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Parish Life blog: Lessons from Len

Michelle Coram  |  18 May 2018

The youth room was a run down, slightly grotty space filled with furniture that Vinnies didn’t want. Our suburban Catholic parish made it available to our youth group in the late 1980s. We claimed it as our own by hanging lots of vinyl records from the ceiling and painting murals that reflected more enthusiasm than talent. We were glad to have a space in which we could gather. It was, appropriately enough, an upper room.

When our youth group was told that Archbishop Leonard Faulkner had asked to meet with us during his parish visit we were slightly stunned. We decided further decorating was required and so we filled the blackboard with chalk and wrote in enormous letters ‘WELCOME BIG A!!!!’ Clearly no-one had briefed us on etiquette, the art of ring kissing, or the correct use of the phrase ‘your Grace’ but the Archbishop didn’t seem to mind. The Archbishop laughed and posed with us all in front of our handiwork.

In the mid-1990s, as a youth representative on the Diocesan Pastoral Council (DPC), I had the opportunity to get to know the Archbishop beyond the parish meet and greet. The DPC was set up to be an intentionally representative body – covering the regions of Adelaide, as well as priests, religious, cultural communities and young people. Lay people predominated. Fifty or so people gathered six times a year for at least eight hours at a time. We told stories, we listened, we broke bread and sang. On our residential weekends we also enjoyed a glass of wine. As the writer Hillaire Belloc once said, ‘Where the Catholic sun doth shine, there is always laughter and good red wine…’ It is fair to say that the Catholic sun shone brightly over the DPC.  

I’m still not sure how to describe the DPC. Was it a wannabe democracy, a benevolent dictatorship, a power-sharing arrangement or just uniquely itself? Was it just a talkfest? An unnecessary layer of bureaucracy? A token gesture? For me, it was my first real experience of church beyond the local parish. We heard from all parts of the diocese. Representatives of the Diocesan AIDS Council. Fearless nuns championing restorative justice in prison ministries. The Otherway Aboriginal community.  

I was a newly-minted law graduate in the middle of a fairly bolshie feminist phase when I joined the DPC. I shared my story of the disappointment I’d felt as a child when Pope John Paul II said that girls would no longer be permitted to serve on the altar. I spoke of my sadness at the many gifts lost to the church by restricting ordained ministry to celibate men. I waited to be asked to leave. ‘It is so good you are here, Michelle,’ the Archbishop said to me in response to my rants. I think he meant it, too.  

Churches are regularly criticised for being too insular. Bono has described religion as ‘what happens when the spirit has left the building.’ No such criticism could be made of the Archbishop’s vision for the Archdiocese which he set out in a document called Community for the World. ‘The work you do is important,’ he’d tell me, taking a much kinder approach than Jesus did when he said ‘woe to you lawyers’ in the gospel of Luke.

But Len retired in 2001 and the new Archbishop also retired the DPC for a time. My parish saw so many good priests leave their ministry that we were nicknamed ‘the departure lounge.’ I travelled overseas and spent time at Taizé in France and other international and ecumenical church communities. Taizé was a self-proclaimed ‘parable of community.’ I realised that the phrase resonated with me because I too had been lucky enough to have lived such a parable.  

Yet back in Adelaide I struggled to find a regular Sunday morning church community and I wondered each census whether I should still tick the Catholic box. The election of Pope Francis in 2013 was a turning point in that regard. I can see now that if Francis is likened to Jesus, Len was very much a John the Baptist, foreshadowing the compassionate leadership that was to come. When Francis described his vision of the church as a field hospital after battle, I decided that neither he nor Len would have cared which census box I chose to tick.  

I’ll always yearn for that upper room, a place where I felt I belonged. But I’ll always be grateful that Len made it clear that the church was much bigger than my doubts, questions and frustrations. My lived experiences of church have shaped me, sustained me and continue to inform how I engage with the world around me.  

And for me, for now, that just might just be enough.


Topic tags: church-thepeopleofgod, catholicsocialteaching, australianidentity

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