Birthdays and iBricks

Birthdays and iBricks

I’ve enjoyed a very pleasant first day of spring, which also happens to be my 34th birthday.

(The pressure’s off this year. Last year my spiritual director observed that our Lord had died at 33. Alexander the Great and Catherine of Siena died at that age also. So he suggested I make sure my thirty-third year is a fruitful one!)

I have received a great many birthday greetings via e-mail and Facebook, but I’m afraid I haven’t received any via text message. That’s not to say they haven’t been sent. There are dozens of unread text messages on my phone right now. But the problem is, I can’t see them.

I dropped my phone last week. For a few days I persevered with a smashed screen, but my fingertips were cut to ribbons. I thought an el cheapo screen replacement would do the trick — and it did for 24 hours, but since Thursday the backlight on my phone has malfunctioned.

With the help of Siri I can still make and receive calls, so my phone is not quite an iBrick. But as far as iMessages and text messages are concerned, the situation is hopeless. I’ve tracked down the solution to my problem, but I’m not keen on soldering with a microscope, so I think I’ll have to replace the whole phone — eventually. In the meantime, I’m not receiving messages, so please accept my apologies if you’ve sent one and I’ve ignored it. It’s nothing personal.

Thanks for the birthday wishings and blessings. It’s been a good one!

Wearing the priestly uniform

Wearing the priestly uniform

I live in a town of less than 2,000 people, and I’m the only minister of religion in residence. Not long after I arrived, I was invited to speak and bless the town’s Carols by Candlelight, and in the time since I have presided at several funerals which the whole town attended. Chances are, if I walked down the street right now, people would know who I am even if I wasn’t wearing a priestly collar.

Nonetheless, since I was ordained a deacon in 2010, I have worn the collar every day. There’s maybe four or five days when I have not worn it, when I was on holidays and wearing it was impractical — bush walking for example, or mountain biking. But generally I’m ‘in uniform’ seven days a week, even on my day off. Apart from anything else, it’s a reminder to me that a priest is not his own. I’m called to serve others at the Lord’s convenience, not mine.

After five years of wearing the uniform, it’s not something I’m very conscious of. If it attracts the stares of strangers, I’m oblivious. There are occasions when strangers have spontaneously struck up conversation, either about the Church or about God. And once I was called upon to minister the sacraments. Good! That’s why I make myself identifiable. But honestly, I forget my uniform makes me sometimes stand out.

Reading this article, then, was as surprising as it was bemusing: What happened when I dressed like a priest. The author — a journalist — conducted an experiment, noting strangers’ first reactions to the uniforms he donned.

I bought four uniforms, modified them using the advice of people who wear them for real, and wore each one for a full day to test the reaction. A priest, a security guard, a mechanic, and a doctor. I stitched my name on—first, last, or both when appropriate. But I didn’t forge a thing. No fake lanyards, no ID cards, no crucifix, no rosary in hand. The idea wasn’t to trick people.


The author poses a fascinating question. How much do clothes maketh the man? Or, at least, how much do clothes influence the thoughts and behaviour of people around you? It’s telling that the headline and the bulk of his article focus on his experiences wearing a priest’s cassock or soutane. For myself, I only wear my soutane in the sanctuary and in the confessional, because the soutane isn’t customary street wear in Australia. (In this country, the custom is suit and clerical shirt, or suit and white shirt with lapel cross.) Still, I think the soutane and the collar elicit similar reactions. Reflecting on the article, I can verify its findings.

The author of this article concludes with a soutane-related quandary. I’ll let you in on a trade secret: a good soutane does have pockets (mine does), but every soutane at least has holes where the pockets should be, granting ready access to your wallet.

“It’s a tricky thing to wear in public. There are no pockets,” I said. “I have to hitch the whole thing up to get to my wallet.” I bent a little and started to demonstrate the issue, how I would have to hike up this giant skirt to retrieve five bucks for the valet. Both of them waved me off. “It looks kind of pervy, right?” I said. I asked them if they knew how a priest would have dealt with it.

Neither of them did. “There are some things only a priest would know,” one of them said.

They thought I must be an actor. I told them no. Eventually I asked about their faith, since they seemed to know a priest when they saw one. And when they didn’t.

