As we gather this Sunday, we are profoundly aware of the disruption of the bushfires in Eastern Australia, leaving a trail of burnt landscape, property damage, human misery and some loss of life. ‘Catastrophic’ is a word we are slow to use in any circumstance but it has kept us alert during the present crisis, as well as sharpening the reality of the crippling drought. So many people’s lives have been changed radically in these days.
What emerges out of tragic circumstances is the strength of the human spirit and the generosity of those who respond directly, especially emergency service personnel, and the wider community. Community is a fragile thing but we rise to the occasion most of the time.
As people of faith, we use the word ‘community’ freely because it expresses what we wish to be as Church where we find our true identity in our ‘communion’. Though not the only dimension of human experience, times of tragedy expand our vision of what ‘communion’ really means and can deepen our appreciation of Eucharist where we experience Christ with us.
Communion unites us on many levels, notably the Communion of Saints in which we are bonded to our Saints and our Beloved Dead and in turn to the wider Church and human community. We ‘become’ Church through what we do together – most perfectly our gathering for Eucharist and our reception together of Christ in Holy Communion. Our response to those in need flows from our ‘holy communion’.
In some ways, the Feasts of the Saints and the Faithful Departed are different sides of the same coin. We carry in memory the loss of loved ones individually and as a community, highlighted at a recent funeral in St Kieran’s where a lighted candle was placed at the end of the pew where the lady sat every Saturday night – such is our place in the community.
While serving in country parishes, I experienced the whole spectrum of deaths of people of all ages, including young children and babies – from farm and road accidents, various diseases and health issues, sometimes criminal activity, to mention a few. Funerals could be held on any day of the week, including Saturday and Sunday. There was usually no hurry and a farewell could take most of the day. In many cases, the same people came to every funeral, a significant challenge when preparing the homily!
During this Month of the Holy Souls, we pray for our dead, record their names in the Book of Remembrance, and perhaps visit their resting place. We may be surprised at how raw our sense of grief can be at this time and how easily we shed tears. Two thoughts give me strength, the realisation that we don’t have to be good at grieving and the fact that Jesus wept at the death of his friend Lazarus (John 11:35).
A helpful mantra is the following: ‘Pray, see more!’ How true this is and how slow we are to do this. A helpful prayer suggestion this month is to read the Beatitudes often and think about our loved ones and the beatitudes they exemplified. Whether our preferred introduction to each beatitude is Blessed, Happy or Holy, we need to realise that these are not commands but affirmations from the Lord which mean, ‘Congratulations! You are in a good place…’ In these days, the most poignant is of course, ‘Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted’ – the beatitude we live today.
In this month of saints and souls, we reflect on both dimensions of our human living. You and I are called to a life of holiness but what does that really mean? When you think about it, who would have thought that the Australian Community would be so fascinated by the life of a 19th Century Founder of a religious congregation? Who would have thought that believers of all religions, and unbelievers too, would be captivated by someone like Mary MacKillop? Who would have thought that the media would give her Canonisation Ceremony such complete and fair coverage?
It’s not easy to blend a life of holiness with our living in a secular world, but perhaps this is where Mary’s story has a strong message. Her mission of providing education for poor children and working with struggling families captured the imagination of many. This is no real surprise when you consider how the Church nominates patron saints for a whole range of human activities and occupations, sometimes in unusual combinations! Some examples are:
St Michael – Security forces, police;
St Gabriel – Telecommunications and the Postal Service;
St Luke – Doctors, painters, artists, sculptors and butchers;
St Vincent de Paul – Charities, hospitals and prisoners;
Dance is a characteristic of so many cultures – a medium by which people express and share life’s deepest meaning, differing roles, relationships between men and women, and in some cases the history of race and nation in both joy and suffering. The Church is like a dance, a dance with the Lord and with one another, a dance that takes us beyond ourselves as we engage with our call to be missionary disciples in our daily lives.
Growing up Catholic evokes in me warm memories of certainty about the Church’s teaching, the conviction that the Catholic Church was always right (infallibility and all that), the occasional concern at praying with non-Catholics (is this allowed?), and a bit of fear here and there to keep us on our game. The Church was comfortable with hierarchy, clericalism, and structure, and most of us enjoyed pastoral care and a strong faith community at the local level. Mission was about making ‘them’ like ‘us’.
