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Becoming a church for mission

Frank Brennan SJ  |  10 August 2017

What will the Church look like in 2030? Fr Frank Brennan looks at the leadership of Pope Francis, and where the Church might be heading into the future. 

For the first time since 1937, the Australian bishops have announced that a synod is to be held in three years’ time. All proposals for breaking down the culture of clericalism need to be on the table. Our church will be credible for your children and grandchildren only if church authority is seen to be exercised transparently, accountably and inclusively. 

Notions of tradition, authority, and routine ritual have become rather desiccated in our post-modern world. When announcing the 2020 plenary council of our Church, Archbishop Coleridge said last August, ‘I think we have to accept the fact that Christendom is over — by which I mean mass, civic Christianity. It’s over.’

I was pleased to hear the new bishop of Townsville Tim Harris at his episcopal ordination earlier this month when speaking about Pope Francis say, 

‘Under him, the teachings of the Church don’t change. But how we teach and apply them does. As a bishop, I can only teach what the Church teaches and I believe in that teaching. But if any of you fail, my friends, to live up to that teaching, I won’t abandon you, I will do what I can to accompany you, something that I would hope every single priest of this diocese is already doing in his ministry.’

As the Church of 2030, we need to be more attentive to the contemplation of believers and our experience of spiritual realities, as well as the preaching of the Church. At the Royal Commission, Bishop Vincent Long, noted: ‘It’s no secret that we have been operating, at least under the two previous pontificates, from what I’d describe as a perfect society model where there is a neat, almost divinely inspired, pecking order, and that pecking order is heavily tilted towards the ordained ... I think we really need to examine seriously that kind of model of Church.’ 

Pope Francis has no time whatever for the notion of the Church as a perfect society. But, there is no way that Francis wants to abandon the ideals and the commitment to truth and justice so well exemplified by his predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI. He embodies Paul’s statement to the Colossians: 

‘And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.’ (Col:3:14) 

He commissions us to risk and envision our church life by planning and acting with love and goodness, espousing ideals, affirming truth and a commitment to justice, seeking grace and mercy in the mess and complexity of our world, in the reality of the market place, and the lives of ordinary people.

Those who think Francis is seriously in error when he teaches about mercy and justice, and the place of conscience, would do well to revisit some of John Paul’s own teaching. Looking to the Old Testament, John Paul II in his 1980 encyclical letter Dives in Misericordia insisted that, 

‘love is greater than justice’; ‘love conditions justice’; and ‘justice serves love’. 

John Paul thought that Christian mercy was the most perfect incarnation of equality between people, 

‘Mercy has the power to confer on justice a new content, which is expressed most simply and fully in forgiveness.’

Under the leadership and example of Francis, we are on the path where accompaniment, discernment, conscience and mercy are given their due place alongside distinctive Catholic identity, moral certainty, definitive teaching, and notions of commutative, distributive and social justice.

Francis insists that, 

‘individual conscience needs to be better incorporated into the Church’s praxis’ and that ‘conscience can do more than recognise that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognise with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal.’ 

A generation ago, it was fashionable in Catholic circles to parody some of us as cafeteria Catholics — those choosing only teachings or practices which resonated with their desires or preferences. Those proffering adverse judgments were usually satisfied of their orthodoxy and orthopraxis because they followed the liturgical rubrics attentively and affirmed papal teaching on the ‘neuralgic issues’: contraception, homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research, and indissolubility of marriage. 

They also affirmed the papal decrees stating that ordination must forever be reserved to men, even claiming that such utterances were infallible. Francis has made it clear that most, if not all, of us can now be parodied as cafeteria Catholics, and that’s because we are all sinners in need of God’s mercy. Individually, we get only part of the picture; together we can complete the picture of God’s grace in the world.

As Church in 2030, we will have to provide a place at the table for all the baptised. We will have to extend our care and attention to all those in need, particularly the poor and our Mother Earth. We will have to be open to change — the change the comes by including the marginalised at the centre. 

Let’s recall (Acts 6:1-7) that, 

‘as the number of disciples grew, Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in daily distribution. So the Twelve called together the community of disciples and said, “It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table. Brothers, select from among you seven men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom, whom we shall appoint to this task, whereas we shall devote ourselves to prayer and ministry of the word.” The proposal was acceptable to the community, so they chose seven men all with Greek names. The disciples then laid hands on them. One was Stephen who a short time later was stoned to death, and not for the way he was distributing food.’ 

The early Christian community was more than able to adapt their structures, their ministries, and their roles to give everyone a place at the table, including the marginalised Hellenists who had been left out by the dominating Hebrews. The Church of 2030 will need to be equally adaptable providing a place at the table for the indigenous, for the refugee, for the victim of abuse, for the woman who sees the face of Christ in the hospitality of women and who feels the hands of Christ in the ministrations of women. 

Tradition, authority, and routine ritual need to be enfleshed and animated by the power of the Spirit. Let’s go forth on our mission of justice and mercy being the Church for mission 2030. 

This article is an edited extract from Fr Brennan’s closing keynote address at the Catholic Mission conference, ‘Mission: One heart many voices’, in Sydney in May. The full address can be found at 


Topic tags: ourrelationshipwithgod, thecatholictradition, church-thepeopleofgod

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