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Issue Date:  March 4, 2005

Hope from Down Under


When I left the United States to give talks in Australia, things in churchland looked grim. Fortunately, the Australians brought a sea breeze and a white sun -- to say nothing of a welcome dose of humor. The country is vast; parish ministry is understaffed. Consequently, the Australians have developed a healthy realism about things churchy. As Aussie Ellen Geraghty wrote in The Mix: “I feel that we often lose sight of our goal, which is to help souls to heaven, not to hinder them with politics and terror tactics and other nasties.”

Amen. Heartened by the casual attitude toward church rules, I asked one nun what accounted for the difference from the law-abiding United States. In reply, she laughed: “You’re the children of Puritans. We’re the children of convicts.”

The U.S. bishops have responded to the priest shortage with various forms of denial. The Australians, facing the same issue, have accommodated to reality. One bishop was sensitive to the needs of the people when their beloved pastor, at age 47, developed an inoperable, fatal brain tumor. He thought it more important to give parishioners stability in crisis than to follow strict rules.

Recognizing that a sister was already “spiritual leader” of the community, the wise bishop asked her to continue her role. Furthermore, he expanded it to include homilies, baptisms and funerals. Delighted with this decision, the people turned out in record numbers for Sister’s celebrations.

Their response shouldn’t surprise us. Other nuns in the Outback staff ecumenical faith communities. Australians are rightly proud of Mary MacKillop, a brisk, practical woman who founded the Josephites, started 23 schools for isolated children, created refuges for women leaving jail, the aged, alcoholic and incurably ill.

Unsurprisingly, she was persecuted by misplaced authority and excommunicated in 1871 because she wouldn’t allow the bishop to put her sisters under his control. Yet she encouraged them, “Let us, if we cannot agree with what our poor dear old bishop requires, at least be humble in the way we refuse.” She described her own censure: “I do not know how to describe the feeling, but … I was intensely happy and felt nearer to God than I had ever felt before.” With a twist of historical irony, she will soon become Australia’s first canonized saint.

I was privileged to join an outstanding community of sisters for the golden jubilee of one member, who had spent 25 years teaching in Thailand. I wondered if they would bring in the “magic man,” the ordained celibate who hadn’t been a part of their bonding, for the Eucharist?

I should’ve trusted their wisdom. They gathered reverently and beautifully to tell stories, sing, bless and break bread, share wine and honor their friend. No one named it Eucharist but everyone recognized Christ’s presence among two or three gathered in his name.

Later that week, I visited a parish where for 18 years a priest and two sisters have lived together and led the community. The living arrangement reduces the priest’s loneliness, and he vacuums for Friday housecleaning. “When the arch rings up and tells Rob to do something, he says, ‘I’ll ask Jane and Mary,’ ” explains one-third of the trio.

The local public and Catholic schools share a campus, so neither has to foot big expenses alone. Parents of the public school children voted that all kids wear the same uniform -- minimizing competition and comparison. Both groups celebrate national holidays together, with no grumbling about the Catholic prayers.

Those who travel know it doesn’t much matter after a while whether one drives on the right or left side of the road, puts the electric blanket over oneself or under (the “wooly underlay”), celebrates Christmas or Pentecost with poinsettias. So too with church: As long as we hold fast to the big beliefs, smaller matters can be handled differently as unique situations demand. When leaders trust their people to be adults, we can all get on with the business of bringing good news.

Caveats, of course. I didn’t visit every parish and perhaps I saw only more enlightened Catholics. But I enjoyed the rare freedom to speak without glancing over my shoulder, worried that doctrinal police might turn me in. The tattle telling that demoralizes U.S. speakers doesn’t exist there because “it’s bad form to spill on your mates.” Such a climate frees one to think more creatively, approach problems more realistically, reduce some divisions and let the Spirit breathe.

Kathy Coffey’s newest book, Women of Mercy, was recently published by Orbis Books.

National Catholic Reporter, March 4, 2005

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