August 2017

A world desperate for constructive, positive leadership

Our world community needs a prophetic person who will articulate an authentic Gospel way of life with freshness and relevance for the needs and aspirations of this 21st century, says Sister Clare Condon.

BY Clare Condon SGS

In the past few weeks I have participated in two public forums which have given me the opportunity to reflect on leadership today in our church and society.

At the first gathering, a parliamentary interfaith breakfast sponsored by Australian Catholic University at the National Press Club in Canberra, the leaders of Australia’s three major political parties spoke eloquently and with conviction about the Australian and religious values that have formed them. Yet somehow, their rhetoric seemed somewhat hollow to me, particularly since we, as a nation, have not been able to come to a decision about the recognition of the First Peoples of the Nation in the Australian Constitution; nor have we been able to free refugees and asylum seekers from the agony of offshore detention.

The second gathering I attended, an eConference sponsored by the Broken Bay Institute, explored the topic “Leadership in Times of Chaos: The Hope of Pope Francis”.

I wonder, does Pope Francis offer an alternative model of leadership in a troubled world?

He lives a simple lifestyle based on the Gospel of Jesus Christ – as far as is possible for the leader of the Catholic Church, situated in the Vatican. He proclaims a message consistent with his lifestyle. He has visited refugees at Lampedusa, washed the feet of a young female Muslim prisoner and set up a commission to attend to child sexual abuse in the church. This world leader travels in a simple Fiat and builds showers for Rome’s homeless people. Like Jesus, he seeks to lead a community, the church, which reaches out to the poor.

Through words and actions like this, Pope Francis attracts the attention of a world community – a world that is desperate for constructive and positive leadership. His model is unequivocally Jesus of the Gospel who proclaimed two great commandments: love of God and love of neighbour. He is an 80-year-old man, yet Pope Francis is the most followed world leader on social media. His authenticity speaks to these millions, young and old.

Pope Francis’ message is always consistent and Gospel-based. At the World Meeting of Popular Movements in the church, held earlier this year in California, he commended participants for the simple task of building bridges “that can overcome the walls of exclusion, indifference, racism, and intolerance”. He went on to say: “The grave danger is to disown our neighbours. When we do so, we deny their humanity and our own humanity without realising it; we deny ourselves, and we deny the most important Commandments of Jesus”.

I ask myself: what do his witness and words say to us about the national and local church of Australia?

The Catholic Church has been challenged to its very core by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Catholics, in record numbers, are voting with their feet by staying away from Sunday religious rituals. Many people are rejecting traditional church teachings. The results of the recent National Census present significant challenges to a church struggling to be relevant in a modern secular environment.

Let me offer a few suggestions which I believe are uncomplicated Gospel values that Pope Francis seeks to re-install into the very heart of the Catholic community.

I think we need leadership which shifts the theological emphasis from certitude to faith, from stagnation to a people on a pilgrim journey; leadership that embraces the giftedness of each person in the life of the community and acknowledges the needs of the people with whom it engages, especially the poor.

Pope Francis offers us the idea of a synodal church where the entire People of God participate in church decision-making. If it is to be credible, the church must become the place where the mission of Jesus is exercised. It is in the face-to-face encounters where the Parable of the Prodigal One finds its true expression, where the encounter with Christ takes place, and where living faith is expressed.

I think we need leadership that is willing and able to enter into a ‘new dialogue’, a dialogue of trust and mutual respect. As theologian Gregory Hillis said in an article last year on the ABC’s Religion and Ethics website, “throughout his papacy, Pope Francis has stressed the pre-eminence of dialogue”.

“In a speech in July 2013, the pope said, ‘When leaders in various fields ask me for advice, my response is always the same: dialogue, dialogue, dialogue’. And in his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis exhorts believers to walk along ‘the path of dialogue’, and proceeds to enumerate the ways in which the church and individual Christians can embark on this path.”

I think there needs to be a spirituality of letting go – letting go of all the unnecessary accretions that, for many in the church in past years, have defined the Catholic Church, and which are now obstacles to faith.

In order to know what is truth and what is moral and ethical, there needs to be genuine discernment – both personal and communal. As a Jesuit, the pope has a lifetime experience of the value of discernment in the Christian tradition and in his own life. One way in which the church has to be different from how the corporate world functions, is how it approaches decision-making. People in the Australian Church want more than consultation: they desire genuine participation and collaboration; they call for genuine listening and discernment.

I think we desire a capacity to search for a new universal solidarity in the face of exclusion, demonisation and rejection.

The church needs to ask the question: who is welcome at the table of Eucharist and who is excluded? The world is experiencing the greatest displacement of people through wars and conflicts. There has never been such a tragic flow of refugees and asylum seekers in our world. Here in Australia, our response to this crisis is shameful to say the least. For Christians, who we invite to the table of the Eucharist and to the table in our own homes, is the test of authentic living of the Gospel message. Both invitations are inseparable as acts of hospitality. Is not Pope Francis an authentic leader as he seeks to find a home for all migrants and as he builds showers for the homeless on the streets of Rome?!

I think we need to be willing to have a generosity of spirit, a joyful outlook on life, an openness to those on the edge, and a welcoming of alternative ideas. Surely such an approach is within the ambit of all of us, as opposed to a culture of chaos, which breeds meanness, special status, pessimism, self-absorption, consumerism and narrow-mindedness?

Let us search for a spirituality which honours those on the periphery, which steps out from the confines of old structures and reaches out to learn from, and to love, all God’s people.

In 1981, philosopher Alastair MacIntyre wrote in his book, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, that the world in our times desperately needed another St Benedict. Perhaps 36 years on, his call is still valid.

Today our world community needs a prophetic person, a community perhaps, who will articulate an authentic Gospel way of life with freshness and relevance for the needs and aspirations of this 21st century.

Pope Francis might just be that Gospel leader in this time of chaos and confusion – who could hopefully lead a rebirth of the values inherent in Christian leadership. Our tired world cries out for the simplicity of the Gospel message. For me, Pope Francis epitomises the simplicity of the Gospel message and he knows the experience of being invited by God to discipleship. He constantly calls each person to pursue peace both within one’s own heart and within the world community.

May his call echo in our own lives and may we let the Gospel be our guide.

Clare Condon

Sister Clare Condon is a former Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She served as leader from September 2005 until September 2017. In 2013, Clare was awarded a Human Rights Medal by the Australian Human Rights Commission in recognition of the Good Samaritan Sisters’ work with asylum seekers, Indigenous Australians and the victims of domestic violence. In 2022, Clare was awarded an Honorary Doctor of the University from Australian Catholic University.

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