Messing with the Mass alienates Catholics who might return

In February, Eureka Street published an article titled 'Time to repeal "ugly" Mass translation'. It was written by Gerald O'Collins, an Australian Jesuit who has been one of the most recognised and respected theological voices in the English speaking Catholic world of the past 50 years.

He welcomes the news that Pope Francis has appointed a commission to revisit the Vatican document that shaped what he calls the 'ugly, Latinised translation foisted on English-speaking Catholics' by the 'clumsy, difficult' 2010 Missal.

The 2010 Missal that is currently in use replaced the accessible English of the 1969 translation. It opts for 'supplication' over 'prayer', 'wondrous' over 'wonderful', and 'oblation' over 'sacrifice' or 'offering'.

Such terms do not have currency in today's spoken English and I believe that their use in the liturgy amounts to a winding back of one of the major breakthroughs of Vatican II.

Gerald O'Collins is arguing in favour of instituting an 'incomparably better' translation from 1998 that was never used. But my view is different. I would prefer to see a reinstatement of the 1969 translation, largely for selfish reasons.

I accept his expert assessment that the 1998 is a better translation. But the 1969 is what my generation grew up with. And I am a member of what is arguably the most significant generation of Catholics that has been largely lost to the Catholic Church.

I say that not just out of baby boomer arrogance. I believe that, for various reasons, we are the ones who are the most likely of any generation to return to regular Mass attendance at this time. Yet the new translation - any new translation - alienates us as soon as we walk in the door and Mass begins.

Sometimes I even tell myself that it was intentional. We rejected the Sunday Mass obligation, so they don't want us back.

I know that's not true, but paranoia feeds my sense of alienation from the Church, as if it is a sect like the Exclusive Brethren, where you're either in or out. Cardinal Pell always criticised what he called the 'smorgasbord Catholics'. He was referring to those who wanted something from Catholicism but were not content with accepting all the teachings and rituals of the Catholic Church as a 'package deal'. That's me.

In common with many of my generation, I resented being forced to go to Mass as a child. It made me 'hate' the Mass. So I deal most effectively with my childhood trauma by choosing not to go to Mass as an adult. It's that simple.

In fact, often on a Sunday morning, I will pause briefly to give thanks to God that I have been mature enough to make an adult decision and not go to Mass. How perverse is that? The fact is that I cherish my self-given freedom from the Sunday obligation and it feels good.

The tragedy is that we all need public ritual in our lives, and the Catholic Church is the most powerful and significant source of ritual and community that is easily available to people like me. I do think about going to Mass. My local parish is blessed with one of the most gracious and creatively intelligent priests I know. But I know that the moment I enter that beautiful stone church, I will hit the brick wall of the unfamiliar Mass translation.

Helping the poor without a social work degree

I remember spending six weeks ‘helping the poor’ of Sydney’s eastern suburbs at the end of 1978. I was a Jesuit novice, and two of us were seconded to work with a small Australian order of nuns that specialised in providing nursing services and material assistance to those living on the margins.

Within the order there was tension between one of the younger nuns, who had a social work degree, and some of the older sisters, who believed such degrees were a distraction from the order’s core mission of providing aid.

The younger nun and her supporters argued that the order needed to adapt its mission towards lifting people out of poverty. What they'd always done - providing ongoing stopgap assistance - was keeping them marginalised.

In retrospect, I think they were getting into a discussion of liberation theology, which was then dividing the Catholic Church in Latin America in its efforts to make the church socially relevant.

The Sydney order was Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor, also known as the Brown Sisters. The young nun in 1978 was questioning the teaching of the order’s founder Eileen O’Connor. O'Connor was reflecting the thinking of the time when she told her sisters in 1913: ‘The cause of a person’s poverty is not yours to question. The fact a person is poor is the reason you help’.

Last week I was reminded of this debate in the order when I read a report in Fairfax Media questioning the work of the 22 year old founders of the Orange Sky free mobile laundry and shower service for the homeless.

In January 2016, Nic Marchesi and Lucas Patchett were awarded joint Young Australians of the Year for their social entrepreneurship. But the Fairfax reporter set about putting their remarkable achievement into perspective by seeking comments from professionals in social work and related disciplines.

