Peter Joseph, AM October 2013 Speech to Catalyst for Renewal Sydney


Tonight, I’m here to talk about courage. It comes in many forms. You have shown a lot of courage just by turning up to listen to a slow-speaking Queenslander talking about the Jesuits one and about leadership. By the end of the night I might also be calling on your forbearance, patience and mercy!

Then there is the courage of those ten Catholics who 20 years ago on next year met to talk about renewal in the church and chose the metaphor of a catalyst as the way they wanted to work for renewal. I salute them and your Executive Director Michael Whelan and congratulate you firstly, on the work that you do as honest brokers of conversation and genuine enablers for change and secondly, that you do so with love and not confrontation and antagonism as would be so easy to do, especially in the light of a church that has shown massive fault lines that have been developing for decades.

While I don’t know him, I have huge admiration for one of your Patrons, Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, a true exemplar of your values, a speaker of truth to power and a champion of change.

You generously asked me in July of last year to share a platform with my good friend, Geraldine Doogue, to speak on the topic of Why I Remain A Catholic.

For me, that became a real journey of exploration of the mind and the heart, a testing of the spirit and an exploration of the soul. I expected something profound, secret even, as someone who, growing up, spent so much time watching from the pews!

What I found was something profoundly simple: a four letter word …. L.O.V.E

The older I get, the more I am convinced that the essence of it all is ‘loving kindness’, and that is the context for a good life.

Hardly surprisingly, it is the essence of all religions. It is also very much an essential underpinning for those who display moral courage.Look at Mandela. Look at Nehru. Look at Martin Luther King.

I rather suspect that for most of us, experience speaks louder than by rote catechism. I lost my mother at the age of five after childbirth. We lost a son, Michael, seven years ago when he was thirty and took his own life after fighting the Black Dog of mental illness intermittently from a young age. Two of my sisters died relatively young from breast cancer and post-operative heart complications.

Over a lifetime, these major events in my life have certainly given me plenty to reflect on and seek discernment about, sharing everything at critical times with my Earth Angel wife, Nettie, in the deepest parts of our being. What I have learnt is that humankind has learnt a thing or two about living and dying over the centuries and that ultimately, the idea of the journey, the pilgrimage and walking together with love and compassion and hope is what fortifies the spirit and gives us the courage to embrace life and the kingdom within and without, and, as they say, carry on.

It is strangely faith reaffirming.

I reckon JC worked it out two millennia ago when he said there are only two commandments: one, that we love our God – in other words, that however defined there is something out there greater than ourselves; and two, that we love our neighbour as ourselves.

The golden rule.

He went on to say according to the gospels that all of the law, not some of the law, is contained in those two commandments. He was crucified for sticking to those two Commandments.

Both are grounded in that four letter word, ‘love’, and yet over the centuries, religions have managed to complicate and overlay that simple teaching with dogma and fear that is mind-boggling, not to mention correlated to the exercise of power, the very thing that Christ railed against as did so many other prophets of both genders from across the main religions.

Will once again the Church be able to reform itself based on those two simple but all-embracing commandments or will it, in an era of massive change in just about every aspect of life on planet earth, be able to find a ‘new balance’ rather than witnessing its own moral edifice collapsing ‘like a house of cards’?

These are not my words but the words of the Argentinian Jesuit, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who is increasingly sounding and acting like a catalyst and enabler for renewal of our ancient and, in many ways, crumbling church.

If that sounds alarmist, then just look at the pews and note who’s not there.

Exactly! So many of our children and friends, and most people under the age of… well, you do the math!

And yet our glimpse of hope dares us to dream that perhaps Jorge Mario Bergoglio might just usher in more change than has occurred in hundreds of years.

More about that later

Another lesson in courage for me came when Nettie and I and friends visited the World War 1 battlefields of the Somme four years ago.

We went to find the gravesite of Nettie’s Uncle, Albert Crothers, who was killed in 1916 at the age of 26 in the battle of Pozieres. We were the first family members to visit in some 90 years.

We found the extraordinarily well cared for war cemetery in the middle of a pretty French farm field. It was quite small with about 700 grave sites.

