The prospect of several more weeks in lockdown challenges our sense of hope, personal security, even our identity, especially when faced with extended periods on our own. On the positive side, this may be a time for reflection on our life experience, on how God has been and continues to be active in our lives – perhaps a time to write about our personal story.
This week’s reflection is prompted by last Sunday’s blessing in response to Pope Francis’ initiative in establishing the World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly celebrated on the 4th Sunday of July - a significant statement about the people in our lives whom we need to bless and whom we blessed at Mass last Sunday.
The life of each of us is important and celebration of grandparents and the elderly brings us back to basics, respect for all human life actually, to quote Pope Francis, ‘Grandparents and the elderly are not leftovers from life, scraps to be discarded. They are a precious source of nourishment… They protected us as we grew, and now it is up to us to protect their lives, to alleviate their difficulties, to attend to their needs and to ensure that they are helped in daily life and not feel alone.’
From time to time we come across phrases or expressions that are full of meaning and bring significant experiences alive. For me ‘Moments of Grace’ is one of these because it covers a broad spectrum of events and experiences which remind us of the ‘mysterious hand of God’ in our lives.
This past Sunday was a moment of grace for many as we celebrated the Rite of Presentation and Blessing of Children preparing for Confirmation in August. What was unusual was the fact that this happened during the Mass livestreamed at 9.30am. Over 200 households participated at the time and 500 more visited the YouTube site later in the day – not our usual way of staying connected but definitely an experience of Church Community – Church in the Family, Church in the Home, the Domestic Church – indeed, our shared moment of grace.
St Augustine, despite his early life struggles, retained a strong sense of the presence of God in his life. He was open to moments of grace and eventually the full reality dawned on him…
Late have I loved you, O Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you! And behold, you were within me and I was outside, and there I sought for you, and in my deformity I rushed headlong into the well-formed things that you have made. You were with me, and I was not with you. (Confessions 10.27).
Our uncertainty continues as once more we are thrown back on our own resources as individuals and families. The lives of all of us are impacted, our anxiety and doubt are real, and we feel our humanity sharply. In our world which is so often oriented towards achievement and success, we know the frustration of being unable to ‘fix’ this pandemic.
I recall someone saying once, ‘The real question isn’t so much whether God exists but whether God ever thinks of me!’ - more than a pious thought, I suggest. Much of our teaching about God seems to focus on a God who seems to do little or nothing but simply watches – a characterisation of course, but one that keeps God remote from us. In fact, anything we say about God is incomplete, as St Augustine teaches, ‘If you think you have understood God, then it is not God that you have understood!’ (Sermon 52)
Thankfully over time, each of us develops a personal spirituality – the outcome of our life experience, faith formation, religious practice and beliefs, life in family and Church – our response to the ‘fire within us’ and our engagement with the deep hunger for meaning within each of us which guides us in our deepening relationship with God. A strong theme in the Scriptures is that of God as constant presence – God-with-us – God within – God alive in us and present in our neighbour – the energy and fire of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us.
The prospect of a third week in Lockdown is yet another personal, family and community challenge to us. Adrift from our normal freedoms, we need to reflect on how best to look after one another and ourselves as we serve the common good. In my recent letter to the Parish Community, I suggested that we include some personal prayer in our daily routine and ‘take some quiet time with the Lord’. I take courage from the words of a fellow Augustinian on the golf course some years ago, ‘It’s all practice!’ - true of golf and true of prayer!
So, how do you find prayer - a source of comfort and peace or a bit of a drag at times? We need the deep conviction that prayer is powerful, brings guidance and inspiration, and offers an experience of the Lord’s closeness. But what is prayer supposed to do? Is our prayer meant to ‘change God’ and how he deals with us, or is it meant to ‘change us’?
As we enter the second week of COVID lockdown, we celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Sunday, the beginning of NAIDOC Week, and honour the deeply religious and spiritual traditions of our indigenous people who celebrate their spirituality, identity, culture and survival. Our Australian aboriginal people arrived first on the land and first fished in its waters and seas.
This year’s theme is Heal Country. The notes provided by the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council refer to the Encyclical Laudato Si’ where Pope Francis calls us to continue to seek greater protections for our lands, our waters, our sacred sites and our cultural heritage from exploitation, desecration, and destruction.
The Gospel too strikes a chord with indigenous people as Jesus returns to his ‘native place’ – Nazareth – to a non-accepting, hostile reaction, after being welcomed in other places. Mocked and disregarded in his own home Jesus no longer ‘fitted in’ with the expectations of the locals, a similar experience to our First Nations people who have often suffered a similar reception to Jesus in Nazareth.
