Rebooting the blog

It’s unintended, but very appropriate, that I’m writing this post from Merri Street in Warrnambool, overlooking Lake Pertobe. My view at present is the very pleasant vista which was this blog’s original background:

Warrnambool

That coincidence makes this is a very good place to reboot my blog! In recent months I haven’t blogged much at all. It seems all my time is spent in prayer and pastoral work and driving. I’m rarely at my desk. But for the next month, that changes.

Four weeks ago, on the afternoon of Palm Sunday, I was booked for excessive speed. I was travelling 28 kph over the speed limit – unintentionally I hasten to add – which in Victoria warrants automatic suspension of one’s driver’s license for a month. Fortunately, the suspension comes into force 28 days after the offence, so I was still able to drive during Holy Week!

But now I am grounded. When I informed my parish priest and my bishop, they both remarked that I’d better find some good friends who can act as drivers. A good suggestion. I’ve organised all that, and I’ll be able to get to Sunday Masses, and funerals, and sick calls, as normal. But all other movement is restricted, which means the time I previously spent in my three far flung parishes, and the hours I spent driving to those far flung parishes, will instead be spent in Casterton.

There are many benefits to this arrangement. I will actually live in Casterton for a while – as opposed to sleeping in Casterton at nights. I can walk from the church to the town each morning, and buy a few things at the supermarket. Stop for a coffee in one of the cafes. Chat with the locals. Maybe even drop into the bottom pub for a beer every evening. (The trading hours of the top pub and the middle pub are more haphazard; fortunately for me the bottom pub is closer to home.)

There’s a big advantage to a priest living among his people. You can connect much more; the ministry of presence has a surprising impact. But unfortunately, the tyranny of distance and the shortage of priests have conspired to make it nigh impossible for country priests to live this out. To my surprise, the life of a country priest is more hectic and disconnected than the life of a city priest.

Another benefit is that I will spend much more time at my desk. That’s good for the administration of my parishes, and for planning, and for my blog. I can write again!

I am hopeful that my month of limited movement will help me to permanently foster more order. I think I’ve been running around too much, expending my energy inefficiently. After all, who drives at 128 kph accidentally, when they’re not even in a hurry? Only someone who isn’t living an ordered life.

Here is the right order of priorities, I think, for any disciple of Jesus, lay or ordained:

1. God.
2. Self-care.
3. Family and friends.
4. Work.

I suspect many people put work first, or maybe second after God. Then comes family and friends, and self-care is the lowest priority. That might seem like noble unselfishness, and sometimes it may well be, but it isn’t very smart. Prioritising self-care isn’t selfish when it optimises a person’s ability to serve others.

Maybe my own order has been a bit skewed. By physically slowing down, I think I can work smarter, not harder, and my prayer and work will be more fruitful. This blog will be a good measure of that. Stay tuned!

Mother Angelica, RIP

Mother Angelica, RIP

A modern-day prophet died this Easter. Mother Angelica, founder of EWTN and “the Bishop Fulton Sheen of her generation,” died yesterday at the age of 92.

I highly recommend her official biography, Mother Angelica: the remarkable story of a nun, her nerve, and a network of miracles, by Raymond Arroyo. It will acquaint you with an extraordinary woman of faith who married brilliant business acumen with heroic supernatural outlook.

Like all prophets, she unsettled the Establishment and raised the ire of the powerful. On several occasions, bishops and cardinals in America waged aggressive campaigns to silence her, seeking to take over or close down EWTN. Throughout it all, Mother Angelica tenaciously navigated a difficult course which was faithful to natural justice and holy obedience. (It’s easy to imagine her in Heaven swapping notes with St Mary MacKillop. They have a lot in common; I think they’d get along famously.)

mother-angelica-thorn

Perhaps the defining moment in Mother Angelica’s apostolate was in 1993, in the midst of Denver’s triumphant World Youth Day festival. She broadcast an editorial which infuriated many bishops and cardinals. Archbishop Rembert Weakland described it this way:

For a half hour she ranted and raved about all the abuses since Vatican II, according to her own personal judgment which, of course, she equates with that of the Holy Father. It was one of the most disgraceful, un-Christian, offensive, and divisive diatribes I have ever heard.

