Let us not be afraid of being ‘bleeding hearts’, if only because bleeding hearts can see the bleedin’ obvious, which is that human beings have hearts of flesh, not stone, and that the only true humanity is that which weeps at cruelty and injustice and puts itself on the line to reverse the inhumanity which constantly dogs us.  Susan Connelly rsj

Prophet of the bleedin’ obvious

Like 99 per cent of Australians, Susan Connelly rsj knew almost nothing about the East Timor tragedy - until … Today, her voice for the voiceless resounds in the vacuum of Church silence on the bleak moral chaos of Australian politics.

by Dr Vacy Vlazna

Josephite Sister and Assistant Director of Mary MacKillop East Timor, Susan Connelly’s voice for the voiceless resounds in the vacuum of Church silence on the bleak moral chaos of Australian politics with the same daring and passion for justice as her view of the radical Jesus: I rather like the fairly strident approach which Jesus took on this day so many years ago. He went in to the very halls of the Treasury and knocked the machinery of exploitation and insult to God to the floor. The image of gentle Jesus meek and mild which is the foremost caricature of him in today’s world is way off the mark. His indictment of the powerbrokers of his day makes riveting reading. He attacked hypocrisy and blindness with startling vehemence. (Matt 23:1-39)

In Australia, a small number of courageous religious dissenters take the lead in denouncing injustice, take the lead in incarnating Catholic social justice teaching by their very breath and actions fulfilling Pedro Arrupe’s definition of a prophet, as a witness to justice …who speaks from an impulse of the Holy Spirit, who discerns the ‘signs of the times’, tells the people of God what they have to do. Of these prophets, Susan Connelly is the most outspoken. It is her blunt uncompromising honesty and incisive perception and oration that makes her a popular speaker on issues of conscience:

I believe that there are grave situations in Australia today which at their heart are issues of moral significance which must not be ignored by anyone, including church members and leaders. We all know what they are – an illegal and unjustified war, the immoral detention of innocent people for unstated periods of time, the grand larceny of taxpayers’ money to pay for election advertising, blatant electoral bribery, deceit and greed involved in the Timor Sea resources, the intelligence services’ inability to offer correct advice which dovetailed amazingly with the Government’s willingness to go to war, the children overboard lies and Medicare lies.

For Susan, it was the people of East Timor - crucified by the Indonesian brutal occupation compounded by the betrayal and complicity of successive Australian governments - who were the crucible in which her moral integrity and courage were purified.

Like 99 per cent of Australians, Susan knew almost nothing about the East Timor tragedy - until 1992 when she attended the launch of Michele Turner’s Telling, a collection of testimonies of Timor’s suffering including the testimonies of Australian WWII commandoes who owed their lives to the courage and loyalty of the Timorese. Deeply affronted by photos of murdered Timorese, Susan bought the book but couldn’t bring herself to read it because she knew it would change her life, so God took another tack - music. Enraptured by Timor’s beautiful island harmonies Susan was drawn into the Sydney Timorese community, culture and their struggle for freedom, by conducting the Timorese choir at masses.

Susan’s debut into dissent was a letter, in 1994, to the bishops protesting John Paul II’s Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Apostolic Letter on Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone.  She received a generally dismissive response. Insisting she had no desire to ever become a priest, her objections were based on principles of freedom and reason. Susan was dismayed that Catholics were instructed not to discuss the matter.  She was angry at the letter's superficial use of a few Scripture texts which, despite 2000 years of the Church's wonderful tradition of scholarship and its recent deep growth in Biblical understanding, were offered as a flimsy proof that God denies the priestly vocation to women.  However, deciding that the enormity of what was happening to Timorese people on our doorstep was of more immediate importance than whether women were priests or not, Susan made a choice to “go down the easy path” commenting wryly that she thought she'd have more success taking on the Indonesian military than the Catholic hierarchy.

In 1996, Susan joined the equally remarkable Sr Josephine Mitchell who had set up, in 1994, the Mary MacKillop Institute for East Timorese Studies (now Mary MacKillop East Timor) to realise Bishop Belo’s request for a Tetum (Timor’s indigenous lingua franca) literacy program from kindergarten to Grade 6. 

Susan’s skills in education and catechetics are now immersed in establishing Buka Matenek, an university scholarship program and the development of a catechetics program in Tetum.