University of Queensland social work academic Cameron Parsell told Fairfax that services such as Orange Sky undermined people’s dignity when they were forced to shower and wash in public spaces, ‘particularly when we know that ending homelessness is possible and cost-effective’.

Parsell’s research showed it cost the taxpayer more to keep a person chronically homeless ($48,217 each) than to provide permanent housing ($35,117).

Meanwhile the acting chief executive of the Council to Homeless Persons, Kate Colvin, urged philanthropists and organisations such as Orange Sky to consider where to channel their energy and funding.

‘The reality is that ending homelessness starts with boosting affordable housing, not providing comfort measures,’ she said.

The professionals’ point was well made, even if it misses the point that Orange Sky’s core mission is to connect people. Orange Sky would say that many people with a roof over their head are lonely and do not feel spiritually and emotionally whole.

One of the young entrepreneurs - Nic – responded: ‘Lucas and I are two young blokes who are volunteers and by no means are we experts in the homelessness sector.’

It could be that their passion and experience makes these 22 year olds perfect candidates to enrol in social work degrees and become experts in the homelessness sector.

My Muslim prayer cap

Somehow I get the daily email alerts from the Body and Soul website, which contain the Murdoch tabloids’ syndicated articles on personal wellbeing. Today’s headline – ‘Can you really catch up on lost sleep?’ – is relevant to me at this moment.

A day after returning to Sydney, my body clock is still on Malaysian time. The time difference is only three hours, but my body wants to go to sleep at 2:00 am rather than the usual 11:00 pm. Daylight wakes me hours before my body is ready. My Fitbit tells me I slept for only 6 hours and 4 minutes and I lack the energy and brainpower I need to face the day.

Re-entry into my own world in Sydney also requires a few cultural adjustments. The most interesting I’m facing is how to regard the beautiful knitted Muslim prayer cap that I have ended up with.

I bought it from the shop at the Islamic Arts Museum in Kuala Lumpur. It was intended as a gift for my friend at home, but he diplomatically rejected it because he has brown skin and said he feared being branded a Muslim and becoming an object of hate and fear in these troubled times.

My white skin makes it easier for me to wear the cap without attracting unwanted attention, so it’s more likely that I will feel comfortable wearing it.

As far as street wear in Newtown is concerned, exotic is the norm, so I’m fine on that score. But I need to go into it a bit more deeply to decide whether it’s really proper for me to wear it.

As a Catholic, I ask myself how I feel when I see people with a tattoo depicting the Virgin Mary or the Sacred Heart.

It is possible that the wearer of the tattoo is making a religious faith statement. But given the generation of most tattoo wearers, I would guess that it is unlikely that they are Catholics with a devotion to the Virgin Mary or the Sacred Heart.

Therefore I can conclude that they have appropriated an element of my religious culture to make their own statement of cultural identity.

Do I resent that, or am I flattered? Personally I am flattered because they are giving articles of my religion their own form of cultural validation. They probably don’t accept much Catholic doctrine (not that I accept it all). But they’re conferring on my faith a certain degree of coolness, and I like that.

I ask myself what kind of cultural statement I am making in wearing the Muslim prayer cap. I would say that it is, in equal measure, a love of the exotic, and a (hopefully not misplaced) wish to express solidarity with my Muslim brothers and sisters in these hostile times.

I look forward to wearing it in the street, in exotic Newtown and in the shopping centre of a seriously Muslim suburb such as Auburn, to test the vibe.

A view of the Royal Commission from the End of the World

Yesterday I caught a bus to the End of the World. It was not exactly how I usually imagine the end of the world. More heaven on earth than hell on earth.

It took the form of a large open air seafood restaurant named the End of the World. It was at Teluk Bahang, near a fishing village in the relatively remote north western corner of the island of Penang. The original restaurant has been destroyed in the 2004 tsunami and subsequently rebuilt and relocated to higher ground.

