I suspect that many, like me, felt the painful paradox of a Church in crisis during the week. The sentencing of Cardinal Pell, the highest ranking prelate in the Catholic hierarchy, to a six year prison sentence for five counts of child abuse is a shock and a sadness that has irrevocably compromised the position of the Church across the country and throughout the world. It is a defining moment in Australian history and one that will continue to reverberate for generations to come. Despite the achievements of a Church that has fought valiantly for social justice and reform over its long and, at times, colourful but now questionable history, recent events have shattered an image that will take the exigencies of honesty, commitment and integrity to rebuild. There was, and remains, only one way forward, and that is to support the victims whose lives have been ravaged and whose futures have been so terribly compromised. In the words of the Bishop of Canberra, Patrick Power, “… we need a Church that is more human, more humble, more inclusive, less clerical and more open …” – one which reflects the person of Jesus and the values of the Gospel. There is much to answer for and much to regret through all that has transpired not only during the week, but over decades that have seen abuses exposed and institutions held accountable. We begin that process by openly recognising the mistakes of the past, committing to a new future, and, unreservedly supporting those who have suffered the disbelief and marginalisation, the consuming world of shame and the trauma associated with it.
Over recent weeks we have seen the painful paradox of drenching rain in Queensland that has flooded river systems and destroyed roads, infrastructure and equipment, alongside of the excruciating impact of drought. This has taken a very personal turn for one of our families who recently visited Cloncurry, one hour south of Mt Isa:
[One family] has had over 1500 losses but have stopped counting; 400 of that number were stud cattle in one paddock and as of yet we haven’t seen any calves. It is meant to be calving season now so it is a complete disaster. All families here explain that it was the driving winds and unprecedented freezing weather that killed many of the cattle on properties where they weren’t completely submerged. The mass losses, some 400 and upwards, lie dead in corners and on fence lines in the paddocks because the cattle and horses generally walk away from winds and rain. So they, as a mob, kept walking away from the winds and rain; they had to stop on the fence line and couldn’t go any further, so that’s where they got trapped. It’s a pattern as they mainly died on the western side of their paddocks. A friend of ours lost 4000 head of bullocks on one western fence line. Bullocks… big strong bullocks… I can only imagine how cold and relentless it was for them to perish in that weather storm. They can’t bury anything yet; it is still too soft for heavy machinery so many of the men just haven’t gone back to the paddocks where there are mass losses. It’s the only way they can cope. Definite total loss numbers no one will really know until their first muster but that won’t be for ages as they are leaving all livestock alone while they recover… many are still dying now on very wet properties because they are stressed, hungry, have pneumonia or rain scalding which ends up looking like eczema. The stories are endless… the locals are taking one day at a time and keep on saying that there are worse off people than them. So true, but the livestock losses are just unfathomable.
While the northern section of the country is inundated, many of our boarding families are suffering the ongoing effects of the drought. Most recently, Adrian Byrne and Gus Masters visited our families in Nyngan, Warren, Bourke, Dubbo and surrounding regions and they were shocked at the state of the land. One of our boys lives at Louth, which is contiguous to the Darling River – the fourth longest river in Australia. There has not been decent rains in three years and the mighty Darling is dry – completely devoid of water. Another family lives in Girilambone, which is just north-west of Nyngan. The dust storms over recent weeks have been horrific, with powdered topsoil that holds no moisture being whipped into clouds of thick and penetrating dust that violates every seam and opening in households, cupboards and drawers. Both families have been hand-feeding stock every two days for the last two years and failure to maintain this demanding regimen will see the stock perish overnight.
Those in central Sydney are quarantined from the immediate and debilitating effects of the floods and drought that are wreaking havoc in rural areas. This fusion of extremes has produced a rare phenomenon in central Australia, rather oddly referred to as the dry flood. This is where the flows of water that are so substantial in northern Australia flood back into areas such as Birdsville that have had no rain, yet are inundated with water. The Diamantina River, which is dry for years on end, may swell to be 60 kms wide. While one part of the country perilously survives massive flood waters, the other bakes in heat and aridity. I am in awe of our country families who, day after day, rise to the dry landscapes and stoically go about their routines in the hope that rain is around the corner. May we be acutely mindful of them as we embrace the milder tones of autumn over the coming weeks, and may we offer a prayer or two for climates that will nourish the ground, feed the stock and return the countryside to equilibrium for those who depend upon it.
In theological terms, living with paradox is a daily and at times confronting reality. It challenges us to our very core – the hardship produced by climatic extremes, the polarity of rich and poor, the disparities endemic to health and disease, life and death, and most recently, the betrayal of a Church that has done so much good and so very much harm. Let us not resile from naming the latter, for unless we do we will be constrained by an illusion that is not consistent with reality, and while that is the case, we cannot move ahead.