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Catholics need to reach out to the world, as it is today

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Catholics need to get off their “backsides” and reach out to the people in the world as it is today, sharing the news of the good works of the Church, while also acknowledging the terrible crimes that have been committed.

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That was a key message from Father Richard Leonard SJ in his keynote address at the 48th Catholic Women’s League National Biennial Conference currently under way in Adelaide.

“We come to these occasions to think very seriously about the matters that make us our own community. We have lightness and goodness… and we’ve had crime, dysfunction, sin and terrible events that have been done in our name by a very, very small number of clergy,” Fr Leonard told the more than 200 attendees.

“If we’re going out into the world we have to know the good we do and celebrate that and be inspired to keep doing it – and at the same time we have to own what has been a most despicable chapter in our story.

“We need to go out to the world as it is – not the world we prefer to go.

“We don’t wait for the world to come to us – the Lord did not say that, he didn’t say ‘stay in your parishes and wait for them all to come to you’; he said ‘get off your backside and go out to them’.”

In what was an inspiring, powerful and sometimes emotional presentation, Fr Leonard told the CWL representatives that they should follow in the footsteps of St Mary MacKillop, who always “thought outside the square”, as a similar approach was needed now for the future of the Church.

It was everyone’s duty to welcome others to the Church – “we have to go out of our way, like the Lord, to find the people who may have generally not found a home amongst us”– and this would be achieved through a mission of “witness, inculturation and liberation”.

“We are called by Christ to go out to the world, not the world we prefer, but the one that is, to witness by what we say and also share and tell what we do, and make up for the despicable things that have been done in our name. It is our obligation,” he said.

“Secondly, we have to take the culture seriously so that we’re not talking to the group we want to talk to, we’re talking to the world as it is.

“Finally we are going to liberate them.

“I don’t think any of this is easy, I just think it’s an enormous privilege.”

Fr Leonard, 54, who directs the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting and is an honorary fellow of the Australian Catholic University, said communicating the Christian faith in a language that could be understood was an important first step.

“Increasingly in our secular Australian society people do not understand religious language. We have to go out into a world that may not get our language – waiting for them to get it causes the good news not to be acclaimed.”

And when speaking to the wider community, Fr Leonard implored Catholics to be proud of the Church’s good works. The third largest non-government employer in Australia (behind Wesfarmers and Woolworths), the Catholic Church employs 221,000 people, of which 165,750 are women. It plays an important role in education, aged care and is the largest welfare provider outside government.

“Our Catholic community makes an extraordinary contribution to our community. We are doing good things every day,” he said.

However, he acknowledged that what was getting in the road of getting this good news out was the sexual abuse crisis which had “seriously eroded” the “Church’s moral authority and credibility” for young and old.

“All apologies are inadequate and no compensation will be enough. We just need to own that. Running from it isn’t helping, not talking about it isn’t helping.”

Fr Leonard predicted there would be a need to sell churches, school buildings and land to pay compensation claims.

“We are going to be a poorer, humbler and simpler Church… but I would put up a ‘for sale’ sign on St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral in Adelaide if it would heal victims. If we had to choose between our real estate portfolio or trying to heal someone our community has hurt – that’s a no-brainer.”

In a lighter moment he also reflected on his long-held belief that he would be the first Jesuit Pope, “but now I am going to be the second, my name will be Pope Dick the First from Toowoomba” he told the gathering.

In closing Fr Leonard related stories from his teenage years when he summoned the courage to tell his mother, brother and sister that he loved them, to be later referred to by the family as a “Richard moment”.

Earlier this year his sister, who was a quadriplegic for 28 years before her death in March, likewise had a “Richard moment” with his 84-year-old mother.

It had a powerful impact and he encouraged everyone to make time for a “Richard moment” – to tell people you love them, which was truly “the heart of the Gospel”.

The CWL conference closes today.

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