They told me, too. I just listened. It seemed like what was called for.

What does Jesus look like?

A Facebook friend maybe didn’t know what he was in for, when he started a light hearted discussion on “what Jesus really looked like.”

It all started with a meme currently doing the rounds on social media. The image on the right derives from a speculative composite prepared in 2001, which presents a “typical semite from the first century”:


A lot of people take exception to that depiction, which they feel demeans the Lord. In fairness to the original artists, they never intended to depict “the real Jesus.” They’re just presenting the typical features of a first-century Jew, particularly noting the man’s swarthy skin tone and his closely cropped hair.

Hairstyle is worth bearing in mind. St Paul — who saw the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, don’t forget — clearly disapproves of men with long hair:

Does not nature itself teach you that for a man to wear long hair is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her pride? (1 Cor 11:14)

For my part, though, I still invest faith in the Shroud of Turin:


It’s worth noting, I think, that the “fake Jesus” of the meme more closely resembles the image on the shroud. That’s a good reminder that Tradition isn’t as unreliable as many argue, and that the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith” should not be opposed in dichotomy. (Mind you, I readily concede that blue eyes and an Anglo-Celtic skin tone is unrealistic.)

What really surprised me, though, in the Facebook “debate” that ensued (I’m feeling generous), is that a great many Christians dismissed the question outright. “Does it really matter?” they demanded. “You receive him in the eucharist. What he looks like is irrelevant.”

I don’t know about that. The proliferation of artistic renderings of Jesus suggests that it does matter. Speaking more personally, I can’t help but wonder what he looks like — the person I speak to frequently every day, whom I long to meet one day, whom I speak about to others most days.

I guess it doesn’t matter what Jesus looks like, insofar as his appearance doesn’t impact faith, and doesn’t measure love. But at the same time it matters very much, insofar as Jesus is both God and man, and it’s natural for us to relate to each other materially, not just spiritually. If we’re speaking to someone face to face, we make eye contact. If we’re talking to someone over the phone, we intuitively pick up nuances that are lost in email and chat.

I often wonder what Jesus looks like. How his voice sounds. What mannerisms distinguish him. It’s a very natural thing, I think, to value these things in someone you love.

“I am a sinner . . .”

“I am a sinner . . .”

It’s instructive, I think, how much Jesus objects to the self-righteous hypocrisy of the Pharisees. In today’s Gospel he enumerates many sins, but nothing raises his ire like the Pharisaical spirit.

When thieves, murderers, adulterers, cross the Lord’s path, they encounter his mercy. They are moved to contrition. But the moral superiority of the Pharisees elicits a very different response from Jesus, probably because it is impervious to mercy. I’m reminded of C. S. Lewis’ insightful warning:

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

Put that way, it’s easy to discern that the Pharisaical spirit is not exclusively religious. There are plenty of moralistic tyrants populating the secular sphere. A few contributors to the global warming and marriage equality debates come to mind.

Nonetheless, the Pharisaical spirit is especially odorous in the religious sphere. It caused the Pharisees to believe they were better than God. Literally. That sort of moral superiority is anathema to Christian discipleship.

Our Lord wants all his disciples, I think, to sincerely believe, and frequently recall, “I am a sinner.” But on its own, that’s not enough. The world abounds with sinners who proudly declare, “I am a sinner,” and extol their wickedness as a badge of honour. How many sins are used as attractive marketing techniques? How many vices have been redefined as virtue?

It’s true that this sort of shamelessness is a safeguard against the Pharisaical spirit, but like Pharisaism, it’s impervious to divine mercy, which means that it’s just as toxic. And yet the opposite of shamelessness — shame — is no less disastrous. Shamelessness and shame are both forms of pride. They are both egotistical. Shame is centered on the self: “I’m so ashamed of myself.” “What will people think of me?”

Shame prevents a person from publicly admitting guilt. Shame causes us to avoid the people we’ve offended. We delay seeking forgiveness. Shame discourages us, and we can wander far from God. Shame usually comes from our own ego, it can come from the evil one, but it never comes from the Holy Spirit. It’s never good to dialogue with shame.

