My Interview with Bishop Julian Porteous

Bishop Porteous discusses his latest publication
David Schütz
4th October, 2010

Bishop Julian Porteous, Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney and Episcopal Vicar for Renewal and Evangelisation, has just published his latest book, A New Wine and Fresh Skins. While in Melbourne recently, he spoke to me about the book and its subject – ecclesial movements.

Firstly, I want to congratulate you on your seventh anniversary of ordination as a bishop. What are some of the really great things of the last seven years that stick out in your mind in your ministry as a bishop?

I’d always envisaged my life as a priest in a parish, and so becoming bishop was really a surprise and took me into a new level that I had never really anticipated or given much thought to. And initially, I found it quite an overwhelming thought just coming into that sense of the identity of being a bishop, being a successor of the Apostles. But since then my life as a bishop has been a position where you can in one sense contribute more directly to the direction of the church, to fostering the church’s ongoing life and growth, and development, whereas in a parish you tend to be pastorally caring for a community. Now as a bishop your horizons broaden, and your perspective is enhanced considerably. So I find now that my role is a bishop has in one sense expanded my mind and caused me to look at the broader issues of the church. One of the phrases that really touched me about being a bishop was that a bishop is not only to have pastoral concern for his immediate diocese but is also to have “solicitude for the churches”. This book is a product of that, of moving away from a focus on the immediate, to looking at the broader question of what is happening in the church, how the spirit of God is active in church.

Your new book is about “ecclesial movements”. What is an “ecclesial movement”?

There are many movements in the church. There are spiritual movements, religious movements, and apostolic movements, such as St Vincent De Paul and things like that, a whole range of movements. But an “ecclesial movement” is a movement which involves not just lay people, not just religious, nor a purely clerical movement (like the Jesuits). You’re looking at all three, and single life as well: the four basic states of life being realised within a single movement. People either join the movement and then pursue a particular vocation within the movement, or people in a particular vocation will become a part of it. So priests could join a movement or a young man could be involved in a movement and then discover his vocation to be a priest in the movement. Ecclesial movements will give witness to all states of life.

The key thing about the movements is there is very evidently a grace that carries them, something which is new, a new conversion, something which animates people’s faith to a new discovery of the way in which they can live their faith. So this takes a whole new focus. A whole range of things can happen which bring about some degree of inner conversion, some experience of grace in the person.

Many movements are identified around the charismatic founder, such as Monsignor Escriva and Opus Dei. You’ve got these people who have a particular charism and a kind of vision of the Christian life and a vision for apostolic activities, mission and evangelisation, and they somehow encapsulate a particular charism with a clear and quite explicit direction.

Were the movements something you are interested in parish ministry or is this something which has come with your new perspective as a bishop?

I think my own personal journey has been closely associated with ecclesial movements. I’ve had a close association with them as they have developed in Australia. But then, as a bishop, it has caused me to again think even more broadly than the couple of movements I have been aware of and had some association with, to look more generally the reality of the church today. What is happening? Why has there been this proliferation of new movements emerging in the last 40 or 50 years in the church?

Could you just name so movements that it actually had some personal experience of?

In terms of my own personal journey there was an encounter with the Charismatic Renewal in the early 70s, and then with Covenant Communities (particularly with the Disciples of Jesus community, the Emmanuel community in Brisbane), subsequently with the Emmanuel community from France, which I have had a lot of association with for quite a while, and through that through meeting up with other communities and suddenly becoming conscious of a lot of other movements.

The title of the book is A New Wine and Fresh Skins. I was wondering whether Old Wine in New Skins might not have been a better title, especially as you go to into some detail about the historical precedents to these ecclesial movements.

I think that always the vitality and youth of the church is always found through the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is always able to generate new life. So I think there is a “new wine”, it’s like a new vintage I suppose, of a wine that has been there throughout the Church’s history, on an old vine. The Spirit is ever fresh in the church. And so I think that there is a fresh movement of the Spirit and it’s given expressions that are distinctive to this moment in history. So you could call that a “new wine” even though the source of that is the one Spirit that’s been throughout the churches history.

In your book you explain that the Holy Spirit is the “soul” of the church. Can you expand a little on what that means?

I think I would attribute that back to Pope Paul VI, who had a particularly fine appreciation of the place and the role of the Holy Spirit in the church. Certainly the real history of the church is a spiritual journey not a political one. I mean it has a political life and social life, it has institutions and agencies and activities and so forth and these are all the physical manifestations of the church – but the animating principle behind all this is its spiritual life. And the church has a spiritual life, and at times the spiritual life of the church is very vibrant and out of that richness and vitality of the spiritual life comes the institutions or the activities or the movements or great theology or great spiritual classics. But really the heart of the church is its spiritual life and I think that’s often not recognised enough, and often people think, oh, this person did a great thing or this institution achieved great results or this Pope was a great leader. We often think of it at that human level, but don’t give enough consciousness to the fact that the church in the end is a work of God, is the work of the Holy Spirit.

In his book “The Future Church” John L. Allen Jnr talks about the emergence of “evangelical Catholicism”, particularly characterised by a strong Catholic identity and a strong mission focus. Are the movements part of that?