The wisdom of indigenous people and their continued care, love, and respect for ‘country’ and understanding of the natural environment weres acknowledged in a recent update on the lasting effect of the bushfires 18 months ago which documented lasting damage to the environment in many areas, including wildlife, forests and farming areas. The term – Country – encompasses far more than the physical land. ‘For us, Country is a word for all the values, places, resources, stories and cultural obligations associated with that area and its features. It describes the entirety of our ancestral domains.’ explains Professor Mick Dodson.
In February 2006, the Augustinians accepted responsibility for St Cecilia’s Parish and on this 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 25 June 2006, the twinned Parishes of St Kieran’s Manly Vale and St Cecilia’s Balgowlah became the Catholic Community of North Harbour.
Last Sunday’s Gospel of the storm on the lake reminded us of the demands and risks of moving to a new place – part of our story at that time. In his homily on the 12th Sunday, then Parish Priest Fr Peter Wieneke OSA acknowledged this reality for those who were called to make the crossing and land at a new place - the Catholic Community of North Harbour – and he invited all parishioners to a Mass of Union in the Brimson Centre at St Augustine’s’ College, Brookvale on the following Sunday.
Fifteen years on and our Parish Community is blessed with supportive and generous parishioners, wonderful schools, and diverse ministry opportunities. The COVID pandemic continues to test our resolve and limit our capacity to do all the things we want to do on the scale we desire - community gatherings, liturgical celebrations, and the sacramental program where our enrolment numbers far exceed those of most parishes in the diocese. That being said, we seek to move forward and make the best of the opportunities we have.
Our Parish preparation for the Sacrament of Confirmation has begun with some 195 children and their families enrolled. This is a call to us all to reflect on how our lives show forth the grace of God dwelling in us in the Holy Spirit. Addressing parents recently, I was acutely aware that the gifts and the fruits of the Spirit are in many respects the qualities that are already present and active in our family and personal lives.
This is evident when parents, the first and best teachers and friends of their children, bring them forward for Confirmation, honouring the promise they made at their child’s Baptism and accepting responsibility for forming them in the practice of the faith. The family as a domestic faith community, the ‘domestic Church’, is the place where our humanness is nurtured and we first experience God’s love. In the family, ‘faith happens’ – ‘The childhood religious awakening which takes place in the family is irreplaceable.’ (General Directory for Catechesis n 226)
Pope Francis has been a remarkable pastor, particularly in his emphasis on Mercy as the Name of God, reminding us that we are never lost, that our God seeks us out to show us mercy, forgiveness and healing – a refreshing reminder of the God who is Love and never stops loving us. Yet, both our Church and our World face great challenges in addressing the evil of sexual abuse.
My ministry experience covers a variety of ministries in different dioceses and states and I have never doubted the goodwill and affirmation of those I have come to know during those years. That being said, I also know that the sexual abuse crisis has scarred us all, caused scandal and confusion. Even where we know that our children are safe, the spectre of public figures accused of abuse continues to haunt us and keep alive doubts within us.
Today we celebrate the wonderful Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ and focus on the place of Eucharist in our lives. The experience of this past year has certainly affected the approach of many Catholics to the Eucharist – for some a strengthening of their desire to receive Communion, for others the question of whether one can get by without it. One thing is clear – the amazing enthusiasm for the Eucharist of Catholic residents in our care facilities after over a year without Mass.
When it comes to the Eucharist where do we begin? Perhaps the pandemic experience has sharpened our sense of our personal limitations. We can’t do all the things we’d like to do and exercise unlimited freedom in celebration and travel – that fundamental realization that each of us is broken! In his popular work, A Broken Bread for a Broken People, Australian Scripture scholar and theologian Fr Francis Moloney asks the question whether, in light of the practice of Jesus and the Eucharistic practice of the early Church, our contemporary Church is still 'clasping sinners to her bosom'. The Eucharist is meant to be the place where people meet the Lord despite their brokenness.
‘Brokenness’ is fundamental to the Eucharist… indeed, in breaking bread for his disciples Christ gave an example of what it means to allow oneself to be broken for the good of others. Pope Francis explains that the Eucharist gives us the strength to do this, ‘Jesus was broken; he is broken for us. And he asks us to give ourselves, to break ourselves, as it were, for others.’ In essence then, ‘The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak’.
The Season of Easter may be over but we still have a couple of magnificent Sunday feasts to celebrate – the Feasts of the Most Holy Trinity and the Body and Blood of Christ. This weekend it is the Trinity – the very essence of who God is as a God of love.
Just as love is the ‘real thing’, talk about love is no substitute for it. The same goes for God. There’s something engaging about a God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit because each dimension of God expresses an openness towards us, an invitation for us to participate in the life of the One in whose mind you and I have been since the creation of the world. God as Trinity is the foundational ideal and model of community from which we derive our energy and identity.