Guilt, on the other hand, does come from the Holy Spirit. Where shame is focused on ourselves, guilt is focused on the wrong we’ve done. When we do something wrong, when we use our freedom selfishly, when we ignore or injure or demean God or ourselves or our neighbour, our conscience bothers us; we feel guilty. Thanks be to God! Guilt is a means to conversion; an impulse to seek forgiveness and make amends.

Guilt is good thing, which safeguards us from the proud spirits of Pharisaism, shamelessness, and shame. But more importantly, guilt makes us responsive to mercy, and grateful for it. A person with a healthy sense of guilt actively seeks divine mercy, and generously ministers mercy to others.

Put guilt and mercy together, I think, and you have a great recipe for humility and love. “I am a sinner,” the Lord wants us to say. But more than that: “I am a sinner, madly in love with God.”

What does this miracle teach us?

What does this miracle teach us?

It’s significant, I think, that the miracle we hear about in today’s Gospel is the only miracle (apart from the Resurrection!) which is related by all four evangelists. This is clearly an important event in the Lord’s ministry, and it contains lessons for us.

Some Christians cite this gospel to support the so-called ‘prosperity gospel.’ This is a doctrine, with roots in the Old Testament, which suggests that material prosperity can be a measure of God’s blessing. More importantly, if a person is faithful to Christ, and lives according to Gospel values, then God will bless them with material wealth. The feeding of the 5,000, it is argued, demonstrates this. Our Lord responds to the people’s needs, and then some. The twelve baskets of left over foods is testament to God’s super-abundance.

The experience of the saints, however, tell us something different. Miracles which impacted St Jean-Marie Vianney and St John Bosco come to mind, but instead I’ll cite a much more local example. This is one of many similar stories I’ve heard from many people.

A couple I know in Hamilton have many children of their own, and they’ve fostered a great many more – some temporarily, others permanently. For many years the household has included ten children or more. A few years ago, the mother of all these children resolved it was time for a holiday. People were tired, tempers were short, and relationships were frayed. As you might imagine, the household is seldom flush with cash, but that didn’t concern her. A holiday was needed, and she prayed that God would provide.

So the holiday was booked a month in advance, on the hope and prayer that the funds would accumulate in time. As time passed though, the money was not found to pay for the holiday accommodation. The family forged ahead anyway, putting their faith in Providence. On the very morning of the holiday, as the family drove off the farm, they stopped at the mailbox. There they found a cheque whose amount coincided precisely with the sum needed to pay for their holiday accommodation.

This, it seems to me, is precisely how God works. We can ask for material blessings just as we ask for spiritual graces, but where God will give a thousand times the spiritual favours we request, God’s material generosity is more circumspect. God gives material blessings as needed, and no more. The reason is self-evident. We humans are susceptible to material attachments which are deadly to the life of faith. Material abundance typically does us more harm than good, and God will never harm us.

Today’s Collect acknowledges this very point:

O God, protector of those who hope in you,
without whom nothing has firm foundation, nothing is holy,
bestow in abundance your mercy upon us
and grant that, with you as our ruler and guide,
we may use the good things that pass
in such a way as to hold fast even now
to those that ever endure.

Besides, it’s  notable that our Lord instructs the disciples to collect the left-overs, “so that nothing gets wasted.” Jesus has no intention of permitting the crowds to be gluttonous, taking more than needed. This is hardly a ringing endorsement of the prosperity gospel!

So what lessons can we learn from this miracle?

Firstly: God is sensitive to our material and spiritual needs. We can trust in Him whenever our resources fall short. We should use whatever resources we do have — even if they are plainly inadequate. God will supply what is lacking.

Secondly, God will recruit us to do his work, if we are willing. Our Lord could have worked this miracle without any input from others, but he deliberately collaborated with the disciples, despite their poverty of resources. This is true for us also. We think we don’t have the words or the eloquence to spiritually nourish others. Or we don’t have the goodness or authority to speak about God. After all, who are we?

The answer is one we easily forget. We are children of God, baptised into the Body of Christ, and nourished by His Word and his Sacred Body and Blood. The Holy Spirit dwells within us, ready to infuse our words and actions with God’s grace. 

