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Archbishop Speaks Out

Article and Photograph by Fr Robert Cross

In the second of the Bishops Speaking Out lecture series, Archbishop of Perth, the Most Reverend Barry James Hickey, gave the following address on the Church in the Modern World.

Archbishop Barry Hickey

Tuesday 7 June 2011
The University of Notre Dame Australia
“Bishops Speaking Out” lecture series

The title of this talk “The Church and the Modern World” is the English title of the Vatican II Document “Gaudium et Spes”. It was issued in December 1965.

The central theme of this Document is this - the Church is to be engaged with the world, it is to be its “Gaudium et Spes” – its Joy and its Hope. The Church is called to offer the world the Joy and the Hope that Jesus offered.

The Second Vatican Council ended on a supremely optimistic note – the Church throughout the world was booming – in vocations to the priesthood and Religious Life, the Church was steadily expanding in numbers and in influence. It was a political force of some significance in Europe and in the emerging nations of Africa and Latin America.

It was strong and ready to embrace the world and confidently present itself as its Light, especially as it recognized the good already in the world.

The Church had already begun to reach out to Communist governments, confident that it could help the people under Communist rule by lightening the weight of the Communist hammer and sickle.

Millions of Catholic faithful around the world felt a new age of optimism had arrived. The Church would emerge from its ghetto, be renewed within and be ready to offer its good news to the world and to be hope and joy especially to the millions of needy, poor and rejected people.

Those were heady days of change, renewal, innovation and enthusiasm.


What happened? As the Church began to gear up for change, the world suddenly changed radically, unexpectedly, and caused the Church to hesitate a bit as it sought to understand what was going on.

At that very time a huge cultural movement was building up – a revolution in the universities, in politics, in popular culture, in music, and in the area of personal and marital relationships. The young called for freedom. This burst forth in the late ‘60s proclaiming freedom from entrenched authorities like the State and the Church, and freedom from traditional moral restraints.

Two events encapsulate this revolution, the birth control pill in 1961 and Woodstock in 1969.

The sexual revolution had arrived, trumpeting freedom from the moral restraints of the ‘50s and earlier. Institutions like the Church were seen to be obstacles to progress.

It was not well understood at the time but this new movement in the world nullified to a great extent the standing and influence of the Church. While the spirit of optimism continued for two more decades, the world which “Gaudium et Spes” addressed had changed radically and was no longer listening.

We still believe we are called to be the Joy and the Hope of the World, but we cannot be so naive as to think the world is listening any more. The Gospel is as counter-cultural as it has ever been. But let us look at what the Church was and is calling us to do and to be. In particular what is the role of the layperson.


This is what “Gaudium et Spes” has said –

· The Church is in solidarity with the whole human family. Its opening words have become famous – “The joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well.” (No.1)

· The Church carries the responsibility of reading the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. (No.4)

· All women and men are made in the image of God and therefore they possess a fundamental dignity that is to be respected.

· Sin has broken the natural order of relationships with one another and with our final destiny. Humanity has been wounded by sin.

· In one’s conscience is discovered a law, the difference between right and wrong. It is there, in that sanctuary of their conscience, that we are alone with God and hear his voice.

· People are to be free, free to respond to what they know is right and good. Even those who do not believe in God find within themselves this urge to restore right order among the peoples.

· Because all have been redeemed by Christ and belong to the one human race, we must be considered essentially equal. This quality is the ultimate aim of social justice.

· Because we are members of the human race, we are called to participate in human affairs and transcend individualistic goals for the Common Good.

· The purpose of the Church is not political, nor economic. It is religious. But this religious mission gives commitment, vigour and direction in human affairs. In a sense the Church is the sacrament of the world, a sign and instrument of the union between God and the world.

· “The laity are called to participate actively in the entire life of the Church, not only are they to animate the world with the spirit of Christianity, they are to be witnesses to Christ in all circumstances and at the very heart of the community.” (No.3)

· The Document has an extensive section on principles of social and economic justice outlining the ways in which the Church can carry out its mission and how the laity can be witnesses to it.

· The Document looks forward to a new era of participation in human affairs, and while recognizing the autonomy of political life, it wants to bring the Gospel to the everyday structures and affairs of the whole of humanity.

· The Decree rejects any suggestion that the Church’s work is only within the Catholic community. It has rejected the “ghetto” mentality.

What has happened since those heady days? Has the Church affected human affairs and human culture with its Christian witness? If not, is it because the world has changed so much as to deny the Church access to its life, or have the internal scandals of money, secularity and worst of all, paedophilia, bled the Church of its power and influence and sent it back to the “ghetto”, afraid to raise its head for fear of attack.

I will come back to this later.


Strictly speaking there is no laity. Theologically the division between priest and lay person does not exist.

