Keynote speech by Rev Dr Kevin Lenehan, Catholic Theological College, 2 September 2016.

Thank you for the kind invitation to be with you during this Symposium, part of the 40 year celebrations of the Institute of Faith Education in the Archdiocese. I salute the courage and vision of Archbishop Rush in founding the Institute in 1974, and the work of its governors and staff past and present in offering creative and responsive opportunities in faith and mission formation for a range of cohorts in the Archdiocese and beyond.

As we turn 40 we ask new questions about ourselves, perhaps we become more reflective about who we are and what we’re doing, and so I’m very happy to reflect with you on the topic of this symposium: what is catholic about Catholic identity? It feels different to be a Catholic today than it did 40 years ago, and that’s not simply because we are 40 years older and look back with nostalgic warmth to the experiences and memories of the past. My sense is that Catholic people feel exposed and questioned today – in ways that were not felt so keenly 40 years ago – in the view of society in general, of the media and public opinion, in front of our work mates and colleagues; our friends and associates of other beliefs or no religion, even our own families, children and grandchildren. The stakes of marking ‘Catholic’ on the census paper are high for us today.

Certainly at the organisational level, the church communities we belong to have been under the spotlight of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, and other Parliamentary and local enquires, bringing to light the long history of criminal behaviour of church personnel against children and vulnerable adults in their care, and the inadequate responses of many Christian leaders to these crimes. There is a loss of organisational trust experienced both internally and externally by church communities that is painful for all involved. This loss connects with other experiences of diminishment in our communities (continued decline in participation at Mass and sacraments, church closings and parish clusterings, little take up of church participation by the millennials, reduced financial resources for most dioceses and parishes in the country). And these experiences stand somewhat in tension with signs of health and vibrancy (the lively participation of Catholics born overseas now resident in our parishes; the continuing attractiveness of Catholic schools for some Catholic and other parents; emerging practices of ministry and spiritual life by Catholics at a local level).

But not only at the organisational level, Catholics also feel exposed and under pressure at a personal, existential level, at the level of our own faith commitment. What does it mean for me to hold onto a Catholic identity and its Gospel-inspired worldview in a cultural environment in which that worldview means little and is often misunderstood or dismissed? Most Australians used to be sort of Christian, tacitly at least, and shared the ethical and social goals of the Christian worldview. But that is no longer the case, and those who hold Christian commitments today find themselves called into question by admirable and conscientious others who do not share those commitments. The decision of the Australian Bureau of Statistics to list ‘no religion’ in the first place among options on the 2016 census form strongly implies the Bureau expects that option to attract the majority of respondents this year. To confess the Catholic faith today is to be aware at the same time of those who believe in other religious traditions, those who are nonreligious, and the many Australians who live day by day ‘as though God did not exist’, in a kind of ‘practical secularity’.

We are undergoing what Charles Taylor calls a change in the conditions of belief. The global social dynamics of pluralisation of cultures and worldviews, individualisation and commodification of choice, and detraditionalisation of identities and forms of belonging, powerfully affect the way in which people perceive themselves and the way they belong to world around them. In our context, all identities are at stake: religious, nonreligious, secular; all worldviews are called into question by the presence of those who think, believe, and live otherwise. In our context, identities, including Catholic identities, are challenged to become self-reflective; the unreflective, naïve belonging of cultural Christendom must either mature into the reflective, believing second naïveté of a Christian faith that relates peacefully with other faiths and nonbelief, or stagnate into, on the one hand, a literalistic cultural ghetto-thinking or, on the other, careless indifference to any religious ideas or commitments.

So what might be features of a reflexive Christian identity, maturing in its own uniqueness precisely through entering into identity-forming encounters with others, both believers and nonbelievers? One of simplest ways to talk about identity is to understand it as a coherent narrative about the self that holds together past, present, and future. This is so for both individual and communal subjects of identity. When we modulate this understanding of identity into a Catholic Christian key, it describes a narrative of self that holds together memory (past), presence (present), and mission (future). Let me reflect briefly on each of these dimensions of Catholic identity.