Understanding the Trinity is an incredible challenge but we must remember that we really don’t have much of a clue about who God is - echoes of Augustine: ‘If you think you understand God, it is not him that you have understood!’ Better to leave the head aside and approach God with our heart. Through the Holy Spirit, we become sons and daughters of God and with Jesus, we can pray to God as ‘Abba, Father’. The Our Father is the prayer of Jesus and we pray to the Father, we pray with Jesus, we pray in the Spirit.
This year, the Church in Australia celebrates 200 years of Catholic Education, an achievement that has in many ways both formed and expressed our identity as Church – in our North Harbour Community, Parish schools founded by the Good Samaritan Sisters – St Cecilia’s (1930) and St Kieran’s (1953) – and a college founded by the Augustinians in 1956. Similar stories abound across the country in both city and rural areas. I share with you a few excerpts from the Pastoral Letter from the Bishops of Australia – ‘200 Years Young’.
‘[Since] the first official Catholic school opened in Australia… Catholic education has grown to the point that it now educates around 770,000 primary and secondary school students, in more than 1,750 schools, with nearly 100,000 staff. These are sponsored by dioceses and parishes, religious institutes and public juridic persons, and groups of parents. Six thousand Catholic catechists participate in the religious education of 200,000 children in government schools and parishes. Over the last few years, hundreds of Church sponsored early learning centres have been established, educating many thousands of pre-schoolers. Around 50,000 tertiary students are now enrolled in our two Catholic universities with their several campuses. It is an extraordinary achievement!
Easter is a 50-day Feast and we need to celebrate and allow ourselves to be drawn fully into this magnificent mystery of Christ. Both the Ascension and Pentecost are part of this Easter Season and for that reason we light the Easter Candle up to and including Pentecost. It was not always so in the Church during a time when it was extinguished on the Ascension.
Celebrating well for a brief period is not easy, so what about fifty days? Perhaps you have experienced a significant birthday or life event where the celebrations went on for several days – parties, dinners, lunches, etc. Some can manage it but it’s not for the faint-hearted.
This post-Easter time provides us with ‘days of clarity’ and the Scripture readings help us to unpack the message in fresh ways. Having the Paschal Candle lit is one way to help us experience this continuity, not just at Mass but at other times of sacramental and community prayer. The lit candle at funerals reminds us of the incredible mystery and grace of the Risen Christ in the significant moments of our lives.
On this Mothers Day, we give grateful thanks for our mothers and for their great love that impacts on our lives. To break open today’s Scripture readings in light of this celebration is an engaging task, given the emphasis on love and friendship in each reading. We learn God’s love from our experience of family life and Mums and Dads usually have the biggest influence on us.
John the Evangelist records Jesus’ discourses and he also writes ‘love letters to the Church’, stressing the universality of love as God’s unique gift. The very experience of love opens up the possibility of knowing God and recognizing God’s affirmation of our humanness in sending his Son Jesus to define what it really means to be a man or a woman.
Our celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus at Easter reminds us that love is what Jesus does best. It reminds us too that love is the best reason for doing the things we need and want to do for the people we love most. In fact, love is what we have done in our families all our lives and what we continue to do. The quality of this love is expressed beautifully in the love of our Mums.
The engaging image of the vine and the branches in today’s Gospel focuses on the close intimacy between ourselves and Jesus – ‘communion’ in fact. Connectedness, belonging, being ‘at home’ are all core aspects of our Christian life and underpin our celebration of liturgy. While we’ve been celebrating liturgy for years – the Mass and the Sacraments – at times our appreciation of its meaning may escape us or become a bit flat.
‘Communion’ is much more than simply receiving Jesus in the Eucharist. It certainly extends to our bonds with one another as Church but goes far beyond that to what unites the whole human family for whom Jesus embraced our human condition. Celebrations of joy and peace unite us but so do the realities that challenge us. Look at how COVID has deepened our bonds with people across the world.
I’m reminded of St Augustine’s broad understanding of the ‘real presence’ of Christ in the Eucharist in his Body and Blood and in the Community where he invites us to, ‘Be what you see and receive what you are!’ (Sermon 272). Just as bread and wine are changed, so is the community – both essential because the Eucharist makes the Church and binds us together.
This year, the Church in Australia celebrates 200 years of Catholic Education, a remarkable story of sacrifice, energy, commitment to our Faith, satisfaction and achievement. My greatest joys as an Augustinian include my involvement in Augustinian schools and the many schools attached to our parishes. Our leaders and teachers continue to dedicate their lives to the important vocation of educating our youth, a reminder of the true diversity of the Christian Vocation which is the focus of this World Day of Prayer for Vocations.
In this Easter Season, we are called to look again at our gifts, especially God’s gift of his own presence in our hearts, to look at our life-style and priorities, how we are living as followers of Christ – in other words, our vocation.
Vocation is about who we are – like parenting and friendship! Faith is not simply an intellectual exercise but a response of our whole being. Vocation is like that - part of our identity, not just a set of duties we switch on and off when needed. As believers, our faith colours our whole life and outlook on the world.
