Fr Michael Casey OCSO, a Cistercian monk from Tarrawarra Abbey in the Yarra Valley, recently provided some reflections on ‘emerging from the chrysalis of lockdown into a brave new world’. Speaking as part of an online gathering of clergy from across the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne, Fr Michael unpacked several themes from the teachings of Pope Francis and his vision for renewal.

‘We come out of the lockdown and we find ourselves not exactly in a wilderness but certainly we feel somewhat lost, without certainty, about where we are to go,’ said Fr Michael. ‘We look for a sign. We look for an indication of what will be the life-giving path that we can take.’

Fr Michael suggests that we look to Pope Francis as ‘one of the major signs given to our times, that indicates the way ahead, that indicates a more life-giving path that stretches out in front of us.’

‘We have in Pope Francis a sure sign, a prophetic sign of the way ahead that leads to a more vigorous Church. He himself mercifully, is very vocal in his annunciation of what he considers to be the way ahead. As he himself said recently, “I will persist in my pestering”. He is not going to be silenced by opposition or resistance.’

In considering how the Church can move forward with renewed vitality and joy, and a clear sense of mission and hope, Fr Michael unpacked seven themes that closely align with the teachings of Pope Francis: a paradigm shift, joy, synodality, inclusivity, interculturality, fraternity and our common home. He noted that in a recent catechesis on ‘healing the world’, Pope Francis outlined his main concerns: the dignity of the person, the common good, the option for the poor, the universality of goods, solidarity, subsidiarity and our common home.

‘When the Pope elaborates his vision, he is elaborating a mandate, or mission for the whole Church,’ said Fr Michael. ‘It’s for the Church as a whole, the Church as a plurality. And as a church, we are one body, but the members and functions within that body are differentiated. So not all of us will be able to implement to the full all the ideals that the Pope promulgates.

What is important therefore is that we discern what we can do, what I as a person, what my group, my community can do. We can’t all do everything, but we need this gift to discern where best to invest our energies, with the presumption that we act locally. It’s better to do something concrete and real in the here and now, rather than to dream about distant wonders. And finally, to do what is possible.’
Fr Michael Casey OCSO
Fr Michael Casey OCSO

Fr Michael also suggested that we need to be aware of our own brains and the ‘default mode network’ that operates within. The default mode network is ‘the means by which we operate on the basis of past experience without having to think through every detail,’ he said. ‘We can fly on auto-pilot as it were, without paying too much attention.

‘Unprepared situations make us uncomfortable. And it’s the default mode network that inspires the yearning “to get back to normal” so that we don’t have to think and make decisions. “Business as usual” is our catch cry. We want to revert to a state of mindlessness.

‘The default mode network is our constant companion and a good friend, but it can be a limitation, it can be an enemy. It tends to interpret what happens only in terms of what we have already experienced – to reduce the unknown into what is already familiar – and so we fail really, to deal with it.

‘We have to deal with the default mode network, which is always trying to stop us from being creative, always trying to keep us repeating what we used to do. And so, the way ahead as we come out of lockdown will not appear at once. We need discernment, and deconstruction, and counsel, and dialogue.’

Paradigm shift: we are living in a ‘change of epoch’

‘Very early in his pontificate,’ Fr Michael explained, ‘Pope Francis said, “We are not so much living in an epoch of change, but a change of epoch”. There’s something very radical going on here, something to which we’re not familiar. And more recently, he said, “Coronavirus has accelerated a change of era that was already underway” … but it’s become more radically different from anything else that we had experienced.

‘And if we are in a period of paradigm shift, it means that there is a significant alternation in the way we need to present our values, beliefs and techniques, as a church, as a community.’

‘It’s not only coronavirus that has jumped on us and changed everything, but we’re also conscious of climate change, we’re still living in the after-effects of the global financial crisis of 2007-2008, the world is wracked by various popular movements and dictatorships, there is a quite universal problem of refugees and immigration and resistance to them. In the church and in society as a whole, there are revelations of widespread sexual abuse, notably sexual abuse of minors. And there have also been revelations of domestic violence, and sexism and racism.

‘Pope Francis insists that the Church is a church on mission because the world has changed and is changing; we are now as it were, in a foreign country. We are a missionary church. As he himself says in Evangelii Gaudium, “I dream of a ‘missionary option’, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structure can be suitably channelled for the evangelisation of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation. [§27]


Religion should be joyous

‘We preach the good news by what we are, by our faces, by our manners. And in this respect, religion doesn’t always have such a good reputation,’ said Fr Michael.

‘It’s important to recognise that religion should be joyous. And the joy of religion is not a matter of metaphysics or morality, as Friedrich Schleiermacher said in 1799, but of experience, of a feeling of absolute dependence, of connectedness with the infinite. Or as Pope Benedict XVI said, it’s not just a matter of ethical choice or lofty idea, but personal encounter.’

