Full disclaimer: in my first hour in the Holy Land, I gazed at the desolate horizon several times and wondered at it. “This is the Chosen Land? Wars have been fought, and countless lives lost, over this?”

On second thought, I recalled this underwhelming choice is God’s typical MO. He often chooses the most unassuming, the most unimpressive — like the shepherd children at Fatima who became some of the greatest prophets of the twentieth century. Or the timid and illiterate farmhand, who became Curé of Ars and parish priest to the world. Or the impetuous Galilean fisherman upon whom Jesus founded his Church.

Having recalled these lessons, I reserved judgement, and by the end of the day I had changed my assessment. By then I had toured the archeological digs of the City of David and walked around the Old City of Jerusalem. I discerned a spiritual power which is literally indescribable — one has to be there to experience it for oneself.

Upon returning to Australia I bought and read Simon Montefiore’s Jerusalem: A Biography, which I highly recommend. (Not perfect — Montefiore goes off the boil, for example, when he describes Paul as the founder of Christianity. But for the most part, an epic history which is as fascinating as it is informative.) In that book, Montefiore quotes Teddy Kollek, mayor of Jerusalem from 1965 to 1993:

“Everybody has two cities, his own and Jerusalem.”

I think that’s true. Jerusalem certainly stirred something in me, as it did in our Lord himself:

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Mt 23:37)

If it’s not on your bucket list already, add it: a visit to Jerusalem.

Strangely terrifying

Strangely terrifying

Hours of driving is a daily requisite for a country priest. I usually fill in the time with rosaries, chaplets, and cultural ‘reading.’ By that I mean podcasts and audiobooks related to history, scripture, literature, theology, etc.

In the week after Easter though, priests — country or otherwise — are generally exhausted. The mental and emotional energy expended on the lows and highs of the Triduum leaves me, at least, resembling a zombie. That state doesn’t really lend itself to an appreciative hearing of Scott Hahn’s The Lamb’s Supper, or even Barbara Tuchman’s inestimable Guns of August.

As worthy as these audiobooks are, when I feel like a zombie, the best thing to hear on long country drives is, well, zombie lit. My sister recently recommended I read World War Z: An oral history of the Zombie Wars. I was dubious. “It’s nothing like the movie,” she promised, which was welcome news, but not nearly enough to recommend the book. However, she did at least persuade me to read a few reviews, which finally compelled me to download and hear the audiobook.

World War Z is surprisingly good. It doesn’t belong to the horror genre. It’s more of an alt-history book which explores, among other things, the limitations of liberal democracy, the dangers of the modern media cycle, the vulnerability of tech-dependency, and how the nations of the world — each with its unique national psyche — would react to global cataclysm. But in the midst of all that smart-sounding stuff, there remains a good dose of thrilling horror, because WWZ is brilliantly immersive. Its premise — a zombie apocalypse — is fantastic, but the narrative is not.

The following Youtube clip is something similar. Its premise is maybe not fantastic, but certainly improbable. A truly international crisis doesn’t develop in a matter of hours. It takes days, at least. The narrative, however, is ‘real’ enough that you are immersed into an alternate world very much like our own. You may not wish to invest a full hour, but I do recommend you watch the first 10 minutes, and then skip to 00:50 minutes. This will provide 20 minutes of fascinating and thought-provoking viewing. By the end of it your imagination will be running in decidedly non-fantastical directions.

In a word, this video is strangely terrifying:

When a father dies

When a father dies

I had barely begun in the seminary when Pope John Paul II died. It was a very sad time. It felt like I my own grandfather had died.

In the midst of my grief, I was very impressed by a statement from Bishop Javier Echevarría, the prelate of Opus Dei. He exhorted the faithful not only to pray for the late pope and his successor, but also to love and revere the new pope as we had the old:

This is also the moment to pray for the next Pope, for whom we Catholics are ready from this moment to give all of our filial affection.

I made this my prayer intention during the 2005 conclave (and again in 2013).

A few years later, in 2008, I met Don Javier when he visited Melbourne. It is the custom, when greeting European bishops, to kiss their episcopal ring, but as I bent down to do this, Don Javier sort of scooped me up into his arms and hugged me. I greeted him as “Your Excellency,” but he corrected me in heavily-accented English. “No! You must call me Father, for we are father and son!”

A few years later again, in 2010, the day after I was ordained a deacon, I wrote a letter to Don Javier. (I addressed him as Father, not Excellency!) I requested admission into Opus Dei, to which he gave his assent.

