Chocolate Christmas

Chocolate Christmas

The genius of Santa Claus is that he builds up children’s anticipation of Christmas. They really look forward to the day. “Nine more sleeps until Christmas,” and all that.

So those presents under the tree on Christmas morning not only evoke the gifts which the wise men presented at Bethlehem; they also provoke the excited expectation which must have captivated Mary and Joseph. It’s good practice for an adult approach to Advent.

The downside of Santa is that he can distract from the religious meaning of Christmas. The North Pole and presents can easily overshadow Bethlehem and faith. So Christian families everywhere deliberately refocus attention on the Nativity on Christmas Day.

In our family, the exchange of Christmas presents after lunch is always preceded by three or four Christmas carols, and a rendition of “Happy Birthday” to Jesus. It works — I grew up a believer, didn’t I? — but this year, I’m going to experiment with an additional item, which places the scriptural account of Christmas front and centre:

The Story of the First Christmas, told with Chocolate!

The story of the first Christmas, told with chocolate!

Basically, I’m proposing a novel excuse to recite the scriptural account of the Lord’s Nativity. Here’s a quick example:

In the days of Caesar Augustus, a census was called which counted every man in the civilised world. So Joseph and Mary set out from Nazareth to Bethlehem, following a familiar but Rocky Road.

Right. I deftly inserted the name of chocolate into the narrative!

Right. I deftly inserted the name of chocolate into the narrative!

I didn’t invent this idea, but I’ve refined and improved it, so that:

  1. the chocolate featured is available at Australian supermarkets;
  2. all mention of chocolate occurs at the end of a sentence; and
  3. the narrative hews closely to the Gospels of Luke and Matthew.

You can download my version right here. If you print it at 100% scale on both sides of an A4 sheet, you’ve got yourself a formatted booklet.

This year, I’m collaborating with my three young nephews, who will each have one third of the chocolate cache. When I name one of the chocolates in their possession, they have to jump up, chocolate in hand, and repeat the name. That should keep everyone listening.

Maybe in future years, we can pile the chocolates in the middle of the room, and people who want a particular chocolate bar have to be the first to correctly fill in the gap when the narrator pauses. A contest like that can also guarantee that people listen the story.

We’ll see how it lands this year. Why not try it yourself?

(NB: my nephews don’t read this blog, but some of their aunts and uncles do. The boys intend to surprise the family, so don’t tell them you saw it here first!)

Grace abounding in Adelaide

Grace abounding in Adelaide

Halfway through the Australian Catholic Youth Festival in Adelaide, and I must say, it is outstanding.

I travelled with a group of seven young Catholics from my parishes, and they are enjoying themselves immensely. More than once I have heard them remark how impressive it is – and surprising – to see so many people their own age, who know their faith and love God.

Nearly 4,000 people are attending the festival; most of my pilgrims come from towns with populations in the hundreds. So they’ve never seen so many Catholics in one place before, much less young Catholics.

I remember moving to Melbourne at age 18, and the shock of encountering my peers at church. Not only were they coming to Mass, they were going to confession, and spending time in Eucharist adoration, and constantly deepening their faith. This had a huge impact on my own faith, and I can see seomething similar occurring in my pilgrims.

The formation has been excellent. The plenary sessions, which everyone attends, are a fast-paced blend of music, prayer, and formation, where the bishops feature heavily. Today every participant found rosary beads on their seat, and Fr Rob taught them to the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. (His musical version is the best.)

My group has gone to workshops with international speakers like Steve Angrisano and Jason Evert, who have blown them away with their knowledge, and humour, and passion, and empathy. But it’s a local act who has attracted the greatest praise from my pilgrims. Sr Hilda Scott OSB is a captivating story-teller and brimming with wisdom, but it’s her evident love of God which makes her one of the most powerful teachers I’ve ever seen. Remarkable.

But the heart and soul of the festival is here:

The Eucharistic Adoration chapel

The Eucharistic Adoration chapel

Confessionals in the adjoining room

The adjoining Reconciliation chapel

My good friend Fr Michael Romeo is co-ordinating 17 hours of Eucharistic adoration and sacramental confession. It’s here, in these two spaces, that I hope and pray ACYF participants deepen their confidence in Jesus, and their love for him.

