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Fr John | Blog of a Country Priest

How Jesus treats his friends

How Jesus treats his friends

Saint John’s account of the resurrection of Lazarus famously contains the shortest verse in the entire Bible: “Jesus wept.”

As well as being the shortest verse, I think it’s one of the most powerful. It’s indicative of the Lord’s love for his friends. Their sorrow is his sorrow. It’s indicative of his love for us. Our sorrow is his sorrow.

But the raising of Lazarus also shows us how Jesus treats his friends:

“Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, yet when he heard that Lazarus was ill he stayed where he was for two more days before saying to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judaea.’” (Jn 11:5-7)

Jesus could have travelled to Bethany immediately, and healed his friend before Lazarus died. He could have spared Martha and Mary their sorrow and grief. But instead, he permits all three of his friends to suffer, so that “the Son of God will be glorified.” (Jn 11:4)

This is how Jesus treats his friends. It’s how he treats you and me. He could prevent our suffering, but instead he permits it. He invites us to share in his cross, all for the glory of God.

This is a reminder to us, to rectify out intentions and purify our motives. The glory of God should come before everything else — even our own needs. When we do this, when we desire God’s glory before everything else, we’ll be happy like the saints are happy.

Consider St Mary MacKillop’s memory of her illicit excommunication:

“I do not know how to describe the feeling, but I was intensely happy and felt nearer to God than I had ever felt before. The sensation of the calm beautiful presence of God I shall never forget.”

That sort of joy in the midst of suffering is only possible when a person sincerely desires God’s glory before everything else. It’s the secret of the saints, and it’s the call of every disciple.

Please God, whenever suffering or grief visits us, we embrace our cross with serenity and joy. Please God, we can imitate the saints, and in our affliction turn to the Lord — who could have delivered us, but did not — with hope and faith.

Omnia in gloriam dei facite. Do everything for the glory of God.

“Know the mind of the Church”

“Know the mind of the Church”

Today in Penola, a great priest was buried. A great Jesuit. A great man.

For many years, Fr Paul Gardiner SJ was Postulator for the Cause of Mother Mary Mackillop’s canonisation. It takes a small army to have someone canonised, but Fr Paul was field marshal. Apart from that, Fr Paul was a remarkable polymath, so typical of the Jesuit tradition. Here’s just two anecdotes to illustrate that point:

  • One of my parishioners in Casterton, who knew Fr Paul well, would sometimes challenge Fr Paul to name the winner of the Melbourne Cup in a given year. Fr Paul got it right every time. He could also name the jockey, and the horse which came second. Every time.
  • A priest friend related his surprise at Fr Paul’s request for a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Until he heard his explanation: “I’ve just finished the Latin and ancient Greek translations, and I’d like to compare them with the English original.”

    Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis

A generation of Melbourne seminarians met Fr Paul in their first year pilgrimage to Penola, in honour of St Mary of the Cross. I made that pilgrimage in 2005. On that occasion, our half hour appointment with Fr Paul actually took two hours. I always suspected our experience was not unique, and at his Funeral Vigil last night, I learned that Fr Paul was renowned for his expansiveness. But he spoke with such wisdom, and with such personal interest in his listeners, that nobody much minded.

“Know the mind the of the Church,” Fr Paul instructed us fresh-faced seminarians in 2005. “Make time for study every day, so that you learn the mind of the Church. You never will, because the mind of the Church is as broad as the mind of God. But try. And more importantly gentlemen, think with the mind of the Church.” I’ve never forgotten that advice. It’s permanently associated in my mind with James Joyce’s famous aphorism, “Catholic means, here comes everybody.”

In the years since, I’ve had the good fortune to see much more of him. He was a frequent visitor to Warrnambool, when I lived there as a seminarian, and later when I ministered there as a deacon. When he was visiting parishioners, they were always kind enough to invite me to lunch. As a priest in Casterton, I’ve exploited the fact that Penola is only 45 minutes away, and often made a pilgrimage — always to seek St Mary’s intercession, and occasionally to see Fr Paul.

At the time of St Mary’s canonisation, Fr Paul wrote a brilliant short essay, relating not only the significance of the canonisation to him personally, but the significance of saints generally. I think it’s as enlightening to the non-believer as it is edifying to the believer. My life with Mary: from historic figure to living presence.

There are two iconic photos of Fr Paul, which he would always describe with the same captions. The first photo was taken at the beatification in Randwick I think. Pope John Paul II delivered some advice to Fr Paul, which was indelibly etched in his memory:

“We need another miracle!”