And now, in 2016, this father of mine has died, and the experience is not dissimilar to the death of St John Paul II. Of course I have already started praying for his successor — and also for myself, that I might foster filial affection for the next Father.

Meanwhile, I’m praying for Don Javier with gratitude and admiration.

The appalling strangeness of divine mercy

The appalling strangeness of divine mercy

Zacchaeus must have had a burning desire for Jesus. By climbing a tree he makes a fool of himself. That childlike behaviour is a good example for us.

We can ask ourselves, do I want to see Christ that much? Do I do everything I can to see him? Or do I avoid encounters with him? Or, if I already see Christ, do I prefer to keep a distance?

I’m reminded of Graham Greene, a famous twentieth-century novelist, and a famous on-again off-again Catholic. In his twenties, he married a Catholic and converted. In the subsequent years he wrote some outstanding Catholic-themed novels.

But Greene was not a faithful husband, and as his marriage collapsed, his faith lapsed. He stopped going to confession and stopped receiving communion, though for many years he continued to frequent Sunday Mass.

In 1949, Greene and his mistress visited a Franciscan monastery, where they attended Mass offered by by Padre Pio. Greene later wrote that this encounter with the famous mystic “profoundly moved” him, and during the Mass, Greene lost “all sense of time.”

But when Greene had an opportunity to personally speak with Padre Pio, he beat a hasty exit. “I didn’t want to change my life by meeting a saint,” he wrote. “I felt that there was a good chance that he was one. He had a great peace about him.”

Greene was obviously awed in the presence of holiness. He recognised that “great peace” is the mark of a saint. But he feared it too, because he knew it would transform his life.

It’s quite a contrast to Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus climbs a tree, and from that safe distance he can observe Jesus. But when God approaches he doesn’t back away like Graham Greene. He hurries down the tree and welcomes Jesus into his home. Sure enough, his life is transformed, but we can be sure that Christ’s peace becomes Zaccheaus’ peace too.

Perhaps Greene discovered this for himself 40 years later. By then, he had returned to the sacraments, and the man who famously described himself as a “Catholic atheist,” died a holy death.

Graham Greene and Zacchaeus are both outstanding witnesses to the mercy of God. The Lord does not forget his own.

Of all the people in Jericho, Jesus singles out the chief of the tax collectors. An outcast. A traitor. But also son of Abraham. A child of God.

We must never doubt God’s goodness and mercy — for ourselves, and for those whom we love. God’s mercy will always eclipse our human limitations.

As Graham Greene famously wrote in one of his Catholic novels (Brighton Rock):

“You cannot conceive, nor can I, of the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.”

When martial courage and the holy Rosary saved Christendom

When martial courage and the holy Rosary saved Christendom

On Friday I was privileged to assist with a nine-day novena organised by the Legion of Mary.

The novena, which prayed for world peace and deliverance from the ISIS scourge, concluded with a Mass and Holy Hour celebrating the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. This feast commemorates the Battle of Lepanto, wherein a Western alliance initiated by Pope St Pius V repelled an Ottoman invasion of Europe.

Here’s my sermon, which is really an historical survey of that great victory:

The Defence of Malta — 1565

Soleiman the Magnificent was the greatest sultan in Ottoman history. He reigned for 50 years, and he expanded the Empire’s borders in every direction. His greatest dream was to conquer Rome. Then history would truly judge him as an equal to Caesar. Moreover, the conquest of Rome would permit St Peter’s Basilica, then under construction, to be converted into a great mosque – just as Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia had been converted a century earlier.

It was the dream of Roman conquest which caused Soleiman to turn his attention to the island of Malta in 1565. From the harbours of Malta, the Ottomans could bombard the western coast of the Italian peninsula, Rome included. By 1565, however, Soleiman was an old man. He recused himself from battle, but sent, in his stead, an army of 45,000.

Malta fielded an army of 6,000 to defend the small island. The rest of Europe looked on, presuming that Malta would fall as Rhodes had, at similar scale, decades earlier. On the eve of battle, 700 Knights of Malta assembled in their chapel. They each made a good confession, and assisted at the Holy Sacrifice of Mass. Afterwards, the Grand Master addressed his men:

“A formidable army composed of audacious barbarians is descending on this island. These persons, my brothers, are the enemies of Jesus Christ. Today it is a question of the defence of our Faith. Are the Gospels to be superseded by the Koran? God on this occasion demands of us our lives, already vowed to His service. Happy will be those who first consummate this sacrifice.”

