What does this miracle teach us?

What does this miracle teach us?

It’s significant, I think, that the miracle we hear about in today’s Gospel is the only miracle (apart from the Resurrection!) which is related by all four evangelists. This is clearly an important event in the Lord’s ministry, and it contains lessons for us.

Some Christians cite this gospel to support the so-called ‘prosperity gospel.’ This is a doctrine, with roots in the Old Testament, which suggests that material prosperity can be a measure of God’s blessing. More importantly, if a person is faithful to Christ, and lives according to Gospel values, then God will bless them with material wealth. The feeding of the 5,000, it is argued, demonstrates this. Our Lord responds to the people’s needs, and then some. The twelve baskets of left over foods is testament to God’s super-abundance.

The experience of the saints, however, tell us something different. Miracles which impacted St Jean-Marie Vianney and St John Bosco come to mind, but instead I’ll cite a much more local example. This is one of many similar stories I’ve heard from many people.

A couple I know in Hamilton have many children of their own, and they’ve fostered a great many more – some temporarily, others permanently. For many years the household has included ten children or more. A few years ago, the mother of all these children resolved it was time for a holiday. People were tired, tempers were short, and relationships were frayed. As you might imagine, the household is seldom flush with cash, but that didn’t concern her. A holiday was needed, and she prayed that God would provide.

So the holiday was booked a month in advance, on the hope and prayer that the funds would accumulate in time. As time passed though, the money was not found to pay for the holiday accommodation. The family forged ahead anyway, putting their faith in Providence. On the very morning of the holiday, as the family drove off the farm, they stopped at the mailbox. There they found a cheque whose amount coincided precisely with the sum needed to pay for their holiday accommodation.

This, it seems to me, is precisely how God works. We can ask for material blessings just as we ask for spiritual graces, but where God will give a thousand times the spiritual favours we request, God’s material generosity is more circumspect. God gives material blessings as needed, and no more. The reason is self-evident. We humans are susceptible to material attachments which are deadly to the life of faith. Material abundance typically does us more harm than good, and God will never harm us.

Today’s Collect acknowledges this very point:

O God, protector of those who hope in you,
without whom nothing has firm foundation, nothing is holy,
bestow in abundance your mercy upon us
and grant that, with you as our ruler and guide,
we may use the good things that pass
in such a way as to hold fast even now
to those that ever endure.

Besides, it’s  notable that our Lord instructs the disciples to collect the left-overs, “so that nothing gets wasted.” Jesus has no intention of permitting the crowds to be gluttonous, taking more than needed. This is hardly a ringing endorsement of the prosperity gospel!

So what lessons can we learn from this miracle?

Firstly: God is sensitive to our material and spiritual needs. We can trust in Him whenever our resources fall short. We should use whatever resources we do have — even if they are plainly inadequate. God will supply what is lacking.

Secondly, God will recruit us to do his work, if we are willing. Our Lord could have worked this miracle without any input from others, but he deliberately collaborated with the disciples, despite their poverty of resources. This is true for us also. We think we don’t have the words or the eloquence to spiritually nourish others. Or we don’t have the goodness or authority to speak about God. After all, who are we?

The answer is one we easily forget. We are children of God, baptised into the Body of Christ, and nourished by His Word and his Sacred Body and Blood. The Holy Spirit dwells within us, ready to infuse our words and actions with God’s grace. 

Our own apostolates, unlike our Lord’s, are rarely spectacular. We serve God in simple and mundane ways — in our kindness towards strangers; friendliness towards acquaintances; and our dedication to family and friends. Let’s not neglect the material: our punctuality; our temperance and self-denial; our care for books and computers and tools. But by our habitual, day-to-day struggle to do the small things well, we grow in virtue. And by doing that, we draw closer to the Lord.

So let’s pray today that we make use of the resources the Lord gives us, even if they seem inadequate, so that we can attend to the spiritual and material needs of those people whom God puts on our path.

Little saint, big fish

Little saint, big fish

Over the years, I have discerned certain patterns in confession. Some days of the week are consistently busier than other days. Extreme weather — hot or cold — will reduce the length of the queue. School holidays will increase the length of the queue.

But there is one variable which impacts not only quantity, but also quality. Sometimes, the queue at the confessional contains an unusual number of ‘big fish.’ Grois poisson is a term St Jean-Marie Vianney used, which denotes penitents who have returned to confession after years of complacency or indifference.