Mission today engages with the world in all its diversity though the Church is still one, holy, catholic and apostolic, yet our missionary understanding is much broader. The Church is called to be ‘at home’ in all the human settings of people’s lives, to share the Good News, offer hope, help make the world one, to be holy and point to the holiness of the world.
By now, many of us will be aware of some of the topics on the agenda of the Synod of Bishops on the Amazon in Rome. These include support for the ordination of married men of proven virtue, or ‘viri probati’, elders in their respective communities, as a way of addressing the lack of priests in the region, an idea favoured by two-thirds of the bishops present. While celibacy is a significant part of the Church’s tradition, it may not serve the needs of the faithful in every instance in today’s world. Formal ministry roles for women, possibly including the diaconate, have also been mentioned.
The concerns of the Bishops of the Amazon stem from their recognition that, in remote communities, people often go from one month to up to one year without the celebration of the Eucharist – also the reality in some parts of Australia, especially in country areas where priests are ageing or in short supply. Pope Francis’ pastoral openness is a welcome change from the Church’s sometimes narrower outlook in the past.
The Church, he says, is not a static institution but must be a community of believers which is ‘on the go’. To do so, Catholics need to stop brooding over past mistakes or what might have been. ‘If it is not on the go, it is not Church,’ Francis stresses. ‘A Church on the go, a missionary Church is a Church that does not waste time lamenting things that go wrong, the loss of faithful, the values of the time now in the past.’ He added that the Church should not ‘seek safe oases to dwell in peace’, but instead look to become ‘salt of the earth and a leaven in the world.’ The ‘sin’ against mission is ‘omission’, whereby believers become fearful and resign themselves to a view that nothing can be done.
The Eucharist itself is ‘missionary’ as it forms us in faith and energises us in our Catholic identity. The exclusion of people from celebration of Eucharist for extended periods can hinder their faith journey as Catholics. Our Mission theme - ‘Baptised and Sent’ – communicates a dynamism in which the grace of our Baptism must be ‘broken open’ as we mature and embrace personally the faith commitment our parents made on our behalf. Even given the proportion of Catholics today who do not go to Mass regularly, the Eucharist remains the ‘summit and source’ of our faith and forms us as the Body of Christ.
‘Baptised and Sent’ – New joy in the Faith, Fruitfulness in the work of Evangelising!
We continue our reflection on Mission and Evangelisation this week and focus more closely on ‘evangelisation’. Evangelisation is always God’s work, echoing the words of St Paul VI in Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975) that Jesus is ‘the first and greatest evangeliser’ (n 7). Indeed, Jesus engages us in every aspect of our lives and helps us to rediscover the freshness of the Gospel.
This helps us to understand the importance of the Plenary Council 2020 theme: ‘How is God calling us to be a Christ-centred Church that is Missionary and Evangelizing?’ We need to find words to engage with our modern, secular world but the witness of our lives remains paramount, to quote St Francis: ‘Always preach the Gospel and if necessary use words!’
The term ‘new evangelisation’ was used for the first time by St John Paul II during his visit to Nowa Huta (Poland) in 1979, indicating the need for a new and fresh proclamation of the Faith, ‘reintroducing’ the Gospel in Western societies, especially those that have lost a sense of God to progressive secularization. The 2012 Synod on the New Evangelisation sought to intensify the Church’s public efforts to counter the impact of unbelief and secularity. Benedict XVI embraced the New Evangelisation especially in relation to those who have drifted from the Church in the West.
October is World Mission Month and this year Pope Francis has called for an ‘Extraordinary Mission Month’ and invites us to ‘do something extraordinary’. Over the years we have probably thought of supporting the missions through giving generously and supporting our missionaries in faraway lands – both very important.