Baptism is the Sacrament that gives us a share of Christ’s priesthood. At the Baptism ceremony we are called “priest, prophet and king” because we share in Jesus’ priesthood in his prophetic role and his kingship.

We must remember in the words of St Peter that we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood and holy nation, a people set apart”. (1 Pet 2:9)

Our union with the Risen Christ is a sharing of his risen life, even his priesthood.

We are an anointed, consecrated people, our Baptism confirmed by the sacred chrism we received at our Confirmation. Baptism gives us a Christian dignity. We are, whether we are conscious of it or not, “temples of the Holy Spirit”. We should never forget this mystical and sacred understanding of the baptized person.

Sometimes we forget our baptismal purification and our Confirmation anointing, but it is true. We are made holy by these sacraments and share a deep intimacy with Jesus the Saviour.

As Jesus had a call from his Father, so we share that same call. It is not enough for us to recognize the awesome dignity that has been given us in sharing the priesthood of Christ, we also need to understand that we have been called to share in Jesus’ own mission to return the world to his Father – to defeat the power of evil and exhibit the power of love, in brief, to destroy the Kingdom of Satan and establish the Kingdom of God.

Having said that, there is a sense in which we can make a distinction between priests and laity – we need to, otherwise we will end in confusion.

While we all share in the priesthood of Christ by baptism, the sacrament of Holy Orders gives a special participation in the ministerial priesthood of Jesus. The difference is ordination.

Today we call those ordained “priests”, or to borrow the scriptural terms of the early church, “presbyters” or “elders”. Deacons and Bishops also receive Holy Orders.

Those who have not received this sacrament are referred to, imprecisely, admittedly, as laypeople, or “the lay faithful”, to cite Canon Law.

The Second Vatican Council called on the lay faithful to take their full place in the life, the liturgy, and the mission of the Church.

The first two have happened.


Laypeople are now drawn into the life and governance of the Church at all levels, starting with the parish. All parishes have, or should have, parish councils and finance committees that help the work of the parish and offer advice to the Parish Priest. They are active in parish groups of all types. One parish I visited not so long ago had 57 different groups. People helped the work of the parish in instructing children, preparing couples for marriage, for the baptism of children. They run bible study groups and faith groups, social justice groups, social activities, maintenance, fund raising, outreach groups of the poor and evangelization groups, to name a few.

Even at Diocesan level laypeople are drawn into many advisory groups. There are paid positions in finance, planning, and other administrative structures.

This is repeated at National and international levels, even in Rome, where more and more lay expertise is being drawn into the Vatican departments which were traditionally run by priests and bishops.

In the 50 years since the Second Vatican Council there has been a revolution in the involvement of laypeople in the life of the Church.

This is perhaps seen most starkly in the field of education where laypeople run all the primary, secondary and tertiary education in this Archdiocese.

But laypeople head most of the charitable and welfare agencies of the Church and, of course, the huge health and aged care sector.

This University of Notre Dame, Fremantle, is unique in that from its very beginning it has been under lay control. Nearly all other Catholic universities around the world were begun and run by Religious Orders and Congregations. In a true sense, NDA is the fulfilment of a call by the Second Vatican Council for the laypeople to take their rightful place in the Church. They have done so right here.


The second area in which the Second Vatican Council has called for the participation of the people is the Liturgy, or the official Worship of the Church, especially in the Mass.

This, too, has been a revolution.

The far reaching reforms of the traditional Latin Mass have changed the face of the liturgy dramatically. Roles that belonged to the priest were handed back to the people, like the roles of acolyte, reader and cantor.

The ministry of acolyte used to be a “minor order”. I received it as part of my path to the priesthood. So were “lector” or “reader” minor orders.

Now they are ministries open to lay people. The priest’s role has been, in a sense, purified. He is the celebrant, through Holy Orders, and gives the homily as part of the celebrant’s presidential role. He is not the delegate of the people in this role. He is the icon of Christ in Jesus’ role as Eternal High Priest, and is so by ordination.


It is not enough for the lay faithful to be involved in the life of the Church and in the liturgy of the Church.

The Second Vatican Council asked for much more. In fact it said that the true lay vocation is not in running the Church but in carrying Christ to the world.
The Pope and the Bishops have the “governance” of the Church and need help to do it, but they cannot abdicate their overseer or Episcopal role. This is what “episcopos”, the Greek word for Bishop means – an overseer, one who takes responsibility for good and correct Church governance, in accord with its divine mandate and constitution.

When the Second Vatican Council spoke of the role of the laity it called them to permeate and improve the temporal order with the spirit of the Gospel. “The characteristic of the lay state”, it said, is “life led in the midst of the world and of secular affairs. Laypeople are called by God to make of their apostolate, through the vigour of their Christian spirit, a leaven in the world.” (No.2 Apostolicam Actuositatem).