Many of the knights did just that, laying down their lives. Nonetheless, during the four month seige, Malta’s small army of 6,000 withstood the Ottoman barrage. Three quarters of the Ottoman forces were killed during the assault, and eventually the Turks returned home, defeated and exhausted.

Land invasion — 1566

Soleiman was furious. “I see that it is only in my own hand that my sword is invincible!” Twelve months later, he assembled a massive army of 300,000 soldiers, and marched them towards Vienna. He would take Rome by land, using one of the largest armies assembled since Antiquity.

When the Count of Szigetvar, a Hungarian fortress east of Vienna, led a successful raid on Ottoman supply trains, Soleiman wheeled his massive army around. Szigetvar, he declared, would be wiped off the map.

For nearly a month, wave after wave of Turkish infantry were thrown back from the walls. Soleiman tried to bribe the Count. He could be puppet king of Croatia, if he would yield his city. The Count refused: “No one shall point his finger on my children in contempt.”

Eventually, the Ottoman artillery breached the fortress walls. The Count assembled his last 600 men and, holding up his sword, he rallied them:

“With this sword I earned my first honour and glory. I want to appear with it once more before the eternal throne to hear my judgement.”

He charged his men into battle, and the small band was quickly swamped by superior numbers. Soleiman, however, did not live to see the final battle. He had died four days previously, of dysentry. His soldiers, furious at the losses they sustained, and grieving their sultan, slaughtered the civilian population and razed the city to the ground. But the Ottoman army was exhausted, and turned home. Although the city of Szigetvar was eliminated, it had saved Europe.

The conquest of Cyprus — 1570

Soleiman’s heir, Selim II, was cruel and barbaric. The new sultan invaded Cyprus in 1570. Although the garrison of 500 surrendered on terms, when the city gates were opened, the Ottomans rushed in and slaughtered them. Then they set on the civilian population, massacring twenty thousand adults. The children who survived were shipped to Constantinople and sold at the slave markets.

But in 1566, God had raised up one of the Church’s greatest popes. Pope St Pius V solemnly declared:

“I am taking up arms against the Turks, but the only thing that can help me is the prayers of priests of pure life.”

The state of the Church in 1570 is comparable to the Church of today. Corruption and laxity were rife. But then, as now, a cohort of holy and virtuous clergy endured. Their prayers sustained the pope in his negotiations, and in 1571 he formed ‘the Holy League’ — an alliance of Christian kingdoms and city states which set aside rivalries and jealousies to join forces against the Ottoman threat.

To their shame, France and England excused themselves. (Perhaps this is why Lepanto is not so well-known in the English-speaking world.) Both kingdoms, in fact, furnished assistance to the Ottomans, for tawdry political and economic gain.

Selim’s forces, meanwhile, performed atrocities which are comparable to the modern day efforts of ISIS. In 1571, still in Cyprus, the Ottomans again violated terms of surrender, and enslaved men who had laid down arms. A commander was cruelly and horrifically tortured — his nose and ears cut off, and his bleeding wounds cauterised by hot irons. He was bridled before his men and terrified civilians, and dragged around camp on his hands and knees. He was strung up for many hours, and skinned alive.

It is a mistake to think the scourge of ISIS is without precedent. History is full of cruel horror and sinister evil. Just as the challenges are similar, so are the remedies. The Holy Rosary has saved the Church before. It can do so again.

The battle of Lepanto — 1571

Pius V had granted a plenary indulgence to the soldiers and crews of the Holy League. Priests of the great orders — Franciscans, Dominicans, Jesuits — were aboard the Holy League’s ships, offering Mass and hearing confessions. Every man was assigned standard weaponry, and also something non-standard — a weapon more powerful than anything the Ottomans possessed: the Holy Rosary.

On the eve of battle, the Holy League’s soldiers knelt on the decks of their ships and prayed the Rosary. Back in Rome, and all over Christendom, the lay faithful responded to the pope’s request, and filling their local churches, they too prayed the Rosary.

At dawn on 7 October 1571, the Holy League’s fleet sailed east, against the wind. Perhaps by coincidence, perhaps by design, the four navies assumed a cruciform. The massive Ottoman fleet sailed west to meet them. Again, perhaps by coincidence, perhaps by design, the Turkish forces assumed a huge crescent.

As the fleets grew closer, the Christians could hear the gongs and cymbals of the Ottomans. The soldiers stood on deck, silently praying. Priests held large crucifixes, walking up and down deck, exhorting courage and hearing last confessions.

