5th June 2006
My dear Catholic people
Since September 11th, 2001, hardly a day has passed when one of the worlds major religions has not been in the news. The dramatic resurgence of Islam into the western consciousness has thrown us onto a steep learning curve about its beliefs, practices and outlook on the non-Muslim world. One thing we have leaned fastest is that Muslims are not prone to tolerate from any quarter blasphemy against what they hold sacred.
Now another religious shock has hit the western consciousness. At the moment a lot of people who would not talk much about Christianity are finding themselves in family and workplace discussions about Jesus Christ and the Church. A successful if unoriginal novel turned into a film based on blasphemous, bizarre and unfactual claims about both, has generated a whole industry of books, articles and websites aimed at thrashing out the truth. Dan Browns weird travesty of Christianity, and in particular its central stock, the Catholic Church, comes as a timely wake-up call. Even error has its uses.
We have been rudely awoken to the fact that over the past forty or so years a sizeable majority of Australians have become increasingly unable to show a working acquaintance with the basic facts about the Christian claim and the reasonableness of that faith. We have largely lost touch with the foundations, once common to both Catholics and Protestants across the old Australia.
Fewer people indeed can still tell the difference between true and false claims in religious, or even historical matters. Research shows that many people do accept Browns false picture of Christ and the Church. They fall for his conspiracy theory. While this is disturbing, it is not anything new. St Irenaeus, the second-century bishop defending Christianity against the lies and slanders of his own day, remarked that error is craftily decked out in an attractive dress, so as, by its outward form, to make it appear to the inexperienced (ridiculous as the expression may seem) more true than the truth itself.
All the great moments of advance in Christian history have been spurred on by a challenge or a danger. Recent events and controversies leave us in no further doubt that one of these moments is upon us now. To pretend otherwise is to shirk our responsibilities as members of the Church and fail in our mission to the world of the third millennium.
While adults must fend for themselves, it is our young people who are the most vulnerable to the swirl of fantasy that characterises the world of virtual reality that passes their way, and to the expert indoctrination with which they are targeted by marketers and organisations that are funded to influence their thinking and habits on everything from consumer goods to safe sex.
Even these days some people still have the idea that young Catholics have been indoctrinated by the Church, and therefore should be exposed to other points of view to help them develop their critical faculty. But it is really the other way round: most are deeply indoctrinated with the outlook of relativism that would put all religious ideas and spiritualities from reincarnation to resurrection, from karma and cosmic consciousness to Christ, on a level field. The time has passed when one can assume that, apart from a small minority of family-formed young people, they have anything like a cohesive and connected understanding and practice of the Catholic faith. Nothing can be taken for granted any more. The further one ascends to the secondary years and beyond the more evaporated it becomes. The faith and teaching of Jesus Christ is too often discounted even before it is known and understood. If you wonder why there are so few young faces at Sunday Mass this largely explains the reason.
It also explains a central element of what Pope John Paul emphasised in his constant urging to a New Evangelisation. It means a turn-around in the way we approach by word and action the communication of the faith. The recent past when some Catholics seemed to be putting all their efforts into seeing how much of the faith we could fit in without offending the sensibilities of modern non-believers or even opponents, has gone for ever.
Meanwhile, energetic groups of young Catholics who know where they stand and are determined to make a difference are out there having a go, and with real effect. The tertiary Australian Catholic Students Association (www.catholicstudents.org.au) have a website that lifts the heart with its full-on faith.
Our own Diocesan Pastoral Council is at present pursuing the implications of the New Evangelisation for our diocese, and I urge parishioners to form up with Council representatives to get on board with ideas that they are circulating from our recent Yamba conferences.
Central to the future advance of the faith in Australia will be the new apologetics now taking shape, of which all the principals and religion teachers in our schools, and catechists in RCIA courses, will have to be committed and articulate masters. The catechesis, at least in the provision of new texts, is in place. The religion text from kinder to year 12 of the series To Know Worship and Love, prescribed for every classroom in the Diocese of Lismore, is now complete. All levels accurately convey the teaching of the Church based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The final volume just published is also coordinated with the new Compendium of the Catechism. This book, Catholic Studies for Senior Secondary Students, and its companion, Catholic Ethical Thinking for Senior Secondary Students, are finely tuned and presented at the level of our Year 11/12 students, and would make very useful modern study books for parents at home as well.
Lets appreciate the advances we are making in developing a new school and adult catechesis and an attractive apologetic argument for the Catholic world view one that is up-to-date, sophisticated, and interactive in the ways we announce, explain and defend the good news of Jesus Christ in teaching and learning, in print and on the internet. It is not by force and violence that Christians respond to blasphemy or the attacks of secularists who wish we would go away: it is with the power of faith and reason, of well formed conviction flowing from truth and love.
Grace and peace be with you, and my blessing in Christ.
+ Geoffrey Jarrett
Bishop of Lismore.