I selected my live red snapper from the fish tank and had it served to me steamed Hong Kong style, with garlic, ginger, light soy sauce and rice wine. But my thoughts turned to the hell on earth experience of the victims of child sexual abuse in Australia and the justice that could be around the corner for them.

As I enjoyed my snapper, five of Australia’s Catholic archbishops were fronting the Royal Commission in Sydney. I was thinking of the brief conversation I’d had with a friend in Sydney on Sunday, hours before my departure for Malaysia. My friend is a mental health professional who has counselled many victims of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

He was angry with Archbishop Fisher after reading a long interview with him in the previous week’s Sunday Telegraph. The thrust of the interview was contained in the archbishop’s description of the sexual abuse crisis as a ‘kick in the guts’ for the non-offending majority of good priests. The archbishop said they had felt ‘contaminated, betrayed and demoralised by the paedophiles in the church’.

My friend was dismayed that the archbishop appeared to have minimised the suffering of the victims.

Upon reading the interview, my reaction was to be stunned at Archbishop Fisher’s apparent discounting of an underlying reality I thought the Church was gradually coming to accept. That is the argument that child sexual abuse is primarily a product of the culture of the Church, rather than numbers of rogue priests and brothers. But his message in the interview was that the priests who had ‘given their all’ had been ‘tarred with this brush’ that belonged to those who had physically carried out the abuse.

I was surprised that the archbishop would say these things publicly, even if this is what he thought privately. It was as if he had not learned from the public outcry that followed his infamous advice to parents of victims (the Fosters) during World Youth Day 2008 when he suggested they should get over it and not ‘dwell crankily on old wounds’.

However when he was before the Royal Commission yesterday, Archbishop Fisher did describe the Church’s response to victims as ‘criminal negligence’. He admitted that allegations were covered up in the past to protect the Church’s reputation.

My hope is that the Catholic Church will emerge from the Royal Commission contrite and not triumphant. In the Sunday Telegraph interview, Archbishop Fisher was still expressing pride in the Church’s role in building the social welfare infrastructure of Australia through its schools for the poor, its orphanages and hospitals ‘where there were none’. To me, it appears the Church was unwittingly constructing breeding grounds for child abuse for which it must now take responsibility.

In my view, Vatican II’s vision of a ‘pilgrim church in need of redemption’ must be realised. The Church’s theologians could take the Church’s doctrine of ‘social sin’ as the basis for admitting that the whole Church, including the ‘good’ priests and laity, should take responsibility for the abuse.

My final thought is prompted by the archbishop’s admission of criminal negligence, and it may or may not be too far-fetched. It is that child sexual abuse is a crime against humanity, and on that basis it could be fitting to take the Australian Catholic Church to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, in order to secure ultimate justice for victims.


Sex abuse monster portrayal lets Catholic Church off lightly

I was interested in the Australian Catholic Church's release yesterday of data revealing the relative percentages of child sex abusers in the various dioceses and religious orders between 1950 and 2009.

What was most significant for me was that there were no mention of names of individuals - it was just dioceses and orders. In addition, there was a large disparity among the dioceses and also among the orders. For example, 40.3 per cent of the St John of God Brothers were subject to complaints while the figure for the Dominican Friars was only 1.5 per cent.

This tells me two things. The first is the recognition that child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church is primarily a cultural problem - it has less to do with rogue priests or religious. The second is that child sexual abuse is a significant part of the culture of some dioceses and orders and not others.

It is the first time I can recall names of particular offenders being left out of the equation. I interpret this as a statement that the Church itself is the offender - and not rogue individuals.

This is qualified by the statistics that reveal that some dioceses and orders are over-represented. The Church is a confederation of cultures, some more conducive to child sexual abuse than others.

I think it is regrettable that until now, individual offenders and alleged offenders have been portrayed by the media as monsters, and punished as such. In my view, the media have played into the hands of the Church by demonising particular offenders and occasionally individual bishops and heads of religious orders.

Monster portrayal makes for better media stories and more effective community awareness of the problem. But as a result, the rest of the Church has got off lightly and the 'cultural' aspect of sexual abuse has been underplayed or even ignored.

