Australia's most senior Catholic Cardinal George Pell departs the Melbourne Magistrates Court in Melbourne, Australia, Tuesday, March 6, 2018. (AAP Image/Daniel Pockett)
Australia's most senior Catholic Cardinal George Pell departs the Melbourne Magistrates Court in Melbourne, Australia, Tuesday, March 6, 2018. (AAP Image/Daniel Pockett)

I never expected to hear that in church

LAST Sunday, for the first time in a long time, I darkened the door of a house of God.

Years earlier, when I was doing my confirmation, I had promised the priest that I wouldn't be one of those Catholics who just showed up for Christmas and christenings. And yet here I was at the christening of my second child and I couldn't be entirely sure that I had been to church since the christening of the first.

Priests are of course a forgiving bunch - it is, after all, a fairly central part of their job description - but nonetheless I felt deeply guilty, which is a fairly central part of a Catholic's job description.

At any rate, there I was being helpfully reminded of the Ten Commandments and whatever it was that St Paul wrote to the Corinthians and a somewhat more stern reminder that God would punish endless generations of any family that displeased him. I looked at my son and reminded myself to put a $20 in the collection basket.

The service was lovely as always. The organ music reverberated off the sandstone and the sunlight streamed through the stained glass. The priest attempted to reconcile the old and new testaments, as they always struggle to do, and eventually explained that both meant that we should just go off and be kind to each other, as they always manage to conclude.

We prayed for the old and the sick, for the poor and unhappy, for those beset by war and those fleeing it. And I thought to myself what other institution, what other time of one's life, is so wholly devoted to the sorrowful? If a Mass is nothing else, it is at least an hour's reprieve from self-obsession.

And then at the very end the priest took a rather odd left-turn and suddenly asked if anyone in the congregation had been to Mardi Gras the previous night. Perhaps unsurprisingly only a few hesitant hands went up.

The priest looked around and nodded benignly. At this point most atheist lefties would expect his next three words to be: "Burn in Hell!"

Instead they were: "I did too!"

Now I always knew my church was pretty right-on about this sort of stuff but even I had to steady my feet.

This was no heavenly hipster or cool-Catholic crusader or, worse still, a protestant. This was a middle-aged Indian Jesuit who'd just been posted to Sydney and thought he'd check out the local scene.

"Holy shit," I thought to myself. "My priest went to Mardi Gras and I didn't."

That's when you know you're really getting old.

The priest then went on about how "prayerful" he found the whole experience, what a joyous celebration it was of individuality and acceptance and love. Then, perhaps even more eyebrow-raisingly, he dovetailed this exposition into his own struggles with his sexuality and how he had turned to yoga. And then, just when I thought that holy shit couldn't get any weirder, he said he recommended that everyone should consider switching to vegetarianism.

He certainly picked his moment well. By this stage my mouth was hanging so far open you could have stuck a pumpkin in it and not touched the sides. I couldn't tell if I had walked into Mass or a Byron Bay branch meeting of the Australian Greens.

Even so, as the service drew to a close and my youngest child was consigned to the care of the Almighty I felt a great calm. This was the right choice. The church was a good and just and loving institution. God had got right with the world and I had got right with God.

The following morning, like the rest of Australia, I awoke to wall-to-wall coverage of Cardinal George Pell, cloaked in black, marching somehow humbly yet defiantly into a Victorian courtroom flanked by police officers.

There he was to face charges of historical child sex abuse - charges he has always vehemently denied - and find out if he would be forced to stand trial to defend them.

This case is the final apex of the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sex Abuse and the sad nadir of the Catholic Church in Australia, perhaps the world. Should it proceed, Pell, who is effectively the Vatican's treasurer, will be the most senior Catholic figure to ever face such charges.

Of course Pell is innocent until proven otherwise. Instead what struck me like a fist was the contrast between the two faces of the church I had witnessed in as many days.

