As our world faces protests over a variety of issues – democracy, black deaths, pandemic restrictions, border closures - many of us will have some strong views one way or the other. Some will have participated in protests at some time, believing it was for a noble cause… but even then we may keep our views to ourselves lest others disapprove.
Last Sunday, Pope Francis addressed the wave of protests that have swept the world, appealing for peaceful demonstrations: ‘In recent weeks, in many parts of the world, there are numerous popular protests that express the growing discomfort of civil society in the face of political and social situations of particular criticism… While I encourage the protestors to present their requests in a peaceful way, without falling into the temptation of aggressiveness and violence, I appeal to all those who have public and governing responsibility to listen to the voice of their citizens,’ he said, urging them to meet the ‘just aspirations’ of protestors while ensuring ‘full respect of human rights and civil liberties’ – always a difficult and delicate balance!
This Child Protection Sunday reminds us of our obligations to children in our families, parish, Church and wider community. September is Safeguarding Month and the Broken Bay Diocese began with a Liturgy of Lament at the Cathedral. The haunting hymns and chants set the solemn mood as we recalled our Church’s many failures and listened to a survivor’s graphic story and gave public expression to our sorrow.
Safeguarding Month focuses on ‘Promoting the Rights of the Child’ and National Child Protection Week which concludes this weekend has ‘Putting children first’ as its theme. Since the 1990s the Catholic Church has sought to put in place safe practices and protocols to protect children and to address past failures.
The Augustinians support all of these initiatives and have developed a range of child protection policies which can be found on the Province website. Later this month, the Province’s safeguarding policies and practices here and in its South-East Asian communities will be formally audited by Catholic Professional Standards Limited. Along with the majority of religious congregations, the Province has joined the National Redress Scheme set up by the Australian Government to deal with claims from those who have suffered harm from the Church and other religious and community organisations.
Some years ago, I was invited to visit the Year 6 class in another parish to be ‘interviewed’ about the Vocation of Priesthood. The class teacher was also part of the interview and the children questioned her about the Vocation of Marriage. It was an amazing experience as the children asked some very probing questions. The teacher shared some wedding photos with the children and I took along my photo album from my Ordination 51 years ago. The children were most respectful as I passed around the ‘official’ photograph of the young man in clerical collar and ‘Buddy Holly’ glasses!
Every Vocation is about the Friendship of God in our lives as he graces us so that we may live well. Each year in both Church and Society, we mark important days that celebrate the importance of friendship – the various Christian vocations but also Mothers Day and Fathers Day. While the latter may be secular in origin, we can decide how we celebrate the gift of our parents. Each time I baptise infants, I remind parents that they are the first and best teachers, the first and best friends of their child.
On this Social Justice Sunday, we pause to reflect on the 2020 Social Justice Statement, To Live Life to the Full: Mental Health in Australia Today, and we savour the wisdom of St Augustine and his mother St Monica. Sometimes our ‘saints’ seem to have it all beaten but most experienced inner questioning and self-doubt along the way. Monica agonized for many years over her wayward son Augustine who himself eventually faced his ‘wretchedness’ and the ‘heavy rain of tears’ at the time of his conversion.
Thankfully, our emotional struggles, the black hole of depression and mental illness can become our ‘blessings’, painful periods which ultimately heal us and make us whole. This was so for Augustine and Monica and it is so for many of us, including myself. We might call mental illness by more scientific names – like PTSD – but the impact of fear and anxiety on our inner self is life-changing. Even in Augustine and Monica’s time, society experienced massive challenges and people were no strangers to family strife and domestic violence. Throughout history, nations and peoples have faced public health crises. The resilience of our human spirit is being tested during our present pandemic, as was the case during the catastrophic bushfires.
This year, Social Justice Sunday falls on Sunday 30 August and coincides with our celebration of St Augustine and St Monica whose Feast Days fall a couple of days earlier. In preparation for Social Justice Sunday. Some hard copies of the Statement are available in our churches and you can download it from the net. Printed below is Archbishop Mark Coleridge’s foreword to the 2020-21 Statement on the very timely topic of Mental Health in Australia today, particularly given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
‘COVID-19 pandemic is a threat in many ways – physical, social, political and economic. But it’s also putting pressure on the mental health of many people in ways both seen and unseen. Those who are at high risk, and those who love them, may be especially anxious.