A Catholic identity integrates my personal narrative within the long story of the Judeo-Christian tradition, with its many plotlines, its characters and contexts. Personal identity is received, is something given; humans are structurally related to others from our origins. However, identity is received consciously, intentionally, only by continually appropriating that givenness through engaging oneself in new contexts and encounters. The age of Enlightenment tended to be suspicious of tradition, as something trying to control or oppress the free exercise of our reason and agency. Our culture today tends to commodify memory into ‘experiences’ that can be produced, purchased, simulated, exchanged, or deleted.

Catholic identity embeds me in two great narrated memories or plotlines, which do not originate with me, but into which I find my personal story invited and implicated. The first is the memory of creation, of the personal relationship between the Creator God and the world of created things, including – awesomely – me. The claim that at the heart of all reality exists the act of God who loves into existence a cosmos (or a multiverse of infinite possible universes) and enters into personal relationship with that creation, and in a particular way with the most apt creature-partner for that personal relationship – the human, universal and particular – is also a claim on me, on my origin, my nature, and my destiny, that I cannot avoid or deny once its meaning has begun to grasp me in my particularity. And it is a claim that relates me both to the Creator and to every existing creature, human and nonhuman, in a way that gives rise to my subjectivity, and is the ground of my freedom and fulfilment.

The other great narration of Catholic identity is the memory of salvation, a story which is told within the narrative of creation but brings creation to a new and almost unimaginable identity, a participation in the eternal love and life of the Trinity. The German theologian Johann Baptist Metz has spoken about the dangerous memory of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a memory of both suffering and glory through which we enter into the realities of our world and its people. It is a memory that Christians are called to live out in the midst of all closed narratives that threaten the dignity and integrity of human persons, deny the spiritual and relational nature of people, and set humans over the nonhuman environment in exploitative ways. It is a memory that allows us to hear the cry of the abandoned and forgotten of our modern globalised societies, and to enact a vision of human life and community created in the image and likeness of God.


The ultimate question of Catholic identity, as scripture scholar Luke Timothy Johnson puts it, is whether we think Jesus is dead or alive. If our worldview presumes that he is, in fact, dead then Jesus will be of interest to us a figure of historical enquiry, a source of moral values and perhaps a tragic witness to the tendency of humans to reject and kill those who teach of love and justice. If, on the other hand, our worldview presumes that Jesus is alive, alive indeed in the transfigured existence of the resurrection, himself a source of the divine aliveness present and available to us to participate in here and now, then our story, our very existence, is qualified by and oriented by that presence. Catholic identity is more than a set of values, a code of ethics, an example of heroic living or human achievement; rather, as Pope Benedict put it, it is ‘the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction’ (Deus caritas est, n. 1).

But since he exists now in the mode of God, the presence of the risen Lord is not a demonstrable fact, as is his historical career in first century Palestine. We know him now by faith, not by sight. And like those first disciples we must learn to relinquish our desire to see, touch and hold onto a physical, demonstrable presence and accept rather the word of an other who witnesses to his presence (scriptures), and associate ourselves with the community of others who recognise him in the breaking of the bread (church, sacraments).

And Jesus continues to make known himself and the life-giving spirit he brings in the same manner as he did during the ministry in Galilee and Judea: firstly by calling and forming disciples to be with him (met’ autou) in a shared common life, disciples who learn from the Lord attitudes of confident self-surrender to God in every moment of our lives, and of kenotic service of one other, a costly loving of the other even in the face of rejection and persecution, in imitation of Jesus own behaviour. Then, secondly, the Lord leads his disciples into encounters with others, both friend and enemy, to create relationships of solidarity and concern, especially with those at risk of being lost and forgotten in society. Reflecting on the Beatitudes of St Matthew’s gospel, Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that there is no chance meeting between disciples and others, including nonbelievers and even enemies of the gospel.