Her commitment to the East Timorese is fortified by a determination to alleviate the heaviest blow: “We do not yet understand why the Indonesian Church and the Universal Roman Church have up till now not stated openly and officially their solidarity with the Church, people and religious of East Timor.  Perhaps this has been the heaviest blow for us…  We felt stunned by this silence which seemed to allow us to die deserted.” (Religious of East Timor, 1981 quoted in Patrick Smythe “The Heaviest Blow”)

All Susan’s actions and words are driven by principle and the Gospel’s emphasis on the dignity of the human person [which] provides the freedom and the motivation to live my life fully engaged with my society and its needs.

In her public speeches she includes a Gospel passage as a way of bringing the Gospel to the streets of Sydney. While her values come from the Gospel, she affirms the human universality of goodness, asserting it is not possible to name a value that is not practiced by Muslims, Buddhists, Jews et al.

Jesus, she avows, was the greatest humanist because he preached human values. In this universal vein she gathers us within a collective responsibility for good and for evil. Note her use of ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘our’:

Let us remember, though, that our leaders are very much like ourselves. They are all fairly ordinary, just like us. In fact, we are all frighteningly ordinary, with the same ordinariness which allowed the mob to put Jesus to death, which allowed the Nazi mass murderers to operate, the same ordinariness which today in Australia allows and rationalises the existence of camps like Woomera.

Our airwaves have been full of whingeing, whining self-absorbed and ignorant Australians, fearful and dismissive of difference, change and growth.

and the challenge to our complicity in what Merton would call the ‘tyranny of untruth’…

We have spawned a government for whom no lie is too low, no smear is too greasy and no attack is too vicious, provided that the object is nameless, faceless, voiceless and traumatized. So much for courage.

For her, speaking out is an obligation in the face of injustice when people’s lives and futures are at stake, you can’t be waiting around for someone else to say it …if you see it you have to say it.  

She dismisses the labels of ‘right’ and ‘left’ along with ‘secular’ and ‘spiritual’ as yet another very convenient tool if one believes that those who divide, conquer.  

And she is prepared to pay the price for her ethical stand. On the wall beside her desk is a copy of the Indonesian Black List in which her speech at a West Papua rally this year secured her inclusion.

Her vision of leadership would truly advance Australia fair.

As Susan points out,     ‘Advance Australia Fair’ has little to do with complexion or landscape. ‘Fair’ if it is to be at all useful, is about being fair, being just.

We want Leaders who would never again stoop to humiliating our Defence Forces by setting them upon unarmed families, and who would not pass slick, furtive bills in Parliament which say that parts of Australia are not parts of Australia for certain purposes. Leaders who would honour the International Conventions that we have signed, and who would take the Declaration of Human Rights seriously.

Leaders who would not lie or mislead, who would not shore up their electoral prospects by appealing to the worst in us. Leaders who would not accuse nameless, faceless, voiceless and traumatised people of beingmurderous parents. Leaders who would recognise that when they accuse people of manipulation, it could well be that it is just their breath blowing back in their faces.

The Church has recently been given a new set of Mysteries of the Rosary, the Mysteries of Light, and according to her light, Susan began to think about "Political" Mysteries of the Rosary, and offers these as valuable reflections for these times.

The Political Mysteries of the Rosary
1. Jesus identifies himself with the poor and oppressed.
2. Jesus becomes a refugee. He evades stoning, being thrown off a cliff, and receives death threats.
3. Jesus challenges the religious and political leaders.
4. Jesus overturns the tables of the money-changers in the Temple.
5. Jesus is arrested, condemned, imprisoned, tortured and executed.

Prophets are the guiding light to God’s kingdom, here and now, on earth and Susan Connelly reiterates, not only by her words, but with her life, the steps outlined by Jesus that will advance us there:

Giving a Gospel dimension to such guidance we could go to the Sermon on the Mount which builds on the ten commandments in a most positive way. Here we are guided to appreciate that poverty of heart which teaches us to rely on God and not on wealth, to be peacemakers instead of warmongers, to hunger and thirst for justice.

Or we could go to the famous Last Judgement scene, painted by Jesus in the last parable he told, where the Great king of heaven the Ruler of the spiritual world identifies himself with the hungry, thirsty, the naked, the sick and those in detention.

The choice of where one will spend one’s eternity, according to Jesus, is determined by one’s response to the powerless of this world. Daily life in the secular field is therefore the determiner of the quality of the spirit.

Vacy Vlazna, received her PhD from Macquarie University for her thesis God and the Imagination are One: A study of the Mystic Experience in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens. She was convenor of Australia East Timor Association and East Timor Justice Lobby and served in East Timor with UNAMET and UNTAET.  She currently is convenor of Justice For Palestine Matters and Acheh Papua Moluccas Human Rights on Line.