‘The loss of jobs and income from businesses, together with underemployment and insecure work, place enormous pressure on people trying to provide for themselves and their families. Isolation has also been very difficult for many – and dangerous for those who are in situations of family strife and domestic violence. These can be stressful times for people in decision-making positions. It’s not easy to balance care for public health and safety and the need for social connection, economic activity and other essential communal activities – including public worship. Many of us will experience a mental health problem at some point through our lives – and this may well be the time.
Some of you can remember the year 1950. I started school that year but in the wider world, extraordinary events were unfolding. The Korean War began, the Soviets tested their first atomic bomb. China invaded Tibet, and President Truman ordered development of a hydrogen bomb. US military personnel went to Vietnam for the first time, Jordan formally annexed the West Bank, and South Africa established legal apartheid. These events occurred just 5 years after a World War that exacted a toll of almost 72 million combatants and civilians. The scene was set for the conflicts that define our world today.
Into the roar and carnage of 1950 slipped another event that seemed to many quaint and irrelevant to the hard curve of human history. Pope Pius XII proclaimed a dogma of the Catholic faith - Mary, the mother of Jesus, had completed her human and baptismal identity by being assumed bodily into heaven - a belief held by the Church for many hundreds of years.
This Sunday we focus on the vocations of Priesthood, Diaconate and Religious Life. A key question is - What kind of Church does the Lord wants us to be – a narrow, introverted, defensive Church or an open, inclusive, joyful Church? Pope Francis describes the Church’s call ‘to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open’ (Evangelii Gaudium n 47). Baptism is ‘the door’ and there should be a place for everyone.
All of us are part of the great journey of this Church of ours. What the Church becomes depends partly on us and how we live the Gospel and totally on the action of God in our world. It’s an unusual paradox but we will achieve very little if we fail to recognise, respect and foster the variety of vocations that Christ has given to his Church. Vocation awareness can only happen where we and our families are engaged with the Church in some way.
Priesthood, Diaconate and Religious Life are quite different vocations but all are about Service. We serve people in a variety of ways, including attending to their pastoral needs and witnessing through a life of prayer. The challenge is to find a personal balance between action and reflection in our lives. Some religious give witness through a life of prayer and contemplation - the Benedictine Sisters, the Carmelites and the Cistercians excel at the latter.
During this Vocations Awareness Week, we honour the call to Ecclesial Ministry of all Christians - Marriage and Family Life, the Single Life, Consecrated Life and Ordained Ministry. The Church is the communion of the faithful and all Christians possess true equality, affirmed in Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church n 32, which describes the different vocations based on our common Baptism and states ‘…there remains, nevertheless, a true equality between all with regard to the dignity and to the activity which is common to all the faithful in the building up of the body of Christ.’ All are ‘…called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity’ (n 40).
It takes time to accept a vocation, perhaps even a lifetime, as we grow into our way of life. Marriage is a call from God to build a lifelong partnership with the help of God’s grace. Sacraments touch our lives, those places where we are most in need. Even for those without faith, grace works in their relationships because truthful love is always of God.
During these days of often grim news about more cases of Covid-19 in parts of Australia and around the world, you, like myself, may be becoming more aware of the fragility of our lives and relationships, the many things we still can’t do, and the increasingly dim prospects of our returning to the freedoms we once took for granted anytime soon.
Sometimes we may feel as if our lives are on hold though this may be a positive invitation to rearrange our priorities and live more simply. In the Gospel parables, Jesus chooses simple life situations to illustrate what the Kingdom of God is like – hidden treasure, fine pearls, a net full of fish. In recent Sunday Gospel readings, planting and harvesting have been prominent themes breaking open the meaning of the Kingdom of God.
Jesus’ parables make the wisdom of God’s message concrete because, in the final analysis, our journey is always about the Kingdom, the Reign of God. While this is something we should earnestly desire, or at least be open to accepting, we may think to ourselves, ‘I’m rather busy at the moment, remind me later!’ - when it’s more convenient… when I retire and have more time… when the children are grown… Yet the Kingdom is not like the cue on the computer screen; it is the divine gift that impacts on everything that happens in our lives.