And again:

“The laity are called in a special way to make the Church present and operative in those places and circumstances where only through them can she become the salt of the earth”.
(Lumen Gentium No.33)

So what are you to do?

You are to build up the Kingdom of God in the world, even now. God’s Kingdom has already begun but it is not and never will be fully complete on this world, only when we see Jesus face to face in heaven.

Nonetheless it has begun. It began when Jesus proclaimed the arrival of the Kingdom of God in the synagogue in Nazareth, his home town.

It began when Jesus announced that in the powers of darkness that held the world in their grip of violence and domination were to be overthrown.

Did not Jesus say: “Now judgement has been passed on this world. Now the Prince of this world is to be overthrown”. (Jn.12:34)
And again, “I have seen Satan fall like lightning from heaven”. (Lk.10:18)

It began in Jesus himself. He achieved in his humanity the fulfilment of the Kingdom of God, in his freedom, his courage, his nobility in the face of torture and death, in his perfect obedience to the Will of his Father. He showed in himself the fullness of God’s Kingdom and the defeat of evil.

The foundations of the world of violence, exploitation, sexual dominance, cruelty, and injustice began to crumble at the moment of Christ’s triumph over death and sin in his resurrection.

We are not to allow the scandals in the Church, nor the rejection of the Church by some as a result, nor the deafness of the world to the Church’s message to stop us. The world needs Christ, his life, love and teachings. If the Church seems powerless now, this powerlessness makes space for the power of the Holy Spirit to change the face of the earth.

It is our Risen Lord who now asks you to look at the world around you, oppose evil and build a kingdom of peace, justice and love now and not be afraid to do so. The Holy Spirit is with you.

The Kingdom of God in the world will not be complete in your lifetime, but it may be close to completeness in you as you grow, like Christ, in love, in peace, in courage and true inner freedom, the freedom that not even prisons can take away.

So what are you called to do?

You are called to create families of love, neighbourhoods of friendliness and cooperation, workplaces where human dignity is respected, businesses that are honest, relationships that are respectful not exploitative, in other words, a culture of life and love.

You are called to open your eyes to the reality of evil and seek ways to confront it - evils like the unspeakable horror of children used for pornography, the sexual abuse of children that is unbelievably widespread and found principally in families – I am not joking – the desperate poverty of families unable to cope with the stresses of misfortune, who lack enough money to pay their way, the violence of the streets and in the home, the tragedy of drug and alcohol abuse, the slavery of prostitution and the pain of the lonely and the suicidal.

You are called to act personally as a Christ-bearer, a Christopher, and to act with others who will give you courage, ideas and inspiration.

You go where I cannot go. You must take your faith with you and your love of neighbour wherever you go or work, into parliament house, the hospitals, the corporations, the shops, the schools, the trades, your neighbourhood, your sporting club, wherever you are.

Jesus calls you to be his witness and bring his love to those who suffer.

This is what the Second Vatican Council has called of you to do – not just to sit on Church councils or participate in the Sacred Liturgy, as important as these roles are, but to be in the world in order to purify its culture, to oppose evil and to spread the love of Christ. I cannot do this for you.

Where can you find the formation of mind and soul to do this?

Turn to the pages of the Gospel and Jesus will speak to you. He will say to you, “Be not afraid, it is I. Come to me all you who labour and are heavily burdened and I will give you rest. Give me your two fish and your five barley loaves so I can feed the five thousand. You have not chosen me, I have chosen you. As the Father has sent me so I send you. Remain, abide, in my love. Consider the birds of the air, they do not sow nor gather into barns, yet you are more precious in the eyes of my Father than any of them. Rejoice, I have conquered the world.”

In regard to specific training of the mission of the layperson in the world, I am afraid there are few courses to help you. You may find very little of this in your local parish. Read the Vatican documents on this area of the lay apostolate as there are many. Read the social teachings of the Church which applies faith to social affairs. An excellent Compendium of the Church’s social teachings is readily available.

A formidable formation programme struggles but still exists in this Archdiocese that I want to put to you. It is based on a review of daily life. Small groups critique unjust situations in the light of the Gospel and make a commitment to action. The steps are summed up in three words – SEE, JUDGE and ACT. It has already produced strong leaders in public life and needs to be revived again if laypeople are to fulfil their special task in the world, as the Church has asked them to do.

In brief, make the Gospels your study text. Read about others who have gone before you. Find a group of like-minded friends to talk about all this together. Live a good life, free of sin, and most important of all, pray. Speak to Christ as your friend, and then listen. Carry him in your heart after Holy Communion, then carry him into the world.

In your family life, cultivate an awareness of the world around you and help your children to understand that they too are called to make a difference in the world, when they grow to maturity, in order to build up the sort of world that Jesus wants.