Opening Address for the Biennial Conference of the Australian Association of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem, Rhodes and Malta, “Embracing the Challenge”
Hilton Hotel, Sydney
Despite his many accolades, the Canadian poet-singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen is perhaps best known for his hit song Hallelujah. Since its first release in 1984, the song has been covered by many artists; when Cohen himself performed it, it received standing ovations from huge crowds, including on his last tour to Australia in 2013. Growing up in an observant Jewish household, he continued to practice Judaism till his death. Nonetheless, he also dabbled in Zen, was at one time ordained a Buddhist monk, and said he was inspired by Catholic social doctrine. He also said Jesus was “the most beautiful guy to ever walk the face of this earth”.
When asked about the meaning of his song, Hallelujah, Cohen explained: “This world is full of conflicts and things that cannot be reconciled, but there are moments when we can transcend the [binaries]… and reconcile… Regardless of how impossible the situation, there is a moment when you open your mouth, throw open your arms and embrace the whole mess… and you just say ‘Hallelujah! Blessed is the name.’” For Cohen, who was regularly demoralised or depressed, the song was about hope. But it was also about acknowledging that there are some problems in our world that are so big they are beyond us; we need humbly to recognise that the solution is not always in our hands, and to trust that there is a bigger picture we cannot see. When we occasionally glimpse that bigger picture, our response is to cry out ‘Hallelujah! Blessed is the name.’
Our conference theme, Embracing the Challenge, begins like Cohen’s song in a dark place. We are realistic about the challenges the Church faces in Australia today and directly or indirectly this conference will reflect upon several of them:
- ongoing secularisation and resurgent sectarianism, and the consequent threats to religious liberty in Australia today
- the impact of the clergy child sexual abuse crisis, including justified anger and understandable disillusionment for the terrible things done to the young by some Church personnel and by the failures of some Church leaders to respond; as Pope Francis said in his recent Apostolic Exhortation Christus Vivit, we must see in the justified anger of those betrayed and insulted the very wrath of God, and be resolute in our determination that this terrible chapter of our history is never repeated
- the ready piggy-backing by those with various agendas upon these failures and efforts to punish the institution by scapegoating some church leaders, undermining church schools, and even criminalising a sacrament
- meanwhile demographic, social and cultural change continues apace in Australia and this is impacting upon crucial institutions such as the family
- significant polarisation in aspirations for the Church going forward, as reflected in submissions to the upcoming Plenary Council for Australia, and uncertainty about the future roles and responsibilities of pastors and laity within the Church, especially of women
- the Order’s response through the witness of its charitable works for our lords the sick and poor, and through action in defence of the Faith and the very right to profess and practice it.
There is so much to be said about the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ and ‘what-to-dos’ of all this, but I know it has left many of the faithful even within our Order shocked, grieving, traumatised. Times like these remind us that death and resurrection is the ordinary cycle for Christians. When tempted to despair, we might recall the first Christians who suffered terribly at the hands of the ancient Romans and then saw that empire collapsing around them: little did they imagine that a whole new civilization was just round corner, inspired by Christian ideals, advanced by the monastic movement, the great Fathers of the Church, and other evangelical energies. Or at the end of the first millennium, when the corruption of Church leaders appalled everyone and dark dualist heresies re-emerged in Europe: who would have guessed the medieval flowering ahead, promoted through the new universities, scholastic theology and great preacher-saints. Or in the depths of the Reformation and Wars of Religion, when the Church was torn asunder and seemed resistant to the deep reform it needed: few conceived what a spiritual Renaissance was afoot, progressed by new religious movements such as the Jesuits, a new Christian humanism, the mission to the New World and, again, new saints. Or when the Enlightenment’s Reign of Terror, Napoleonic violence and totalizing ideologies threatened to deChristianize the West: who knew that the great 19th-century missionary and teaching orders were just around the corner, to evangelize the Pacific, establish schools and hospitals all over Australia, and produce another crop of new saints?
Time and again seers have declared that God is dead and the Church doomed; but by living in God’s grace, Christianity has recovered its spiritual roots, regained its evangelical energy, retrieved its intellectual seriousness, and reimagined its social contribution. Even as our Church experiences another dark before the dawn, we Christians must renew our zeal for the conversion of both Church and society, and of all those carried by Church and culture: our great institutions, neighbours, faithful. As part of that and prior to that, we must be converted ourselves; we must surrender our grief at all we’ve lost, our anger and frustration at those who’ve failed us, even our vulnerability to persecution, renewing our consistent witness to the truth by word and deeds, and recommitting to our works of mercy that are the Church at its best. In the conference ahead, we have a programme full of impressive speakers to lead our reflection and conversation upon some of these topics.
Today the Church celebrates the Feast of the Visitation, the very first Christian conference! Two pregnant women experience the joys and anxieties of being new mothers for new families. “Hallelujah,” says Elizabeth, “how lucky am I to be visited by the most blessed of women and within her my Lord and God!”
“Hallelujah,” says the unborn Baby John, Patron of our Order, as he does somersaults in the womb.
“Hallelujah,” says Mary also, “my soul is bursting as it glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for He has done great things for me and mine.”
Lots of cries of Alleluia today but, as Cohen appreciated, not without struggle. One mum faces potential disgrace in a world that does not understand how she conceived, possible rejection by her betrothed, a future as a single mother; a Temple prophet would soon promise a figurative sword would one day pierce her heart as a literal one ran her Son’s heart through. The other mum, though saved the pressure of modern genetic tests, must navigate the challenges of mothering in old age, as well as her husband’s no-speaks. Both women knew that life with their children would be very challenging. But both entrusted it all to God and sang their Alleluia chorus.
What was it about Jesus that made Leonard Cohen so ‘very fond’ of Him? “Any guy who says ‘Blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek’ has got to be a figure of unparalleled generosity and insight and madness,” he said. “A man who declared himself to stand among the thieves, prostitutes and homeless… it’s an inhuman generosity, a generosity that would have overthrown the world had it been embraced, because nothing could weather such compassion.” And what we Christians know, and perhaps Cohen does now too, is that that greater-than-human generosity and irresistible compassion who is Christ has indeed overcome the world; what’s more, He renews that world, again and again.
Calling for a gallantry that must surely be a hallmark of the Order of Malta, Pope Francis recently said in Christus vivit “we must not abandon our Mother [the Church] when she is wounded.” We need to recover a certain chivalrousness toward her and a courage in comporting ourselves in the public domain, all the while displaying dignity, humility, vulnerability, all along demonstrating the reality of our compassion through acts of genuine service. Whatever hardships we face there is joy offered us now and fullness of joy yet to come. “I am the servant of the Lord”, says Our Lady of Philerme. As members and friends of her Order of Malta we say the same: let God’s word be done in us. Hallelujah.
 Jim Devlin, Leonard Cohen: In His Own Words (Omnibus Press, 1998).