Nothing could have better illustrated in Australia Pope Francis’ call for Catholics and Christians to focus their energy more on the new evangelisation than last week’s comments by stellar Australian Rules footballer Gary Ablett as he won football’s highest honour, the Brownlow Medal, for the second time (see report by Matthew Biddle, Page 3).
Accepting the Brownlow, Mr Ablett thanked a number of people including friends and family before finishing with a public statement that he could do nothing without God.
His comments were a repeat performance. Only a week earlier on television’s The Footy Show, an often-lowbrow, tasteless and very blokie panel discussing the week’s developments throughout the AFL Season, Mr Ablett had also responded to questions by a clearly tentative Sam Newman about the role his faith played in his AFL career.
Jesus had something to say about men like Gary Ablett. As recorded in the Gospel of Matthew (10.32), Christ tells his listeners that he will acknowledge before his father in heaven whoever acknowledges him before others here in this life.
It is therefore interesting to note that an AFL footballer such as Mr Ablett was prepared, when publicly questioned, to acknowledge the truth of God’s existence and the relevance of this to his own life, risking the ridicule or dismissal that can so quickly come in today’s Australia where Christians are usually painted as unintelligent, unscientific, intolerant, rule-obsessed and joyless individuals whose allegiance to outmoded institutions is a danger to normal, rational, civilised society.
It was interesting to see how Mr Ablett, an evangelical Christian, appeared to have more courage on this point than most Catholics in this country.
Apart from applauding Mr Ablett – which we unhesitatingly do here and now – we suggest that we Catholics have a lot to learn from men like him when it comes to being prepared to risk the possibility of humiliation and ridicule for the sake of our Faith – in other words, in the matter of courage.
Half a world away, another set of events were, in a strange way, connected with Mr Ablett’s courageous remarks.
Pope Francis’ 12,000-word interview last week rocketed around the world after it appeared in the Italian Jesuit-produced magazine La Civilta Cattolica.
As usual, journalists in secular newspapers and websites missed the real novelty, honing in on what seemed to them like a reversal of position.
In fact, Pope Francis was issuing a corrective to the Church which, as Vicar of Christ, is exactly what he is entitled and expected to do.
Pope Francis’ point was crucial to the new evangelisation. Small but vociferous numbers of Christians have been – quite rightly – immersed in the culture wars for decades as global culture de-christianises, reverting to the sorts of self-inflicted sufferings and brutalities that were a common feature of pre-Christian societies.
Pope Francis neither said nor implied that Christians should stop being pro-life, pro-marriage or pro-family (see George Weigel’s reflection on pages 10-11 of this edition).
He is, after all, regarded by the media as unaccountably ‘ultra-conservative’ for his own repeated public opposition to practices such as abortion – clashing repeatedly with Argentine President Christina Kirchner over this and other issues such as her government’s support for same-sex marriage.
This is – in passing – part of why the media are so fascinated by him.
However, what Pope Francis wants is, by the standards of our age, new.
He is not telling Christians to abandon their defence of what is true, good and beautiful – God’s plan for each and every individual human life.
But he is saying he expects Christians to stop being lazy about what it means to be a Christian, to put our faith into practice, and to not be afraid of living the radical commitment to Jesus Christ in every moment of our daily lives that is meant to be both the responsibility and the joy of being a Christian.
To put it briefly, Pope Francis is telling us all to have courage – like a young evangelical AFL footballer. He is telling the Church, all of us, that he expects us to live our Baptism.
Sometimes it can seem as if much of the Church in a country like Australia has become lazy, featureless, suffocated occasionally by bureaucratic inertia – a comfortable Christian identity that requires no exertion on our own part.
What Pope Francis is saying is that Christians cannot accept the automatic assumption of our surrounding culture that to live one’s faith is to be some kind of extremist, that we can be Christian only if we bury our heads in our burrows and aren’t publicly prepared to be different.
To be radical, to discover the joy and freedom of our Baptism is not a danger to our society even if it is a danger to the oblivion that dominant elements such as the media constantly seek and embrace.
Our duty, he says, is to live first our Christian Baptismal vocation – to pray, to trust totally in God’s providence, to love the poor rather than to merely say we are concerned about them, to love our enemies and to pray for them.
If we do this, if we are prepared to embrace our own truly radical identity as sons and daughters of God then, by some mystery we cannot really comprehend, we become like God, radiating the love that is his so that he is able to reach out through our own lives and effuse others with his own love.
We did not choose him; he chose us. A young man called Gary Ablett understands this simple fact perfectly well. Well done, Gary.