At the latest count 222,000 people have submitted ideas for the Plenary Council planned for Australia in 2020. That is twice the number of people that can fit into the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Obviously a lot of Catholics have things to say about the future of the Church in this country. It brought up the question for me, What can Columbans contribute to this conversation?
There are many things that we have been gifted with by living and working with people in other countries. I would like to look at four major learnings about the Gospel of Jesus that we have gained through our mission experience. They could be major talking points when we are considering what we are now called to do in our Church.
My first significant learning was that being a Catholic is not just about going to Mass on Sunday and receiving the sacraments.
These are important, obviously, and as a missionary priest in the Philippines they took up quite a lot of my time and effort. Gradually though, as I walked through the squatter areas of Manila or the very poor villages in the rural parts of the country, I was overwhelmed by the suffering and oppression of the people. My heart was burdened by the seeming hopelessness of the whole situation. I came to know strongly that God’s love for the poor is deeply embedded in the life of Jesus. To work to improve their situation and to address the causes of such poverty is to live the Gospel today. The Church of Australia can only become more like the Kingdom of God by coming closer to the poor of Australia and indeed of the whole world. Compassion is God’s gift to us. Let us pray that our lives are transformed by such a love.
Living in Hong Kong was a great experience also. One day I was with another Columban priest as we visited a Buddhist temple. The whole building and the gardens are beautiful. There are a number of images and statues of the Buddha which are great works of art. As we came out of one of the rooms there in front of a statue of Buddha was a woman kneeling with her head touching the ground. She was pouring out her heart. My Columban companion said, “If that is not prayer I do not know what is”. To meet people of other religions is the best way to come to understand that God works in many different ways and in different religions. The Columbans in Pakistan and southern Philippines have many stories to tell of what it means to live with Muslims. The need to help the Christian and Muslim communities to come to know each other is an obvious need for the future of our countries and the whole world. Together we make up 55% of the world’s population.
The third learning that we Columbans came to rather quickly was that the Church is not just the clergy. Especially in places like Peru, Chile and the Philippines the sheer numbers of people in parishes drives home the point. If priests cannot work with lay people and allow them to lead the various communities of which they are part then the Church is going to die. The Korean church has a great story to tell about lay people. It was lay people who brought the message of Jesus to Korea. They had met Christians in Beijing when they were there on government business. As believers in Jesus they spread the Good News when they went back home. The Catholic laity in Australia is a great underutilised resource for sharing the Good News in our country.
Discovering the beauty of other cultures and the difficulty of negotiating all of those cross-cultural challenges means that we as Columbans feel connected to the many people who have come from overseas. Without the Filipinos, the Indians, the Vietnamese and all the other folks new to our country where would the Australian church be? The need to develop a truly intercultural church is blatantly obvious. Are we truly open to learn how to be better disciples of Jesus from the different ethnic Catholic communities?
We are called into the one People of God. Let us pray for each other on the journey.
Fr Trevor Trotter