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Homily | Blog of a Country Priest

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.

Gold, frankincense and myrrh

Gold, frankincense and myrrh

Several weeks ago, some parishioners of mine showed me a beautiful set of boxes they dust off every Christmas.

The boxes were new and ornate, but made to look old — 1001 Arabian Nights old. The interiors were lined with red satin and contained gold, frankincense and myrrh. I was confident I could find something similar online, and sure enough, I found it:

"Deluxe Three Box Set" —

“The Original Gifts of Christmas” —

These boxes struck me as very Montessorian. I’ve blogged about Montessorian pedagogy before. It’s an effective and fruitful way of catechesis. Hence my interest in buying these myself. I located a “deluxe set” on Amazon which set me back $50, including postage and handling. Quite reasonable, really.

The chest of gold is octagonal, and contains a glass globe filled with water and large flakes of gold. The chest of frankincense is round, and contains large grains of incense. (I’m chewing on one now, which is a Mid-East custom apparently. It’s a pleasant tasting gum, but not so pleasant I’d do it again.) The chest of myrrh is square, and also contains large grains of incense. I’ve always presumed that the myrrh presented at Bethlehem was in the form of oil, but of course the Scriptures do not specify. It could just as easily have been presented in resin form. (I haven’t chewed on the myrrh, though apparently it is good for toothache!)

I put the set to good use during today’s Epiphany Mass. Some of the children who frequent Sunday Mass assumed the identities of Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar. (In other words, they hung hastily prepared name tags around their necks.)


During the homily, I called each “wise man” forward, and he processed from the back of the church bearing his box. At the sanctuary steps, he opened his box and showed his gift to the congregation before kneeling at the crib and placing his gift before the infant Jesus. While all that was happening, I shared some thoughts on each gift:


Even now, gold evokes royalty, and gold is a gift fit for a king. Especially the King of Kings!

We are called to join Melchior by presenting Jesus with our own gold. We can to that literally by giving money to the Church, and to charity. But we can present other sorts of gold also. Think of the old saying: “if you want to know how rich you are, think of all the things you have that money can’t buy.”

Our friends, our family, health, happiness — we can present these treasures to the Lord too. We can thank and praise him for these gifts, and detach ourselves from them by freely offering them back to God.


Incense, then as now, was used in worship. Caspar’s gift was fit for God, which is exactly who Jesus is: the Word Incarnate; God made man.

We can join Caspar by offering our own worship, especially at Mass. There’s no greater way to offer worship, than to participate in the Mass. But there’s an additional, more metaphorical way by which we can present the Lord with frankincense. Clouds of sweet-smelling incense rising towards Heaven evokes “the odour of sanctity,” or as St Paul puts it, “the fragrance of Christ.” (2 Cor 2:15)

Our own gift of incense to God is a desire to live a noble life. To show understanding and friendship to neighbours. To bring peace and joy to friends. To show mercy and affection to enemies. In other words, to make “the fragrance of Christ” our own.


The ancient Egyptians used myrrh in mummification. And the Jews used myrrh to anoint the bodies of the dead and prepare them for burial.

Hence Balthasar’s gift of myrrh evokes death. It’s a prophecy of the Lord’s passion. The next time myrrh is mentioned in the Gospels is at Calvary: “They offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he refused to drink it.” (Mk 15:23)

We can imitate Balthasar’s gift of myrrh by offering sacrifice, especially in the little things. The hot weather, a stubbed toe, illness and tiredness are common discomforts which we can offer to the Lord in place of myrrh. We can smile at those who annoy us, hold our tongue and listen to others attentively, and make good use of the time God gives us.

I think anyone who spends any time on the Internet is familiar with the old joke about “three wise women” who aren’t mentioned in the Bible:


There’s no doubt that the three gifts of wise men are less practical. Tradition does hold, however, that the gold and frankincense financed the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt, and our Lady kept the myrrh in safekeeping, until three decades later she anointed her son’s body in preparation for his burial. So the gifts were certainly auspicious.

The greatest symbol of the Epipany however, is not gold, frankincense or myrrh, but the star which guided the Magi to Jesus. The star of Bethlehem is evocative of the light of Christ, which we carry within us — the fruit of our baptism and Confirmation, replenished by prayer and holy communion. In the word’s of today’s Solemn Blessing:

Since in all confidence you follow Christ,
who today appeared in the world as a light shining in darkness,
may God make you, too, a light for your brothers and sisters.