I am in the process of reading Allen’s book at the moment. One of the things about the ecclesial movements is that along with some sort of evangelical renewal, some sort of discovery of the gospel as a spiritual regeneration taking place in the hearts and lives of the members of the movement, has gone a drawing through Catholic identity to linking clearly with the Pope, the bishops with a sense of the church. Now that’s a very significant fact because historically there have been movements that have developed but have stood on the periphery of the church, to criticise the church, and often gone and broken away from the church because these movements have felt that the church hasn’t met up to their standards.

And now I think that the great grace of these ecclesial movements is that they haven’t done that. They’ve actually come about through individual process of interior renewal and revitalisation of faith. There is a strong evangelical spiritual dimension. At the same time they have wanted to be correctly linked and have embraced the church and haven’t seen the two in conflict with each other. That has been a very significant thing because the opposite has been the case in a lot of evangelical movements. St Francis is an excellent example. Historically you have Waldensians, the Poor Men of Lyons, all sorts of groups, the Brogomils, the Albigensians that actually have been clearly striving for renewal, but placed themselves in opposition to the Church as an institution, and often have taken theological positions and so forth which just put themselves outside the church.

You write about the emerging realisation of the importance of the vocation of the lay person in the world. Why has this understanding just emerging in recent times?

One of the comments I have often made is that the renewal movements in the past have often started with lay people (the Franciscans are a good example) but ended up being a religious order. The desert fathers started as a lay movement, then a lot of them become clericalised over time and took on the form of religious life. So the Catholic experience has often been one where religious movements are explicitly connected to the mission of the church. A lot of spiritual movements which touched lay people have nurtured people interiorly, such as prayer movements and things like that, but in terms of actual apostolic movements you don’t have many instances of that.

In an Address to the Pastoral Convention of the Diocese of Rome in May 2009, Pope Benedict called for “a change in mindset, particularly concerning lay people”. He said that “They must no longer be viewed as “collaborators” of the clergy but truly recognized as “co-responsible”, for the Church’s being and action, thereby fostering the consolidation of a mature and committed laity.” Do you think this change in mindset is actually happening and what part do the ecclesial movements play in this development?

In the book I do try to trace very simply a couple of key moments and of course the second Vatican Council and its “people of God” ecclesiology really set the scene for the development. I think it meant that movements had a far greater possibility of emerging and being recognised and appreciated by the church because of that ecclesiology. A good example would be Frank Duff establishing the Legion of Mary. At first it was very much about assisting the parish priest, “we are there to help Father, and we’ll visit people in the homes, and we’ll do certain things”, but it was always sort of seen as the extension of the role of the priest. Now to a certain extent Duff was ahead of his time. He promoted the lay apostolate but at the same time he was tied to the ecclesiology prior to the 2nd Vatican Council. Since the Council, the capacity to say that the lay person engages in the mission of the church, not just by living the Catholic life but by being in the mission of the church by virtue of their baptism, laid the ground for a movement to develop which lay people could lead. This is especially the case of some of the later movements, for instance Focolari, which will always be led by a woman. That was Chiara Lubich’s decision and Pope John Paul supported her in this. He was very strong about that. “Yes, yes”, he said, not only to be a lay person but to be a woman. There will be a priest responsible for those who are priests in the movement, but that was no problem. Whereas I think prior to the council it was “no-no”: if priests are involved priests have to run it. After the Vatican Council the development of ecclesiology just freed up the whole environment for the nurturing of these movements which could have lay leadership – priests involved, but the priests aren’t automatically the leaders.

You must have a vast experience of individual stories, of people whose lives have been changed through involvement in the movements. Could you just share perhaps one or two stories personal stories that strike you as demonstrating what life is like for someone in the movements?

In the book I comment on the fact that I think the movements are going to give rise to a whole lot of new saints. This will be something that will bring about a lot of lay saints, and married saints. One example: I’ve just read a story, about a young woman called Chiara Luce. As a young woman, she and her parents were involved in the Focolare movement, and she was involved with the Gen 3’s, which is the junior, the young 8 to 16-year-olds group, and she was stricken down with cancer. She died at the age of 18, but her testimony and her whole spirit was an extraordinary one of just living in profound union of Christ and her whole desire was to bring love, the love of God, into every relationship, which is one of the components of the Focolare spirituality. Now she is about to be beatified, I think in the next few months, even before Chiara Lubich who founded Focolare. So she’s one of the first, not even one of the founders, but one of the first members of the movements, that I know of, at least in the movements in the last 50 years, to be raised to the altar.

What about married couples? Do you know married couples involved in the movements how it affects their faith?

It would be hard to single out one, you see so many. One of the things the ecclesial movement does is bring to married couples and families a way of actually living the Catholic life with intense authenticity. I think that one of the challenges of family life now is helping parents are Catholic in finding ways of actually bringing the faith alive in family life. The new movements often provide not only formation of the parents but also provide formation to children, and help nurture an environment in which you have other couples who are also striving, not just to have a personal spirituality but to actually live the Christian life within the family. I think the movements are very important because they actually help Christian family life be realised more effectively. I visited a family of a movement in Sydney a couple months back and just to see the way that the children, towards the end of the meal before they went off to bed, went with their parents to that part of the lounge room where they had a shrine, a statue of our Lady and candles, and the whole family gathered in front. These are primary schoolchildren, mum and dad, and there was a whole period of prayer. This is a family saying that our faith will be lived in a very real way. So I think movements have been very important in assisting couples in the way they develop true Christian family life.