Perhaps the best expert witness the Royal Commission didn't have - because he died in 2008 - is Professor Greg Dening. He was an ethnographic historian - Professor of History at the University of Melbourne - and for some years a Jesuit. His honours seminar History and Anthropology in 1985 was a highlight of my Arts degree.

In parallel with his academic research and writing, he wrote a number of histories of religious institutions - including Xavier College, Melbourne, and the Jesuit Parish of North Sydney - from the point of view of culture.

I would summarise culture as the range of practices we as a community do without questioning.

Dening explained in his North Sydney parish history that pre-Vatican II Catholics would hate themselves without questioning what they were doing. After Vatican II, the culture shifted to encourage them to love themselves humbly.

With reference to sexual abuse, it seems the St John of God Brothers would take sexual liberties with minors without questioning whether what they were doing was right or wrong. It was just the done thing. Sanctioned by the order's culture. For the Dominicans, the 'done thing' would not have included sexual liberties with minors.

I think the implication for this cultural view of child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church is that the punishment of individual offenders should receive less emphasis. And the Catholic Church as a whole, correspondingly more (with possible variations according to the level of offence within particular dioceses and orders).

The nature of the communal punishment is less relevant than the principle, but it could include property confiscation or loss of tax breaks and other privileges that were granted on the assumption that the Church would maintain its place of honour in the community.

How I can be both pro-life and pro-choice

I have just read Catherine Marshall's powerful Eureka Street article 'Trump moves against vulnerable women'. It is about his recent executive order that health organisations receiving funding from the US must not provide abortion services or advice, even if the money is not used to fund these services.

It has reminded me of my own inner struggle with regard to abortion. I am resolutely - but not proudly - pro-life.

In my own personal world, I cannot accept that any human being has a right to choose when to end the life of another (born or unborn) human life. That is God's prerogative.

But I am in favour of the current civil laws permitting early term abortion if the mother's physical or mental health is at risk. These are the vulnerable women that Catherine is talking about in her article.

I also think that it is perfectly acceptable for a Catholic publication like Eureka Street to advocate pro-choice positions in this way because they are pro-tolerance positions.

Tolerant Catholics - including me, I hope - do not impose their religious views on others. That is what religious extremists do. I accept that my particular religious views are out of step with the common sense reality of the community I live in. I don't mind that. In fact I cherish it. I like living in a multicultural, multifaith society.

Why I am not proud to be pro-life is that those who are proudly pro-life are often intolerant of the views of others. They are bigots. I like to think that I am not a bigot.

I might try to pretend that abortion is not my business. That it's for women, and perhaps couples, who are having to deal with an unwanted pregnancy. But if I think of it, that's not fair on unborn human beings, who are defenceless. They need the state to advocate on their behalf.

The only point of contention is a big one. It's when human life begins. My religious belief is that this point is the moment of conception. But I don't have a right to impose that on anybody else. In reality, I support the common sense definition that life begins when the foetus is at an advanced stage of development, as determined by the state.

Without considering myself an expert, I think the state - Australia - has got it about right. Until a week ago, America had it about right. That this has changed is reason for protest and civil action.

The rapture on New Zealand's South Island

How to make sense of the beauty of nature on New Zealand's South Island. That is what I'm about at this moment, as I look through the window of our AirBNB accommodation bedroom at the clouds hanging over the snow capped mountains.

I can admire the people here on the South Island. Especially their plucky approach to facing the challenges of the natural environment. The Christchurch and Kaikoura earthquakes of the last few years, and the 'weather bomb', as they call it, that has hit them in the past week, closing roads and disrupting lives.

But its magnificence is another thing.

Yesterday my travel companion Bernard had a word that described his experience of it. Rapture.

I had a mixed reaction to that. What comes to mind is the end of times event from the Book of Revelation in the Bible. According to the prediction, Christian believers who have died will be raised to heaven and those still living will meet them in the clouds.

That doesn't help much. This kind of thing is the preoccupation of those who belong to some very weird branches of Christianity.

But it's a different story when I seek out its various dictionary meanings. A feeling of intense pleasure or joy. | A state of being carried away by overwhelming emotion. | A mystical experience in which the spirit is exalted to a knowledge of divine things.

