Homily – National Council of Priests Convention

Colossians 3:12-17, James 1:17-18, 21-22, 27, Luke 6:27-38

I welcome you all to the Canberra and Goulburn Archdiocese.  I am aware that so many of you have come from all parts of Australia to be here over these days.  I do sincerely hope and pray that the days have been refreshing for you as you live out the priesthood in stormy times.

I would like to reflect a little on our stormy societal times.

I think it is good for priests to incorporate in their priestly life, time to pursue hobbies and time for recreation so that when we return to the exercise of our ministry we do so in a refreshed manner.

Here in the Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn one priest has developed a hobby at a particularly high standard.  His name is Fr Joe Tran, he is the parish priest of a beautiful coastal town called Narooma. 

When I visit him I can immediately see the results of his hobby in the presbytery.  His hobby is painting.  Over more recent years his level of expertise at painting has increased and shows remarkable talent.  It relaxes him and helps him focus on his life as a priest in a refreshed way.

Therefore, with the construction of our new office building here in Canberra I asked him to paint two large paintings for the foyer.  I requested him to create a painting based on the “multiplication of the loaves and the fish.”  Also I asked him to paint a reflection on Luke 5, where Jesus tells the apostles to “put out the nets into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.”

When the painting “Into to the deep” arrived I was surprised with what I saw.  It was a beautiful, colourful and large painting.  However, Fr Tran had the apostles fishing in a huge storm on the Sea of Galilee.

When I asked him why he painted a storm given the fact that there is no mention of a storm in the Gospels, he said “the Church in Australia is now in stormy times and we are to evangelise in the here and now.”

I found his insight quite profound and very accurate for the exercise of our priestly ministry in Australia today.

Today we also celebrate the feast of the 5th century Church Father St John Chrysostom (349-407).  In today’s Second Reading from The office of Readings, St John Chrysostom a name which derives in English “Golden Mouth” due to his great preaching skills, had this to say “The waters have risen and severe storms are upon us, but we do not fear drowning, for we stand firmly upon a rock.  Let the sea rage, it cannot break the rock.  Let the waves rise, they cannot sink the boat of Jesus…I concentrate then on the present situation, and I urge you, my friends, to have confidence.”

Isn’t it incredible that a 4th century Saint can speak to us 1500 years later in such a direct and penetrating manner.  This is surely a sign of the Holy Spirit speaking through his words.

Indeed this expression, “have confidence” was something I was reminded of in recent days.  I attended an Ecumenical Church Christian Ministers breakfast here in Canberra.  It was quite a big gathering.  We met in a room that belonged to one of the Evangelical Churches.  I was very pleasantly distracted during the breakfast by a very big notice that was on the wall of this Church.  In bold letters was written the following “Have confidence that God is continually working on your behalf.”

There is that word again…confidence.  In these stormy times in which we now exercise our priestly ministry here in Australia let us always have confidence that God is with us and that we do not fish in deep waters in the stormy seas on our own.  God is with us and will teach us how to fish in unchartered waters that are dangerous and storm filled.

The Gospel today does speak about stormy people that can irritate us and make us feel that they are enemies.  In regard to such people, Jesus makes it quite clear in one of the most demanding passages of all the Gospels that we are to “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” 

We always use this reference for people.  Perhaps we could take a little poetic licence and also refer such commands to social cultural currents that seem to be enemies to the spread of the Gospel in our times and place.  This does not make them less poisonous to our apostolate.  On the other hand, understanding and listening to these currents might, indeed, help us to understand who we are dealing with so that we can transform that which seems to be an enemy into something that the Gospel can use for the greater glory of God.

In this regard I would think that the social cultural “storm” that encircles us these days with so much venomous power can be understood arising from the following three questions that today’s aggressive society seems to be asking, not just simply of the Catholic Church or even Christian Churches but of all religious people.

The first question I think this storm asks us is the following…”Rather than peace makers, are you and all religions violent in essence?”

The National Council of Priest’s Conference here in Canberra has been meeting over these days which fall on the anniversary of the 9/11 Twin Towers terrorist attack in New York.  How many times can we endure seeing, yet again, the aeroplane crashing into the second tower whilst the first tower is collapsing!  This was all done because of certain religious fanatics who are manipulating our theological arguments to produce diabolical acts.