I have noticed that ‘big fish’ confessions often coincide with particular feast days. For instance, I recall hearing an unusually moving calibre of confessions on the feast of St Pio of Pietrelcina and on the feast of Bl Jacinta and Francisco Marto. I can add another saint to the list. Today is the feast of St Maria Goretti, and today I have heard very many ‘big fish’ confessions.

I often ask such penitents what brought them back to the sacrament. How did the Holy Spirit move you? Why today? Usually the answer is vague. So I advise them to learn about the saint who (it seems to me) has prayed for them.

Often the penitent is completely unfamiliar with the saint in question. This is very comforting to me. It suggests that just as we foster devotion to certain saints, and single them out, the saints can foster particular interest in us, their little brothers and sisters. They single us out too.

The celebration of saints’ feast days is a great tradition. It keeps the lives and the example of the saints before us. But the real genius of saints’ feast days lies in the graces which are available. Saints aren’t there only to inspire us; they also pray for us. Deo gratias.

St Josemaría and Melbourne’s Shrine of the Holy Family

St Josemaría and Melbourne’s Shrine of the Holy Family

Tomorrow — Friday 26 June — is the Feast of St Josemaría Escrivá. The saint whose life and legacy has most shaped my own.

I am nearly certain — as certain as one can be of an unverifiable hypothetical — that if not for Josemaría, I would not be a priest. Without Opus Dei’s impact during my university years, there is no way I would have contemplated a priestly vocation.

I may not even be a believing Catholic. At that critical time of young adulthood, when I was forging a newly-independent identity, Opus Dei nourished my faith, both intellectually and spiritually. Without that influence, it is conceivable that I would have abandoned Catholic practice.

More likely though, I would still be a Catholic, but one who is more critical, more worldly, more pessimistic. Someone, probably, who was excoriating of Vatican II and dismissive of the mainstream Church in Australia. But whatever my faults, I’m none of those things. Instead, St Josemaría taught me to pray for and consciously foster humility, joy, and above all supernatural outlook.

Thanks to Josemaría, although I am conscious of the grave crisis of faith which afflicts the Church in our time, I do not despair. The Church has survived worse, and grace will prevail.

Thanks to Josemaría, although I value orthodoxy, I value personal holiness more. The two are not opposed of course, but they can be mutually exclusive.

Thanks to Josemaría, I am conscious that more than anything, the Church — and the world — needs saints. It can be argued — very soundly! — that despite this insight, I haven’t progressed much over the past 15 years. But to paraphrase Evelyn Waugh, without Opus Dei, “just think how much worse I would be.”

In short, I owe St Josemaría a lot. It’s a joy to celebrate his feast day, which I will do by attending a Mass in his honour Friday night, at St Mary Star of the Sea, West Melbourne. If you’re in town, please come!

It’s also an occasion for Archbishop Hart to bless a new statue of the Holy Family which has been installed in the throne of the high altar. This beautiful statue, which I was able to see in the Granda workshop during my trip to Madrid last year, signifies St Mary’s status as Archdiocesan Shrine of the Holy Family.

The artist and Fr Joe Pich, assistant priest at West Melbourne

The principal sculptor and Fr Joe Pich, assistant priest at West Melbourne


The principal sculptor with deacons Francis Denton and Joel Peart. And some priest. Francis, incidentally, will be ordained a priest this Saturday. Pray for him!


Detail of St Joseph and our Lady


Detail of our Lord. Note the close resemblance to our Lady, which is deliberate.


The completed statue in situ



Borrowed time: an age of mercy

Borrowed time: an age of mercy

At 1:30 this morning — 5:30 Saturday afternoon in Rome — Pope Francis walked to the holy doors in St Peter’s Basilica, which are opened only a few times each century, and convoked the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy.

This Holy Year of Mercy begins in December. For the duration of the year, the holy doors in Rome’s basilicas will be open, symbolising the extraordinary pathways to grace available to the Church during the holy year.

“This is the time of mercy,” Pope Francis declared.

It is important that the lay faithful live it, and bring it into different social environments. Go forth!

In fact, Pope Francis has made God’s mercy the centrepiece of his pontificate. And in doing so, he joins the company of Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II.