I wonder where Bernard got this word from. It turns out that it's from the Australian writer Robert Dessaix, describing his experience of the sublime in the highest mountain passes in the world, in northern India.

'All I can see is snow and rock. I am thrillingly unhoused, yet snug. I am nothing, I am the whole world. The desolation is complete, the rapture not just beyond words, but thought. This is what abandonment means.' (The Saturday Paper, 1 Nov 2014).

We stayed in Arthur's Pass last week, the day before it was hit by the 'weather bomb' and isolated from the rest of the world. Then on Friday we drove through Haast Pass on Friday, on a beautiful sunny summer's day.

Were those experiences of the South Island mountain passes rapturous? Not exactly. But they do give me some understanding of what Dessaix is getting at.

We all have our particular moments of rapture. Their intensity varies, but they are still rapture.

For me during this trip, it was the orange rain clouds at sunset in Christchurch on the night of our arrival (some would see an allusion to the end of times meaning in the Book of Revelation!). For Bernard, it was the mirror reflection on Lake Matheson near Fox Glacier on the West Coast.

Being rapt is about being stopped in our tracks. Being suddenly able to see more than the mundane. A glimpse of what the divine is for us.

You don't need to be an afficianado of the Book of Revelation to experience rapture. Or even conventionally religious. It reaches many cultures, including youth culture. This is the Urban Dictionary's definition of rapt: 'Australian surfer slang, means excited. "oooo dude im so totally rapt".'

A visit to the Christchurch earthquake reconstruction zone

An earthquake registering 6.3 on the Richter scale devastated the centre of Christchurch at 12:51 pm on 22 February 2011. It was one of a series of earthquakes that struck the city within a twelve month period, with a death toll of 185.

Of those who fled the city seeking refuge elsewhere, some were too traumatised to return, and Christchurch lost its status as New Zealand's second most populous city to Wellington. Those who did come back were very much determined to reconstruct the city, and their efforts are only beginning to take shape.

Walking around the city centre on Sunday, I could see that much of the area was fenced off and yet to see significant reconstruction activity. I could sense the panic and suffering that took place in this area and was struck by the relative lifelessness there is today.

The 'green shoot' that was most evident to me was the Transitional Cathedral of the Anglican Diocese of Christchurch, better known as the Cardboard Cathedral.

The NZ$5m A-frame structure was designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban and opened in August 2013 on a site located a few blocks from the original cathedral that was destroyed by the quake.

My visit transformed what was for me quite a desolate experience of the city centre. I appreciated the beauty of the construction, the welcome of the volunteer guide, and the pervading hope that the whole city centre will one day come back to life. There was the very unusual and mesmerising architecture, and also simple touches such as the flowers in the garden beds in front of the main doors.

I can't recall ever visiting the scene of a natural disaster in the interim period between clean up and major progress in reconstruction, and I did feel quite paralysed by the experience. But it was a Sunday, and I imagine that it could be a much more optimistic feeling if I go back there today when where will be more activity.

It did make me think about the concept of disaster tourism, which is defined as the act of travelling to a disaster area as a matter or curiosity. This can include 'rubbernecking', or travel with the specific intention of paying respect, or something in between.

I remember being in New York in December 2001, a little more than three months after the 9-11 terror attacks. I had no thought of going to Ground Zero but I did talk to a local who said that residents were disturbed by tourists visiting the scene to take a look. In time Ground Zero has become a destination for those wishing to honour the victims of the disaster.

A tale of two media takeovers

Two Australian media takeovers have caught my attention this summer. They were both predictable and representative of changes in media culture and values that have evolved over the past decade.

But they are revolutionary in that, over this time, both organisations have, as I see it, made a 180 degree switch from objective reporting to a firm control of the message.

The media outlets of the organisations are the pay TV channel Sky News Australia and the Catholic church news service CathNews. The extent of the parallels is interesting, and perhaps chilling.

The ownership of Sky has shifted to Rupert Murdoch from Australian News Channel, a consortium established in 1996 that already included Murdoch. That of CathNews has moved to the Catholic Bishops Conference from Church Resources, a consortium established in 1997 that already includes the Bishops.