The Visitation

The Visitation

Luke tells us in today’s Gospel that Mary went as quickly as she could to Elizabeth’s. Did you notice that? Mary was a teenager when all this occurred. Like all young people, she was excited and wasted no time.

It’s a good reminder for us to foster spiritual childhood. To cultivate the enthusiasm and the generosity of youth.

When I was a teenager, I remember thinking that it must be easier for old people to be holy. I knew then (as I know now) lots of old people who were holy. So I thought holiness is like experience and wisdom. It comes with age.

But now that I’m older, and a little bit wiser, I know that’s not true. I know that young people can perform heroic feats of holiness. Great acts of generosity towards God and towards their neighbour. Young people are idealistic, and demanding of themselves, and so generous. Again and again at Adelaide’s Catholic Youth Festival a few weeks ago, I was moved by the generosity of the young people I was with, some new to the faith. They are willing to give everything to God. To give everything in service of their neighbour.

But what about us? As we get older, it’s easy to become complacent. We can become attached to small pleasures; unwilling to offer sacrifice. So here we have the example of our Blessed Mother — a teenager — who hastens to Elizabeth without delay. We can ask her to pray for us in these final days of Advent, that we can share her youthful spirit of service.


And then we have the example of Elizabeth and John. The unborn baby leaps for joy in his mother’s womb. I imagine every mother here can confirm the veracity of that tale.

Doctors confirm that babies recognise familiar voices, and respond to their environment well before they are born. Moreover, the bond between a mother and her child is profound. John would have literally shared his mother’s joy. The emotions which moved Elizabeth moved him too. And vice versa.

So Elizabeth and her child share each other’s joy. Please God, we’ll each have the opportunity on Christmas Day to share the joy of family and friends. And what a blessing, if like Mary and her child, we can be a source of joy. So we can ask that favour of our Blessed Mother too. That she prays for each of us, that we can be a source of joy to others.


Today’s prayers, today’s readings, these last days before Christmas all point us to the wonder of the Incarnation. The scandal of the Incarnation.

God became one of us. God assumed our human nature, so that he could redeem us in and through our humanity. And then he asks us to assist him. To become co-redeemers. To offer our own humanity — the daily humdrum of life; small sacrifices; moments of joy — for the salvation of the world.

Christmas invites us to contemplate the sacred humanity of Jesus Christ. In the history of the Church, some mystics have suggested that the Lord’s sacred humanity is like a diving board, which allows us to plunge into the mystery of God. Into the wonder of the Trinity: Father, Son and Spirit.

But St Teresa of Avila — one of history’s greatest mystics, a Doctor of the Church — rejects that idea. The sacred humanity of Jesus, she says, and the scandal of the Incarnation, and the mystery of Christmas — none of this is a “diving board” we leap from. It’s not something we leave behind. It is the ocean we swim in when we are immersed in God.

Mary carried God in her womb. She nursed God in her arms. And at this very Mass, we can hold God in our hands or receive him on our tongue. Because the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.

Bartimaeus and the JM logo

Bartimaeus and the JM logo

The Year of Mercy logo is not very beautiful. I’d go so far as to say it’s ugly. But I wouldn’t go to the stake on that claim. Horses for courses.

Nonetheless, I do like some of the symbolism behind the logo. It most obviously evokes the parable of the Good Shepherd, carrying the lost sheep on his shoulders:

But I think the logo also evokes another gospel passage. Today’s gospel. The healing of Bartimaeus.

I think we can draw four points out of today’s gospel which are very pertinent to the year of mercy, and more specifically, to our response to God’s mercy.

1. Bartimaeus knew he was blind; he seeks God’s help.

Bartimaeus calls out; he requests help. When the Lord asks him, “what do you want me to do for you?” he doesn’t hesitate. “Rabbuni, let me see again.”

Do we know our own blindness? Can we view our neighbours as God views them? That’s true vision. Just as importantly, can we see ourselves as Jesus sees us?

2. The world turns against Bartimaeus; he defies the world.

When the crowd turns on him, Bartimaeus is very vulnerable. He is blind, he is surrounded by hostile forces, but still he perseveres. Any faith worthy of the name requires the same sort of courage.

Faith starts with the humility of recognising ourselves as needy of salvation, it entails interior and exterior struggle, and it culminates in an intimate encounter with Jesus. There is no intimacy without vulnerability. Intimacy is what God seeks, and our vulnerability is its catalyst.