I wouldn’t put it that way. I think it is an honest, courageous, and entirely faithful rallying cry, which is still pertinent 20 years later. Watch it and judge for yourself:

Mother Angelica, it seems to me, was a good and faithful servant. May God now complete the good work He began in her. Requiescat in pace.

 

The heinous sins of clergy and an anti-Catholic media frenzy

The heinous sins of clergy and an anti-Catholic media frenzy

Sometimes, when I read or hear about the sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy, I am filled with righteous anger. Anger at the priests and religious who did this, and maybe even more so, anger at the bishops and others who covered up and enabled heinous evil. It’s hypocritical, and it’s disgusting.

But at other times, I am filled with anger at the media and critics of the Church. There are times — and this past week, with its malicious attack on Cardinal Pell is a good example — when public figures and commentators indulge in vicious anti-Catholic bigotry. The noble goals of truth, justice and healing are sacrificed, even if momentarily. But worse than that: the terrible trauma of victims and survivors is exploited. It’s hypocritical, and it’s disgusting.

But here’s the thing: while I periodically navigate between these extremes, I can find myself irrationally reacting against a media article I’m reading, or a person I’m engaging in conversation. Let me give you a few examples:

  • In private conversation, a Catholic from an older generation decries the media obsession, and the slavish position of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council. I feel anger boiling up within me, and a dismay that the Church doesn’t whole-heartedly and without qualification accuse herself and engage in radical penance.
  • I read a newspaper article which unjustly pillories individuals within the Church, and reduces the scourge of clergy abuse to something marginal, like celibacy for the Kingdom. I feel anger boiling up within me, and a stubborn defensiveness of the Church.

These are just two examples from a spectrum that covers every position and every reaction. But there’s a common denominator: I respond with self-righteous anger, which is quite different from righteous anger. Maybe you experience something like this yourself.

Because of this, I now studiously avoid second- and third-hand accounts of the Royal Commission and the cases of abuse. I still open myself up to first-hand accounts. The direct testimony of Royal Commission witnesses for example, and confidential conversations with victims and survivors of sexual abuse. In those instances I am moved by compassion, not self-righteous anger.

But I avoid TV and newspaper coverage, facile musical parodies, and even artful treatments (by all accounts) like Spotlight. These second- and third-hand accounts too easily stoke my passions in negative and destructive ways. Which tells me something I knew already: in the midst of this terrible sin and scandal, which teems with human vice and worldliness, the devil also prowls. There is something truly diabolical about all this, which we must attend to.

I repeatedly remind my parishioners, at the beginning of the media’s periodic coverage of the Church’s sins, to consciously foster a supernatural outlook:

  • To match every minute consuming media treatment of this evil, with another minute prayerfully reading the life of Christ in the Gospels.
  • To debrief with the Lord each evening, examining one’s emotional responses to the latest news or commentary, and placing it all in God’s hands.
  • To choose one’s words carefully, and listen with real compassion when others speak about these matters.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I counsel visits to the Blessed Sacrament. To go out of one’s way and kneel before a tabernacle, even if only for a minute, to remind oneself that Christ is the head of the Church; he is the reason we are Catholic; and he is always present to us in the Eucharist, regardless of the virtue or vice of his ministers. When we do these things, I think, we are better able to respond to this terrible evil just as our Lord responds. Not with self-righteousness, but with real compassion, sorrow, and righteous anger.

One more thing: suffering is not in vain. Suffering can be redemptive. As St Paul so beautifully puts it,

“the Sinless One became sin, so that in him we might become the goodness of God.”

What is true of Christ is also true of the Church, and it’s true of us individually too, Christ’s members. We can assume sin, and carry its consequences within us, for the good and healing of others. So we should meet this current affliction with sincere hope in healing and redemption. For the Passion leads to the glory of the Resurrection.

Update on St Michael cards

Update on St Michael cards

Nothing like the start of Lent to wrench a priest away from his desk.