Poppies were in bloom along the edges, and along the country roads here and there on the perimeter of the newly ploughed farm fields, we found copper bullets.

The German bullets were iron and long since rusted away.

There was no one around except our guide and six of us pilgrims.

Nettie found Albert’s grave and, being the gardener that she is, planted poppies and a tiny Aussie flag. We recited poetry from World War 1, and I then produced out of my pocket a small bag of Aussie soil from a family gravesite in Geraldton where Albert came from. I slowly and gently poured it on Nettie’s garden.

Yes, we all shed a tear. The headstone was simple with just one extra line beyond name rank and battalion.

The inscription was added after the war at a cost to the family of two shillings.

It read simply ‘His duty nobly done’.

That story and that inscription are for Nettie and me sacred and unforgettable, as are the stories of the sixty one thousand brave young Australians who died in that war to end all wars. They were virtually all volunteers. They all showed immense physical courage and love of country and of their mates.

It was a holy moment Nettie and I shall never forget.

‘The war to end all wars.’

The papal pronouncement to end all doubt.

History teaches us painful humility

Those heroic tales of personal courage and sacrifice on the Western Front and at Gallipoli were not matched, by and large, by the politicians and generals who sent our troops there.

You do the math. The math of human misery.

Later in the war, when generals like Monash were appointed on merit and not status, the culture and strategies changed leading to victory for the Allies.

A great leader can change the course of history.

Sometimes, that great leader has to change the mindset of his – in our church, it’s sadly always ‘his’ – of his died-in-wool fellow officers.

I think you’ll sense the direction my thoughts lead me.

Pope Francis is fighting another kind of war.

It appears he is seeking to bring glasnost and perestroika in the exact meaning of those words to the Vatican.

In a fascinating article by the highly respected UK Financial Times columnist, David Gardner, a Stonyhurst Jesuit educated alumnus, educated by, among others, Mel Morrow who is here tonight, the informed Gardner observed:

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, almost unknown to the world before his ascent this spring to the chair of Saint Peter after the sudden abdication of Pope Benedict XVI, is creating a real stir in the Roman Catholic Church. After long decades of papal intolerance that tried to silence debate and snuff out the flames of dissent, Pope Francis has just called for a ‘ new balance’ to prevent the two millennia-old Church collapsing ‘like a house of cards’. A discourse unheard inside the Roman hierarchy since the Second Vatican Council convened by Pope John XXIII in 1962 is being revived by this Argentine Jesuit.

The impassioned debates that fizzed and then fizzled through the 1960s and 70s – on everything from clerical celibacy to liberation theology – were shut up in the deep freeze of dogma by Popes John Paul II and Benedict. Francis has now opened the freezer. Nobody knows how these ideas will fare once they thaw. But everybody senses they challenge conservative power – from the Curia, the Vatican bureaucracy, to the reactionary Opus Dei order favoured by John Paul and Benedict – in ways that could change the face of the Church.

Quite how this has happened is a mystery.

Francis’s predecessors certainly had plenty of time for branch stacking, and Pope Francis himself long reputed a conservative, looks like, as Gardner says, an unlikely harbinger of perestroika and glasnost.

But the signs of change keep accumulating.

A lot of the signs have been symbolic starting with his dramatic ‘Buena Sera’ as his first words as an elected Pope then asking the faithful to pray for him. This touch of Christ-like humility saw him then arriving at the checkout to pay his hotel bill, ringing home to Buenos Aires to cancel his newspapers, calling personally through the switchboard to speak to the general of the Jesuits, and choosing to live with others rather than being isolated in the regal Papal apartments.

And of late, the symbolism also seems to be giving way to substance.

In a long and quite remarkable interview with Jesuit publication Civilta Cattolica, Catholic Civilisation, Francis compared the Church to a ‘field hospital after a battle’ where the doctors were obsessing about cholesterol and blood sugar levels instead of the major trauma of so many of the patients. He dramatically stated that ‘We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.’

Even his enemies might concede that this is a start to the civilised conversation he clearly intends to open.

