If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you. Verily, verily, I say unto you, the servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him. If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them. John 13:1-20
Perhaps surprisingly for someone with the surname O’Reilly, I’m not Catholic.
My husband, who has a completely different surname, is, however. Our three sons have been baptised Catholics and the older two have been educated in Catholic schools.
I’ve been attending Mass at my sons’ high school for several years now, but I’ve quite never shaken the feeling of being an outsider.
With all the arcane rituals and “Lamb of God’s” and genuflections and standing-ups and kneeling-downs, it’s like I’m in the chorus line of a musical but the only one who doesn’t know the lines and moves.
When the school chaplain gets up to talk, however, that all changes.
Speaking off the cuff, Father Paul* weaves the lessons of the gospel into the personal, injecting his homilies with intelligence, compassion and some damn funny jokes.
On one occasion he said it was more important to live a “Christian” life than celebrate Mass regularly, which couldn’t help contrasting with the attitude of our local parish priest, who told me my youngest son’s autism did not excuse him from attending church.
My 18 year-old calls Father Paul the “coolest priest”, I call him a true man of God (whatever your version of God may be).
If every priest was like him I might even consider converting.
I recently attended Mass to celebrate the end of the school year. Father Paul chose to open his homily with a reading from John, the story of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples at the Last Supper; a lesson about humility and service.
Where’s he going with this? I wondered.
Then his features became harder and his voice developed a flinty tone and he brought up the recently announced royal commission into institutional child abuse.
In Father Paul’s words there were many in his church who had forgotten they were there to “serve others”, that they had “severed their relationship with God”, and that “making excuses” for what had happened was “the worst thing of all”.
Fortunately he appears to have some allies in the hierarchy.
Recently, while announcing plans to establish a committee of lay experts to investigate claims of abuse in the Catholic institutions, Sister Annette Cunliffe, the president of Catholic Religious Australia, told the ABC:
“I think, I hope, that we are looking at greater openness and less defensiveness, so that we can open this crime to the light of day to what God would want of truth and honesty.”
The ABC report concluded: “Sister Annette says it is time for a new era in the Catholic Church where families no longer feel betrayed, and those doing good work for the poor and disadvantaged can hold their heads up high again.”
On November 12th, the day the Prime Minister announced the royal commission, Independent MP Tony Windsor was interviewed on ABC Radio’s AM program. He said:
“…I think that air needs to be cleared, not only for the community and particularly for the victims of child abuse, but also for the churches themselves, that there’s, you know, an odour hanging over them. And I think if I were a member of the Catholic Church, for instance, I’d be wanting that air cleared very quickly.”
I’m not a person with strong religious convictions, but I know good people when I see them and there are scores of them working in our churches.
We need this Royal Commission first and foremost for the victims, but also to restore the reputations of Father Paul, Sister Annette and the many like them, people who are as disturbed and distressed as the rest of us by the actions of the child sex abusers and their apologists.
*Name has been changed.
MORE STORIES BY BENISON ANNE O’REILLY
*Benison Anne O’Reilly is a Sydney-based author and blogger. You can follow her on Twitter: @BenisonAnne.