The second photo was taken by Fr Paul’s great nephew, Tom Moloney, the day before the canonisation:

“We made it!”

Fr Paul speaks about that second photograph in an interview broadcast on ABC on the occasion of his diamond jubilee. It’s worth tuning in, to relive the moment Australia had its first canonised saint, and also to hear a wise and holy priest describe the Catholic priesthood: Fr Paul Gardiner celebrates 60 years as a priest.

May he rest in peace.

The devil is real

The devil is real

Pope Francis preaches about the devil a lot. Much more than the average priest. Or this average priest, anyway.

Unfortunately, the press gives minimal coverage to such remarks, and every year, I suspect, belief in the devil diminishes among Catholics. That’s why, this first Sunday of Lent, I’ve distributed in my parishes a one page sampler of the Holy Father’s warnings about the devil.

There is a distinct theme in the Holy Father’s remarks. In typical Ignatian fashion, he focuses on how the devil subverts our relationships. To cite a few examples:

“The Adversary wants to keep us separated from God . . . and therefore sows the seeds of pessimism and bitterness in our hearts.”

“The devil attacks the family so much. That demon hates the family and seeks to destroy it.”

“The devil plants evil where there is good, trying to divide people, families, and nations.”

“Behind every rumour there is jealousy and envy. And gossip divides the community, destroys the community. Rumours are a diabolical weapon.”

Theorists speculate (who could really know?) that only God has unique access to our interior life: to our thoughts and emotions and sensations. Demons and angels more closely resemble humans, in that they receive insight into our interior life only through our external behaviour: actions, speech, body language. In that case, it makes sense that the devil would target our relationships with God and with fellow creatures. He can observe our behaviour and then exploit weak spots and defects.

In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis imagines conversations between an old devil, and a young devil who is learning the craft of tempting souls. Lewis is at his best, I think, when he describes how our relationships — even loving relationships — are subverted by misunderstanding and psychological games. Everyone should read the book; I also recommend the radio play (starring Andy Serkis).

In Hebrew etymology, “Satan” describes an accuser or adversary. The Septuagint rendering of Satan is διάβολος — diabolos or devil which describes a slanderer. It’s no coincidence that Jesus describes the Holy Spirit as another παράκλητος (Jn 14:16, 26) — “paracletus” in the Latin Vulgate; in English: “Paraclete” (Douay-Rheims); “Comforter” (KJV); “Counsellor” (RSV).

Where the devil accuses us before God, and even slanders us, the Holy Spirit and Jesus himself will defend us, and advocate on our behalf. I think this happens in this life and at the judgement. Whenever I minister to a person who is close to death, I warn them of the devil’s tactics. The saints tell us that in our final hours, the devil stops at nothing to damn us, even revealing himself and communicating directly.

“The devil will insist that you don’t deserve heaven,” I advise. “He will recount your sins and defects, and insist you deserve hell.”

At this point most people agree that it’s probably true. (Except, in my experience, Mediterraneans. Italians and Maltese are fired up at my suggestion, and ready to do battle!) My advice to everyone — Mediterraneans included — is that the devil is correct. None of us earn Heaven. All of us deserve Hell. “But Jesus wants you in Heaven. He has prepared a place for you in his Father’s house. He has earned your place in Heaven. Hold on to that conviction, implore divine mercy, and call on the name of Jesus if the devil preys on you.”

I don’t know how useful that advice is. I have no doubt that the prayers I pray and the sacraments I minister — confession, anointing, Viaticum — are very useful. The devil is real, and we have cause to fear him. But, as the Holy Father reminds us, “God is stronger! Do you believe this? God is stronger!”

Good news about fasting

Good news about fasting

Lent has begun, and if you’re reading this on Ash Wednesday, you’re fasting, and you’re probably hungry right now.

Roman Catholics are obliged to fast — one normal meal and two small snacks — on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. But Maronite Catholics observe a much stricter Lent:

In regards to the Lenten penitential practices of the Maronites residing in Australia, and in accordance with the guidelines released by His Beatitude and Eminence Mar Bechara Boutros Cardinal Rai, Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, we recommend the following practices to the faithful of the Maronite Eparchy of Australia:

Fasting from midnight to midday on all weekdays: no food or drink is to be consumed, with the exception of water;

I haven’t looked it up, but it’s a fair bet that the other Catholic rites are also more disciplined than us Latins.