I put the question of form and substance to Tim Fischer at the launch of Tim’s book Holy See, Unholy Me.

Tim, a great character and a canny observer who predicted the resignation of Benedict said ‘Look at the appointments Francis is making’.

A good example is his new Secretary of State, Archbishop Pietro Parolin, who is seen as a smart, savvy diplomat whose mandate includes reforming the Vatican Bank and restructuring the Curia

Some task!

His historically neutral, though, to some, alarmingly radical observation that celibate priests are a clerical tradition not an immovable doctrine, suggests that the boss might have a sense of historical perspective and consequent vision.

The evidence is growing almost weekly that with Francis we are witnessing something pretty special and that as The Tablet editor put it the other day. ‘Francis has pressed the re-set button’.

Simon Longstaff, my colleague and good friend at the St James Ethics Centre recently wrote an insightful paper on The Twin Foundations of Leadership.

Simon argues, and I agree with him, that in business we invest too much into building and maintaining the infrastructure of management and control. This stems partly from fear of liability and hunger for certainty. It is a model of the ‘finely regulated system’ and contains within its own seeds of failure.

Rather than eliminating risk, such a system increases systemic risk by reducing the capacity of any single actor to make good decisions when the system is sub-optimal in its performance – in other words, normally human, as we all are.

The comparison with the Church is powerful, not least in the Roman institution’s obsession about dogma and rules, and its attempt to silence and punish any and all who don’t tow the line.

This is nothing more ironically than a Kremlin-like approach to the world – a disposition rooted in fear and fortressed by rules to protect the bureaucrats at HQ

A model of love and Christ-like kindness and love it most emphatically it is not. The faithful simply won’t stand for it.

Ask Bishop Bill Morris.

Ask Fr Bob Maguire.

On which side is the law of love and on which side dogma?

To me Bishop Bill and Fr Bob are standard bearers for another of Francis’s observations: ‘The ministers of the gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people.

When I was Chairman of St Vincent’s Hospital, the sisters had been approached by government following the NSW Drug Summit in the nineties to see if they would run a supervised drug injecting room trial at Kings Cross where about one hundred mostly young people were dying every year from drug overdoses and dirty needles.

After much discernment, consultation and advice including tacit approval from Cardinal Clancy, the Sisters in an act of loving kindness and compassion said ‘Yes’.

Weeks later, Rome intervened and shut it down following representations to the then Cardinal Ratzinger from self-appointed doctrinal enforcers including the then Archbishop of Melbourne George Pell and John McCarthy the current Ambassador to the Holy See succeeding Tim.

The reason?

Wait for it.

‘The Sisters would be giving scandal!’

Scandal not unlike Christ’s scandal of mingling and ministering to sinners as they were then perceived.

Francis could have been talking about the Sisters and St Vincents when he said earlier this month, ‘It is amazing to see the denunciations for lack of orthodoxy that come to Rome’.

Fortunately for us at St Vincent’s, ecumenism triumphed over the Vatican politburo, and the Uniting Church took over the difficult mandate.

Ten years on, the supervised injecting room is still there and as a consequence it has probably saved many hundreds of young people from premature death, and thanks be to God and the Uniting Church, many of these victims are now drug free.

Also in Simon Longstaff’s construct of leadership he defines it as ‘the exercise of influence in order to bring about the willing consent of others in the ethical pursuit of missions’.

I think that’s an insight Francis would like.

It is actually the Australian Defence Force definition of leadership with an emphasis on influence and consent – in other words … attitude and culture.

Ben Roberts Thompsen, our Aussie VC winner and top SAS man, said two weeks ago that ‘culture trumps strategy everyday of the week’

Francis should enlist him!

Let’s face it: individuals, corporations, armies or churches prefer the comfort of the familiar even if the familiar is outmoded and dangerous.


Those who would lead must be prepared to challenge patterns of unthinking customs and practice which typically define the environment in which they work.

Unthinking custom and practice will expose the organization to risk if not ruin.

It is against this background that one of the defining roles of a leader is to engage in and foster acts of ‘constructive subversion’ which undermines unthinking custom and practice.

