Archbishop Pell: Ecclesia in Oceania Restates the Importance of Christ

Australian Archbishop George Pell, known for his no-nonsense out-spoken style, took part in the 1998 Synod for Oceania. He spoke to Register correspondent Raymond de Souza about the synod's concluding document and the situation of the Church in Australia, the largest country in Oceania.

How would you characterize Ecclesia in Oceania?

It is very broadly based and there are reasons for that. The situation in Oceania varies greatly, both sociologically and religiously. Religiously, in Australia and New Zealand, the problems are those of decline or stasis. There are massive problems in Papua-New Guinea and the islands, but they are nearly always problems of growth. Many places have increases in vocations and continuing conversions. The document speaks of the “Church at a crossroads,” and I think that would be more true of Australia and New Zealand.

The document is useful — and I now speak in terms of Australia — because it restates Christian essentials: that Christ is the center of our preaching. Now you might say that that is obvious. But there are little pockets where this emphasis on Christ might be seen as a form of patriarchy that should be replaced with a sort of “sophia theology.” There is not much of that, but there is some, especially among the women religious. Without any surprise at all, the document restates the centrality of Christ.

One of the temptations in a place like Australia is not to deny explicitly Church doctrines, but to cover them in a veil of silence and neglect. That will be much, much harder to justify after a document like this, which restates the importance of Christ, of the sacraments, of communion.

Will the document be studied extensively by catechists, religious educators, formators?

It certainly will be in my diocese, and it will be received in different ways in different dioceses. But it will be taken up very seriously.

Ecclesia in Oceania treats the question of inculturation only in the most general way, though it was one of the most discussed issues at the Synod. How do you account for this apparent reticence to offer concrete recommendations?

“Inculturation” is a little bit like “subsidiarity,” and to a lesser extent like “communio.” It's very easy to talk about in the abstract. I think the priority in a place like Australia is to spread a greater love and understanding of the basic Christian teachings. There is always the danger of being swamped by the culture. Catholics are a minority in both Australia and New Zealand, and in many other places in Oceania. The overwhelming priority is to restate the basic Gospel truths and then, to some extent, inculturation will look after itself.

What do you make of the decision to apologize to aboriginal peoples and to victims of priestly sexual abuse? Why did the Oceania bishops opt for such an explicit statement? These problems exist elsewhere, but were not spoken of so directly in other synod documents.

That's probably the way we treat matters in our part of the world. We are not outspoken, but if we have something to say we are more likely to say it than not to. We have made substantial progress in Australia is setting out processes to cope with these scandals — to make provisions for the victims. The Holy Father is just saying what we Australian bishops have been saying, either individually or collectively. I think it was entirely appropriate and quite welcome.

The document does speak about the problem of secularization and the marginalization of the Church, a phenomenon felt more in Australia. How has the Synod three years ago, and the subsequent documents of the Australian bishops, affected this? I am referring to the very robust “Statement of Conclusions” which the Australian bishops issued just after the Synod in 1998.

I think that there has been some genuine progress. A controversial example is that the “third rite” of the Sacrament of Penance [general absolution] has been stopped in Australia, more or less. A significant percentage of people lamented that as a pastoral loss. The fact that that happened is important in itself, as a long-term strategy to preserve the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and it is also evidence of a capacity for discipline in the Church in Australia which might not be the case in some other countries in the world. It is significant in itself and significant for what is says about Catholic life.

Within Australia we are beginning to see different patterns emerge in different parts of the country. For example, some dioceses now have a respectable number of seminarians — there are real signs of hope in Melbourne, Perth, Wagga. In Melbourne, which I know better, giving in the parishes rose by something like a 10% increase across the diocese last year — a small sign, but nonetheless significant. And for the first time in many years, Mass attendance did not decline in Melbourne but showed the tiniest increase. And in some parts of Australia we are now getting more press coverage of Christian claims than we have had in many years. So it would not be correct to say that there are not signs of ecclesial vitality.

I think it would be true to say that the great majority of members of the religious orders were quite unmoved by the “Statement of Conclusions.” In many cases, they are still doing marvelous works, but over the next 20 or 30 years we will see the death of some of our religious orders.

With the youth, there are a number of encouraging signs in a number of dioceses. In Melbourne, they have started a branch of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family. They have 30 students now. The introduction of new religious education texts in Melbourne will make a significant contribution. They will also be introduced in Sydney with some adaptations. It is important not just to have good people, but well-formed young people.

It is a mixed situation, but there is certainly an interplay of light as well as dark.

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