In recent days I have attended a function at our Jewish Synagogue here in Canberra.  I am becoming good friends with the new Rabbi.  Every time I go to a Jewish function the Shoah (Holocaust) is mentioned as if it happened yesterday.  We do now understand the ideological perversion of certain Christian themes that most certainly sowed the seeds that generated this enormous tragedy of the last century.

Then of course, there is Northern Ireland and so many other expressions of religious violence.  So I do feel it is a question that we need to “befriend”, because it is a storm that continually rages around us…is there something inherent to religions that produces the opposite to what they proclaim…not peace but hatred?

Another huge question that the “storm” asks us is something very present here in Australia and in most secular developed countries of the world.  It is as follows “Do we really need you to be happy?”

We all know of the incredible rise in the Australian popular sentiment in regard to religion.  The latest census talks about perhaps up to 30 percent of the Australian population now recording “No religion”, when asked about their religious affiliation.  The strong secularist undercurrents tend to drag people out into an open ocean where they feel that any anchorage with religion is inconsequential to the happiness of their life.  This is something new!  Only a few decades ago, the vast majority of Australians would indicate that religious sentiment was absolutely essential to hope and happiness and peace, in not only their lives but the Australian societal fabric.

The third question, one on a topic that you have been discussing over these days, is the questions of trust.  The question asked of religious institutions, in regard to the sex abuse issues of today, “Can we trust you?”

This is a most unpleasant question but one that is certainly occupying our thoughts as we stand alongside victims who shout at us in a prophetic way, that our ways in the issue of child safety have to change, and have to change immediately. 

In recent weeks I have sat down and listened carefully to a number of victims.  I’ve done this many times over the years.  It seems to me that the victims all say four common things.  They say, “Do you believe my story? Can you assure me that the one who abused me is no longer exercising any ministry that would endanger other children?  Can you help me get on with my life with this open wound that I’ve been carrying ever since the abuse?  Can you assure me that policies and procedures are now in place to truly make the Church a safe place for children?”

All these questions are really about trusting Religious Institutions, and in our case the Catholic Church, to really be able to understand the gravity of the present situation and to change the culture that is engendered.

Could I conclude by just making a few observations and return back to the Feast of today regarding St John Chrysostom.

He was born in present day Turkey.  He began his adult life not as a public figure, but as a hermit, an ascetic.  For quite some years he was like the desert fathers and mothers of the 4th century and retreated from hectic life and retired into the life of a hermit so that the mystical dimension within him could be nurtured and grow.

Later his preaching and his role as the patriarch of the Church of Constantinople developed.  To be in charge of the this Church in those days would have thrust him into many cultural storms, quite different from today but none the less venomous in their effect on body and soul.

Given the fact that he has become a Church father and a great leader, I often feel that it was due to the early years he spent as a mystic and as a hermit.

Could it be that the Church of today confronting the cultural storms, needs to return back to its mystic dimension and not retreat from the world but respond to the world’s challenges at a deeper level, a profoundly spiritual level.

We all know that if we are in an ocean and the waves are very big one way of responding to the situation is to dive deep under the waves so that the calmness of the ocean underneath can give us stability.

Could this be a way of responding to the present storms of the Catholic Church here in Australia?…by returning to the Marian dimension, the mystic dimension of our faith in a greater focus.

I think this is perhaps what God is calling us to be and we should not be distracted by other significant but perhaps less important priorities.

I believe, in this time of the Plenary Council of Australia, that this is indeed what God is calling us to be.  I do not believe the Holy Spirit is calling us to be a new Church but to indeed be the Church that Jesus has always wanted us to be. 

Perhaps it is not a new Vatican III Council we should be looking for, but a Jerusalem II Council.  The Jerusalem I Council was at the time of Pentecost.  Surely we are praying for a new Pentecost in our time and place.

Could I conclude on that note.  I believe that the Holy Spirit of today is most certainly not asking us to return to the “Tower of Babel” but to make a return to the “Cenacle of Pentecost.”