ACU has marked the wide-ranging effects of the election of Pope Francis and his encyclical Laudato Si’ with a recent Melbourne conference that attracted widespread praise and community engagement.
The September conference, titled Pope Francis and Other Prophetic Voices Calling us to Reshape the Public Sphere, was timely, given the visit of Pope Francis to the United States, where he was, as usual, breaking down barriers and creating new spaces for consultation and debate.
ACU’s Institute for Advancing Community Engagement organised the conference to identify with Pope Francis’ vision of faith, which challenges us to renew our commitment to the public good, to be inclusive and just, and to welcome the poor and vulnerable.
In Washington he raised the matter of the refugee crisis currently affecting the world, and related the debate about accepting immigrants to the US to his own experience as the son of immigrants to Argentina.
His prophetic vision embraces people of all faiths and cultures and all people of good will.
Like Francis himself, the organisers of the Melbourne conference chose to enter the land of prophets, and to invite 120 attendees into dialogue about reshaping the public sphere in Australia.
Held in a beautiful and historic Uniting Church, the conference dared to touch on religion, business, education, politics — all the places where angels have been warned not to tread — included participants from many shades of Christianity, members of the Jewish faith, Hari Krishna adherents and even a rationalist, and showed the importance of the voices of women.
The conference began from sharing a vision of what could be done to place justice, truth, compassion and hope at the centre of public discourse as Pope Francis does, led on to seeking wisdom to inform that vision in practice, and then to formulating effective ways of moving into action that will make a difference in Australian society. This process enabled participants to tackle significant issues: rising inequality; corporate social responsibility; promoting engagement, inclusion and empowerment rather than offering a service, and the need to tread more lightly on the earth while pursuing new directions for social, political and corporate aspects of Australian public life.
Pope Francis reminds us about the victims of society and of broken relationships, and about distorted values and misplaced priorities that harm the people of the earth, and even the earth itself.
When speaking to American political leaders, he made clear his opinion that a narrowly economic view of government fails to address the common good.
“If politics must truly be at the service of the human person,” he said, “it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance.”
Participants enjoyed the scope of the conference, the wide range of speakers, the interactive discussions, and the opportunity to reflect during and after presentations.
Vin Peile, representative of Invocare, a partner in the conference, commented: “I was deeply touched by many aspects: the social, the young people, the presenters, the meeting place, but most of all to walk a shared journey with friends from many traditions.”
The Youth Forum on 16 September showed a similar response to the pope’s leadership.
Jordan, 16, of Marymede College, commented to Kairos: “He’s appealing to a wider audience, rather than just the Catholic religion.”
Dr Jenny Te Paa Daniel, a New Zealand theologian and speaker at the main conference, was very impressed by the Youth Forum.
“I was impressed by the ready identification of the high school students with the deep issues being raised – those of climate change, economic injustice, human trafficking, unjust war, political corruption and the erstwhile absence of the credible voice of the Church in so many of these issues,” she said.
Pope Francis has brought the prophetic voice of Church to the world, and the conference amplified it in Melbourne and beyond.
We can expect to hear more from that prophetic voice as participants of all ages return to their homes, eager to spread his message, and to put it into practice.