‘The disciples view other people only as those to whom Jesus comes… they approach the together with Jesus. Jesus goes ahead of them to other people, and the disciples follow him. Thus an encounter between a disciple and another person is never just a freely chosen encounter between two people, confronting each other’s views, standards, and judgements immediately. Disciples can encounter other people only as those to whom Jesus himself comes.’


For disciples then, real encounter in dialogue with others is not a matter of political correctness, not simply a strategy for social cohesion and deradicalisation, nor just the decent thing to do, but a matter of fidelity to the present and living Lord Jesus, who is leading us into these encounters just as surely as he led Peter and John and James and Mary of Magdala and the other Galilean women and Bartholomew and Paul and Priscilla and Aquila into strange and life-giving encounters with others. For Christian individuals and communities intentional and concrete encounters in dialogue with others, believers and nonbelievers alike, is a matter of fidelity to the Lord’s command of love of neighbour and love of enemy. And we recognise the spiritual importance of the encounter only as we undertake it; we can’t always see it ahead of time. Disciples follow where the Lord goes ahead of us, for he himself is the way and makes the way known to us. The philosopher Martin Heidegger spoke of a ‘waying way’ (der alles bewegende Weg), a way that sets everything on its way and unfolds the journey before us we undertake it. That is the theology of St Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, where the way of the first generation of the church unfolds through the interaction of: an encounter, often unexpected, with a person or situation that calls for attention and response from Jesus’ disciples, the prayerful reflection (including fiery arguments) by the appointed leadership about how to respond in the name and memory of the Lord Jesus, and the prompting of the Holy Spirit whom they discover to be already at work in the situations they encounter.

So the way of the disciple in our pluralising and secularising context can only be the way of discernment, personal and communal, in response to the leading of the living Lord and his Spirit, and in responsibility for forging the encounters of dialogue in which the Lord is calling us to find our identity and mission. It means discerning step by step, in multiple differentiated strategies of engagement with others in our cultural settings, what is the way the Lord Jesus is leading us in our time and place. And surely a particular claim on our attention comes from the more than two-thirds of Australians who live as ‘practical secularists’, both within and beyond the Catholic population, our communities, schools and agencies. Czech philosopher and parish priest Tomas Halik says that in addition to the two traditional dimensions of the church’s mission, those of proclaiming the gospel and of pastoral care for the faithful, a third dimension emerges in the twenty-first century: the mission of ‘accompanying the seekers’ of our post-Christian societies. Our friends and foes who live ‘as though God does not exist’ have a spiritual claim on the witness of our faith and on the resources of our faith communities. Speaking of those who have ‘walked away’ like the two disciples on the Emmaus road, Pope Francis has put this in challenging terms:

We need a Church unafraid of going forth into their night. We need a Church capable of meeting them on their way. We need a Church capable of entering into their conversation. We need a Church able to dialogue with those disciples who, having left Jerusalem behind, are wandering aimlessly, alone, with their own disappointment, disillusioned by a Christianity now considered barren, fruitless soil, incapable of generating meaning…we need a Church capable of walking at people’s side, of doing more than simply listening to them; a Church which accompanies them on their journey…Jesus warmed the hearts of the disciples of Emmaus. I would like all of us to ask ourselves today: are we still a Church capable of warming hearts?

To conclude: the more we find ourselves drawn into this way opened up by the living Lord, who leads us into transformative encounters with others, believers and nonbelievers; the more our hearts and minds are attentive to the ongoing work of discerning this way, this mission, into which we are called here and now, the less anxious we will be about our Catholic identity. Our questions of identity and anxieties for the faith and the church quieten down, will fall into place, in the joyful awareness that the Lord is with us, in memory, in presence, and in mission, and as our hearts are warmed by that presence we will respond with creativity, courage and care to the others we meet in the name of the Lord.

Kevin Lenehan