I’ve been doing it wrong

Facebook is mostly brainless. But sometimes it’s also a useful ecumenical and inter-faith resource. Who knew?

This week, I learned that when it comes to the Rite of Asperges at the start of Mass, I’ve been doing it wrong.

The Russians have taught me that if my parishioners aren’t gasping for breath after I’ve blessed them, then I have failed.

Then the Cambodians arrived in my newsfeed:

So now I realise that if my parishioners don’t arrive at Mass wearing helmets, then I have failed.

I can’t wait for the feast of the Baptism of the Lord!

Why would Padre Pio refuse absolution?

Why would Padre Pio refuse absolution?

The feast of Padre Pio is a good occasion to repeat my invitation to a priests’ pilgrimage which honours and seeks the intercession of St Pio and several other great saints of the confessional.

If you know a priest who might be interested in celebrating the Jubilee of Mercy with Pope Francis, and becoming a holier minister of divine mercy, please direct them to www.jmpriests.com.

I must confess I don’t have much devotion to St Pio, although I’m familiar with him obviously. I watched a movie on his life when I was in the seminary. I’m fairly sure it’s this one, which you can view for free on YouTube:

But I’m afraid the movie just confirmed my prejudice that Padre Pio was a grouchy eccentric, whose company I would avoid. I’m sure this characterisation is unfair, and friends have recommended books about him which will revise my thinking.

Maybe my prejudice derives from the knowledge that St Pio sometimes deferred or even refused absolution. That was a common practice in centuries past, but it’s almost unthinkable now. St Josemaría, for example, advised against it, because in the modern context it can drive penitents away from the sacrament and the Church. Padre Pio, though, was in a unique position: like the Curé of Ars a century earlier, crowds made the pilgrimage specifically to his confessional. In that context, I doubt he ever drove anyone away.

In any event, sometimes the priest has no choice but to refuse absolution, though it is never done lightly. Graham Greene always excelled at evoking the dramatic tension present in the Catholic moral vision. Here’s his take on what the refusal of absoltion looks like, from The Heart of the Matter:

Kneeling in the space of an upturned coffin he said, ‘Since my last confession I have committed adultery.’

‘How many times?’

‘I don’t know, Father, many times.’

‘Are you married?’

‘Yes.’ He remembered that evening when Father Rank had nearly broken down before him, admitting his failure to help … Was he, even while he was struggling to retain the complete anonymity of the confessional, remembering it too? He wanted to say, ‘Help me, Father. Convince me that I would do right to abandon her to Bagster. Make me believe in the mercy of God,’ but he knelt silently waiting: he was unaware of the slightest tremor of hope.

Father Rank said, ‘Is it one woman?’


‘You must avoid seeing her. Is that possible?’

He shook his head.

‘If you must see her, you must never be alone with her. Do you promise to do that, promise God not me?’

He thought: how foolish it was of me to expect the magic word. This is the formula used so many times on so many people. Presumably people promised and went away and came back and confessed again. Did they really believe they were going to try? He thought: I am cheating human beings every day I live, I am not going to try to cheat myself or God. He replied, ‘It would be no good my promising that, Father.’

‘You must promise. You can’t desire the end without desiring the means.’

Ah, but one can, he thought, one can: one can desire the peace of victory without desiring the ravaged towns.

Father Rank said, ‘I don’t need to tell you surely that there’s nothing automatic in the confessional or in absolution. It depends on your state of mind whether you are forgiven. It’s no good coming and kneeling here unprepared. Before you come here you must know the wrong you’ve done.’

‘I do know that’

‘And you must have a real purpose of amendment. We are told to forgive our brother seventy times seven and we needn’t fear God will be any less forgiving than we are, but nobody can begin to forgive the uncontrite. It’s better to sin seventy times and repent each time than sin once and never repent.’

