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Sacred spaces and Good Friday footy


When it comes to the Catholic Church taking part in public debate on topical issues, it’s often a case of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’.

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This adage was particularly relevant in recent weeks with two issues occupying the headlines and radio waves – the lack of a dedicated ‘chapel’ in the new Royal Adelaide Hospital and the inaugural Good Friday AFL match.

In both cases, the Catholic Church came under fire for not being vocal enough in promoting the ‘Christian’ cause.

When I first heard South Australian Senator Cory Bernardi criticise the design of the new RAH for having a separate prayer room for Muslims and a ‘spiritual space’ for others, I thought he might have a point. At the same time, I was wary that with all the extremist-inspired violence in the world, now was not a good time to be making inflammatory statements which pit Christians against Muslims.

On further enquiry it was revealed that Chaplaincy Services SA, of which our own Catholic chaplains are members, had been in discussions with the State Government for some time about its desire for a ‘universal sacred space’ that would be inclusive of all faith and spiritual traditions. This included a separate prayer room with washing facilities for people of Muslim faith.

Of course this doesn’t necessarily appease those who think it should be a more traditional place of worship, namely a chapel, but it does explain why the government came up with this solution and shows it was not based purely on political correctness or bureaucratic bungling.

As I said, the Church copped some criticism from the likes of columnist Andrew Bolt and The Australian editorial, as well as within its own ranks, for not speaking up. (The Uniting Church did comment on the issue but it was not what the media wanted to hear because it was too conciliatory.)

However, if we use the ‘what would Jesus do’ test, making any statement that might be seen as divisive is not the way to go, especially in the current climate. In the end, it was left to the Health Minister Jack Snelling to defend the decision and he was reported as saying the sacred space was technically a ‘chapel’ – I guess that’s why he’s a politician!

The other issue, Good Friday footy, which Adelaide columnist David Penberthy columnist  said was met with “shoulder-shrugging from the Christian leadership”, may not be as delicate, but I suspect the Church’s lack of credibility in the wake of the Royal Commission has thwarted the leadership’s ability to both speak and be listened to. Even in Melbourne, where the inaugural game was held, the archdiocese restricted its criticism to the timing of the event.

I hasten to add that religious leaders for many years have expressed their opposition to sporting events on Good Friday and have been criticised by secularists and atheists for imposing their views on all and sundry. So it’s understandable that their enthusiasm may be waning.

What I found more frustrating was that those sporting identities and media commentators who were against the scheduling of the first AFL game on Good Friday were so hesitant to refer to any reservations on religious grounds.

They talked about ‘tradition’ and ‘a day off from footy’ and just about everything else except the real reason that we have a ‘holyday’ on Good Friday.

Similarly, the AFL and the clubs involved in the inaugural game stressed they would be doing all they could to minimise the impact on the annual Good Friday Appeal, saying it would be incorporating this ‘tradition’ into the match day program. While not wanting to diminish the importance of raising money to help sick children and their families, it is a little surprising that this was the only reference to retaining the Good Friday ‘tradition’, apart from plenty of fish  being available at the game.

On Anzac Day, and even the weekend before, we were inundated with remembrance ceremonies at football games, from country associations to the AFL. Yet on Good Friday or over the Easter weekend, I suspect there was no reference at football matches to the origins of Good Friday in a sport that originated in a Christian country and has such strong roots to Catholic working class suburbs.

If we Christians are reluctant to speak up for our beliefs at such an important time as Easter, we can’t blame the broader community for thinking that it is waning in significance. While we might be damned for entering the debate, no doubt we will be damned if we don’t.




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