The forces met at midday — the hour of the Angelus. The hour of the Incarnation. Perhaps all those rosaries, and the intercessory prayers of our Lady herself, had something to do with the wind. It changed suddenly. Abruptly. Radically. The wind turned 180 degrees, filling the sails of the Holy League, and causing disarray among the Ottomans.

Battle ensued for 5 hours. At first, the outnumbered Holy League and massive Ottoman force fought as though evenly matched. One soldier of the Holy League, driven to despair, took his sword to the ship’s crucifix. The blade instantly shattered. Years later, the sword was re-forged, but when the new blade was pulled from the fire, it too fell to pieces.

The crucifix aboard the main ship twisted itself to avoid a Turkish cannonball. It is now displayed and venerated in Barcelona’s cathedral.

Another of the ships carried aboard a unique gift from the king of Spain: a rare image of our Lady. Exactly forty years before the battle of Lepanto, the Blessed Virgin appeared to a peasant boy, leaving a miraculous image of herself on his smock. The bishop of the region commissioned an artist to paint five copies of the image, and he touched each image to the original. Our Lady of Guadalupe was present at Lepanto.

Eventually the battle turned in the Holy League’s favour, and then a rout ensued. Thirty thousand Ottomans perished. Not until the First World War would the world again witness such carnage in a single day’s fighting.

In the days that followed, news of the victory made its way back to Rome. But Rome knew already. On the day of the battle, St Pius had been consulting with his cardinals when he paused and peered out a window. He was favoured with a supernatural vision which he then related to the cardinals present:

“Let us set aside business and fall on our knees in thanksgiving to God, for he has given our fleet a great victory.”

Lessons for us

The courage and fortitude of our forebears should inspire us. The men and women in Malta, in Hungary, and at Lepanto are owed our remembrance and gratitude. But we can also imitate them, and engage in our own battles against sin and evil with equal fervour. We should fear sin more than death itself. We should rather die than offend God and goodness.

Let’s resolve, too, to renew our spirit of prayer, and devotion to our Blessed Mother. She told the children at Fatima that the Rosary has the power to save the world. The world had learned that previously, at Lepanto. But the world too easily forgets. Let’s not forget again.

Holy Mary, Help of Christians, Lady of the Rosary, pray for us.


Most of my remarks are adapted from a great article by Christopher Check. You can read it all at at Catholic Answers: The Battle that Saved the Christian West.

Hanrahan is wrong;
we won’t be rooned

Hanrahan is wrong; we won’t be rooned

It’s pretty wet out here. Early Friday morning, the Glenelg River burst its bank in Coleraine, submerging the highway and dozens of homes and businesses.

The flood waters had receded by Friday afternoon, and then the clean up began. Then it was Casterton’s turn. The Glenelg burst its banks here on Saturday. Here’s a harrowing video filmed on Sunday, when the flood was more or less at its worst. The film shows the natural beauty of the land out here — rolling green hills peppered by majestic redgums. I live in a really beautiful part of the world. But the sinister sight of brown floodwater isn’t so pretty.

It’s raining again now, and the experts predict the waters to rise again tomorrow. There are also fears for Harrow. I offered Mass there on Sunday, and although the river had burst its banks there too, the water hadn’t inundated buildings. Yet.

I drove through a flooded road to get to Sunday Mass. I won’t do that again. I’ve since learned that only 15cm of water is enough to wash your car off the road. I was more circumspect when confronted with flooded roads yesterday, and aborted my drive to Edenhope. I’m due there again on Thursday. Here’s hoping it’s possible.

All that said, media reports — and probably this blog post too — relate a tone of crisis and sorrow which isn’t true to the attitude here at all. I’m generalising of course, but I think there are two reasons country residents, when faced by adversity, are better equipped than their city cousins:

  • Firstly, memories are long. History is a living thing — it not only lines the pub walls in framed photos; it also animates pub conversation.
  • Secondly, everyone pulls together, because everybody knows everybody. Hence the ubiquitous attitude: “We’ve prevailed before; we’ll prevail again.”

As far as history goes, here’s some pictorial context. The floods of 2016 aren’t good.

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But the locals have seen worse. The flood of 1946 is living memory for many, rivalled only by the legendary flood of 1903. On both occasions, I am told, the houses I drive past before ascending the hill to the Catholic church and presbytery — were almost completely submerged.

It’s hard for me to imagine such a deluge. But many people don’t have to imagine it — they remember it, which puts the present floods into perspective.

The flood of 1946

The flood of 1946

And in 1906.

And in 1906.

“We’ll all be rooned,” said Hanrahan. But, like the locals, I’m more optimistic.

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