This is one of the reasons the Church doesn’t countenance general absolution, except in emergencies. Sacramental confession models the life of faith: recognising one’s needs, making oneself vulnerable, and seeking an intimate encounter with the Lord.

3. Jesus stops and gives Bartimaeus personal attention.

The decisive moment in today’s Gospel is this direct, personal encounter between God and man. They are face to face: God with his desire to heal, and Bartimaeus with his desire to be healed. Two freedoms; two converging desires.

Bartimaeus receives physical healing, but I bet a spiritual healing occurs too. Perhaps his intimate encounter with the Lord enables him to see the world as our Lord sees it. What a wondrous gift of sight that would be! That’s why I think of today’s Gospel when I contemplate a particular detail of the Year of Mercy logo:

One particular feature worthy of note is that while the Good Shepherd, in his great mercy, takes humanity upon himself, his eyes are merged with those of man. Christ sees with the eyes of Adam, and Adam with the eyes of Christ.

I think divine mercy is just like that. Nothing is more pleasing to God, than us seeking and him ministering his divine mercy. But having received his mercy, we’re then commissioned to exercise his mercy. We receive healing and power – power to love our enemies: to pray for them; to show them affection. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

4. Bartimaeus followed Jesus along the road.

The Gospel ends with Bartimaeus’s conversion. Mark says he followed Jesus along the road. He followed in the way and the truth and the life of Jesus. That’s the metaphorical meaning.

The literal meaning, though, is no less resonant. Immediately after this healing, our Lord locates a donkey, and rides into Jerusalem on a carpet of palms. In less than a week, Jesus is dead. So Bartimaeus literally follows Jesus to the cross.

It’s good for us to remember that, and imitate it of course. There comes a time in every life when suffering is unavoidable, and death awaits us all. Our task as Christians is to unite our suffering and death with the Lord’s. Then our own crosses become part of the Lord’s redemptive sacrifice, bringing graces to others, and shedding mercy on the whole world.

When God speaks through Scripture

When God speaks through Scripture

Perhaps God intends everyone to encounter one scriptural reading through which God speaks in a very personal and distinct way. It is certainly my own experience, and I know I’m not alone.

It is no surprise that the Word of God (Jesus) should communicate to us through the Word of God (the scriptures). Anyone who has experienced that can understand very well one of the meanings of today’s Second Reading. 

The word of God is something alive and active: it cuts like any double-edged sword but more finely: it can slip through the place where the soul is divided from the spirit, or joints from the marrow; it can judge the secret emotions and thoughts.

Often, a personal encounter with God through reading the scriptures changes a person’s life for ever. Pope Francis, for example, repeatedly invokes the calling of Matthew as an ongoing inspiration in his life. In my own case, it is today’s Gospel: the calling of the rich young man. 

On this day twelve years ago – the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2003 – the Lord made clear to me his desire that I should be a priest. I remember this very well because the night before, on Saturday evening, I read the Gospel and I meditated on it. I imagined especially that I was the rich young man; that when Jesus “looked steadily at him and loved him,” he was looking at me.

Then I prayed that I would respond differently to the rich young man. I didn’t want to walk away, sad. I want to respond with joy and generosity. “My answer is yes, Lord. Whatever you ask of me, I say yes.”

The next day I attended Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne. I have no memory of who the priest was, or what he preached. (It’s good to remind myself of that; that people come to Mass to pray with and receive the Lord, not to hear the priest’s pearls of wisdom!)

But I do remember – very distinctly – that when the priest elevated the Lord’s Body after the words of consecration, I was suddenly and overwhelmingly convinced that I was looking at my future. There was no voice from Heaven or angelic vision, but at that moment everything changed. I knew – with a strange and transcendent conviction – that our Lord was calling me to be a priest.

Twelve years later, this Gospel still stirs me to prayer and guides my response to our Lord. It also reminds how important it is to pray with Sacred Scripture. Praying with the scriptures is something every Catholic should practice habitually.

There are four steps in this practice:

1. Lectio (or reading)
2. Meditatio (meditation)
3. Oratio (prayer)
4. Contemplatio (contemplation)

I outlined these very briefly in my homily today. For my blog, I will provide more detail. I start a 2 week study course today, which takes me away from parish duties. I’ll have time to blog each day, so blog I shall. 

Tomorrow I’ll write about lectio.

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.

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