Of course, there’s nothing stopping Roman Catholics from observing voluntary fasts in Lent. I know plenty of people who have decided to fast on every Friday in Lent, and some who will fast on Wednesdays too. (Wednesday being the day that Judas conspired against our Lord.)

The idea of fasting is noble and even inspiring, but the experience of fasting is hard. So let me give you some encouragement.

Here’s Fr Mike Schmitz, who in eight minutes gives four spiritual reasons for fasting:

I especially like his point about us becoming co-redeemers with Christ. But when your stomach is really growling, and you’re struggling to reach spiritual heights, how about a good dose of material self-interest? Here’s a longer video — 1 hour — but a very interesting one, on the health benefits of fasting:


So research shows fasting improves our resistance to stress, reduces blood pressure, reduces blood sugar, improves insulin sensitivity, reduces the incidence of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, and improves cognitive ability. Maybe this detracts a bit from what Fr Mike says about sacrifice. But on the other hand, it says something about God’s design, I think, that good spiritual practices do so much good for the body too.

Incidentally, this latter video launched a craze in Britain for intermittent fasting, especially in the form of the 5:2 diet. I take fad diets with a grain of salt. But don’t take nutritional advice from a priest; this is just a post of encouragement from a presently quite hungry blogger!

The clergy abuse scandal is not a distraction; it’s part of the mission

The clergy abuse scandal is not a distraction; it’s part of the mission

There is a wonderful insight from St Vincent de Paul, in the Office of Readings on his feast day. It’s an insight that probably every saint has received and shared — not to mention countless disciples who aren’t canonised. But St Vincent has most famously formulated it:

Do not become upset or feel guilty because you interrupted your prayer to serve the poor. God is not neglected if you leave him for such service. One of God’s works is merely interrupted so that another can be carried out. So when you leave prayer to serve some poor person, remember that this very service is performed for God.

Godly “distractions” aren’t limited to serving the poor. For example, when you’re trying to meditate, focusing your thoughts on God, but other thoughts invade — that conversation you had yesterday, or that friend you haven’t called for a while — that may not be a “distraction.” That may be an indication, from God, to pray for that person, for his or her intentions; or to get in touch.

In the same way, although it is understandable to consider the clergy abuse scandal as a devastating distraction from the Church’s mission, maybe even a diabolical means of destroying the Church’s moral authority, I suspect the opposite. The never-ending Royal Commission, the hostile media coverage, the horrendous stories and shameful statistics — maybe none of this is a distraction. Maybe this is where God wants the Church to focus its attention. Maybe this is central to the mission of the Church in Australia.

It’s becoming more and more evident, I think, that the sexual abuse of children is not ‘a Catholic problem,’ and nor is it an historical problem. Studies suggest a substantial proportion of Australian children are abused, and that the rate of abuse is growing. This is a universal problem, and a current one. The world is in trouble. And the Church exists for the world, not for itself.

The Catholic Church has sustained a humiliating exposé which has done a lot of harm. But it’s not in vain. In fact, I think the benefits of this shameful exposé outweigh the costs. Catholic schools and parishes are now the safest places for children in Australia, and Catholic schools and parishes are the most dangerous places for paedophiles. The staff in my parish schools, and all the people on my parish councils, and I, have signed and abide by codes of conduct which eliminate opportunities for adults to prey on children. We all know what to do if we believe someone violates the code — how to respond, who to speak to, which legal authorities to call. That’s significant. Paedophiles cultivate and groom adults, not just children. They depend on the naiveté and inaction of good people. A culture which eliminates that possibility saves children.

That’s the future, but the present is maybe even more important. A lot of pastoral care is owed to a lot of people who have suffered from clerical child abuse. And a lot can be learned from them too. Their suffering is not in vain either; their experiences and their insights can enrich the Church and assist its mission. These victims and survivors are not apart from the Church. They are the Church. Christ identifies with them, and so should we all. I hope Church leaders are listening to them. We have so much more to learn.

True story.

To paraphrase St Vincent:

Do not become upset or feel guilty because the evangelising mission of the Church is interrupted by the fallout and response to the clergy abuse scandal. God is not neglected if you leave him for such service. One of God’s works is merely interrupted so that another can be carried out. Remember that this very service is performed for God.

None of this is a distraction. This is where we need to focus our energy. Our prayer. Our apostolic zeal. God knows what he is about.

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