I HAVE recently had a number of conversations with various people on the subject of the cultural composition of the presbyterate in Australia.
In light of the increasing number of priests from overseas that are ministering in this country, the whole notion of what it means to serve a particular community seems to have been highlighted in many minds.
While the conversations are generally positive, almost invariably at some point someone makes a comment along the lines of: “Bolstering declining vocations to the priesthood using men from the developing world is a far from satisfactory solution for a cosmopolitan, diverse society such as our own.”
I inwardly wince at these words, whenever I hear them.
After all, I study with these “men from the developing world” at the university theological college; they are seminarians and religious.
They are men of profound faith and prayer.
I find the implicit, underlying lack of appreciation for what those men do rather unfortunate.
After all, in a “society as diverse as our own”, does it not make sense to have at least some priests from the same country and culture as the people who actually sit in the pews?
When I look out into the nave of the church on a Sunday, it is not a vast array of red-headed children that I see. Quite the contrary.
I also find the word “cosmopolitan” an interesting one, particularly in this context.
It is not generally a positive adjective, at least in my vocabulary.
It automatically seems to imply a hierarchy between the wealthy, healthy and educated on the one hand, and the poor, ill and disadvantaged on the other.
It insists on a distinction between “us” and “them”.
However true that statement may be about the society around us, it should be a ridiculous assertion for a Church of which St Paul said, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
As Christians, we may live in the world but we are not supposed to adopt its attitudes and mores.
The word “cosmopolitan” is often used in conjunction with another adjective – “tolerant”.
We are continually exhorted by our secular society to be cosmopolitan, tolerant citizens in our diverse, consumerist paradise.
Yet it would seem that many people who consider themselves “tolerant” are merely indifferent.
After all, in our much-lauded “cosmopolitan” and “tolerant” society we permit – encourage – the abortion of an estimated 80,000 children per year.
We pass legislation permitting euthanasia on the basis that people have “lost their dignity” because they can no longer clothe, toilet or feed themselves.
Interestingly, the same argument is not posited of babies.
We do not say a baby girl has lost her dignity because she wears a nappy, is unable to put shoes on and makes a mess when she eats.
We are exhorted to “tolerate” the “humane” and “sensible” solutions provided by our “cosmopolitan” society in these instances, just as we are encouraged to believe that these issues have nothing to do with us and so we ought to stop talking about them.
We are pressured into thinking that these realities do not affect us.
We are constantly fed the erroneous notion that we are all independent individuals.
Yet this is simply not true.
None of us are independent; we are all perpetually dependent on everybody else around us.
We are not isolated nomads; there is nothing I can do (or fail to do) that does not have an effect on those around me, or even on those far away from me.
Our dignity is not related to our independence or where we were born, or where we grew up.
Dignity has nothing to do with whether a man or a woman is sufficiently “cosmopolitan”.
As Christians, our understanding of who we are – of what a human being is – differs significantly from the currently prevailing view in our cosmopolitan society.
We believe human nature is a gift given in connection with Jesus Christ; that what human nature actually is depends upon – and is revealed by – the Incarnation.
We believe that the development of the world and the course of all history has as its goal a union with God which, in the words of Michael Schmaus, “has come to a preliminary climax in Jesus Christ”.
We believe that human nature is wanting its true definition until it finds it in Christ Jesus; that grace builds upon and perfects our human nature, completing it.
Moreover, we believe grace to flow through the sacraments of the Church; the Church which, in Christ, is the mystery of the love of God present in the history of humanity.
And that Church is universal, supra-national, supra-cultural – Catholic.
The Church transcends ethnic and social boundaries; it transcends the distinction between those who consider themselves “cosmopolitan” and those who do not.
The Church is the Mother of all those who call God “Father”, uniting us all as brothers and sisters of Jesus the Christ.
I often think, looking out at the congregation on a Sunday morning, that nowhere else in the world does such a diverse gathering of people come together in faith to worship God.
And this unity in diversity is now, as ever, also reflected in the priests who minister to those congregations.
In fact, viewed in this light, these changes may be the hand of divine providence calling us to reflect on the state of our own faith and view of the Church.
Those “foreign” priests, seminarians or religious have left their homeland to serve the Church here in this secular desert; a tremendous sacrifice for many of them.
The Church is our Mother, not some cosmopolitan, corporatist organisation.
Insofar as we have started to manufacture our own solutions to perceived problems – insofar as we have decided on changes that the Church needs to make, based on our attitudes towards clergy and religious from backgrounds different to our own – we may have lost sight of the fact that salvation was not brought about by a committee.
It was achieved by one man bearing His cross up to Calvary, and dying upon it.
Leaving aside the fact that there are, in fact, many young men entering our seminaries and religious orders in this country – I study with them every day – I simply wish to point out that the sacrifice made by those men from the “developing world” in serving here as priests is a tremendous imitation of that original sacrifice.
The fact that fewer people in our own society seem willing to make that sacrifice ought perhaps to cause us to reflect more deeply on why this might be the case, as well as the state of our own faith.