Over the past day and a half, I’ve answered many questions, and shared many conversations, and witnessed many acts of Providence which have encouraged my pilgrims and many others to encounter the Lord in the sacraments.

Please keep everyone at the ACYF, and especially its participants, in your prayers.

Balancing truth and love

Balancing truth and love

We’ve all had uncomfortable conversations which we’d rather avoid. In those moments it’s tempting to misrepresent one’s true thoughts and keep the peace.

Priests have lots of these conversations, though possibly no more than others. But priests have a big advantage. Priests minister sacramental confession.

When I am hearing confessions, I’m acutely conscious that I act in persona Christi. It is one of those very rare moments when I am enabled and obliged to judge another person. I certainly don’t do this on my own behalf, but only in service to the Lord, whose justice and mercy I minister.

No one on earth will ever know the advice I give to penitents. But God knows. This is one instance when the easy way out — acquiescence and agreeability — is not an option at all. Since I speak for God, not for myself, I am absolutely obliged to be faithful to God’s truth.

At the same time, the penitent is in a very vulnerable position. (I know, because I’m frequently a penitent myself!) They have just opened up their heart, and exposed their inner life. Not to me, but to our Lord. So I have another obligation, no less grave: to be kind. To minister the Lord’s mercy.

I do not remember the sins I hear in the confessional, because I ask to forget them, and the Holy Spirit grants me that favour. But though I remember nothing, the act of hearing confessions changes me. I am practiced in speaking the truth with love, which is often a very challenging task.

But of course this task, the duty to proclaim the truth with love, is not exclusive to priests. Every Christian is called to do this. Even in the most awkward conversations, the most unwanted confrontations, we must be faithful to truth, and faithful to charity.

I think veritas in caritate has a certain “look.” It is serene. It is good-humoured. And it is humble. But it is seldom easy.

An impressive account of veritas in caritate appeared in my Facebook newsfeed today. It was a shining beacon in the midst of an ever-rolling stream of ill-measured and inflammatory comments.

The other day we got together with a friend of mine from high school named Andrew, and his boyfriend, Tom. We caught up on life and work, Andrew and I clicking as well as we always have. I wore waterproof mascara because I knew I’d end up laughing to the point of tears, which, in fact, I did.

Then, when my husband and Tom went to pick up a round of drinks at the bar, Andrew had a question for me. “So,” he said, grabbing a tortilla chip from the basket in front of us. “What do you think of gay marriage?”

The last time we hung out, this unspoken topic was not as palpably present as it was now. Even though our gay friends knew that we’d converted to Catholicism, nobody cared enough to bring up potentially controversial issues. But now, the mood in the world around us had changed. Throughout our country the issue of same-sex unions was being debated furiously; it had become a defining issue of our generation, and thus the average person was no longer allowed not to have an opinion about it. It was too weird to sit at the table, two orthodox Catholics and two men in a gay relationship, and not bring it up. We could no longer ignore the storm that raged outside the cloister of our friendship; the doors had blown open, and the rain had come inside.

I shrugged, trying to keep it casual.

This is one of those awkward conversations we’d all rather avoid. But the author, Jennifer Fulwiller, doesn’t do this. Instead she attempts that elusive balancing act of truth and love.

Read it all. It’s worth it.

“Knowing Jesus” reflection day

“Knowing Jesus” reflection day

Fiona Bradley is one of the most organised people I know. She is the brains behind Melbourne’s Verso L’Alto walking group, among many other things. Now she is organising a reflection day on personally knowing Jesus Christ.

Way back in February she contacted me with this idea, which even then was well defined and ambitious:

In an effort to put my theological studies to some use in my parish I have been working on a number of projects over the past few years with encouraging results. I am organising a reflection day for not only the benefit of the parish but those who have been coming along to the faith talks, the sharing groups, and the book club I’ve been running.

The theme of the day will be Knowing Jesus Christ and the other two speakers will be Dominicans Fr Dominic Murphy and Br James Baxter. I think you would complement the other two speakers wonderfully and I wondered therefore if you would be interested in making the trek out to Nazareth House, Camberwell to give one of the talks at the reflection day on Saturday 18 July?