What happens with community when the founder dies? You’ve quoted John Paul II saying “the passage from the original charism to the movement happens through the mysterious attraction that the founder holds for all those who become involved in his spiritual experiences.”

This is an issue that I think a lot of communities are now having to confront particularly in the last 40 year period. A good example would be Chiara Lubich, who died just a few years ago now. You’ve got the state now where communities have been clearly founded around the charism of the founder and have found themselves as the carrier of the leader’s charism whose word and vision are quite sacrosanct. But then when the founder dies or when he steps aside a new leadership comes up and that can be a difficult phase for a community. Sometimes these communities have gone through particularly difficult phase of transition. And to a certain extent the second generation of leadership cannot be the same, the second leader is not the founder. They may be a part of the founding group, they may be the key person in the organisation, but they don’t have the same authority, the same spiritual authority, if you like, as the founder.

So one of the things I talk about in the book is the whole question of leadership because it’s a critical issue. Movements need to have a transition from focus on the leader to leaders who may have been elected by some groups in the community and, I think preferably, should have terms of office so they’re not going to have a lifetime. Whereas the founder can have a lifetime leadership role, at the next level of leadership there needs to be statues that capture the charism and the structure of the community. Whereas with the founder you can rely on the founder’s vision to carry things, when you move to the next generation you really need to rely upon some rule of life or some description of the nature of the community and you need to look at structures the leadership and election of leaders and terms of office and so on. So that may not be an easy process within many movements. The movements are coming across difficulties.

I know that in some parts of the world the movements are actually a major focus of church life, such as in Italy and France, but what is the situation of the movements in the life in the church in Australia?

There are many movements present in Australia. Most of them are relatively small so they don’t have the capacity for large scale activities, like the Emanuel community in France which has now spread across the world. For instance, they’ll bring together 30,000 people over the summer sessions. We have no community that can bring anywhere near that here; if you got 500 to an event that would be a major achievement. So we don’t have the numbers, we don’t have the strength of presence in the church that we have in the other parts of the world. We also have a wide proliferation of communities, so there’s no one community or no particular style of community that is dominant in Australia. We have quite an array of them. But that does mean that there is a diversity within the Church in Australia and that the movements are making a contribution not so much as movements as such but as the members of the movements in one way or another contribute to the Church. They come to positions of leadership or diocesan positions, and other certain activities. But you have to say for a lot of ordinary Catholics there wouldn’t be a lot of awareness of their presence or their contribution to the Church in Australia. At the same time we should not underestimate the fact that the movements that are in Australia are making a significant contribution and there would be thousands of Catholics in Australia whose life in the Church and whose contribution to the life of the Church and mission of the Church has been animated by participation.

What is the greatest gift that you think the new movements have the church?

I think at the present moment the Catholic Church in a country like Australia is struggling to come to grips with changes in society mainly influenced by the rise of secularism. Or another way of putting it would be to say that there has been significant loss of faith. We can point to the next generation of young people who are not drawn tour attracted to the church, but even a lot of older Catholics who are traditionally Catholics have developed a slightly jaundiced view of the Church and have taken on board a bit of the secular mindset. They may be tribally Catholic but a lot of their thoughts about the church are formed by their society rather than by their Catholic faith. This is a particular challenge and a lot of the institutions and structures that exist within the church (the local parish, schools and so on) are not effectively able to address this.

I think movements are key because they are actually touching individual Catholics and bringing about a significant revitalisation of their faith and drawing them back into the heart of the church. And so I would see that the movements are really a pretty good presence for the church in this moment of our history because there aren’t a lot of other things that are terribly effective in being able to address the challenges that are facing the Church, especially secularisation. So I think they are of vital importance, and clearly this was what was said by John Paul II, and so that’s why they do deserve at least more recognition and appreciation for the fact that they are a gift of God for the church in our time.

I wrote the book because a lot of people just don’t know [about the movements], so I put a lot of stories and a lot of information to help people understand what the movements really are. With just about all of them I have had personal connections; in most cases I was able to talk to people [directly involved]. I knew them, and because I had a long association [with them] I would often come across people from, for instance, the Beatitudes community and sit down and have a cup of coffee with them and find out what they’re doing. So I got to know the communities over the years just by virtue of my interest in them.

So a lot of the information is actually gleaned personally from the members, did you find much secondary material written on the movements as you were preparing the book?

You will see that my bibliography is very short. There’s not much written at all and very little is written in English. I thought I needed to be descriptive because I felt we needed to get basic information and provide a source of people to get basic information about the movements. The rights have already been sold to the UK and the Emanuel community is publishing it in France. They’re doing a French edition, so there seems to be a worldwide demand, and there’ll be a fair demand in the US too. I haven’t found anything remotely close to this in terms of English writing.

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