What exactly is it that we want to change?

By Hugh O’Sullivan

We come at last to the ACT session. It is always a little difficult to enter wholeheartedly into the ACT session when you are miles away from home, and surrounded by people who cannot exactly understand how busy you are, or all the demands already surrounding you. But the fact is that if we don’t achieve a vibrant ACT session then all that we have so far done will be wasted — just a lot of empty noise — what St. Paul called a gong booming or a cymbal clanging.

Let us reflect for a moment: we came here together in Manly as the Church — to discuss the vocation and mission of the Laity — in the World. It is these three concrete things that we have been talking about THE CHURCH THE LAITY and THE WORLD. We have shared our experiences and our understanding of these three things and have evaluated them in the light of our personal reactions and in the light of our shared faith. The question we now face is: What direction do we take in response to all we have discussed?

The first question of the ACT section always is: What exactly is it that you want to change? There are many things perhaps that we could all answer to that question. Tonight I would like to suggest three things one for each of our three subjects the Church, the Laity, and the World.


The first change I am suggesting is this: We, as a people, need to build a deeper understanding and conviction about the dignity and value of every person — that every person has a mission to fulfil not only in the ordinary events of their daily life — but through those ordinary everyday events.

The Dignity of Being a Person

What is the dignity of a person? The dignity of a person in this world is that the world would be pointless without us. Imagine the most beautiful, powerful, luxurious car ever built turbo charged motor, computer dashboard, velvet seats, great sound system, and a fridge in the back. Suppose we put it aboard a helicopter and take it out and let it down ever so gently in the middle of an impenetrable jungle. We start the motor, turn on the lights and radio, and leave it there. Alone now in the wild, the powerful motor continues to run, the lights stab the darkness of the undergrowth, the fridge continues to keep the beer cold, and the radio announces the world news to the trees. All these things are working but there is no one to appreciate them. That is a picture of this earth if there were no intelligent beings on it.

The Church had been the central cultural force in the Middle Ages. How would it adjust to life in the new industrial cities?

What would be the point of having coal in the ground, or the possibilities of electricity or paper or steel or plastic, or any one of the things which earth has given but human hands have made, unless there were human hands to make them?

Human Work Serves God and Develops the World

St Thomas Aquinas defined a human person as a rational animal. That, indeed, sums up what we are and what distinguishes us from other animals. But it is a static definition — it says nothing of the dynamism or the mission that we possess. John Paul II, however, defines a person as “a worker”. When God created human beings, he created them in his own image and so he put them to work. The world and all the things in the world were given to us not just as an environment to pass through — but as a world to develop.

Work, therefore, as Clare told us on Tuesday morning, is something much more than what we do for a quid. Human work is an activity at ail where a person freely uses their creative mind and body to take hold of the world around them, to transform it, to use it. and to make it usable for society.

When Greg sells plumbing gear in a hardware shop, or when Helen teaches children in her school — Jane’s work as a painter, and Sues efforts to find paid employment all of these are actions of intelligent human persons, and these persons contribute by them to the developing of the world. And this is a task that God himself gave. They are truly labourers in his vineyard. I think that if you recall the presentation made Monday evening by Linda and the Sydney YCW. you will hear them proclaim this faith.

We are Co-creators with God of the World

There is something more in work than simply fulfilling the command of God and serving others. What is that something more? I think it comes from the fact that what our work produces results from the planned efforts of ourselves united with the collaboration of God.

There is nothing that gives a person as much energy as a vision that he or she is working to bring into reality. People will give up sleep, food and comfort for the sake of a project they love. There is something very holy about a human being dedicated to a purpose — something more precious than I can attempt to put into words. It is the miracle of sharing in creation.

I remember my Dad. Sunday night, after feeding the cows, he would drive the old truck to the recently sown paddock of wheat. Then over the fence he would go, with me in my short pants struggling along behind. Out a few yards, he would scrabble in the dirt and pull up a wheat seed. Then he would hold it out for me to see — a small bloated thing — with little tentacles of roots hanging down. and a sturdy green shoot pushing up. He’d look at it with a sort of triumph and a sort of wonder.

That seed had sat for twelve months in a bag, like a dead pebble. Then a man, a human person, got busy, cleared a bit of land, got rid of the weeds, prepared a bed and sowed that seed. And God sent the rain that brought the life in the seed to action. God and that man — two Workers united in a partnership and collaborating with one another — were together growing a paddock of wheat.

Later on that year those seeds would be reaped into hundreds of bags of wheat that would put loaves of bread on tables all over the world. My Dad’s work united him with God and with his brothers and sisters all round the world. We have got to understand and be convinced of that — for that is the meaning and the dignity of human work.