Such acts of subversion are not destructive because the task of a good leader is to help each organization to become more like the thing it says that it wants to be.

To do any of this, not least to question the often long-established precedent of custom and practice, is to invoke the disapproval of those with an investment in the status quo. Whatever the organisational structure, there is likely to be a controlling majority who protect the familiar and who will resist those who seek to probe and expose its limitations.

Francis, please take heed.

That is why leaders need to draw so heavily on a reserve of moral courage.

Effective leaders understand that there is more to be achieved than a few beautiful sparks arising from the embers of their career.

While there will be times when a stand must be made as a matter of principle, inspired leaders will draw on their capacity for strategic vision by sensing, by seeing how and when to pursue a particular cause of action.

This moral courage (like all virtues) requires a leader to discern the ‘golden mean’ that exists between the twin poles of rash and foolhardy action and the procrastination of the coward.

So what do we see if we apply the Ethics Centre template of Twin Foundation of Leadership to Pope Francis?

It is early days, but there is already sufficient evident to know that under Francis it will certainly not be more of the same.

What we are seeing here is a reinvigoration of Vatican 2, not literally but as a moral force touching hearts as well as minds.

Notwithstanding the efforts of a Pole and a German to keep this charism in the freezer, we may be witnessing an Argentinian who sees a thawing out as essential if the Church is to regain credibility, respect and relevance in a materialistic and hardening world.

Who better than a Jesuit by the name of Francis who seven hundred years ago was asked to reinvent and heal a broken Church?

To have a preferential option for the poor allied with a redefinition of the ecumenical spirit could not only reboot the conversation within the Church; it may just reset the conversation around the world to one of inclusion, tolerance and respect for others.

We all know what the big issues are around celibacy, women in the Church, abortion, acceptance of homosexuality as a natural desire and the consequent issue of gay marriage.

History tells us not to expect significant doctrinal change in one magical moment and maybe not at all, but perhaps – just perhaps – as the conversation continues and as the pope and the hierarchy listen to the church (after all, true conversation in predicated on honest exchange and respectful listening) then perhaps, ‘perhaps’ with a capital ‘P’… perhaps we will slowly unpack what is doctrine, what is tradition and what is merely fearful ignorance

And then, who knows?

We may even in our lifetime experience some modern miracle: the church in real and life-affirming conversation, guided and blessed by Christ’s two basic commandments of love.

In the light of that working of the Holy Spirit, we might then experience structural change the likes of which have not been seen for hundreds of years.

After all, love conquers all!

It requires faith, hope and perhaps a certain naievity to believe these things are possible, but with Francis the First as Francis the Second, then, like Vatican 2, there is a moral force and moral courage to carry through with the constructive subversion to challenge the patterns of unthinking custom and practice which we are all so frustratingly used to.

As catalysts for renewal, we can be justly proud for what we do and why we do it and in fighting the good fight, perhaps our day our day will finally come

Francis himself, it seems, wants to spend himself heroically in ensuring we do not have more of the same, and he will be loved for that, and I suspect his epitaph could say with affection and truth ‘His duty nobly done.’

And we will bless him.

The laity finally blessing the clergy. Just as in St Peter’s Square on that remarkable evening in May this year

My friends, we may well be catalysts for a miracle.

Peter Joseph, AM October 2013 Speech to Catalyst for Renewal Sydney

February 12 2014

His Excellency Most Reverend Paul Gallagher

PO Box 3633

Manuka ACT 2603

Your Excellency,

We write to request a special favour. We represent a group of Catholics who wish to support the Church and promote renewal through conversation. To that end, we organize a series of events each year.

In October 2013, we had a particularly memorable evening which included a wonderful presentation for Mr Peter Joseph AM.

We asked Peter if he would be so kind as to give us the text of that presentation so we could send it to the Holy Father.

A copy of the text and an accompanying letter from Peter is enclosed.

Would it be possible to have this forwarded to his Holiness?

In Christ,

Kevin Grant                             Fr Michael Whelan SM

Chairman,                               Executive Director & Chaplain

Catalyst for Renewal

Posted by Bob Birchall in Archives, Speeches