JOHN DONNELLY: Reconciling lifestyle

While Vice Chancellor Pastoral Ministries, Teresa Brierley, is on annual leave, guest writers will contribute a message to the Diocesan Update. This week, Director of the Office of Life and Faith, John Donnelly, shares some reflections.

One of the elements of our humanity that we all share is our desire to strive for perfection, despite our obvious imperfection.  In art and sport, in our relationships and in our work, we seek to realise our dreams, knowing all the while that we will inevitably achieve less than the ideal.  This for me is the most intriguing characteristic of our nature as individuals and as communities.

Whether it’s surfers retelling an epic wave tale or grandparents describing a newborn child, our language often expresses a sense of awe and wonder which goes much deeper than the realities of time, place and matter.  Is this an indication that we are not entirely bound to this earthly world, that we are also part of the divine world?

Maturing as humans usually entails coming to terms with the real and the ideal and some acceptance of the tension that lies between.  We run the risk of remaining unrealistic youth or becoming disillusioned adults.  Balancing this tension is part of developing as whole human beings and building a holistic society.

In National Reconciliation Week, we Australians are once again faced with the shame of our past and the promise of a better future.  This is a tension with which we must struggle while ever there exists a divide between the peoples of this land.  The theme “Our History, Our Story, Our Future” describes the journey we are taking as a nation.

Through parables, prayers and actions, Jesus made it clear that God, his Father, was merciful and that we followers and disciples were required to give and seek forgiveness as part of our relationships with him, with others and with ourselves.  Jesus embodied this defining principle of Christianity with his dying words, “Father, forgive them...” (Luke 23:34)

Christianity has maintained this principle throughout its 2000-year history as a challenge to some of the more basic human tendencies.  There are some who prefer not to acknowledge weakness, failure or error in the attempt to live a ‘no regrets’ lifestyle.  I have encountered those who claim to have made no mistakes because all their choices and actions go to make them who they are today.  Furthermore, they maintain that, given the chance, they would do it all again the same way.

While we Catholic Christians hold a positive view of humanity as part of God’s creation, all of which is described as good, we also acknowledge that the freedom to choose will see us fall short of our best selves from time to time.  Humbly aware of this aspect of the human condition, we have developed a theology of sin, repentance and forgiveness which can assist us to reach our full potential.  The sacrament of penance captures much of our rich Catholic tradition about reconciliation and has much to teach us as individuals and as communities.

For most of my life I have heard the word ‘reconciliation’ within the realm of moral and sacramental theology: a theology that offers us a blueprint with which to address the experience of recognising our shortcomings, wanting to apologise to those we have harmed and repair the damage we have done while seeking to improve our behaviour for the future; so much so that it feels like a lifestyle.

In many ways this is exactly what our nation tries to do each year during National Reconciliation Week and particularly, Sorry Day. For 25 years we have worked on reconciliation and the Apology by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2008 was a significant part of the process.  Since the referendum of 1967, we have attempted to redress the wrongs and improve our treatment of our country’s first people.  Over time our understanding of reconciliation has grown and developed.

Unfortunately we are not all at the same place at the same time and even if we were, human development, especially moral development, does not necessarily follow a linear pattern.  We tend to develop in a ‘one step forward, two steps back’ pattern.  This leads to the all too familiar tension within our communities about when to mourn the past and when to move on.  The communal dimension of both sides of the reconciliation divide means that the very expressions which some find refreshing and liberating, others find tiresome and regressive. 

The Reconciliation Week liturgy in Sacred Heart Cathedral last week used words and symbols sensitive to and significant within the indigenous culture in an attempt to acknowledge the wrongdoings of the past, recognise the hurt and harm caused, apologise to those who suffered and commit to repairing our relationships for a better future.

At the culmination of the liturgy we were invited to put aside our hard-heartedness and take up our light of hope and faith.  Rocks were laid down in the sacred space and candles were lit in their place to symbolise the ‘turn around’ in attitude and behaviour which is characteristic of our Christian faith.

Bishop Bill reminded us of how God has spoken to the ancient peoples of our land through creation, to the Israelites through the prophets and the disciples through Jesus, his beloved son.  In every age God has been calling for the care and justice that will see us thrive as one nation, one people.

Whether in small family units such as a couple or between two major groups within a nation such the first peoples and the settler peoples, true reconciliation is transformative.  It has the potential to bring happiness to a home and peace to a land because it is fundamental to how we relate to each other.

We Christians know this transformation as the coming of the Kingdom of God and this is our mission as the light to the nations.  It is worth acknowledging and celebrating the milestones, such as the Mabo decision in 1992, at the same time as we face the challenges ahead, such as closing the gap on health and life expectancy.  All the while, we need to be caring for people like the families of Bowraville and school teachers and students in Cape York living with the harsh reality of our imperfections.

It says something of the maturity of our country that we can hold the tension of our past failures and our future prospects as we work through the issues of healing and development.  God willing, we shall reach our potential as the Great Southern Land of the Holy Spirit and become a light to the world, showing how diverse peoples can live together in peace and harmony.  In the words of Bishop Bill, Let us pray that the fire of God’s love will consume us and light the path of justice before us.

John Donnelly is Director, Office of Life and Faith, Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

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