We Bring God’s Love to the World

Let us recall again that presentation of the Sydney YCW last Monday. Those peoples concerns, you will remember, did not only centre on the product and process of their work. Many of their deepest concerns centred rather on relationships. Danielle with her father and sisters — Stephanie with her fiancé — Peter and Margaret with their fellow workers.

When we talk about relationships we are talking about another gift of God to people the power of loving. Many times we have been told that it is love that makes the world go round — and all of us know the ability we have to make the lives of those around us either miserable or happy.

Greg invites the mates at work to meet for a drink at the pub. Maria goes into a union meeting to fight for a workmate. Stephanie tries to build a deep, loving relationship with her fiancé. Peter cares about the girl who has lunch all on her own. These are not selfish or “do-gooder” acts. They are not done to get a reward later in heaven. Rather these people know that God is loving and building the world through their love and concern. It is not just their love that they are offering. No, they stand in the place of God. They are sharing today with God in his work of loving the world and they know that they are called to this, that it is part of their mission in daily life.

We are Co-redeemers with Christ

This morning Denis Edwards told us that, while God was present and active in the world, calling us to share in such things as his work of creating and loving, it is also true that there is sin in the world.

Hot some people, the organisation of their workplace makes work boring, onerous, or even dangerous. I know, for instance, of a girl who sits all day in front of a double row of those wooden sticks that are used for coffee stirrers or ice-cream sticks. As they pass in front of her. She has the task of pulling out those not fit for use. She is going blind doing a job that is 9 out of 10 on the boring scale.

I know of cases where sexual demands have been made on girls in return for promotion, and cases where workers have been expected to work overtime without pay. Many young workers today have their lives torn apart in homes where alcoholism is a problem, or where their parents arc divorced. There are cases also where the uses of the product you make are so ambiguous as to raise doubts about the value of the work you do there. How would you like, for instance, to have a job making bombs or abortion machinery?

In situations like these we are not called to try to sec that what we are doing is sharing with God in creating and loving. Rather the situation cries out for change and reform. We had an example of that this morning with Anna’s situation. The difficult task of organising and struggling for change and justice is part of the mission of people in their daily life. In this work they can see and know that they share with Christ in his work of redemption that they are with him co-redeemers of the world.

In Conclusion

The dignity and mission and spirituality of lay people in and through the ordinary everyday events of their lives can thus be seen to be a Trinitarian thing. They are called to share and work with God the Father in the work of creating, with God the Son in redeeming, and with God the Holy Spirit in loving their world.

What exactly would I like to change concerning the laity was my question. My answer is that I would like the whole church — priests and laity to grow in their understanding and conviction on these points. I would like what Cardijn called the “lay lay” life of the laity to be more talked about, respected, and acknowledged, for the sacred thing it is. I would like greater efforts made to form lay people to fulfil their mission in their daily everyday lives.

For us priests, that will mean new efforts to talk to and get to know the situations facing our people. What image do we give when, for example, we come to a YCW group to impart our wisdom about the Gospel but leave when workers start to review what has been happening to them during the week?

And often it is true that these things are right outside our experience. How many of us could know the sorts of things that Anna experienced in her work as a data processor? How many of us could really understand Marg’s situation in leaving work at AWD, moving to a country town, and having three children in the space of 18 months? Yet for each of them this is their life. Hidden in these situations is their sometimes so difficult mission.

How do we build a vision that knows that the mission of a factory worker is no less than that of the guy who is an acolyte?

My Beginnings in the YCW

I remember as a young priest going to my first YCW meeting. I went as a boy from the country, who had spent seven years learning that the world, the flesh and the devil were evils to be conquered. I came into a hall, to a group of young city workers for whom “the world and the flesh” was their everyday preoccupation, and indeed their mission.

I was greatly fortunate in my first president. He would come around and see me regularly. He’d tell me that my chaplain’s talk at the last meeting wasn’t too good. I took that to mean that he didn’t have brains enough to understand it. Then he would tell me that I hogged the table tennis table. I’d say that that was because I was winning. He would tell me that 1 didn’t have to win — that winning wasn’t my job there — that I was supposed to be talking to the guys about their lives. I didn’t understand that. What was I supposed to do? Take a guy aside and ask him if he had done anything wrong that week?

Then he would send one of the members around to me to prepare the Gospel. Afterwards he would ring me up and ask me how it went. I’d tell him, OK — and explain what I’d said about the Gospel. But he’d ask me what I talked about in the life of this guy. What he was trying to say to me was: If that Gospel is not an answer to him in his life today, then it is not much use. It took me an awful long time and a lot of pulling into gear to really learn that. And I reckon that the formation I received from that president is something that not all of us have been fortunate enough to receive.