Pope Benedict invoked divine mercy when he was elected pope in 2005.

Dear friends, this deep gratitude for a gift of Divine Mercy is uppermost in my heart in spite of all. And I consider it a special grace which my Venerable Predecessor, John Paul II, has obtained for me. I seem to feel his strong hand clasping mine; I seem to see his smiling eyes and hear his words, at this moment addressed specifically to me, ‘Do not be afraid!’

St John Paul II invoked divine mercy again and again during his 27 years as pope. After the attempt on his life, he visited and forgave his would-be assassin, relating the importance he attached to divine mercy:

Right from the beginning of my ministry in St Peter’s See in Rome, I consider this message my special task. Providence has assigned it to me.

The Polish pope was very familiar with the diary of Sr Faustina. He read it as a priest, and defended it as a bishop, even though the Vatican condemned it. As pope he lifted the ban, and heeded the request our Lord made to Faustina, that the Church honour his divine mercy on the Sunday after Easter. Moreover, Pope John Paul canonised St Faustina in 2000, making her the first saint of the new millennium.

There is an interesting passage in Faustina’s diary which may describe the Polish pope:

I bear a special love for Poland, and if she will be obedient to My will, I will exalt her in might and holiness. From her will come forth the spark that will prepare the world for My final coming.

Apocalyptic themes permeate Faustina’s diary.

You will prepare the world for My final coming.

Before the Day of Justice, I am sending the Day of Mercy

Before I come as a just judge, I am coming first as the King of Mercy. Before the day of justice arrives, there will be given to people a sign in the heavens of this sort: All light in the heavens will be extinguished, and there will be great darkness over the whole earth. Then the sign of the cross will be seen in the sky, and from the openings where the hands of feet of the Saviour were nailed will come forth great lights which will light up the earth for a period of time. This will take place shortly before the last day.

None of us are obliged to believe the apocalyptic prophecies in Faustina’s diary — nor are we obliged to accept that Jesus really appeared to her. Nonetheless, Faustina is a holy woman, canonised by a pope who is himself now canonised. That’s enough for me take seriously everything she writes.

It may be that Pope Francis thinks along similar lines. He has repeatedly advised journalists to read Robert Hugh Benson’s The Lord of the World, which is an apocalyptic novel written in 1908, describing a world eerily similar to the modern day. Last month, speaking to priests in Rome, he suggested the times are urgent:

The Holy Spirit speaks to the whole Church of our time, which is a time of mercy. I am sure of this. We have been living in a time of mercy for the past 30 years or more, up to today.

Whatever of end time prophecies, one thing is certain. You and I will die some time in the next hundred years. The world will end for each one of us. So with that in mind, we can all profit from the central message St Faustina related: a message of unconditional love and infinite mercy.

Tell sinners that I am always waiting for them, that I listen intently to the beating of their heart . . . When will it beat for Me?

Imitating Pope St John Paul II

Imitating Pope St John Paul II

Today is the feast day of Pope St John Paul II. He is the only saint (so far) who directly impacted me in his own lifetime.

I met him once. Sort of. I was in St Peter’s Square on 6 October 2002, when he canonised St Josemaría Ecrivá. I was one pilgrim among half a million, but it was an exhilarating moment. He was my Holy Father. I loved him then, and I love him now.

Maybe my faith would be weaker without his influence. Maybe I wouldn’t love our Lord so much. Certainly, I wouldn’t be a priest. JP2 was a big factor in the discernment of my vocation.

I think John Paul impacted me because he was a saint. But not only that. He impacted me because we had a relationship, however remote.

I have many relatives and friends who weren’t impact the same way. Why? I think it’s because they weren’t in a relationship with him. Wojtyla was like a third grandfather to me, so his words and gestures and witness had a profound influence.

That’s the thing about saints. They’re not magic. Relationship is key. That’s why it’s important for you and I to become saints. JP2 may have had little or no impact on some family and friends, but we can have an impact, precisely because we are in relationship with them.

John Paul II was a rockstar pope, with a name and face recognised by millions. He was also a mystic, who apparently received extraordinary graces. In one sense he’s not the easiest guy to imitate. But in another, more important sense, we can follow his lead.

Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the Polish pope’s press secretary, tells the story of the first time they prayed the rosary together. When they reached the first Our Father, and Navarro started reciting it, the pope raised a hand to quiet him, and explained apologetically that he liked to chant the Lord’s Prayer. Would that be okay? (Navarro, of course, consented.)

Navarro began by praying each Hail Mary at the normal pace he was accustomed to. But gradually, he fell into a much slower pace, following the lead of the pope, who almost relished each syllable. A prayer he normally prayed in 20 minutes took twice as long when he prayed it with John Paul II.

Bishop John Magee, the Irish bishop who was ‘secretary to three popes’ (Paul, JPI and JP2), relates a story which occurred just a few days after Wojtyla was elected pope. It was early in the day, before normal working hours, when Magee received an urgent request from some VIP to see the pope. He checked the chapel, then the pope’s office, the private sitting room, the dining room, and the pope’s bedroom, but the pope was nowhere to be found. In a state of mild panic, he told the pope’s Polish secretary, “We’ve lost the Holy Father!”

His Polish counterpart was dubious. “Did you check the chapel?”

“It was the first place I looked.”

“Look again. More carefully.”

Magee returned to the darkened chapel. The pope was not at his seat, or his at prie-dieu. But he was in the chapel after all: at the altar, embracing the tabernacle, crooning a Polish lullaby.

Now I’m not advocating slavish imitation of these practices. But it’s something we can adapt to our situation.

I spend a lot of time in the car, and I usually pray the rosary there. Mostly attending to the road (and kangaroos); only partly attentive to the mysteries I’m contemplating and words I’m praying. If your rosary is something similar, keep it up. It’s better than not praying the rosary.

But it’s not so hard to pray an extra decade some other time during the day, more closely imitating John Paul II’s way of praying. It must please our Lady very much.

I’m not in the habit of hugging the tabernacle — and I’m a priest, with after-hours access to churches, when no one else is around! If I had only normal access, I’d be even less eager to approach the sanctuary and make a spectacle of myself.

But still we can pay a short 5 minute visit to the Blessed Sacrament, and sing a song to the Lord under our breath, sitting in the pew. We can bring our smart phone, and show him the interesting photos we took this morning. We can repeat the exciting news a friend told us, or complain about the lousy customer service we experienced this afternoon.

I think our Lord craves that sort of easy familiarity. It’s not uncommon to speak to our closest friends for a just a few minutes, but every day, and about the every day. Why not Him?

I think if we live this way, coupling small acts of affection with more pious practices (not least frequent communion and frequent confession), we can have the impact of a JP2 on our circle of family and friends. The ‘orbit’ is much smaller, but the love of God is not.

Beatification of Don Alvaro

Beatification of Don Alvaro

Pope Francis has announced the beatification of Bishop Alvaro del Portillo, St Josemaría’s closest collaborator and Opus Dei’s first prelate.

Don Alvaro will be beatified in Madrid on Saturday 27 September. Maybe I will go. Who knows? My first trip to Europe was in 2002, to attend the canonisation of St Josemaría. I wasn’t in Opus Dei back then, but I owed a lot to Josemaría, and I was happy to celebrate his canonisation! My other trip to Europe was the 2011 World Youth Day, in Madrid. Can you see a Spanish theme emerging?

On the other hand, I intend to go to Rome next January for the CCC’s international clergy conference. Diocesan priests don’t take a vow of poverty, but we do try to foster simplicity. An advisable model is the father of a large family, scraping to get by. In other words, I imagine my own Dad’s spending habits back when I was in primary school. I remember it being a big deal when he bought a new suit. I don’t recall him jetting off to Europe twice in three months!

Whatever of that, here’s a few interesting anecdotes about Don Alvaro, taken from Alvaro Del Portillo, by Salvador Bernal:

On the Spanish Civil War

Don Alvaro spoke about that period of his life only on rare occasions. One such occasion took place in the Filipino city of Cebu, at the end of January 1987. He was trying to get across how necessary it is to love and to foster peace, and this brought to his mind the persecution against the Church which had been unleashed in Spain during the civil war.