Now that I’m here though, I’m long overdue on this update. I neglected, in a previous post, to show real time results of the poll I canvassed on the design of a St Michael the Archangel prayer card.

Voilá:

Which image of St Michael should appear on the prayer card?
  • - ( 70 votes )
  • - ( 93 votes )
  • - ( 81 votes )
  • - ( 2 votes )

I’m surprised by the distribution of votes. Not many fans of Raphael out there!

Now, for some bad news. This online poll thing has become a completely moot point. Last week I received a parcel from Australia Needs Fatima which contained a St Michael the Archangel prayer card and medal!

st-michael-medal

After some negotiating, I’ve managed to obtain medals for my parishioners. This is an excellent way to promote devotion to St Michael. I’m sure it’s no coincidence. What a great favour from Heaven.

Lent is not a test of endurance — it’s a test of love

Lent is not a test of endurance — it’s a test of love

Hearing about the temptation of Jesus is a very good way for us to start Lent.

Maybe you’re like me, and you made a Lenten Promise on Ash Wednesday, and four days later you’ve already broken it. Or maybe you forgot to make a Lenten Promise completely, and now Lent has already started.

Either way, it doesn’t feel very good. It feels like Lent is over for us. We’ve missed the train, or we’ve fallen off. But we can’t give in to discouragement. Discouragement is a great temptation. It’s one of the devil’s favourite tricks.

Today’s Gospel reminds us that even Jesus suffered temptation. Even though he is God, Jesus is like us in all things but sin. So the devil played his tricks on him too. If Jesus suffered temptation, then why shouldn’t we?

So let’s reject the temptation of discouragement, and start again. We might have missed the train at the station, or fallen off already, but it’s easy enough to jump on that train right now.

In that spirit, let’s talk about the Lenten Promise for a moment.

Some people think BIG. For example, they might give up biscuits for the whole of Lent. But that can become a test of endurance, which eventually invites failure. It’s like travelling on the roof of the train, hanging on for dear life. It’s no wonder people fall off!

Sometimes it’s better to think small. St Thérèse always has good advice:

“Little things done out of love are those that charm the Heart of Christ… On the contrary, the most brilliant deeds, when done without love, are but nothingness.”

Lent is not a test of endurance. Lent is a test of love! So rather than travelling on the roof of the train, maybe it’s better to travel the normal way, in the carriage, on a seat, but with the window open now and then, even though its cold and windy, and we’d prefer it closed.

Here is an example of a small Lenten Promise, done with love:

“At breakfast time I didn’t have my normal cup of tea. I had a cup of hot water instead. It’s not much of a sacrifice is it? But this is the important part: when fasting is an act of love, it is always accompanied by prayer.

So while I was having my cup of water, I prayed. I spoke to the Lord Jesus and told him that I was doing this as an act of love. I prayed for others. I asked him to answer their prayers. And I asked him to help me grow in faith and love.”

That’s what a small Lenten Promise looks like. It’s just one cup of tea, first thing in the morning: a little thing, done with love. You don’t give up your other drinks. Just the first one, at breakfast time. The window of the train is open, but only for a short time. Not long enough to fall out!

But remember — if you do fall off the train again, don’t be discouraged. Even Jesus suffered temptation. Just get back on that train, as many times as needed, until the train arrives at its destination: Easter Sunday!

This homily is shamelessly plagiarised from Fr Aidan Kieran, who blogged about “The Little Way of Fasting” one year ago. His post was reblogged this Lent, and it has become viral. If you haven’t read the original, I strongly recommend it! The Little Way of Fasting, by Fr Aidan Kieran.

Both my Masses this morning are school Masses, so I’m effectively preaching to the students. For a deeper take on fasting and penance, read Fr Ray Blake, who writes with typical wit and humility: I hate fasting.

Aslan is not a tame lion; and you’re a hypocrite!

Aslan is not a tame lion; and you’re a hypocrite!

Anyone who received the Lenten ashes today will know the supreme irony of that action.

