Serving communities with courage and compassion: Francis Sullivans delivers opening keynote

Source: Melbourne Catholic; Communications Office

“Taking the side of impoverished and disenfranchised people is not an option for Gospel-inspired organisations. It is a mainstay of the mission,” said Francis Sullivan, former CEO of the Catholic Church’s Truth Justice and Healing Council for the opening keynote address of the biennial Catholic Social Services national conference, ‘Serving communities with courage and compassion’.

More than 200 community leaders gathered for the three-day conference at the Catholic Leadership Centre in East Melbourne, which seeks to discuss a range of key issues facing society and the Catholic service sector, and explore new ways for the sector to address social challenges and create a more just society.

Sullivan presented a challenging overview of the state of the Church in Australia, alongside an uplifting affirmation of “good works by good people for the good of others.” According to Sullivan, Catholic social services’ function as aiding society’s most vulnerable is an inherently Catholic exercise.

As former CEO of the national body that oversaw the Church’s engagement with the 2015-17 Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Francis Sullivan explored the reputational damage not only suffered by the Church in a post-Royal Commission world but also suffered by service organisations with no direct link with the abuse scandal.

The keynote, titled ‘Margin Call—The Risk of Integrity’, echoes Pope Francis’ call to reach out to people at society’s margins while also describing a term from the finance industry.

“When the value of an account has fallen below agreed levels,” it results in “a depleted company, with its reputation damaged, its product on the slide and its management under notice,” Sullivan said, drawing parallels to the situation the Church finds itself in following the abuse scandal.

“Through gross mismanagement and blatant deception, the institutional Church has squandered the goodwill of the overwhelming majority of its members,” Sullivan said. “It has debased the value of the Church in the broader community.” He went on to lament that some in positions of authority and influence in the institution “remain on a course that holds little hope for any correction in the near term.”

Sullivan went on to address how, in the context of the Church’s current standing, we can manage a damaged position in society and embrace healing, change, and “an enlivened spirituality that both sustains us and motivates our engagement with the realities of life.”

“We need to change the terms of engagement,” Sullivan said, laying a challenge at the feet of social services leaders and Church authorities alike to embrace the radical and missional nature of the Gospel message. “If the Church is not primarily missionary, then it will become ossified… out of touch and out of time. In a society that regards religion as just another lifestyle choice at best, we need to dream of an engaged, vibrant and relevant Church that is reflected not just in its outreach but in its manner, disposition and basic humanity.”

As an example, he explained how the abuse scandal revealed the Church as falling short in its treatment of victims. “Only a Church that walks along with victims and risks becoming a victim with them can resonate with the spirit of Jesus and the dream of the Gospel,” he argued.

Unless we break “the shackles of entitlement and cronyism,” and become inclusive and more representative in our decision making, we risk losing any claim to renewal and reform, Sullivan said, before bemoaning a lack of significant changes to the “culture of clerical entitlement” within the institutional Church.

group of people sitting on red chairs

“Ours is a comfortable, quite conventional Church. We are very much a part of the socially conservative infrastructure of society, upholders of traditional values, lifestyles and conventions. We bleach the Gospel of its radical nature and we tame its spirit to fit our narrow vista. I think we are called to be so much more. Not mere subjects to an institution or an organised religion, but rather active participants in stretching our sense of Church and ministry.”

He addressed numerous social challenges close to the heart of many including income inequality, gender equality, LGBT issues in the Church, and economic justice. “To be truly Catholic is to find unity across differences. It is to acknowledge that everyone is being made in the image of God.”

“This is our true heart… one that hears the cries of the poor, the downtrodden and the forgotten. Our hearts have been broken and well that they have. For only broken hearts can hear the word of God.”

Sullivan remained hopeful the wider Church could learn the lessons offered by the Royal Commission by having the courage and compassion to live our values, to embrace integrity and “respond in a radical fashion to the call of the Gospel”. He encouraged listeners to move to the margins, and listen to the voices of those who stand there as “prophets of honesty and hope. They deserve our heartfelt respect and we their forgiveness,” he concluded. 

Read the full keynote, here.

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