In the first place I would like to make it clear that when I talk about the Church here I am talking about the Church as an organisation within society. The Church as a structure in society does give an image of the sorts of things that it is on about — and by its action and the way it directs its resources it does give an image of what it sees as its role within society.

Over the past twenty years since Vatican II, the Church has been continually changing things and involving itself in new ways. While I believe that most of this has been good and that many great things have happened, I feel that we have, to some extent, lost the sense of a strong leadership in the Church giving unity of direction. Because of this we have become a bit out of balance in our work of renewal. I believe that we portray too much an image of a ministry-centred serving church, rather than an image of an apostolic community. The overall effect of this has been that the Church today is no longer seen so much as a hierarchical institution. But instead our image in the world today is of a bureaucracy with many departments. 1 don’t think that anyone has consciously worked to achieve this nor that it is the alternative that any of us would want.

What exactly is it that I would like to change? I would hope that we could build a church that would be, and would be seen to be, an apostolic community centred around the good of each of its members in the totality of his or her life. This would involve a progressive move away from structures that build ghetto Catholicism, organising a way for the Church to speak more publicly on a wider range of subjects than it is presently seen to do, and a greater balance being achieved between ministry-centred renewal and formation of lay people for leadership in their daily life.

A Starting Point

There are many good things happening all around Australia in the Church today. We need to know about them and to be proud of them and to identify with them. They are the work of the Church — and we are all a part of that church. If we think only of finances, we are all a part of financing these works. A greater sense of identification with these things alone would help to bring a sense of unity in what the Church is on about.

The History of Yesterday influences the Church of Today

The Church today is naturally very much a product of its yesterday’s history. We need to know that and understand it to be able to analyse where we are today and what steps need to be taken. If you recall the presentation made by the Brisbane team, you will remember how the Church was the central cultural force in the Middle Ages for the totality of life of people on manor farms and in the craft guilds. Then came the protestant reformation and the industrial revolution. The Church, already on the defensive, found that it had no real say or point of entry into the new industrial towns. The people there, mill owners and mill workers alike, had a whole new way of life, and all that the Church was on about seemed to them to be past history — to belong to another life — it just didn’t apply there.

And so what did the Church do in response?

1. The mill owners had refused to take on the by manor lords and the craft guilds. This meant there were a lot of needy people. And so religious orders came into being to provide care for the poor, the sick and the injured, and the aged.

2. The environment of life in the mill towns was destroying the faith of Catholics. And so religious, orders came into being to take children apart from that atmosphere and give them Catholic education.

3. The Church, not having influence within the factories, resorted to speaking publicly, mainly on three sorts of things — private morality, family life and the public service of God (Mass, Sacraments, etc.).

This is the historical basis for a model of Church that still has influence today:

  • a church with various departments providing organised services for the needy;
  • a church that educates its members apart from life (in Catholic schools and seminars where the starting point is the truths of the faith that must be applied to life, rather than the situations of life today that require and call for a Christian response);
  • a church where there is a distinction of status between religion and life, because of a distinction in status between clergy and laity;
  • a church which confines its public pronouncements to matters of private morality, family life and the public service of God.

Involvement — an inadequate response

Over the past 20 years we have reacted against the hierarchical set up of the Church. It is not only because of a shortage of priests that we have organised such things as acolytes, extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, etc. We have come to realise (as Denis told us) that all of us, clergy and laity alike, are the “people of God”.

I think, however, that due to inadequate analysis we have concentrated on hierarchy of persons and forgotten about hierarchy of things. What are the most important things that the Church is seen to be on about? The Mass and the sacraments, the teaching of the faith, and the ministry to the needy. It is in these things that status and responsibility in the Church lie. Is that not true?

Suppose, then, we start to break down the differences between clergy and laity — to talk about our equality as all being the people of God. What happens? Laity immediately seek equality in those areas where the status and responsibility lie. And so we get laity involved as acolytes, teaching the faith, preparing the liturgy, and employed in ministry and counselling the needy.

All of these things are, without any doubt, good things and real advances in Church practice. What I am saying, however, is that far from addressing the problem I am speaking about, they actually serve to worsen it. It can be truly said that there was a far greater emphasis on the mission of the lay people in their lives 20 years ago than there is today. Why is this? It is at least partly because there is today very little Church recognition or status for this apostolate. How do we build a vision that knows that the girl who works in her office and is union representative there has an equality of status in the Church with the girl who has been selected as extraordinary minister of the Eucharist — that the mother of three involved in her community is equal to the woman employed on the parish team — that the mission of a factory worker is no less than that of the guy who is an acolyte?

