparent and promotes genuine collaboration at every level of church life.

Pope Gregory the Great, the patron saint of musicians, singers, students and teachers and prolific writer and liturgical reformer of the sixth century was the Barack Obama of his time. He was known as Gregory the Dialogist for his commitment to dialogue. In his Homilies on Ezechiel he noted: “In Holy Church everybody supports the other and is supported by the other” (Hez II, 1.5(1311). 76,938d – 939c); while in his Commentary on the Book of Job he noted: “Since the Church is founded on a solid platform of humility, she can point out the right path. But to do that she does not use her authority, but rather persuades with reasons, as if to say: tell me whether I am wrong. As if she openly says: do not let authority be the basis of your belief in my words, but let your own reason tell you whether my words are true. Even when she says that human reason must not enquire into what cannot be understood, she uses rational arguments. But when heretics argue, they often become embroiled in fights”. (Mor. 8:2,3 (242), 75, 803cd)

It seems he understood that the practice of authority must be civil and reasoned discourse where the one with power listens and gives reasons for their choices of words that enact their decisions. This is done as a way of mutual support for all and by all. He could have added for future generations that this awareness needs to be multiplied by the extent to which one holds power, an imbalance felt deeply by many, especially women, in the church structures we experience today.

The christian priesthood system continues to need reform in every age. Here I have tried to point towards some places we might begin a conversation about how to be more true to our tradition. I have explored themes using a poetic reading of texts that they might offer a way forward more consistent with the gospel. In this year of the priest may ordained ministry become more married to the hopes and struggles of the people so that we move closer to the collaboration dreamed of by some at Vatican II over 40 years ago and that which Jesus hoped for over 2,000 years ago.