“I had never been involved in any political activity,” he said, “and I was not a priest, or a religious, or even a seminarian; I was just an engineering student. I got thrown in jail just because I came from a Catholic family. By then I was already wearing glasses, and one day one of the guards came up to me—his name was Petrof, it’s a Russian name—and he put a pistol to my temple and said, ‘You’re wearing glasses—you must be a priest.’ He could have killed me at any moment. I think the only reason he didn’t was because God thought I still had a lot of fighting to do against the devil, or because I was not worthy of heaven. It was terrifying.”

On hearing his first confession (I can relate to this one!)

After his ordination, Don Alvaro became an even firmer support, so to speak, for the founder of Opus Dei. The overwhelming avalanche of supernatural gifts which God was pouring out on Father Josemaría made it necessary for him to have at his side an intelligent and humble priest who was truly close to him. The founder had a responsibility to discern and to get confirmation of the paths which the Holy Spirit was opening in his ardent and vibrant soul, and to distinguish, when necessary, between what had to do with his interior life and what had to do with the foundation. And the reality is that he only went ahead with complete peace of mind when he began to open his heart and soul to Don Alvaro not only as his closest associate, but as his confessor as well.

Despite the openness and ease that characterized their relationship, that first confession was one of the few times in his whole life when Don Alvaro became noticeably nervous. The confession took place on June 26, 1944—the very day after Don Alvaro’s ordination. The two of them were at the Villanueva Street center, in Madrid. Father Josemaría asked Don Alvaro if he’d heard any confessions yet, and when he said no, the founder said that he would like to make a general confession to him.

The confession had hardly started when Don Alvaro began to worry that he might forget the words of absolution. He knew the prayer by heart, but, as he himself had just said, he had not as yet given anybody sacramental absolution. This was so much on his mind that as soon as Father Josemaría got finished confessing his sins, Don Alvaro started saying the prayer of absolution. The founder had to interrupt him. “My son,” he said, “I can understand it if you don’t want to give me any advice, but you do need to at least give me a penance!” So Don Alvaro gave him one, but then when he started the prayer of absolution again, he forgot how it went. He had to repeat it after the founder!

On ecumenism

On another occasion, a German fellow named Mathias, who belonged to some evangelical denomination, addressed Don Alvaro publicly, not long after the death of Mgr Escriva. “How can I find out the will of God for my life? How can I know what direction I should take?”

Don Alvaro spoke to him about the Gospel, about freedom of conscience, and about the one Church founded by Jesus Christ: the Catholic Church. “In the sixteenth century,” he said, “pieces were chipped off of that great Church of Christ, but those pieces still have something of that divine richness. Pope Pius XI used to say that it was like splinters from a gold-bearing rock—even the tiniest piece has a few grains of gold. You have a lot of gold in your faith. You believe in the Father, in the Son, and in the Holy Spirit. You believe in so many things… But I would be a hypocrite if I were not to tell you that you’re still missing something of the true faith, the faith that your ancestors had before they separated themselves from the one Church of Jesus Christ. The only thing I can do is ask you for permission to pray for you, that the Holy Spirit will give you the fullness of faith . . .  In return, I ask of you one thing: that you pray for me. Let’s make between us a kind of pact—you pray that I be a worthy successor of a saint, because I am a poor man, a poor priest of Jesus Christ.”

His death

Death took him by surprise in March 1994, just after his return from the Holy Land. On March 23, 1994, Don Javier Echevarría made this announcement: “Last night a heart attack ended the life of Bishop Alvaro del Portillo, Prelate of Opus Dei. A little before four in the morning, he called me to tell me he was feeling bad. While the doctor was tending to him, I myself gave him the last sacraments, in accord with his explicitly and often stated wish.”

At 6pm that evening, Pope John Paul II went in person to pray in the funeral chapel, accompanied by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican Secretary of State. And before and after that extraordinary visit, many cardinals and prelates of the Roman Curia and superiors of religious orders went to pay their last respects.

John Paul was especially touched by the fact that the Lord had called Don Alvaro home upon his return from the Holy Land. He put a lot of emphasis on this in the audience that he gave to the participants of the 1994 UNIV Congress, which, as usual, took place in Holy Week. “At this time,” he said, “the thought of the Holy Land is for you very tied in with the person of Bishop Alvaro del Portillo. Just before calling him to himself, God allowed him to make a pilgrimage to those places where Jesus spent his life on earth. Those were days of intense prayer which united him very closely to Christ and, in fact, prepared him for his final meeting with the Blessed Trinity.”