However, the Church’s understanding has developed significantly in the last 50 or 60 years, especially in the lead up to, and the years following, the Second Vatican Council. This expansion in our thinking continues in the 6 themes proposed for our reflection prior to the Plenary Council 2020, particularly: ‘How is God calling us to be a Christ-centred Church that is Missionary and Evangelizing?’ The following reflections may help our understanding of the centrality of ‘mission’:
‘Making it Real: Genuine human encounter in our digital world’
Each year, the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference issues a Social Justice Statement that addresses in depth a matter of concern that affects the lives of all of us. This year’s Statement - ‘Making it Real’ - is concerned with the impact of modern communications technology on our lives. In the street, on public transport, in shopping centres and school grounds, it is not uncommon to see the majority of people with phone in hand communicating in various ways, even risking their safety.
Social media has revolutionised human contact by helping people stay in touch more readily but also changed the pattern of learning, transport, business, banking and shopping. Schools face challenges where social media becomes a personal necessity for contact between children and parents, particularly in emergencies.
It is estimated that over 20 million Australians are on the internet and 18 million use social media. While definitely not a ‘digital native’ myself, I occasionally discover my real dependency on social media when it fails, as happened recently with our Province server. In the present age, we expect more of one another in terms of communication and prompt response. The words, ‘I sent you an email!’ often express frustration rather than good wishes!
On 13 September, Pope Francis received in audience the Augustinians attending the Order’s General Chapter in Rome. Journalist Robin Gomes shares the Pope’s reflection with us….
The first basic challenge of consecrated persons is to experience God together so that they can show God to this world in a clear and courageous manner without any compromise or hesitation. ‘This is a great responsibility,’ Pope Francis told some 150 members of the General Chapter of the Order of Saint Augustine, generally called Augustinians.
Search for God - Recalling the words of Pope Saint Paul VI in his 1971 Apostolic Exhortation Evangelica Tetificatio, on religious life, Pope Francis said that the tradition of the Church offers us this privileged witness of the constant search for God, in a unique and undivided love for Christ and in an absolute dedication to the growth of his kingdom.
Without this concrete sign, St. Paul VI warned, the charity of the Church would risk cooling down, the salvific paradox of the Gospel would be toned down and the ‘salt’ of faith would be diluted in a secularized world.
General Chapter 2019 - As I write this, Augustinians from around the world are in Rome for the General Chapter of the Order held every 6 years. The Australian Province is represented by Fr Peter Jones (Prior Provincial), Fr Tony Banks (Assistant General) and Br Salesio Lee (Delegation Superior in Korea). The Chapter receives reports from the various Augustinian groups throughout the world and addresses issues facing the Church and the Order – justice and peace, religious life, professional standards, vocations and many others.
Elections - The Chapter also elects leaders for the next 6 years and, early last week, the delegates elected the Prior General and several Assistant Generals who take responsibility for regions in different parts of the world. Fr Tony Banks has been re-elected Assistant General for the Asia-Pacific Region and we extend sincere congratulations to Fr Tony as he continues this ministry.
On this Child Protection Sunday, I share with you the National Catholic Safeguarding Standards published in May 2019, the framework for Catholic Church ministries and groups to build child-safe cultures and to advance the safety of children and vulnerable adults across Australia. These are framed within the guidelines promulgated by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
Media commentary on the Church’s response to the tragic reality of child sexual abuse often implies that little or nothing has been done. In fact, for over 20 years now the Church has been refining its protocols for dealing with complaints and for creating a safe environment for children, particularly in parishes and schools. In the Province and Parish, we continue the development and implementation of policies in cooperation with diocesan bodies according to these Standards.
Celebrations of Father’s Day and Mother’s Day remind us of our responsibilities to create a bright future for our children in an increasingly fragile world. We are reminded of this fragility each year on the anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy which changed our outlook on the world forever. Yet, young people remain our hope and how wonderful it is!
I find great hope in our celebrations with the young – school Masses and liturgies and Sacramental celebrations where youth both experience and share their faith. This brings into focus the importance of our personal example and formation of our young, given the strong influence of society’s values where standards easily slip or are compromised because, individually or collectively, we lack the strength to aim higher.
In my 50 years as an Augustinian priest in schools, parishes and other ministries, I have come across many hundreds of children and their families, and I never cease to be fascinated by how parents do it – raise children, that is. Not being a parent myself is a disadvantage, but at the same time I have encountered extraordinary wisdom among parents. Of course as a priest, you need to be very careful in presuming to give advice to parents!
