The most pastoral pope in centuries is vilified by his own


The theme of embracing the new comes to the fore as we celebrate Christmas and New Year. But, while doing something new is central to God’s plan in Christ, it is also a threat to entrenched power.

We celebrate Jan. 1 so vigorously because we hope for better things to come. It articulates our Christmas belief that there can be “news of great joy for all the people.” But it only works if we take it on board. Things will change. So, must we. And that makes some people nervous.

Christmas celebrates new life — and a new world order. But our Christian vision grows out of our Israelite ancestry which has always seen God as doing something new.

First, God creates. Then he intervenes through history to look after his people.

Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not see it?

I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. (Isaiah 43:19)

That’s how Isaiah hoped the future would be for his Israelite people, devastated by decades of exile in Babylon. Finally, they were going back home — to start a new life.

The hard-hearted are suspicious of the new. Jesus confronted his opponents for their hardness of heart. No work was allowed on the Sabbath. Strictly speaking, healing the man’s withered arm was work. The scribes and Pharisees had a self-righteous, strict approach to the law and didn’t approve of Jesus’ laxity. Don’t break the bounds.

Jesus’ has the broader, human approach: “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm?’ Jesus looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart.” (Mark 3:5)

Ezekiel has the answer: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36:26)

For them the law was the law! But for Jesus the Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath. A law that helps and not hinders will be able to adjust to new human situations, and therefore to new cultures.

Christopher Columbus and James Cook controlled their anxieties, embraced the new and found the Americas and the Great South Land.

Galileo and Newton embraced a new understanding of the world. Descartes, Rousseau, Voltaire and Montesquieu pioneered new ways of thinking that produced a new world order.

The Luddites smashed the looms but got left behind. New knowledge leads to a transformed world.

Christianity’s early sacred authors are heavily into the new. Paul, the earliest writer, saw a world renewed in Christ. Therefore, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

The last of the New Testament writers has the same vision”. “The one on the throne says: ‘Behold I make all things new’” (Rev 21:5)

Embracing the new is part of Christian DNA. But centuries at the guiding helm of Christendom have deadened that instinct in the halls of Church power. Be safe. Maximise risk aversion. The fortress does indeed protect, but at the price of lost opportunity. The rule of law, though protective, can also oppress and deprive. And it will — if it is not constantly under review to keep up with new circumstances.

Factionalism and identity politics dominate the political scene. Renewables versus coal. Climate change is a fake. Lies are alternative facts. Family values. If you are not with us, you are against us. They reject new knowledge.

Political parties are factionalized within. Spite wins at the expense of the common good. Narcissism’s rule book says, “Look after me and beggar the rest.” Reaction is the name of the game. New social trends are dismissed. This is driving both left and right to extremes. The sensible middle, though the biggest group, is marginalized.

The Church scene mirrors the political scene, as it always does. The most pastoral pope in centuries is vilified by his own. A powerful hierarchy, firmly set on its three foundations of dogmatism, moralism and clericalism, wants no erosion of its power. It sticks to its guns. For them any adjustment of the rules is the start of a slippery slope.

Meanwhile, Pope Francis thinks life is more complex, Circumstances change. Culture is in constant flux. A black letter approach to law falls short in the face of human complexities. The letter kills; the spirit gives life. Stick by your values but be flexible with applying them.

And a bemused younger generation sees old men in peculiar gear talking largely to themselves. They just turn away. They live in a new world in which the old men are irrelevant.

Christmas is nothing if not new. The authentic Christian sees a new world opening and turns joyfully to embrace it. That makes a happy New Year more likely.

* Eric Hodgens is a senior priest in the Archdiocese of Melbourne in Australia.


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