Most Australians do not consume either and have probably never even heard of them, especially the latter. But they do have a very large and loyal following within their respective niches - politics nerds and serious Catholics.

I could go on with this cute comparison, and I will. But first I should mention that I was the founding editor of CathNews in 1999 and continued in that role until the beginning of 2006.

The Jesuit entrepreneur Father Michael Kelly had asked me to devise a mechanism to allow his group buying co-operative Church Resources to communicate regularly with its constituency. CathNews did this daily and turned out to be quite successful. When I moved to Eureka Street, the professionalism of CathNews was enhanced by bringing in experienced personnel from Fairfax (Christine Hogan and Michael Visontay).

But by this time, the Bishops had started to realise that CathNews was effectively competing with them in shaping opinion about Catholic news and current affairs. From the beginning, CathNews' philosophy had been to uphold the values of objective reporting that were evident in the content of overseas Catholic publications such as the London Tablet and the National Catholic Reporter in the US.

However the Australian Bishops' desire was more for a 'corporate communication' model, where they controlled the message. The Vatican used to call this 'propaganda', approvingly. CathNews' editorial policy and practice was subsequently brought into line with these values.

Meanwhile the journalism of the various outlets in the Murdoch empire had evolved from the objective reporting that had long dominated secular media, towards 'campaign' journalism. This is a form of corporate communication where the opinions of the owner are given priority over objective truth, and their publication is sustained and coordinated in order to mould and control public opinion.

In recent years, the content and style of Sky News Australia has evolved to echo Murdoch's The Australian newspaper by day and his US FoxNews TV channel by night. With the change of ownership, the comparison will become more pronounced.

It is not entirely coincidental that the term 'post-truth' has become so prominent at this time. What is most worrying is that what it represents has come to be normalised and that these changes in ownership don't appear to be causing too much alarm.

The blessed duality of the Catholic Church

Yesterday Fairfax published an unlikely article by columnist and occasional Catholic Joel Meares. It was titled 'Growing up gay, Catholic school was a haven for me'.

He was thanking the lay teachers at his Catholic school for 'nurturing [his] difference'.

He said: 'These people put into quiet practice so much of what is beautiful about the religion, and did very little preaching as they went.'

With some degree of understatement, he then acknowledged that his story was not everybody's story.

This reminded me of the blog I wrote last month in which I mentioned my personal recollection from 1980s of 'a retired Jesuit preparatory school principal boasting of "sending out" his students to bully peers who were homosexual'.

I put that in the context of a Fairfax report from 2015 that revealed the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne Denis Hart had buried a 2007 report aimed at protecting LGBTQI students in Catholic schools from homophobic bullying.

I don't live in Melbourne and I've only met Archbishop Hart once or twice, but I've heard him characterised as a doctrinal hardliner who is capable of empathy with marginal Catholics.

This is obviously not true of all clerics. Fairly or unfairly, Hart's erstwhile colleague Cardinal George Pell is often regarded as a narcissistic hardliner not capable of showing empathy to marginal Catholics.

Pope Francis has famously shown signs that he wants to 'include' LGBTIQ and other marginal Catholics in the life of the Church. That's what he was about when he proclaimed 2016 the 'Year of Mercy'. But he's also made it plain that he does not intend to change the doctrine.

In other words, the lives of LGBTIQ Catholics will still be 'objectively disordered' in the eyes of Catholic doctrine. But in practice, he wants LGBTIQ Catholics to be encouraged and affirmed, as Joel Meares was in his Catholic school.

Understandably many angry LGBTIQ ex-Catholics are not impressed by this wondrous contradiction. They ask why the Church's doctrine cannot be brought into line with its pastoral practice. They will have nothing to do with the Church until it is, and they will be waiting a long time.

My answer to them is that they should allow themselves to enjoy the blessed duality that is the Catholic Church. The supportive 'haven' Meares' Catholic school was for him as he grew up. Let the actions of the Church's quiet pastoral achievers hold sway over its loud clerics and the declining relevance of particular sections of doctrine.