Quoting Pope Francis’ words from a general assembly in 2020, he said, ‘The Church does not grow through proselytising; she grows through attraction. That’s how the Church grows, by drawing people to herself and so we need a daily encounter with the Lord.

‘Quite recently, Cardinal Tagle of the Philippines wrote about this point: “A gripping deep experience of Jesus leads to a state of mission”. The experience that really touches at the centre of our being is something which will invigorate us and energise us for mission.’

Synodality: allowing the Holy Spirit to call the shots

Fr Michael explained that the notion of ‘synodality’, which originates from the Greek, Sun-hodos – to walk together – is an emerging concept. ‘It’s full meaning will be revealed only by further thinking and by practice. We make the path by walking,’ he said.

‘For Pope Francis, synodality is not just practical arrival at decisions and documents and decrees. But it’s coming together to listen to the apostolic proclamation, to be in ever closer communion with one another, to celebrate Eucharist together and in an atmosphere of prayer. Synodality is basically allowing the Holy Spirit to call the shots, without knowing in advance what those shots may be.

‘We must allow ourselves the inexperience, the lack of security, the uncertainly with which accompanies an emerging concept, because the primary actor in the process is the Holy Spirit and it is the Holy Spirit who will determine its course. The Holy Spirit plus the body of believers.’

‘We come to the importance that the Pope places on the art of listening. The art of real listening. The Pope insists that it is a whole-body encounter. We not only hear the words and abstract the rational content, but it’s a question of being really in their presence.’

We must be an inclusive group

‘We need to think in terms of a greater inclusivity – to be open, to welcome, to greet, to be with,’ said Fr Michael. ‘There are a number of areas where this principle of inclusivity needs to be pushed today.’

He outlined the need to be inclusive of other churches, particularly the Eastern churches, and within the Australian context, ‘we need to take into our compassion, concern and acceptance and fraternal relationships, the First Nations people.’

‘We need to go out to the margins as Pope Francis is frequently exhorting us’ and we need to ‘make more room for women, for the other half of the population, and for those who are morally excluded’. ‘Many people feel unaccepted by the Church because their way of life, particularly in the area of sexuality, isn’t approved.’

Interculturality is a task for everyone

‘Interculturality is a task for everyone, both those who belong to the dominant culture and to minorities,’ said Fr Michael. ‘It is a long and slow process that demands practical patience of everyone for a long time.

‘In Anthony Gittins book, Living Mission Interculturally, he notes that in Australia we have a multicultural society, which we’re proud of, but it’s still a work in progress to become intercultural.’

Gittins lists a number of characteristics of an intercultural society, which include intentionality – we are aware of it and we want to become intercultural; there is individual commitment; there is mutual tolerance; there is a forum for articulating frustration; appropriate correction; attention to stress and burnout; and clarification of the things that bind us together.

‘It may be an idealistic scheme of things, but where would we be without ideals?’ asked Fr Michael.

Fraternity, a way to overcome individualism

Fr Michael explained that in Pope Francis’ mind, the great enemy of fraternity is individualism, which the Pope defines as ‘the hyperinflation of the individual’, inevitably at the expense of social interaction. In his encyclical, Laudato Si, Pope Francis writes, ‘Men and women of our post-modern world run the risk of rampant individuality and many problems of society are connected with today’s self-centred culture of instant gratification (§162). In contrast, Pope Francis helps us to understand what fraternity means, something with which we should aspire and work toward.

‘He defines it a number of ways as we’d expect,’ said Fr Michael. ‘It’s a love that transcends the barriers of geography and distance; it’s a sense of belonging to a single human family; it’s our love for others, for who they are; a spirit of human fellowship; and the sense of belonging to each other and to the whole of humanity.’

Caring for our Common Home

Speaking of Laudato Si, Pope Francis says, ‘It’s not a green encyclical. It’s a social encyclical’ for to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and a sin against God explained Fr Michael.

‘And so, in Laudato Si, Pope Francis insists it’s a shared responsibility. Its particular target is the throwaway culture, consumerism, endlessly exploiting the natural world for what we can get out if it, and it’s also against indifference, refusing to recognise the threat to our environment, refusal to do anything about it. He takes up the phrase that was crafted by John Paul II of “ecological conversion”.’

A change of heart

In concluding, Fr Michael reiterated that Pope Francis is ‘a sure sign, a prophetic sign of the way ahead that leads to a more vigorous church’. Fr Michael reiterated the sentiments expressed in the Pope’s 2020 encyclical, Fratelli Tutti. ‘Anyone who thinks that the only lesson to be learned [from the pandemic] was the need to improve what we were already doing, or to refine existing systems and regulations is denying reality (§7).

‘Everything then depends on our ability to see the need for a change of heart, attitudes and lifestyles (§166). We can start from below and, case by case, act at the most concrete and local levels and then expand to the farthest reaches of our countries and our world … (§78)

‘Great changes are not produced behind desks or in offices.’ (§231)