Hierarchies — Bureaucracies — and People

The Church of 20 years ago was an authoritarian church. When it spoke, it spoke definitively. Who were the ones who wielded this authority in the Church? It was the bishops, the priests and the religious — and their right to speak with such authority came from their position in the Church — from the very fact that they were bishops, priests and religious.

Today the Church has a more “professional” approach. In many of its seen roles in the world (for example, in education and welfare) it stands alongside parallel civic bodies. When it speaks on these issues it speaks with the combined wisdom of the world. It does not, therefore, speak with the same definitiveness. And the right to speak with authority in the Church no longer comes with ordination or religious profession. Church authorities now have degrees and have done professional courses.

The world today cries out for a new vision — a vision for people.

We rightly reacted against a hierarchical church, hut perhaps in its place we arc building a departmental bureaucracy. It could be said that instead of dismantling the hierarchy, what we have done is to open the way to allowing a few religious and lay people to take positions among the higher echelons of the hierarchy. Even this could be a step forward, but we have to be careful that we are not building an image of the church as a bureaucracy with many departments and of religion as a consumer product.

You know the sort of thing I mean by that. You even hear people say: “Oh. I don’t go to Mass here in my parish. I go 20 miles away to Mass in such and such a parish, because they have a better liturgy there. It’s like saying: “I don’t shop at Woolies, I go to Target because the quality is better there.” If Mass is a consumer product for each individual, then it is natural that you go for the best bargains.

The Church is a Family of People

We do have structures in the Church — and it is important that they be efficient and well organised. But they arc not the church, they arc like TVs in a home a good thing, useful for education, communication, a source of acts and ideas, entertainment and relaxation. Every home should have one — but not if TV dominates home tile, eliminating communication, a source of rows and wrong programmes. Then it would be better if the TV was banned from the home for six months until the family learnt once again to be a family.

When we talk about the Church we talk about people. There is nothing new in saying this. But culturally we have not been taught to think of the Church as people. We have thought of the Church as an institution to which people belong — which needs people to serve and support it. We think of the Church as the preserver of doctrine and the container of the gospel, needing its special servants to understand and expound these truths. But the mystery of the Church is simply that it is People. It is a divine society, not because of an infallible doctrine or an incorruptible organisation, but because Jesus called people lo follow him and still does.

In Conclusion

What does all this mean in practice? I think that we, priests, religious and bishops, need to give strong leadership here. We have almost to take what the government would call ‘affirmative action’ in granting status and recognition to the mission of laity in their lay lives.

We can do this by the way we talk to them and the importance we place on learning about and affirming the action they are taking in everyday living. We can do it in our courses and homilies. We can do it by granting priority and enthusiasm to movements or groups that are specifically aimed at formation in lay life. We can ensure that a reasonable proportion of church funds and resources goes in this direction.

Also, we can strive to break down the image of the church as a bureaucracy. Sometimes the very architecture of the parish houses or administration centres that we are building is not helpful in this. To sec the priest can be very much like seeing a doctor or a lawyer — even down to the secretary who comes into the waiting room to say: “Father will see you now.” Not all of us, (I’m not only speaking about bishops here) can do a Helder Camara and move out of the palace into a house on the street and not always would that be necessarily a good thing anyway. But we all need to listen and be challenged by his action, and to respond in our own way.


You hear people today talking about the first, second, and third world. What are these three “worlds”? The first world has its centre in the USA and includes all the capitalist nations that went through their industrial revolution in the 19th century. The second world has its centre in Russia and includes the communist nations that went through their industrial revolution in the first half of the 20th century. The third world refers to the areas of Africa, Asia and Latin America which are only now going through their industrial revolution.

Each of these “worlds” has a different key problem. The third world problem is economic the suffering of the poor. The second world’s problem is political — the absence of freedom including religious freedom. Often these problems are set up in competition with one another. So, if you speak out against communism, they call you a cappo or a right wing reactionary. But if you speak out against poverty in the third world, they call you a commo or a pinkie. Helder Camara said: “If 1 give food to the poor, they call me a saint. If I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

It is, of course, our responsibility to speak out on behalf of others who are oppressed economically or politically. But tonight I want to put it to you that we need to clean up our own back yard as well. We don’t have the economic problems of the third world nor the political problems of the second world. Our key problem is a cultural one — a problem of meaning, of direction, of control. In the first world progress itself is going through a crisis.