Our own apostolates, unlike our Lord’s, are rarely spectacular. We serve God in simple and mundane ways — in our kindness towards strangers; friendliness towards acquaintances; and our dedication to family and friends. Let’s not neglect the material: our punctuality; our temperance and self-denial; our care for books and computers and tools. But by our habitual, day-to-day struggle to do the small things well, we grow in virtue. And by doing that, we draw closer to the Lord.

So let’s pray today that we make use of the resources the Lord gives us, even if they seem inadequate, so that we can attend to the spiritual and material needs of those people whom God puts on our path.

Vale Fr Jordan

Vale Fr Jordan

Father Gregory Jordan SJ has been, for many years, chaplain to the Latin Mass community in Brisbane. Yesterday morning he offered Mass for that community, as he does every Sunday morning, at Brisbane’s “Jesuit parish,” St Ignatius’ Church, Toowong.

Fr Jordan processing into church to offer Solemn Mass yesterday

As he was proclaiming the Gospel, Fr Jordan suffered a massive stroke and collapsed. Among the congregation there numbered four doctors, who rushed to his aid. In the meantime, the rest of the congregation knelt and prayed several rosaries for him. As he was carried by stretcher from the church into a waiting ambulance, the assembly stood in prayerful silence.

Over the next several hours, the number praying for Fr Jordan grew considerably, and extended far beyond the Toowong church. A text message first alerted me to Fr Jordan’s situation at 1pm. In a short time, my Facebook newsfeed was swamped with requests for prayers and updates. It was clear by now that Fr Jordan was dying. He turned 85 only last Tuesday, and his parishioners had planned a birthday party for him at 3pm yesterday afternoon. But it seemed a much greater celebration was planned for him elsewhere.

I met Fr Jordan when I was at university. He was instrumental in reviving and reforming Australia’s peak body of Catholic tertiary students — an effort I was heavily involved in. A confrere from those days remarked how sad she was that he was dying. “I knew Fr Jordan couldn’t go on forever… but… I think I kind of hoped he would!”

At that point though, I felt nothing but excitement. Fr Jordan was so evidently in love with God that I knew he must be relishing these moments. Very soon he would be face to face with the Lord himself. Only a short time later though, when news of his death was confirmed, I was overwhelmed with sadness. A selfish sadness, focused on my own loss. I suppose it’s analogous to that moment at the airport, when a dear friend or relative walks through customs and is lost from view. After that there’s only one’s personal loss to dwell on.

Although he lived in Brisbane, and I lived in Melbourne, Fr Jordan had a formative influence on me at university and in the seminary. The seminary enrolment process involves several interviews which explore a candidate’s view of the priesthood. I recall invoking Fr Jordan’s example of joy and piety, and his extraordinary preaching ability. I said I would like to preach as well as did, but doubted I could. I simply didn’t have his wit and erudition. I did not know then what I know now: the impact of Fr Jordan’s preaching did not derive from human talent. It was a manifestation of habitual prayer and intimacy with the Lord.

Seven years later, Fr Jordan graciously agreed to preach at my first Mass. I regret I remember little of that homily. His wit was on display of course. He drew laughter from his reference to the supposed rivalry between the Jesuits and Opus Dei. He spoke about the great strides in ecumenism, which would see a son of Ignatius preach at the first Mass of a son of Josemaría, or something like that.

He spoke too of the renaissance of Catholic faith and culture which was occurring on university campuses all over Australia. He credited me and my peers for that accomplishment, though it is in fact Fr Jordan who deserves all the credit. Typically, he preached ex tempore, so there was no copy of the text I could keep and re-read.


Fr Jordan laying hands at my priestly ordination


Concelebrating at my Mass of Thanksgiving the next day

I caught up with Fr Jordan earlier this month, at the ACCC Conference in Hobart. I was shocked at his physical decline. Nonetheless, he could still command the attention of an entire room. I sat at his table during dinner the first night. It was a large round table, which did not lend itself to conversation across its vast expanse. It was easier, and more natural, to limit conversation to those in one’s immediate vicinity. But when conversation turned to Pope Francis, other conversations stalled, and everyone strained to hear Fr Jordan’s opinions. He spoke as a brother Jesuit, and as an exorcist priest, but really it was his wisdom and holiness which gave his views authority.

