"Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)

Of God and Safeguarding

Thomas Ryan sm
JTom Ryan

Safeguarding, protection of children and vulnerable adults: protocols, police checks, training. Who would have imagined these words as daily currency in the Catholic Church 20 years ago? Since then, we’ve been confronted by the devastating moral failure of the Church (and other institutions) – in public ministry and leadership.

The sexual abuse crisis, it has been said, is, perhaps, the Church’s 9/11. We are called to confront deliberate denial and evil. This requires, most importantly, acknowledging the pain and suffering of victims and survivors and a determination to stand with them.

In this, our Church must share more deeply (and painfully) in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Yet, this crisis is also an opportunity - highlighting the Church’s role in humanity’s evolving moral awareness. Our response may be part of the ‘new order of human relations’ in the unfolding of God’s plan (‘inscrutable designs’) proclaimed by John XXIII in opening Vatican II in 1962.

Protecting the innocent calls for a radical shift in the Church’s self-understanding and culture. It’s perhaps bigger than children and vulnerable adults. ‘Culture’ is about the ‘felt meanings’ (beliefs, attitudes and behaviours) by which we direct our lives as a faith community. Failing to act on such convictions often means harm to others from not noticing what we should have noticed. We should (rightly) feel responsible and ashamed.

Keep me safe O God...

Safeguarding protocols point to a broader moral horizon. To ‘own’ them, we must probe what they say about God. Faith urges us to try to understand God (and ourselves) better. How is ‘safeguarding’ part of the ways of God?

First, we return to the God revealed in the Hebrew story and in Jesus. The Prophets so often speak of God as ‘always faithful’. Such fidelity is anchored in remembering: ‘I will never forget you my people: I have carved your name on the palms of my hands’ (Is. 49: 15-16).

For God’s community, being faithful is to remember; being unfaithful is to forget – who we are (a needed reminder from the Royal Commission). These are the benchmarks against which the God of the Covenant measures fidelity. True worship flowers in mercy and compassion. Importantly, it produces the fruits of justice, particularly, in how one treats those most disadvantaged – the widow, the orphan and the stranger. This is not just about mercy. It’s about what should be done, the claims of those in need, what we all have a duty to give.

Second, have we overlooked something about God? Holiness primarily denotes God’s transcendence and ‘otherness’ – someone totally beyond us. But, in the God of our Jewish heritage, what is holy and what is right and just are closely intertwined. Why? Because God is personal - present and active in events and people as with us and for us.

Hence, harm to anyone, especially more vulnerable members of society, offends God’s holiness. That is why the Prophets are so vehement about social justice, or, better, social injustice. Jesus captured it thus: ‘the sabbath was made for man not man for the sabbath’ (Mk. 2: 27-8).

Check the opening of Psalm 15. ‘Yahweh, who has the right to enter your tent, or to live on your holy mountain?’ The next four verses give the answer - by acting justly. One is a guest in the Lord’s house (shares divine holiness), by sharing in divine justice. This is graphically portrayed in the Last Judgement scene (Matt. 25: 31-46).

...You are my Hope

How does Jesus reveal this God of holiness measured through justice?

Consider scenes where Jesus is deeply moved by the plight of people, especially the most vulnerable: a widow whose son has died; a woman with a debilitating illness; children who trigger his protective love; his reaching out to ‘strangers’ – whether the man in the ditch (and the Samaritan) or the leper - an ‘outsider’, a non- person in others’ eyes.

At such moments, we see God’s holiness in Jesus’ sense of the injustice and unfairness of, for instance, prejudices. These are the distorted ‘felt meanings’ of a culture - as in boundaries about what was clean and unclean, of who did or did not belong.

Again, Jesus, without sin, totally identified with our common humanity - ‘not incapable of feeling our weaknesses with us’ (Heb. 4:15). He felt vulnerable - to pain, rejection, even to mistaken views about people. Think of Jesus’ amazement at the Centurion’s (unexpected) faith – a non- Israelite. If God is just because God is holy, that is revealed in Jesus. But such qualities are in him as one like us (and today’s Church) – knowing fragility, shame, vulnerability and the need to learn from experience.