In the pattern of the Sunday Readings, there is often a strong thematic link between the first reading (usually from the Old Testament) and the Gospel but only an occasional link with the second reading which is usually from St Paul or other New Testament writer.
Last Sunday’s three readings complemented each other with strong imagery of planting and growth; this Sunday’s readings reflect on the human condition and God’s patient understanding, leniency and forgiveness. Our second reading, again from Romans 8, moves on from its dynamic description of creation ‘groaning in one great act of giving birth’ to the generous image of God’s Spirit expressing our prayer when we struggle to put our needs into words, interceding for us and making up for our inadequacy when it comes to praying.
We so easily fill up our lives with activities and things to the extent that even God is challenged to find a space. St Augustine had a similar experience, though he does admit that God was always there, expressed in the familiar passage in his Confessions Book 10, 27:
Today’s Gospel of the Parable of the Sower helps us to reflect on our responsibilities as Church, as families, Parish and School Communities, and as Augustinians. God the Sower is almost wasteful in scattering the seeds wildly but then God’s love is like that. The parable could apply to the many areas of our lives where our openness to the Spirit varies – times when we are very receptive to God’s grace, times when we’re perhaps a bit shy, and times when we resist strongly. Life knocks us around – certainly our recent experience - but thankfully Jesus’ parables turn reality on its head. A seven-fold return was considered a good harvest but Jesus says otherwise, ‘Imagine… imagine the kind of seed that can produce up to a hundredfold in spite of the difficulties involved!’
Keeping our faith fresh is an engaging task at any time and we must ‘imagine’ and ’keep sowing’! Comments from parishioners ‘returning’ to our churches reflect relief and fresh energy that we can now gather again. Some of you may find spiritual support in a favourite ’app’. Pope Francis’ homilies and reflections can be found on the Vatican News App or the Click to Pray App. I find Laudate particularly helpful because it has a remarkable menu which includes the Prayer of the Church, the Daily Readings, prayers and devotions, the Order of Mass, the Catechism, 2 versions of the Bible, major Vatican documents from the Popes and Vatican II, and even the Code of Canon Law – in case I ever need it!
Sunday Eucharist follows a predictable pattern of liturgical seasons - Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter and Ordinary Time, along with the Feasts of Pentecost, Trinity and Corpus Christi; each has obvious significance in our faith journey and spirituality. Occasionally, high-ranking feasts take precedence as the Sunday Celebration, such as the Solemnity of Sts Peter and Paul, celebrated last Monday.
In Rome, two striking statues of Peter and Paul dominate St Peter’s Square. In our faith story, Peter and Paul are very strong characters who did not always see eye to eye and clashed at times. Peter represents the institutional dimension of the Church with his successors the Popes, while Paul, the charismatic preacher, is more identified with the Spirit-led dimension, yet their loyalty to the Lord and the Church’s mission is unquestionable. The personal milestones in their stories – betrayal and belief, persecution and conversion, leadership and fearless preaching, suffering and martyrdom – also capture the many dimensions of the Christian story of each of us.
Life in the Church is not always tidy and predictable, uniform and certain, free of disagreement and tension. In fact, there is room for a variety of views and interpretations of the Scriptures and the Teaching of the Church as we grow together and discover the expansive richness of Jesus’ message. Look at the robust debates at various Church Councils, beginning with the Council of Jerusalem (50AD) and including the Second Vatican Council, as the Church engaged with the truth about God’s presence and saving action.
Each family has its own style and culture, satisfactions and frustrations. Carrying a particular ‘tradition’ gives the family its unique ‘identity’ but our ‘family story’ is ongoing and never finished. Think of the effects of the recent lockdown on your family, the ways in which you now relate differently, how family homes became workplaces or interim classrooms. In North Harbour, our ministry to families through the Sacramental Program has been difficult and unpredictable. Children who completed the First Reconciliation preparation in March are only now receiving the Sacrament.
Family life has been the focus of much of our attention during the lockdown which affected the dynamic in both school and parish communities. Hopefully we are all more aware of our evangelizing role, especially as we seek to form children in faith and Christian values.