For the same reasons, this hour long interview is well worth watching:

Fr Jordan’s last Mass on earth celebrated the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, in accordance with the liturgical calendar of the 1962 Roman Missal. But in the Maronite calendar, yesterday was the feast of St Charbel, whose death parallels Fr Jordan’s. Both suffered strokes while offering the Holy Sacrifice, dying “with their boots on.”

Meanwhile, according to the calendar of the 2002 Roman Missal, we yesterday celebrated the Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time. The readings were evocative of Good Shepherd Sunday, a pastoral motif which suits Fr Jordan very well. But the Gospel is especially pertinent. Having ministered far and wide, preaching the Word and exorcising demons,

“the apostles rejoined Jesus and told him all they had done and taught. Then he said to them, ‘You must come away to some lonely place all by yourselves and rest for a while.'”

And so it was.

Recquiescat in pace

Recquiescat in pace

Bishop Athanasius Schneider

Bishop Athanasius Schneider

It’s many years since I watched Michael Voris’ Vortex. Tuning in this week, I was startled by the changes.

For starters, as one might expect, Voris has perfected his craft. His delivery is pleasing, and stumbles are rare. But the production value of his videos has improved too, significantly. I can only assume that his audience, and hence his funding, have exponentially increased.

I blogged about Voris several years ago, when I still followed him with qualified alacrity. Back then I could appreciate that his polemical style, which is not my cup of tea, achieved some good for some people. Since then whatever enthusiasm I could muster has cooled completely. His crime, to my mind, is intellectual inconsistency. He does not hesitate to loudly and elaborately criticise prelates like Cardinal Dolan for ambiguous statements, but when Pope Francis has made comparable statements, he stays his criticism.

“The Pope,” Voris says, “is different.” We owe him our respect and filial obedience, and it is imprudent to criticise him publicly. Indeed. But what is good for the goose is good for the gander. Having discovered the value of prudence and charity, Voris should apologise for his previous record, and accord other prelates the same courtesy. That, or he should unleash on the pope what he unleashes on others. Consistency is not just important, I think. It is critical.

Nonetheless, this week I paid the $10 monthly subscription fee to to view Voris’ recent interview with Bishop Athanasius Schneider. I met Bishop Schneider two weeks ago, when he addressed the ACCC conference in Hobart. He impressed me very much. Here is a man who is absolutely consistent in his ideas.

Bishop Schneider is an expert in the Church Fathers, and in many ways, he resembles one. He is a shepherd in the Church in Kazakhstan, which like the early Church is very small but deeply committed and radically counter-cultural. The population of Kazakhstan is 17 million: 70 per cent are Muslim, and less than one per cent are Catholic.

Like the Church Fathers, Bishop Schneider speaks plainly, and he is provocative. Unlike Michael Voris he is not polemical, and nor is he shrill. On the contrary, he is unfailingly serene. In Hobart Bishop Schneider struck me as a holy and prayerful man. There is a peace about him which can only be the fruit of prayer. Indeed, several times during the conference I sighted him sitting before the tabernacle, in conversation with the Lord.

Below is a recent episode of The Vortex which illustrates the contrast between Voris and Schneider. In his interview with Schneider, Voris raises the spectre of universalism, which is a devastating and prolific heresy. This is what Bishop Schneider is asked about, and this is what he comments on. But in his editorial, recorded later, Voris conflates universalism with the famous (notorious?) speculative hypothesis of Hans Urs von Balthasar, that we might hope all men are saved. That suggestion is daring (and in my view lacking), but it’s not universalism. The differences are nuanced, to be sure, but theology is nuanced. Truth is nuanced! Voris effectively implies that Schneider critiques Balthasar, when in fact he critiques something else. I don’t think this shows malice on Voris’ part, but certainly it shows sloppy thinking.

Complaints aside, this is a wonderful interview. Bishop Schneider is a man who deserves a wide hearing. His teaching is a compelling demonstration of veritas in caritate, well worth the $10 subscription fee. Let me add though: if you’re patient, you can watch it for free next month. (If I’d read the fine print earlier, I might have saved myself $10!)