He could see Father Rank’s hand go up to wipe the sweat out of his eyes: it was like a gesture of weariness. He thought: what is the good of keeping him in this discomfort? He’s right, of course, he’s right. I was a fool to imagine that somehow in this airless box I would find a conviction … He said, ‘I think I was wrong to come, Father.’

‘I don’t want to refuse you absolution, but I think if you would just go away and turn things over in your mind, you’d come back in a better frame of mind.’

‘Yes, Father.’

‘I will pray for you.’

When he came out of the box it seemed to Scobie that for the first time his footsteps had taken him out of sight of hope. There was no hope anywhere he turned his eyes: the dead figure of the God upon the cross, the plaster Virgin, the hideous stations representing a series of events that had happened a long time ago. It seemed to him that he had only left for his exploration the territory of despair.

I think this is an extremely unlikely scenario these days. In our culture, nobody would bother going to confession if they weren’t already contrite.

Evelyn Waugh’s take, from Brideshead Revisited, is a more likely scenario. Julia has just learned that her fiancé is sleeping with another woman. Rex, whom we’re never supposed to like, blames Julia’s chastity. ‘What do you expect?’ he said. ‘What right have you to ask so much, when you give so little?’

She took her problem to Farm Street and propounded it in general terms, not in the confessional, but in a dark little parlour kept for such interviews.

‘Surely, Father, it can’t be wrong to commit a small sin myself in order to keep him from a much worse one?’

But the gentle old Jesuit was unyielding. She barely listened to him; he was refusing her what she wanted, that was all she needed to know.

When he had finished he said, ‘Now you had better make your confession.’

‘No, thank you,’ she said, as though refusing the offer of something in a shop. ‘I don’t think I want to today,’ and walked angrily home.

From that moment she shut her mind against her religion.

I like both these scenes very much. They’re a good reminder that no one is compelled in the sacrament of confession. Freedom is paramount, and so is conscience, and so is Truth. Three absolutes which should be in harmony, but in the mess of the human condition, they are in tension.

A sorry history repeats itself

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” These are probably the most famous words Mark Twain never said. They resonate because they’re true.

I am not only astonished, but also appalled, at the willingness of Australia’s political leaders to prove the point, the Liberals now matching Labor verse for verse. From my vantage point, this is how the rhyme goes.


Rudd and Turnbull: winning by whiteanting

Kevin white anted the PM, putting personal ambition before party interest. Malcolm white anted the PM, putting personal ambition before party interest.


Swan and Bishop: the “loyal” deputy

Wayne was loyal deputy to the PM, until he became loyal deputy to the PM’s assassin. Julie was loyal deputy to the PM, until she became loyal deputy to the PM’s assassin.


Shorten and Morrison: the scheming third in line

Bill was steadfast in his support for the PM (Gillard), until he wasn’t — not because he supported the PM’s assassin, but because when the assassin faltered, he was next in line. He put power before principle. Scott was steadfast in his support for the PM, until he wasn’t — not because he supported the PM’s assassin, but because when the assassin falters, he is next in line. He put power before principle.


Gillard and Abbott: the gracious loser

The poetry here isn’t perfect. You could argue that Julia “rhymes” with Malcolm, both cutting down a first term PM. Similarly, you could argue that Tony “rhymes” with Kevin, both being PMs axed in their first term.

But it’s also true that Julia was honourable in defeat, in stark contrast to her treacherous assassin. And if his departing speech is believed (and I do believe it), Tony is honourable in defeat, in stark contrast to his treacherous assassin.

All of this was bad enough the first time round. You do not remove an elected prime minister in his first term. You just don’t do it. That is the people’s prerogative. But that it has happened a second time is unforgivable. I don’t think Gillard foresaw the implications of subverting the electorate’s right to assess a first term government; Turnbull has no excuse. To say I’m angry is an understatement, and apparently I’m not the only one.

