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.

Cinema and evangelisation

Cinema and evangelisation

Blogging occasionally offers unexpected side-benefits. I’ve just watched a full preview of The Identical — a film which won’t be released in US cinemas until September. Who knows when it will hit Australian screens?

All I have to do in return is write a review. Not an advertisement or an endorsement, but an honest review. Sweet!

I’ll write the review some other time. First, I want to consider the marketing of this film. The Identical was described to me as “a Christian film,” which in my mind conjures unfortunate and unwanted associations with Fireproof and Courageous. The production values of those films meet Hollywood-standards, but the acting is mediocre, and the writing is very heavy-handed. I’d call it “excruciating in its preachiness.”

To clarify, Fireproof and Courageous are movies I enjoyed. I would consider showing them in a parish setting. But I wouldn’t show them to secular friends anymore than I would bash them over the head with my bulky Jerusalem Bible, or hand them The Catechism of the Catholic Church as recommended reading.

There’s smarter ways to evangelise secular friends. I’ve often recommended C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters — the book and the radio play — as a user-friendly introduction to supernatural outlook. In the past six months, I’ve given away several copies of Matthew Kelly’s Rediscover Catholicism. And I’ll never forget the life-changing impact St Josemaría Escrivá’s The Way had on me, which is why I’m always ready to share that book with others.

Movies can evangelise too. By that, I mean they can sow seeds. Subtly. In a way foreign to Fireproof and Courageous.

Of course, the danger of subtlety is that the message can become so subtle that it is lost. Don Jon is a case in point. A year ago, I was lauding the film — albeit cautiously. Since then I’ve read enough reviews to know that Don Jon is part of the problem it claimed to critique, and I don’t regret its aborted release in Australia.

The Identical, however, is a much more successful effort at subtle and effective evangelisation. Again, by that I mean it can sow seeds, presenting the Christian faith in a positive light, and engaging in the big issues which faith tackles. Ain’t nobody gonna convert after watching this movie. But they’re not going to sin either, which really is something when you consider the moral sewerage Hollywood retails these days.

The beauty of The Identical is that it meets Hollywood production values and it has a superb cast of recognisable and talented actors and its Christian themes are universal. That’s the genius of Christianity at its best, of course. It speaks to the universal human condition.

Consider this trailer, which is cut for secular audiences.

And then consider this “faith trailer,” promoting exactly the same film:

Both trailers do justice to the film they represent, but they’re a fascinating study in contrasts.

Liturgy and evangelization

Liturgy and evangelization

Herewith ends my ten day blog hiatus. I was uncharacteristically abrupt in my last comment. It’s a blogger’s prerogative of course, but not an edifying one.

I think maybe I had been online too much. Too much online interaction, and not enough of the real thing, can have a negative influence.

I’m in Wollongong, at a national liturgy conference. This evening’s keynote speaker was Archbishop Coleridge, who is an unusually engaging speaker.

He made an interesting claim about the documents of Vatican II: the four conciliar constitutions, he suggests, are analogous to the four gospels. Just as the gospels inform and shape our interpretation of the other books of the New Testament books, so the constitutions should inform and shape our interpretation of the other documents of the Council. Just as the gospels demand symphonic treatment, the constitutions demand a symphonic treatment: no single constitution trumps the others.

Having established this, he proposed a brief synthesis of the four council’s claims about God, revelation, and ourselves.

But let me cut to the chase. I’ll include my notes on the bulk of his talk in a pop up, and then jump to liturgy and evangelization.

Click here for notes on the Archbishop's synthesis

1. Sacred Scripture reveals that God creates us in his image. We know God, we love God, and we exercise stewardship. We are not slaves: our work is not servile.

2. We’re called to be co-creators. We are social; we are made for communion with each other, and communion with God. Marriage is the most sublime communion between humans, since it is in nuptial communion that we become co-creators with God. But all forms of communion enable us to share in God’s creativity. We must beware of dangers to communion: individualism; reductionist economic theories; atheistic materialism; in a word, ideology!

3. We are in a dialogue of interpersonal communion with God. Tradition and scripture are not revelation; Jesus himself is revelation. In other words, divine revelation is not a “message” from God; divine revelation is a direct and personal communication of God himself.

4. In Jesus and through the Holy Spirit, God reveals himself to us.

5. In Jesus and through the Holy Spirit, God reveals ourselves to us.

6. God speaks metaphorically. Metaphor is a rich means of communication, which is always subversive and always revelatory. Metaphor doesn’t depart from our world, but it turns reality on its head, thereby revealing something new about reality.

Metaphor is fundamental to the divine dialogue between man and God because of those shadows which threaten our communion with God and communion between ourselves. Hence the fundamental importance of the homily, which should unpack God’s metaphorical teaching.

The archbishop concluded as he started, with another compelling claim:

“Full, conscious and active participation in the liturgy presupposes and demands full, conscious and active participation in the Church’s mission.”

He added that liturgical renewal isn’t internal club business. It’s integral to the new evangelization. Why? Good liturgy deepens a person’s experience of – and their participation in – the Lord’s passion and death and resurrection. Evangelization – a personal encounter with Christ – is both individual and personal, and also ecclesial and liturgical. So the liturgical renewal is a real grappling with, and absolutely critical to, the new evangelization.

What he said did not surprise me. I knew it already, if not explicitly, then intuitively. But I don’t know if I’ve put it into practice. I generally take a three-fold approach to evangelization: friendship, doctrine, and prayer. I show a sincere interest in the person; I listen to them and learn from them. (The Holy Spirit’s right in that.) I give them good spiritual reading, and encourage them to read the scriptures. I also encourage them to pray with the scriptures, and to meditate, and to foster a devotion to our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. The liturgy, I’m afraid, doesn’t get a look in.

In the wake of Archbishop Coleridge’s talk, it’s clear to me that I have to change this. But I’m left wondering how.

Suggestions are welcome!