Some years ago in an article in a Canadian Catholic publication, ‘Your child is, ultimately God’s child’, Fr Ron Rolheiser OMI reflects on the fact that the children we have are never really ours,
Each year at this time, Augustinians celebrate St Augustine and his mother St Monica - both worthy models for us in our living. Augustine the Searcher knew the highs and lows of his humanness and learnt many things from his mother, surviving times of tension that strained their relationship. In 386 he embraced the Christian Faith and discovered a strong spiritual bond with her which culminated in their shared mystical experience at Ostia before Monica’s death.
As I celebrate 50 years as a priest, I am so grateful for the down-to-earth spirit of St Augustine and the familiarity with his life, teaching and spirituality. As Augustinians, we are called to bring to the Priesthood the richness of the Order’s charism – community and friendship, love, truth, the inner search for God, and a style of life that is ‘saintly and ordinary’.
Today I am very aware of the grace that family is – and how the lives of very diverse people bump against each other, so to speak. It was thus in my family – religiously diverse but so much richer for that, a family blessed with strong friendships. I treasure the influence of my parents – my Dad an Anglican, gentle in manner, unswervingly honest and faithful, and my Mum a Catholic convert, woman of deep spirituality and wisdom, who lived her faith in a saintly and ordinary way and carried the cross of sickness patiently for many years.
Migrant and Refugee Week 19-25 August
Migrant and Refugee Week begins on Monday, leading up to the 105th World Day of Migrants and Refugees next Sunday. The theme is taken from Pope Francis’ reflection on Jesus’ words, ‘Take courage, it is I, do not be afraid!’ (Matthew 14:27), prompting our Holy Father’s insight, ‘It is not just about migrants: it is also about our fears.’ He goes further:
‘It is not just about migrants: it is about charity.’
‘It is not just about migrants: it is about our humanity.’
‘It is not just about migrants: it is a question of seeing that no one is excluded.’
‘It is not just about migrants: it is about putting the last in first place.
‘It is not just about migrants: it is about the whole person, about all people.’
‘It is not just about migrants: it is also about building the city of God and man.’
These words challenge us to embrace anew sound Christian values as the foundation of our response first and then interface with the complexities of our world and our nation’s response to migrants and refugees. How are we to live the Gospel in our Parish Community where so many individuals and families have come here from other countries – and still do? Together, we represent many nations and, no matter where we are from, we all crave a place where we can feel at home and where, as individuals and families, we can feel safe.
National Vocations Awareness Week is always held around the Feast of Australia’s first Saint Mary MacKillop on 8 August. This Sunday, we focus on the call to Priesthood and Religious Life. Mary’s journey to religious life has become familiar to us along with the people and places where she established Catholic schools – Penola SA, South Brisbane Qld, and close to us here at St Marys and Penrith.
A pivotal figure in Mary’s life was the former Parish Priest of Penola, Fr Julian Tenison Woods, testimony that God is at work even in the outback! Fr Julian enjoyed his ‘10 years in the Bush’! and travelled on horseback around his extensive parish which included the Coonawarra Region - ‘suitable for viticulture’ he noted in his journals - and Portland where he met the youthful Mary MacKillop who would later establish the Sisters of St Joseph.
Mary eventually came to her uncle’s property at Penola and she and Tenison Woods became firm friends. They shared a dream of setting up a school in Penola to cater for all Catholic children, including the poor. The school eventually became a reality and Julian and Mary hoped to form a simple community. Mary began wearing a plain black dress and bonnet. When Bishop Lawrence Sheil OFM visited Penola, he addressed her as ‘Sister Mary’ and her great story continued from there.
National Vocations Awareness Week invites us to pray about our personal vocation, the way in which you and I answer the call to follow Christ. As I reflect upon the life of our Parish Community, I recall the many occasions when our Church is crowded with families, children, parishioners and visitors, to celebrate significant events – Christmas, Easter, First Communion and Confirmation, major School events. What a good place to start our reflection on ‘vocation’!
