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A listening Church

Fr Frank Brennan SJ  |  08 August 2019

On 26 June 2019, Fr Frank Brennan SJ gave a speech to the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture in Canberra, titled ‘Our Church or Our Museum – Contributing to a confident, humble, listening and questioning Church’. In this edited excerpt, he reflects on what it means to be a listening Church.

After the recent Synod on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment, Pope Francis wrote in In Christus Vivit, ‘A Church always on the defensive, which loses her humility and stops listening to others, which leaves no room for questions, loses her youth and turns into a museum.’ Our Church remains at a cross roads between life and death, between relevance and irrelevance, between a Church and a museum in our post-modern world.

I know that many of you persevere, attending events such as this, wondering: how in God’s name can we make our Christian faith and our Catholic practice and heritage translatable, communicable, and attractive to our children and grandchildren? We no longer live in a society surrounded by people, most of whom are believers. Some of the best people we know are not. Some of the most outstanding leaders wrestling with the moral, political and economic questions of the age find little if any sustenance in religious faith. In fact, religious faith is seen to be antithetical to the moral sense of the age, whether it be equal rights for all regardless of their sexual orientation or care for the planet with its burgeoning human population.


In the wake of the sexual abuse crisis, why bother with the Church? In the wake of the Church’s ongoing failure to give women their place at the table, why persevere with the Church? In the wake of the Church’s wrong turn 50 years ago on the issue of birth control, why expect that the Church will in our lifetime play catch-up with the social mores of those who think the strident utterances of a group of celibate men ring hollow given the prevalence of child sexual abuse by those in the ranks of those supposedly celibate men at the very time that Humanae Vitae was promulgated and enforced?

One of the great things about being Catholic is that one is part of a Church community with an authority structure in place to formulate teachings which can assist all the faithful to discern what it is that God is asking of them, and this can be done by drawing upon the wealth of the tradition and the competence of the present community of scholars and leaders. But it must always be an invitation to dialogue. It must always be a call to form and inform one’s conscience, and to that conscience be true.


When addressing a group of theologians just recently, Pope Francis said, ‘Theologians have the task of encouraging ever anew the encounter of cultures with the sources of Revelation and Tradition. The ancient edifices of thought, the great theological syntheses of the past are mines of theological wisdom, but they cannot be applied mechanically to current questions. One should treasure them to look for new paths.’

Whether the issue be birth control, how best to protect human rights or how best to protect the planet, the Church with its tradition and authority provides us with very sound norms.

But these are not sufficient. We need to listen, question, and then discern in the light of people’s lived experience and in the light of new insights gained through the sciences.

Francis leaves us in no doubt when we hear him telling theologians: ‘I studied in the period of decadent theology, decadent scholasticism, the age of the manuals. We used to joke that all the theses in theology could be proved by the following syllogism. First, things appear this way. Second, Catholicism is always right. Third, Ergo… In other words, a defensive, apologetic theology shut in a manual. We used to joke about it, but that was what we were presented with in that period of decadent scholasticism.’ Those days are over, or at least, they should be.


As Catholics, we are also able to participate in the key events of life with sacramental expression, liturgy and words which are sufficiently shared and known to allow us to give expression to the fulness of the human reality and a faith-filled reflection on that reality.

As our churches have emptied and as young people have felt the pull of neither obligation nor attraction, we all know the absence of these sharings. We are all now well used to attending funerals and weddings where God does not get a look in. And no matter what the grandeur, mystery or eloquence, we feel that there is something missing.

Your children and your grandchildren look at you and our Church today and they ask: what difference does faith really make in your life? How does your religious practice really change your life? How does your religious belief really change your understanding of yourself and our world? Where’s the value-add? Where’s the added hope, joy, and glory? Where’s the added capacity to confront sadness, evil, suffering, and death?

Even if up-and-coming generations are to believe in Jesus of Nazareth, why the need to be active members of a Church which espouses tradition and authority especially when as a social institution, the Church has been shown to be ill adapted to so many of the changes in the modern world?


Those of us who remain Catholic, and who espouse our faith, our doctrine and our practice as a commendable way of life do so because we just don’t see how we can live a complete life on our own, following our own star unaccompanied by the community of saints who went before and unaccompanied by the community of believers with us now. Gifted with the tradition and with the authority of the Church, we believe that we can be more attentive to all possibilities and more attuned to truth and to the poor. We see the value in being on a ship, and especially a ship with its own museum. A museum can be a very educative place, but you don’t look to the museum as the place from which to steer the ship or as the cabin in which to abide for the course of the voyage.

We are people of the resurrection.

Our hope is real in the midst of the mess and complexity of our world and of our lives. We are sent forth from the empty tomb remembering what Jesus told his followers in Galilee about being handed over to the power of sinful men, being crucified and rising again on the third day. This is good news not just for us who remain committed to our Church, but for us always, and for everyone in our world.

Not everyone needs to be on the ship, or on the same ship. But we do believe that it is good for everyone, including those clinging to the driftwood in turbulent seas and those floating happily in calm waters, that there be a flotilla of ships ferrying those with religious faith differently informed and led by tradition and authority underpinned by respectful dialogue with all.

The full talk can be found here or listen to the full talk here.



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