The Church holds the strong conviction that parents are the ‘first teachers’ of their children, the greatest of privileges but no easy task. We may think of this only in terms of a child’s formative years through to the end of adolescence, yet even as adults we still learn from our parents’ wisdom. How lucky we are when we have parents, grandparents and older adults around and can to talk with them about their hopes and dreams for us as they helped us grow.
Some years ago I came across an interesting article on faith formation of children which spoke about raising a Catholic family today when the very nature of the word family and family values are so often challenged. The following points may be of interest:
Last Sunday we gathered again in our churches as others at home joined the live streaming of Parish Eucharist. At St Cecilia’s, we blessed the Easter Candle, lit for Sunday Mass for the first time. At St Kieran’s, Fr Tony Banks quoted from Hello Dolly – ‘It’s so nice to have you back where you belong!’ Yes indeed, Eucharist is where we truly belong!
At the same time, thousands from Australia and across the world protested the injustice of black deaths in custody; sadly, not without violence though mostly peaceful. At the National Shrine to St John Paul II in Washington DC, former site of the Augustinian Seminary where Frs Paul, Tony and I once studied, the US President and his wife posed for photos, drawing the ire of Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory, himself an African-American.
Today’s social and political complexities reflect the ‘signs of the times’, some positive and hopeful, others ugly and tragic – yet signs none of us can ignore. Each is called to live the Gospel - Am I strong enough to be a Christian?…. or perhaps, Am I weak enough to be a Christian?
As we live out daily ‘the liturgy of the world’, the Eucharist changes us, transforms us in the likeness of God, and sends us forth. As we respond, ’Amen. Yes, I do believe!’ we who receive the Body of Christ must be the Body of Christ. St Augustine offers nourishment for our spirit:
Recent events in the US sent a chill up my spine as I recalled the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in Memphis on 4 April 1968. Washington DC ‘exploded’ with riots, looting and fire bombings as desperate people who felt disempowered by society expressed their grief and anger. Supermarkets and other buildings in black neighbourhoods burned.
I was a seminarian at the time and we Augustinians and other religious were called to assist in the relief effort, exempted from the 4.00pm curfew. My base was an evangelical church in a black neighbourhood. Many distressed residents expressed gratitude at the same time as others hurled abuse and threats; thankfully, our ‘clerical attire’ kept us safe. Now that scenario is being repeated… yet it is the victim’s family that is calling for peace and calm.
World events like this awaken us to our own shortcomings in society and the effects of racism, poverty, injustice and violence experienced by many, including our indigenous people. I’m often surprised at the candour of our Prayers of Intercession at Mass as they draw on the joys and distress of those in the human family, some far removed from us geographically but still deserving of our prayerful love and the love of our Compassionate God.
Our celebration of the wonder of the Trinity may seem far removed from these daily realities, yet in the final analysis God is for us all the ultimate source of life and love. Even in times of violence, practical charity shows the true power of God’s presence, a reminder of the simple wisdom of St Francis of Assisi, ‘Preach the Gospel at all times and use words only when necessary!’ Both Francis and Augustine realised that we are incapable of understanding God as he is and how much our words fall short of the reality, to quote Augustine: ‘If you wanted to say something worthy of God you would say nothing at all!’ (Sermon 22).
The Easter banners have gone now and the Easter Candle will be lit for the last time at Sunday Eucharist on Pentecost – the Easter Season is over! Of course we are still Easter People and Alleluia is our song, as St Augustine reminds us, but Pentecost sets us on a new course of letting the Holy Spirit help us to become who we really are.
My favourite spiritual writer, the late Fr Benignus O’Rourke OSA, reflects on how often we wear ourselves out trying to please God, to win his love, when in fact God’s love is a given and he is a constant in our lives: ‘Our strenuous efforts to win his love are unnecessary. From now on we can relax and enjoy his love’ (Finding Your Hidden Treasure p 139).
Perhaps this insight rings a bell with us, perhaps as a familiar learning from the weeks of isolation – with their mixture of frustration and boredom, along with refreshment of the closeness of family life – some of the myriad of sentiments I have heard from parishioners during this time. Many describe a new awareness of the Eucharist in our lives, despite the absence of the physical community experience of our being together.
If asked what we miss most at this time, our response would probably include physical contact. We need touch in our lives because we are bodily beings and we relate most intimately through the warmth of a handshake, the casual pat on the back, and the hugs and kisses that express and affirm the love that grows and strengthens us in family life and relationships and keeps us confident in who we are.