The talk itself would last for 40-50mins and I’m happy to be guided by you as to exact topic. I did think though that it would be wonderful to hear from you about people’s personal relationship with Christ. Do people really consider his words that what we do to the least of his people we do to Christ himself? Do we consider that when we sin we offend or and hurt him as well as those around us or ourselves? St Augustine taught that earthly things are a means to enjoy or love God — do we see God as our end goal or is God the Son still too abstract for us to develop the kind of love God wants from us? I dunno…they are just some thoughts that come to mind when I think about this. There is certainly great scope for a topic of your choice that fits within the theme.

After some prayer and deliberation, the topics of the three presentations have emerged:

  • Fr Dom: “Knowing Jesus through the Sacraments.”
  • Me: “Knowing Jesus through reading Sacred Scripture.”
  • Br James: “Knowing Jesus in the Rosary.”

My intention is to relate the tradition of lectio divina, with a focus on the different reasons we read the Bible — ie: study, meditation, contemplation — and the contrasting fruits of such readings. I’ll do that through an examination of the lives of a few saints. I think it was Pope Benedict who remarked that the saints are like “living Gospels,” who incarnate the life of Christ in their own time. I’d like to develop that idea.

Can you tell that I’m maybe not quite so organised as Fiona? I haven’t actually sat down yet to draft my talk. But it’s taking shape in my prayers and in my thoughts.

If you’re in Melbourne, you should come. Fr Dom and Br James, at least, will be well worth hearing!


I’m not a Dominican Friar obviously, but it’s a privilege to share billing with them!


How to evangelise effectively

How to evangelise effectively

By all accounts, the Catholic Voices workshop was one of the standouts of yesterday’s Proclaim Conference. I was not there myself — there were lots of great workshops, which I’ll blog about in future — but a good number of Ballarat delegates attended, and they were impressed.

The workshop’s title — ‘How to explain your faith without raising your voice’ — tells you everything you need to know about its contents, and derives from a similarly-titled book by Austen Ivereigh, co-founder of Catholic Voices in the UK.

The good news is that similar workshops are now available for schools and parish groups. At present, CVA has not expanded beyond its base in Victoria, so the workshops are advertised for parishes in Melbourne and schools in Victoria. However, I’m sure the team will field enquiries from schools and parishes further afield.

Catholic Voices has produced a simple brochure which describes the workshop:

I think the feedback from a participant in Chelsea sums it up:

“When Catholic Voices came to our group I didn’t know what to expect. I was so inspired by this professional and practical presentation. It is our responsibility to evangelise our families, our friends and the people we meet. Catholic Voices has given me the tools to do this with compassion, joy and love. This way of speaking is in line with Pope Francis’ call for every Catholic to be a witness. This presentation must be given in all parishes and groups!”

Proclaim Conference

Proclaim Conference

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference has organised a national conference on the new evangelisation. The goal is to get a whole of leaders together and focus on how the parish can evangelise.

This focus on the parish is very good for me personally. I’ve long been dubious of the relevance of parishes. My adult faith was nurtured through chaplaincies, youth groups, and new movements. The parish didn’t play a part at all. Apart from that, people are much more mobile now and geography no longer defines community. As the Church’s resources diminish, I’ve wondered if we shouldn’t focus our energies on new apostolates, organise ourselves in new ways, and dispense with the parish model.

The Holy Father thinks otherwise:

The parish is not an outdated institution; precisely because it possesses great flexibility, it can assume quite different contours depending on the openness and missionary creativity of the pastor and the community.

Evangelii Gaudium, 28.

So in personal terms, Pope Francis has issued a challenge, and this conference gives me the means to respond.

Today’s keynote speakers were Fr Michael White and Tom Corcoran, co-authors of Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, and Making Church Matter. The book relates the authors’ successes and failures in rejuvenating their modest parish in Maryland. It’s great reading, and I’ll review it in depth some time.

I number among the 44 delegates from the Ballarat diocese — a cohort which constitutes 9 per cent of the total conference attendance of more than 500 people. This is a huge investment of people, time and money from a comparatively small diocese.

Conferences like this generate a great deal of practical wisdom and enthusiasm, but it can quickly dissipate when participants reinsert themselves back into the daily grind. The fact that Ballarat has sent so many people will hopefully mitigate that pattern. I have high hopes that we can return home, share what we have learnt, and effectively apply it. With God’s help, parishes all over the diocese will be blessed and renewed.

I hope and I pray.