‘Have you anything here to eat?’ I’ve always been fascinated by the ‘earthiness’ of Jesus’ appearances to his disciples. Perhaps his question to them in today’s Gospel is his way of helping them to appreciate and understand that his rising from the dead makes a difference in the ordinariness of our everyday lives.
After Jesus’ Resurrection, the disciples experience him personally, either individually or as a group. Today, Jesus comes to them just as two of their number are telling their story of meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus and recognizing him at the breaking of bread. Again, the setting is a meal being shared on the first day of the week, the day of the Eucharist celebrations that re-live this great event.
The disciples’ response is agitation, fear and doubt but Jesus reassures his astonished disciples, ‘Touch me and see for yourselves.’ A significant aspect of these appearances is the way in which Jesus uses his wounds to quell their doubts and in his wounds, the disciples recognise him. There are echoes here of Jesus’ encounter with Thomas who needed to be convinced that Jesus was still alive by touching his wounds.
During Lent, many reflect on the Stations of the Cross. For several years now on Good Friday, the Popes have followed a newer version based on the Scriptures, approved by the Church in 1975. This version begins with the Last Supper and concludes with the Resurrection. Noted Australian religious artist, the late Fr Pat Negri SSS, portrayed the Passion of Jesus using artworks of the great masters. In the Stations prepared for the renovated St Augustine’s Church, Kyabram, he chose the 1602 painting by Caravaggio – ‘The Incredulity of St Thomas’ – depicting the encounter between Thomas and Jesus as the subject for the 14th Station with the title – ‘Now believe!’
Describing this meeting, Fr Pat says, ‘The Risen Jesus who appears is tangible. The experience of his presence in the gathering of disciples is real, substantial, ongoing. Thomas, sure now of his love for Jesus, makes his act of faith: ‘My Lord and my God!’
Belief is not simply an intellectual exercise but a response of our whole being. Lovers ‘believe’ in one another; football fans ‘believe’ in their team; religious faith is a commitment of our whole person to Jesus. Efforts to compartmentalize our relationship with God are rather futile because genuine faith and selfless love are all-consuming.
Holy Week and Easter are different this year, one year on from the COVID lockdown. What a relief to reclaim our freedom to celebrate Easter and its living symbols of darkness and light, fire and water, drawing us once more into the mystery of Christ’s Resurrection and a renewed appreciation of our own baptism.
Why not recall our own baptism on this day? Do we know the date? Is it as important as our birthday? Why not celebrate it on this great day of Easter? Our lives are ‘holy ground’ and Baptism helps us to get to know God ‘from the inside’ – what an incredible reality!
Recall the words of Jeremiah in the first reading for the 5th Sunday of Lent, 'Deep within them I will plant my Law, writing it on their hearts… they will all know me, the least no less than the greatest.' – the knowing God wants, a reminder that we know God. God's law is written in the hearts of you and me. And of course God knows us!
Both Christmas and Easter are closely linked because each is about a different aspect of the redemptive work of Christ – the birth of Jesus the Saviour and his Resurrection – events that change how we see our world, ourselves and each other – set free by Jesus, the dignity of each affirmed. We keep this dream alive, particularly as we celebrate the fulfillment of this promise at Easter.
Together we form the Whole Christ – members of his Body, a Priestly People. During this Holy Week, we prepare to celebrate the holiest days of the year, Jesus risen from the dead. We celebrate our baptism, the sacrament of belonging and Christian identity. We renew our baptismal promises throughout the Easter Season. Both the Divine Story and our story are about Life, Death and Resurrection – all three!
The Paschal Triduum is one, continuous liturgy – ‘One Feast’ – the heart of the liturgical year. Following the greeting on Holy Thursday, there is no dismissal or conclusion; the Friday liturgy has no introductory or concluding rites; and the Easter Vigil has no introductory rite either, but a concluding rite with the ‘double’ Alleluia – ‘the happiest night of the year’! These familiar words from the Roman Missal describe the unity of this week’s celebrations and challenge us to experience the continuous flow of these 3 days and renew our faith - we are already saved by Christ.
A couple of weeks ago the working document (instrumentum laboris) for the Plenary Council was released – Continuing the Journey. The first assembly opens less than 200 days from now with laity having a consultative voice for the first time - a timely response in light of the inspiring words of Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes (The Church in the Modern World):
The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties, of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts (Vatican Council II, Gaudium et Spes, n. 1).
Our Church today needs that same energy with Jesus Christ always at the centre. Already 17,457 submissions have been received from more than 220,000 individuals and groups in the Listening and Dialogue phase - including the Catholic Community of North Harbour. The COVID situation delayed the start of the Plenary Council but the guiding question remains: What do you think God is asking of us in Australia at this time?