In considering a safeguarding and protecting God, we look (in hope) to Jesus for how to be more morally ‘in tune.’ Jesus is not only the model we imitate for the head, heart and hands we must cultivate. He wants to identify with us. We participate in the ‘dying/rising’ pattern of God’s life through putting on the mind (and heart) of Christ, individually and as a Church. Sharing God’s desire to protect and keep people safe is integral to the Church’s mission.

Let’s return to holiness and justice. Catholic morality has tended to focus on ‘me and God’. Sin, then, was primarily seen as an offence against God. If that is fixed up by ‘going to confession’, all is OK.

Recent events emphasize that approach is clearly inadequate. The Christian moral life is less about me and more about We - recovering our Hebrew roots. Being moral (just) and sharing God’s holiness is personal and about relationships. As one author says:

God Loves Us
We Love God
We and God form a community
We and God cooperate.

[Edward Collins Vacek SJ, Love: Human and Divine, xv.]

Here, sin is not simply an offence against God as holy. As an evil, it often entails some form of harm, damage, even, injustice. At times, reparation and restoration are imperative. Again, an action may not be public but private but it still has social repercussions. It can involve a more distorted perception of life (and people) or a disposition to be more self-focused. Safeguarding concerns what really matters to us. It brings to mind the old adage: each of us is our brother and sister’s ‘keeper’ and, importantly, that we and God cooperate.

And So...?

The sexual abuse crisis has underlined the imperative, within Church and society, to stand up for those who have not been heard – such as abused children, vulnerable adults (and, increasingly, those in aged care). We are being called to develop moral antennae that are more finely tuned. It is the Spirit of Jesus leading us ‘to the complete truth’ (John 16:13).

Understandably, ‘safeguarding’ can be reduced to keeping rules and ticking boxes. What it really highlights is that each of us, and our community, is fragile and vulnerable. Being a person is also about growing as a person - a work in progress. We owe it to each other to be guardians for each other, especially when we are particularly vulnerable. Each person must not be exploited but protected and cared for. It’s about nurturing a culture of trust, a ‘heart change’ so that ‘things come naturally and spontaneously, because you feel it’ (Fr. Hans Zollner SJ).

Safeguarding, then, is about searching together; helping (and needing) each other to grow ‘in Christ’ precisely because we share in his vulnerability. We look to Jesus in hope since ‘by his wounds we are healed’ (Isaiah 53:5). In God, vulnerability and safeguarding go hand in hand.

Holiness and justice are inter-twined in God. And reflect how we share in the divine life. We recall the four marks of the Church – one, holy, catholic, apostolic. One theologian suggests a ‘fifth’ mark, namely, sinful. Yes – we are sinners. You, me and the Church need to be saved by the crucified and risen Lord. Importantly, we are saved from sin but for others.

Finally, consider each person’s value in God’s eyes. There must be a special place on our moral horizon for the vulnerable person unable to care for or protect themselves.

The story is told of a Rabbi who was missing from the Synagogue on the evening of the Day of Atonement. The Synagogue was filled with all the Jewish people of the Town, waiting to commence the service on this most holy day. They sent a messenger to search for the Rabbi and he was found rocking the cradle of a crying child. The parents had left it behind to go to the Synagogue. To attend to the little crying Child has priority before the needs of the Community; the balance in Judaism is weighed in favour of the individual soul. [Kenneth Arkwright, ‘The Essence of Judaism in the Perspective of History’ available at www.ccjwa.org/Documents/Articles/jewishnessinhistory.pdf]

In Jesus’s eyes, in the final analysis, the human person is a benchmark against which our actions are measured (‘when you did it to the least of these...you did it to me’ (Matt. 25:40).

‘Thomas Ryan is a Marist priest who has long association with the Aquinas Academy. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Australian Catholic University and an Adjunct Associate Professor of the University of Notre Dame Australia.’ He has many publications in journals and books, nationally and internationally.