In today’s Gospel, which is the Gospel on every Ash Wednesday, our Lord counsels the very opposite:

When you fast do not put on a gloomy look as the hypocrites do: they pull long faces to let men know they are fasting. I tell you solemnly, they have had their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that no one will know you are fasting except your Father who sees all that is done in secret; and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.

Moments later, we dutifully queue up to receive the ashes on our heads. Here we are, beginning a forty day fast not in secret, but with a loud declaration.

I take two lessons from this. The first evokes a great scene at the end of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:

Aslan is not a tame lion, and Jesus is not a predictable teacher whom the disciple can easily pin down. Any Christian who thinks they have figured the Lord out, that they can serve him and please him without much effort, is mistaken.

We won’t find all the answers to life’s questions there in black and white, not even in the Bible. And we can’t reduce the truth and wisdom of our Christian faith to creeds and formulae. To be a faithful disciple, we have to pray. We have to speak to the Lord and constantly learn from him. He has to become an intimate friend. And like all friends, Jesus will often surprise you.

I think wearing ashes on our heads, in direct contradiction to the instructions the Lord has just give us, is a good reminder that Christian discipleship is a constant struggle. We will never follow him perfectly. We’ll never figure him out completely. Aslan is not a tame lion.

The second lesson follows from the first. We’re all hypocrites. We might appear to follow Christ externally, but sometimes internally we’re not following him at all. On Ash Wednesday we invert that. We appear to contradict the Lord’s advice, while interiorly we resolve to worship him and fast and do penance privately. Secretly. Cheerfully.

On Ash Wednesday we assume the appearance of hypocrites. Jesus himself calls us out. And it’s not just appearance. It’s all true. You’re a hypocrite!

It’s good for us to acknowledge the fact — not so that we can glory in it, but so that we know ourselves and see ourselves as God sees us. The more we do that, the more dependent we become on grace. We will beg God to convert us, not from the outside in, but from the inside out.

Lent in the Year of Mercy

Lent in the Year of Mercy

Whatever your view of Gandhi, he was a man of profound thought who influenced millions. He was once asked about his view of Jesus Christ. His reply is rather devastating:

“I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

That claim is sadly resonant. We’ve probably all encountered a Christian whose behaviour has challenged our faith in Christ and his Church. Even more certainly, our own behaviour has somewhere, some time, scandalised someone.

I don’t mean scandalised like ‘pass-the-smelling-salts I-think-I-might-faint scandal,’ which is a quaint relic of the past. Skandalon is the Greek work for “stumbling block.” It’s easy to imagine one’s bad temper, or lack of charity, or rank hypocrisy, becoming a stumbling block to another person’s faith in the truth and authority of Jesus Christ. As a young lawyer working in South Africa, Gandhi was scandalised by the racism he observed in men and women who called themselves Christians. Hence his devastating observation.

Pope Francis, it seems to me, invokes this tragedy often, when he rails against modern-day scribes and Pharisees in his daily homilies. I think it must underly his zealous emphasis on the mercy of God. He knows — as we all know — that there are millions and perhaps billions of people who seek a peace the world cannot give, but the scandalous witness of some Christians prevents them from approaching Christ. The pope’s solution, I think, is to preach the mercy of God in season and out of season.

In calling the Year of Mercy, he’s conscripting the rest of the Church to join his effort. Just as the behaviour of Christians can be a stumbling block to faith, so the behaviour of Christians can be a bridge to Christ; a channel of grace. The witness of the saints is proof enough of that.

What if every Christian corresponded with the grace pouring down from Heaven during this Year of Mercy, and became another face of the mercy of the Father; another Christ? This, I think, is the Holy Father’s noble vision for this holy jubilee. Hence his exhortation that we become familiar with the works of mercy, and practice them as often as we can.

I have suggested to my parishioners that conscientiously enacting each of the fourteen works of mercy constitutes a good Lenten discipline. To that end, I have distributed the attached document as an aid. Some of the illustrating examples are very good, and others are trite. But that’s good! It might motivate you to discern better applications proper to your context.

Kyrie Eleison.