Now I’m in a quandary. I think I will have to vote informally at the next election. I’m all for compulsory voting, but I wish the federal ballot paper permitted optional preferences. As it stands, in Labor-Liberal contests (which accounts for most electorates, and certainly my own), every voter is ultimately obliged to cast their vote for one major party or the other. There is no way I will cast a vote which indirectly rewards the treachery of Malcolm Turnbull or Bill Shorten or Scott Morrison. As far as I’m concerned, none of these men is worthy to be Prime Minister. How can we trust them to put the national interest before self-interest?

What a sorry lot our political leaders are. The canniest political players (the first six) are devoid of honour. At least Gillard and Abbott demonstrate an honour of sorts, but then, they have proved to be hopeless politicians. Maybe that’s causal. Maybe political skill and personal honour are antithetical.

More’s the pity.

The Execution of Sir Thomas More

The Execution of Sir Thomas More

Four years a priest

Four years a priest

Four years ago today, I was ordained a priest. I can’t believe it’s four years already. Amazing.

Today is also the feast of St Cornelius (Pope) and St Cyprian (Bishop). I offered the Mass for a priest on the occasion of his anniversary of ordination, but the readings were taken from today’s memorial.

The first reading, from St Paul, is very appropriate for a priest contemplating his vocation:

We are only the earthenware jars that hold this treasure, to make it clear that such an overwhelming power comes from God and not from us. We are in difficulties on all sides, but never cornered; we see no answer to our problems, but never despair; we have been persecuted, but never deserted; knocked down, but never killed; always, wherever we may be, we carry with us in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus, too, may always be seen in our body.

Honestly, this is exactly what I needed to read and meditate on in my prayer today, hot on the heels of some beautiful readings from yesterday’s feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. Deo gratias.

Bishop Peter Connors lays hands

Bishop Peter Connors laying hands

Fr Eric Bryant vests me in the priest's stole and chasuble

Fr Eric Bryant vests me in the priest’s stole and chasuble

I concelebrate (it was the old translation, which I never learned, so I was completely tongue tied!)

I concelebrate (it was the old translation, which I never learned, so I was tongue tied!)

Me and my "little" brothers — I think they're all taller than me now!

Me and my “little” brothers — I think they’re all taller than me now!

The hands of a priest

The hands of a priest

I’ve been privileged to preach at a priest’s first Mass. I thought I’d need to celebrate my silver or even my golden jubilee of priesthood before having that honour accorded me.

This is the homily I delivered at Fr Joel Peart’s first Mass. We started in the seminary together (back in 2005), and it was through Joel that I became acquainted with Fr Des Byrne, who loved Joel like a son I think.

(All photos are owned by John Casamento.)

Homily for Fr Joel Peart’s first Mass

Traditionally, a young priest will ask a priestly mentor – a spiritual father – to preach at his first Mass. In Fr Joel’s case, that man is undoubtedly Fr Des Byrne. But sadly, Fr Byrne died last year.

Fr Des Byrne was a great priest. A heroic priest. Many of the priests in this sanctuary – Fr Joel among them – were also in the sanctuary at Fr Byrne’s funeral. And from that vantage, with a view of the packed nave, we noticed something striking.

For a man of 88 years, who had retired from parish ministry 14 years earlier, the congregation at Fr Byrne’s funeral was remarkably young. There were so many young adults in their 20s and 30s and early 40s, and many brought with them children of pre-school and primary school age.

Most of those children did not know Fr Byrne. He retired long before they were born. But their very existence is a testament to Fr Byrne’s spiritual fecundity.

In many cases, the parents of these children met each other at Fr Byrne’s parish, at meetings of the Confraternity of St Michael the Archangel. In every case, it is thanks to Fr Byrne’s labours that these parents know and love Catholic teaching on marriage and family. They have responded generously; they have defied the spirit of the age, and they’ve had large families.

It’s no exaggeration to state that a generation of Catholics in Melbourne owe their faith to Fr Des Byrne. And there is a next generation who indirectly owe their lives to Fr Byrne.