The Worship of Progress and the Liberal Consensus

You remember Rip Van Winkle in the Brisbane presentation? Science and technology (especially in the years 1900—1970) did so much to conquer the age—old curses of poverty, hunger, disease and toil. And so we made gods of science and technology. We came to think that they would solve all human problems and all human limitations and that this would come about not by human virtue but by the advance of technology alone. We believed that this could be achieved by concerning ourselves with the increase of wealth and forgetting the problems of the distribution of wealth. We thought that with sufficient overall growth the condition of the poor would inevitably be improved. And you can still hear politicians and industrialists saying the same sort of thing today. It is what is known as the liberal consensus.

Well, we got our growth, all right — phenomenal growth in wealth, technology and power phenomenal growth also in consumerism. And what has been the result? The hope of humanity had been that science and technology would liberate humanity. The reality is that humanity is threatened with destruction by scientific and technological means.

1. Instead of bringing general economic well-being, we find the human community split with a widening gap between the rich and the poor.

2. We are injuring the earth ecologically, and so depleting the supply of non-renewable resources that neither the poor, nor future generations, will have enough.

3. Our weapons industry has resulted in the possibility and the fear that a handful of people could subject the earth to an apocalypse without help of God’s intervention.

I don’t think that anybody here will oppose these things as facts. Any study will show them to be true. Recent popes have warned us of them time and time again. But the problem of speaking out on these issues as Pope John Paul has pointed out is this. The people who today most loudly espouse these causes often do it from an ideological stance. Anyone else calling attention to these things is accused of buying the whole ideological stance. For myself: 1 wouldn’t like you to think that I stand behind every trendy left wing rally or greenie demo, or that I subscribe to all the opinions of every peace group. But I know that I, as a person, a Christian, a catholic, a priest, have no right to stand silent before things that are such an obscenity, such a denial of God’s and people’s rights, such a destruction of the world he gave us to love and develop.

A Hope for the Future

What, then, is the answer? What specifically is it that we want to change concerning the world?

The modern world in first world countries, founded on a vision of growth and progress and prosperity that would come through gains of science and technology, has grown too big and blustery and out of control. It has not brought prosperity for all and, as Michael Campbell pointed out, it has brought alienation for people.

The problem is a cultural one and a spiritual one a problem of meaning. The world today cries out for a new vision a vision for people. And I put it to you that this could be a role that the Church could take — a leadership that it could give.

A Parable of Hope

I would like to conclude with an example that might serve as a parable of the sort of thing I mean. The YCW national office is now in Granville, a western suburb of Sydney. The YCW and the YCW housing co-operative own two houses there, a hundred yards apart.

The area we live in is a “type example” of much of what we have talked about here this week. There are many nationalities represented in the community — Lebanese, European, Vietnamese, Samoan, etc. Grandma next door is Lebanese and can speak no English. The Vietnamese over the road are “out-workers” with a shirt factory in the garage going day and night.

There are families torn apart by alcohol, poverty and divorce, and a family where the traditional breadwinner lost his job and finally took his own life. Unemployed youths use the lane at the back of our place as a place to take, strip and leave stolen cars. There is racial prejudice and tension. The unemployed are resentful of the out-workers. Many workers are away from home twelve hours a day with work and travel. And the over-riding atmosphere is of a people who are loners individualistic — and suspicious of one another.

The YCW people walk the street between the two houses and they have knocked on the doors and met the people. They have barbecues and parties often — at which neighbours are welcome and do come. They play cricket with the kids in the street, and pull the community vacuum cleaner from one house up the street to the other. And the Lebanese woman gives us Pita bread and vegetable goulash. The Vietnamese help to set up the garden and grow vegetables, a family lends us gardening tools, and a neighbour comes in to help with carpentry jobs.

Without doing much, those YCW people arc building a new world in that community by propagating a new, a Christian, a spiritual vision. And its centre is not so much a doctrine or an ideology as a set of values for life displayed and taught by action — values of community, of trust, of modesty in living, of openness to give and to receive. It is in the formation of people to this sort of vision and action, and the recognition and enthusiasm for this vision of life within work places, families and communities, that 1 see the hope and the task of the future. And I repeat I would like to see the Church invest time and resources, and accept the role of leadership in this work.


Hugh O’Sullivan in Pathway for People, An Australian YCW Presentation on the Mission of the Laity in the Modern World, p. 38-45, Australian YCW, 1987

Acknowledgement: “Linking Faith and Justice”, “The Modern Crisis of Progress” Joe Holland and Peter Henriot S.J., Chicago Center of Concern.