Sometimes I feel a bit flat when the Easter Season is over. I miss the great energy in the Scripture readings on Sundays and weekdays, particularly the development and experience of the Early Church in Acts where we witness the apostles and followers engaging with the remarkable message of Jesus and his Resurrection. The Ascension of Jesus marks his return to his Father but it reminds us of his bodily absence too. No doubt, the disciples also missed Jesus.
On our journey of Faith we need to experience Jesus’ presence, to know him in our daily lives. Recall St Peter’s words from last Sunday’s 2nd reading, ‘Reverence the Lord Christ in your hearts’ – and the invitation in faith for us to reverence the Lord Christ in the hearts of others too, as they do in us. I sense that we ‘understand’ what this means because it describes the depth which our Faith can reach. Jesus’ Ascension allowed the disciples to grow in faith and it can help us to understand where our faith sits in the overall scheme of things.
A month or so ago, Pope Francis stood alone in St Peter’s Square in the rain addressing ‘the city and the world’ and he prayed: ‘Wake up, Lord!’ This reflected the disciples’ anxiety during the storm on the lake when Jesus was asleep in the stern of the boat (Mark 4:35-41). When he awoke, Jesus said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?’
Francis prayed this way: ‘Lord, your word this evening strikes us…. all of us. In this world that you love more than we do, we have gone ahead at breakneck speed, feeling powerful and able to do anything… Now that we are in a stormy sea, we implore you: “Wake up, Lord!”’
The gradual lifting of COVID-19 restrictions is good news for us all, particularly the opening of our churches for personal prayer and Eucharist for small groups during the week. We look forward to greater freedom in coming weeks, eventually being able to gather for Eucharist as a Parish Community. I trust that this Easter Season is helping keep us buoyant in faith and prayer, but we need to be careful in case we lose what I like to call our ‘Easter sense’.
Happy Mother’s Day to all our mothers on this day! We give thanks for the love and the warmth of ‘home’ as Mums and Dads have nurtured us and kept us safe over the years. How fitting in today’s Gospel that Jesus is speaking to the disciples about being ‘at home with God’ and of how he and the Father ‘make their home with us’. The Gospel picks up this intimate and comforting theme: ‘There are many rooms in my Father’s house…. I am now going to prepare a place for you…. and I shall return to take you with me; so that where I am you may be too.’
In recent weeks, home has taken on a wider meaning for many families – not just as a place of close family bonding but a place where many parents work from home, and a place of formal learning for children. Many family homes are rearranged to accommodate activities for which most homes were never designed, not to mention the competing needs for privacy and quiet, and dealing with stresses not experienced before - ‘Where does work stop and family start?’
Church is home for us too and many parishioners express their appreciation of the Parish Mass livestreamed each Sunday morning, helping us feel connected as a community, strengthening us in communion with the Lord and one another, marking our communal identity as the Body of Christ.
Have you noticed the striking pectoral cross worn by Pope Francis? Called the Shepherd’s Cross, it represents Christ the Good Shepherd, the model Pope Francis has followed in his pastoral ministry since he became a bishop. The image of Jesus carrying the lost sheep on his shoulders with the remaining sheep in the background helps us understand better how Francis has captured the imagination of so many through his uncanny way of connecting with people, his simple witness to the Gospel message, and his obvious enjoyment of those who cross his path.
How easily we forget the endorsement of the Church’s engagement with the world at the Second Vatican Council in the document The Church in the Modern World. This called us to a new way of thinking, a commitment to goodness and justice and fresh engagement with the world around us. Jesus came to redeem the World which is where we live and where he himself was ‘at home in the marketplace.’
The Shepherd’s Cross is a timely image for our Church and for each of us, particularly against the backdrop of the Church’s failures so brutally exposed in recent years. Few would have expected that so much pain and shame would be part of our experience as Catholic Christians, yet out of this comes a deeper awareness that we as the Body of Christ must embrace greater humility, honesty and transparency, and follow Christ in his simplicity as our loving and healing Shepherd. Sometimes our world holds on to past failures for their newsworthiness, claiming that nothing has changed, when the opposite is often the case.