This is why we call priests “Father.” Fr Byrne had a great many spiritual children, and Joel Peart was one of them.

The late Fr Des Byrne, at one of his famed Confraternity of St Michael meetings.

The late Fr Des Byrne, at a meeting of his famed Confraternity of St Michael the Archangel.

In the years since I was ordained, I would see Fr Byrne each month, and towards the end, he frequently expressed his desire to die. Not in a morbid and self-pitying way, but in a faithful and hopeful way. His energy was spent, and he desired to see the Master face to face. Besides, “My work here is done,” he’d tell us young priests, “and the priesthood is in good hands.” He’d point to us.

If he was here today, he would say that to Fr Joel in a particular way. In a unique way. He would say, with the confidence only a father has in his son, “the priesthood is in good hands.”

Archbishop Hart venerates Fr Joel's newly anointed hands

Archbishop Hart venerates Fr Peart’s newly anointed hands.

At his ordination, Fr Joel’s hands were anointed with sacred chrism. Since then, they have blessed many people, and they will bless many more following today’s Mass. At the conclusion of that blessing, some of you may be moved to kiss the palms of Fr Joel’s hands. It is a beautiful Catholic tradition to venerate the hands of a newly ordained priest.

For others, that’s a bit much. Some people dislike – and even avoid – kissing the cross on Good Friday. Kissing Fr Joel’s hands is more confronting still. So why do it? Because each one of us will receive many graces from his anointed hands.

  • Some of you will have children who are baptised by those hands. Children who don’t even exist yet, but who are already known and loved by God.
  • Some of you will have Fr Joel assist at your wedding. Your nuptial blessing will be ministered by his hands. (Fr Joel’s sister Tiffany will receive this grace next month!)
  • It’s very likely that some of you here will receive your final sacraments from these hands. Fr Joel’s are the hands which will prepare your soul to meet God.

These are privileges which vary, according to our age and our proximity and our state of life. But there is one privilege that all of us – every person in this church today – will share in common.

We will witness these hands, for the first time, take up a piece of bread and change that bread into the sacred body of Christ. We will witness these hands, for the first time, grasp a chalice of wine and change that wine into the precious blood of Christ. This is the holiest and the greatest of the priest’s works.

It is because he consecrates the Body and Blood of Christ that Fr Joel can teach, govern and sanctify. He walks into the confessional from the foot of the altar. Every sick call, every act of spiritual direction, every classroom visit, every homily, flows from the altar. What a great privilege for us to see it start here, today, at this altar. And we are the beneficiaries.

Today’s Gospel is apposite: our Lord prophesies his passion and death. He is preparing for the way of the cross.

“Taking him aside, Peter started to remonstrate with him. But, turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter …”

Did you notice that detail? Our Lord rebukes Peter after he turns and sees his disciples. It was for his disciples – including you and me – that Jesus so willingly and insistently embraced the way of the cross. And it is precisely the same motivation which moves Fr Joel. The servant is not greater than his Master. In a moment Fr Joel will re-present the sacrifice of the cross, for you and me, the Lord’s disciples.

So why on earth wouldn’t we venerate his sacred hands?

Fr Joel prays with someone seeking his priestly blessing

Fr Joel prays with someone seeking his priestly blessing.

I will conclude with a prayer. Let’s ask our Blessed Mother to pray for Fr Joel. I think our Lady has a special love for priests, who share a unique claim with her.

As of today, Fr Joel will daily hold the Sacred Body of Christ in his hands. Mary, too, held the body of Christ in her hands. In Fr Joel’s case it is sacramental; in our Lady’s case it was physical. She held her son with joy at Bethlehem; and she held his body with unspeakable sorrow at Calvary.

Today is a bit like Fr Joel’s Bethlehem. But his priesthood will lead him to Calvary also. So let’s pray that our Lady will make her presence known, and extend her maternal care, in his joys and in his sorrows.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of death. Amen.