And I realised then that despite the constant Catholic affirmation of "the One True Church" there are in fact two churches.

The first is at the coalface of that great Catholic tradition of immersion in the low; in the mourners, the meek and the hungry. A church literally surrounded and infused by the homeless, whose head priest I don't think I have ever seen out of sandals, and who once told me that there was no virtue in serving the poor if you didn't live amongst them.

These guys are hardcore good. Personally, having grown up poor, I would rather send off the cheques and sit at home with my Foxtel.

The second is the other great Catholic tradition of obsession with the high; a wealthy, global and all-powerful institution that is the modern manifestation of the Roman empire itself. An institution that was integral in the foundation of what we now call Western civilisation.

And that is how George Pell appeared on Monday morning: An imperious master of Rome, accompanied by a phalanx of praetorian guards, marching into the ultimate Roman theatre of fate - not the Colosseum but the court of law.

These two churches, the high and the low, are at opposite ends of the spectrum but they are not unable to coexist. In fact, they have done so for centuries.

After the fall of Rome in the 5th century AD, the political and administrative apparatus collapsed but the spiritual apparatus lived on. While so-called barbarians swept what was left of the empire and Europe splintered into medieval fiefdoms and city-states the only unifying factor was the church, which stepped in to fill the role government had once played, providing services such as education, health care and relief for the poor. Obviously, this was done in the most limited and corrupted fashion - there is a reason it's known as "the Dark Ages" - but at least it was done. In other words, there is a lot wrong with a world in which only clergymen can read but it's better than a world in which nobody can read at all.

And for all the corrupt cardinals there was always a Francis of Assisi begging for the poor - and how many of those cardinals have schools named after them these days?

Just like the Labor Party has a right and left faction, the Catholics - who until the great split of the 1950s basically were the Australian Labor Party - have an up and a down faction: the high Catholics and the low Catholics. And each has more contempt for the other than any living thing, except of course an Anglican.

But seriously, I jest. Most Catholics embrace same-sex marriage and tolerate George Pell with a wry smile.

And this is because for most people Catholicism is not so much a spiritual calling as it is a way of being. It is so old and so compromised, so flawed and so familiar, that it engenders a natural sense of resigned belonging rather than the dictatorial or dogmatic ideology that infects evangelical Christians and Islamic extremists.

And so we Catholics vote Labor and try to be nice to our mothers and feel guilty about sex and take communion hopefully twice a year and feel guilty about that too. And we hope that if we go through the motions, and feel guilty enough, we might at least make it to Purgatory.

Meanwhile there is still a civil war going on in the world's biggest Christian religion and, in the greatest of ironies, its biggest poster boys are the left-wing Pope Francis and his right-wing numbers man George Pell. The champion of the low is on high and the defender of the high has recently been brought horribly low.

But at least the Catholics do civil war civilly. Francis defied the conservative forces of the church to make Pope and yet even so appointed an arch-conservative to serve as his treasurer. And the coalface Catholics are equally sweet.

Once when I visited a school for troubled kids the brother in charge mentioned offhand that it was a struggle to stop the landlord from selling the place.

"Surely George could weigh in and put a stop to that?" I suggested.

The brother allowed himself a toothy grin.

"I think George is the one trying to sell it," he said.

Meanwhile I read in the parish newsletter that my local church has set up yet another outreach service in its carpark because the previous site had been shut down. No doubt God moves in mysterious and economically efficient ways.

But whatever move He makes it will have to be the right one. In the West the very survival of the church firstly depends upon whether it can fully acknowledge and compensate for its past injustices. It then depends upon whether it can embrace the world in which it lives, not the world it once controlled.

The Catholic church is indeed a powerful institution. Unlike almost every other Christian denomination it is not so much a touchstone of faith as it is a framework of society. It is more like a government, a nation state or indeed an empire, than it is a tentpole congregation.

But all governments can be cast asunder by prevailing winds and even the greatest empires can fall.

Just ask Rome herself.



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