We could indulge in a deep theological discussion about vocation, but why not name the reality we already live? Look at those who embrace the vocation of marriage and parenting and make every effort to do it well. Look at those in the extended family, parish and wider community – married, single, widowed, separated, divorced, religious or priest – who make such a difference through their affirmation, generous love and faithful service to their family, community and Church. The Christian vocation can only be lived ‘on the ground’!
Our Christian understanding hinges on our personal relationship with Jesus and the meaning of his being born as one of us. How easy it is to avoid the deeper questions of life and live on the surface – concerned with self, soothed by consumerism, keeping up appearances, tempted by easy values. Jesus’ humanness reminds us that there is always more – to look at Him rather than ourselves. Jesus ‘leads’ us, helps us interpret our living, and affirms us so that we can take responsibility for our own lives.
Did you know that, each Sunday, one Parish Mass is offered for yourselves, the people of the Parish – Missa pro populo, Mass for the people? This practice has been in place for many years and defines the pastoral relationship between pastors and parishioners.
While in Rome for the recent Augustinian International Lay Congress, the group attended the 10.30 am Sunday Mass at St Peter’s Basilica and Fr Paul and I concelebrated, along with around 40 other priests. As the long procession wound through the crowds of visitors to St Peter’s, many recording the spectacle on their cameras and phones, I was struck by the diversity of our Church in the many nationalities and languages among the crowd. Mindful of our bonds as a Parish Community with the wider Church I offered the Mass in St Peter’s for yourselves - Missa pro populo, Mass for the people.
Our Congress theme - Sharing the Joy of the Gospel - was most appropriate in light of Pope Francis’ emphasis on Joy in so many of his letters and homilies, though I did wonder why so few people smiled as the procession came by. I did make an effort however and several people came from behind their cameras to share a smile.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Sunday
‘What is most intimate, most personal, is most universal’ (Fr Henri Nouwen)
We share a common human nature regardless of our ethnic background. We share fundamental needs. This includes the desire to belong, to be happy, to find fulfilment, to be safe, to be appreciated.
Suicide is often the last straw in a build up of unhappiness and pain. There is often a desire for the pain to go and often not focusing on the permanent consequences of taking one’s life. Our Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have suffered dispossession, displacement, violence of various types and much more. So often others have determined for them what they considered to be the best for them. The challenges facing communities are multifold.
The whole of Australian society is going through massive change. The present rate of change is possibly unprecedented in human history ever. It is affecting all of us in many ways. Many think that you cannot be sure of anything anymore. This has many implications in our search for meaning in life and values.
Last year I visited Tuan Anh’s family in rural Vietnam and attended Mass in the parish church, packed with people of all ages, the place where most of them would have received their First Communion. The significance of our First Communion or Religious Profession is part of a bigger picture of the Church in the world. What will the gift of Communion mean for these children? We pray that it will be a regular part of their lives, an opportunity to know the intimacy of Jesus’ presence as he nourishes us in our life and spirit.
When we receive Communion, Jesus receives us in return and welcomes us as we are. We receive him in the circumstances of our life now – experiences and memories, lives formed out of joy and struggle. While visiting the Augustinian Parish in Nagasaki, Japan, a couple of years ago, I was moved by the many elderly people who came devoutly to Communion and I thought to myself, ‘Many of you remember the Atomic Bomb in 1945, and somehow you survived.’ Each of the families of our Vietnamese Augustinians has a profound story too – of a divisive war, a battered landscape, religious beliefs tested – today a country moving forward, the Catholic Faith still strong.
Some years ago I was struck by the title of an article by Fr Kevin Doran (Intercom June 2010) - When Eucharist Becomes Communion. It is very timely now as our children receive their First Communion. Their experience of ‘first communion’ is the experience of ‘being touched by the mystery of relationship with Jesus’.
Every Christian needs this food over and over again so that our relationship with Jesus can grow and mature and our relationship with other Christians become stronger too. Isn’t this what we strive for as a Parish Community and as Family too? And let’s not forget the community of the family – the ‘domestic church’!
The feasts of the Church leading up to today – Easter, Ascension, Pentecost and Trinity - have highlighted the extraordinary relationship God has with us. In last Sunday’s homily, I quoted one of the great preachers of our time, Fr Walter Burghardt SJ, speaking on Trinity Sunday 1992: