I’ve been doing it wrong

Facebook is mostly brainless. But sometimes it’s also a useful ecumenical and inter-faith resource. Who knew?

This week, I learned that when it comes to the Rite of Asperges at the start of Mass, I’ve been doing it wrong.

The Russians have taught me that if my parishioners aren’t gasping for breath after I’ve blessed them, then I have failed.

Then the Cambodians arrived in my newsfeed:

So now I realise that if my parishioners don’t arrive at Mass wearing helmets, then I have failed.

I can’t wait for the feast of the Baptism of the Lord!

Guest blogger: Ordinations

Yesterday’s ordinations in Melbourne were of course a wonderful and blessed event.

As I arrived yesterday, I ran into the van Strijp family, who attended the ordinations as a guest of Fr Joel Peart.


Nina and Max, and Joe and Raphael


You’d have to ask Raphael what he’s pointing to

Joe with Chris (l) and his brother Olek (r), who is a first year seminarian for Adelaide

Joe with Chris (l) and his brother Olek (r), who is a first year seminarian for Adelaide

Joseph took a few photos and shared some thoughtful explanations on Facebook, which he’s permitted me to reproduce here. When he’s not guest blogging, Joseph is a carpenter. You can check out his work at www.josephtheworker.com.au.

During the litany of the saints, the deacons lie prostrate.

The litany of saints

This symbolizes the deacons’ unworthiness for the office to be assumed and their dependence upon God and the prayers of the Christian community.

The laying on of hands: this is one of my favourite parts of an ordination ceremony.

When the litany is ended the candidates rise and go in pairs to kneel before the bishop. The bishop places both his hands on the head of each candidate in turn, without saying anything. This very simple though impressive action, unaccompanied by prayer or chant, is called the essential matter of the sacrament. It signifies that the power of priesthood is conferred by the bishop imposing hands on the candidate, transmitting to the latter the power which the bishop himself has received from Christ through the apostles and their successors.

After the bishop has imposed hands on them, they return to their former place and kneel. When all are in place the bishop holds his right hand outstretched over them. Next the priests who are present come forward and lay both their hands on the head of each candidate.

Priests lay their hands

Priests lay their hands

The act of the priests taking part in the ceremony of laying-on of hands is perhaps a relic of the time when more than one bishop took part in the ordination of priests, and each bishop present imposed hands on the ordinands. The present ceremony of the priests, imposing hands has no other purpose than to make more forceful the outward sign of power being conferred through this kind of action.

The new priests join the archbishop at the altar

The new priests join the archbishop at the altar


Wearing the priestly uniform

Wearing the priestly uniform

I live in a town of less than 2,000 people, and I’m the only minister of religion in residence. Not long after I arrived, I was invited to speak and bless the town’s Carols by Candlelight, and in the time since I have presided at several funerals which the whole town attended. Chances are, if I walked down the street right now, people would know who I am even if I wasn’t wearing a priestly collar.

Nonetheless, since I was ordained a deacon in 2010, I have worn the collar every day. There’s maybe four or five days when I have not worn it, when I was on holidays and wearing it was impractical — bush walking for example, or mountain biking. But generally I’m ‘in uniform’ seven days a week, even on my day off. Apart from anything else, it’s a reminder to me that a priest is not his own. I’m called to serve others at the Lord’s convenience, not mine.

After five years of wearing the uniform, it’s not something I’m very conscious of. If it attracts the stares of strangers, I’m oblivious. There are occasions when strangers have spontaneously struck up conversation, either about the Church or about God. And once I was called upon to minister the sacraments. Good! That’s why I make myself identifiable. But honestly, I forget my uniform makes me sometimes stand out.

Reading this article, then, was as surprising as it was bemusing: What happened when I dressed like a priest. The author — a journalist — conducted an experiment, noting strangers’ first reactions to the uniforms he donned.

I bought four uniforms, modified them using the advice of people who wear them for real, and wore each one for a full day to test the reaction. A priest, a security guard, a mechanic, and a doctor. I stitched my name on—first, last, or both when appropriate. But I didn’t forge a thing. No fake lanyards, no ID cards, no crucifix, no rosary in hand. The idea wasn’t to trick people.


The author poses a fascinating question. How much do clothes maketh the man? Or, at least, how much do clothes influence the thoughts and behaviour of people around you? It’s telling that the headline and the bulk of his article focus on his experiences wearing a priest’s cassock or soutane. For myself, I only wear my soutane in the sanctuary and in the confessional, because the soutane isn’t customary street wear in Australia. (In this country, the custom is suit and clerical shirt, or suit and white shirt with lapel cross.) Still, I think the soutane and the collar elicit similar reactions. Reflecting on the article, I can verify its findings.

The author of this article concludes with a soutane-related quandary. I’ll let you in on a trade secret: a good soutane does have pockets (mine does), but every soutane at least has holes where the pockets should be, granting ready access to your wallet.

“It’s a tricky thing to wear in public. There are no pockets,” I said. “I have to hitch the whole thing up to get to my wallet.” I bent a little and started to demonstrate the issue, how I would have to hike up this giant skirt to retrieve five bucks for the valet. Both of them waved me off. “It looks kind of pervy, right?” I said. I asked them if they knew how a priest would have dealt with it.

Neither of them did. “There are some things only a priest would know,” one of them said.

They thought I must be an actor. I told them no. Eventually I asked about their faith, since they seemed to know a priest when they saw one. And when they didn’t.

They told me, too. I just listened. It seemed like what was called for.

Asperger’s from the inside

Asperger’s from the inside

Here’s a worthy cause to support. And it’s primarily about raising awareness, not money.

In solidarity with the everyday challenges of autism, my friend Paul is chopping off his dreadlocks after 15 years. In his case, that’s literally half a lifetime. I’d cue the proverbial drum roll, but there’s no need. Paul has created a YouTube clip which builds up the suspense beautifully.

Here’s his rationale:

It’s not hard to tell that I love my dreadlocks. I’ve had them for nearly 15 years and to this day I regularly get random compliments from strangers who love my hair too. The problem is I love them too much. So much that I’m terrified of losing them! That’s why I’ve had them for so long and that’s why I’ve decided to cut them off!!

3 months ago I discovered I have Aspergers Syndrome (sometimes referred to as high functioning autism). Since then I’ve come face to face with all the coping strategies I use to make sure you never know I’m struggling. It’s time to leave them behind and face the world without my mask.

Kids on the autism spectrum face hidden challenges every day. I am taking on this challenge in solidarity with them. They need inspiration, encouragement and support, just like me. It’s not easy. It may LOOK easy… but it’s NOT! It’s actually terrifying!! Even though the chop date is weeks away I can already feel my hands shaking as I type this.

My ‘I Can’ challenge is to cut my hair and leave behind my crutch, my gimmick, my safety blanket, along with the image and identity I’ve had for my entire adult life.

So please support me by sharing my story with your friends and helping to raise awareness for AWEgust of AWEtism and the I Can Network’s work enabling kids on the spectrum to achieve their dreams.

And here’s another video of Paul’s, which goes into fascinating detail, not only about the importance of one man’s dreadlocks, but also about the daily lived experience of Asperger’s Syndrome.

I am close to several people on the autism spectrum. No doubt you are too, whether you know it or not. You can learn more at Paul’s blog: Asperger’s from the inside.

If you would like to donate money, which funds the ICanNetwork for young people on the spectrum, visit awegust.everydayhero.com.

Ss John Fisher and Thomas More

Ss John Fisher and Thomas More

Today is the feast day of St John Fisher and St Thomas More. On this day in 1535, Bishop John Fisher was beheaded by order of King Henry VIII.

The newly elected Pope Paul III had named Fisher a cardinal exactly one month earlier. The move infuriated the king, who vowed that Fisher would never receive the red hat in England. He would send Fisher’s head to Rome instead.

The parallels with St John the Baptist are self-evident. Fisher was deliberately killed before the nativity of St John the Baptist on 24 June. But it so happens that 22 June — Fisher’s anniversary (and subsequent feast day) — is the feast day of St Alban, Britain’s proto-martyr!

Although cardinals are dressed in red to demonstrate their willingness to shed their blood for Christ, St John Fisher is one of very few cardinals martyr. I believe the ninth Archbishop of Sydney is his descendent. It would be fortuitous indeed, if Archbishop Fisher one day joins the college of cardinals — hopefully without sharing his ancestor’s heroic but regrettable fate!

Sir Thomas More was executed two weeks after Cardinal Fisher. More needs no introduction to readers of this blog. He is one of my dearest patron saints. I have an oil on canvas portrait of him in my lounge room:


This is one of several cherished items I inherited from Fr Des Byrne.

Tonight, to celebrate this great feast, I’m going to do watch a movie. That might not sound very exciting, but I really love movies, and the only time I watch them is on long flights. But I’m not watching just any old movie either. I recently offered Mass at Melbourne’s Fatima Centre, and I found in that book shop something very rare: a copy of Charlton Heston’s A Man For All Seasons.

I bought the DVD on the spot. I thought it was the find of the century at the time. I’ve been looking out for this movie for many years, and I’ve never located it. But a quick Google search tells me that it is available for free on YouTube. Uploaded last week.


At 2 and a half hours, this is a major time investment, but something worth considering:

As much as I look forward to finally watching Heston’s 1988 adaption, I suspect it cannot rival Zimmerman’s 1966 film. That movie is high in my top ten movies of all time. It is Fr Victor Feltes’s number one favourite, and he has created this short homage to it. “Neat things you never knew about Frank Zimmerman’s A Man For All Season.”

St John Fisher, pray for us.

St Thomas More, pray for us.

Happy feast day!

The shape of the confessional

The shape of the confessional

The Divine Mercy of our Lord – the feast, the image, and the devotion – is very important to me. It was pivotal to my return to sacramental confession.

Some people, I know, think the Divine Mercy image is kitsch, or worse. Maybe it isn’t great art, but that’s not really the point. Sacred art is not intended to evoke admiration; it is meant to evoke prayer. St Faustina was very distressed by the first portrait of the Divine Mercy, which she considered quite ugly. (It is!) But our Lord assuaged her concerns:

Not in the beauty of the colour, nor of the brush lies the greatness of this image, but in My grace.

In any event, I like the image very much, regardless of respective versions’ artistic merit. One of the ordination presents I most cherish is a large oil on canvas of the Divine Mercy, which was a gift from the Peart family. (Deacon Joel Peart is a serial commenter on this blog.)

Most years it is solemnly blessed on today’s Feast, though not this year. The painting is in Casterton, but my Mass schedule was elsewhere. The image is put to good use. It was originally in my study, but not long after arriving in Casterton, I restored the confessional to it intended use and hung it there: 

The first thing one sees when entering . . .

As you can see, penitents have two options before them. They can kneel at the prie-dieu, and maintain their anonymity, or they can sit face to face with the confessor.

Many people have expressed surprise at this choice, and advised me that the first option was abrogated by Vatican II. (The mythology surrounding that Council is remarkable!) Some of them were not only surprised, but delighted, when I assured them that the screen or curtain is allowed:

Can 964 §2. The conference of bishops is to establish norms regarding the confessional; it is to take care, however, that there are always confessionals with a fixed grate between the penitent and the confessor in an open place so that the faithful who wish to can use them freely.

Personally, I much prefer this option, both as penitent and as confessor. To my mind, this arrangement manifests the supernatural character of the sacrament. You’re not confessing your sins to a priest; you’re confessing them to Jesus. I often explain this rationale to people, so that they don’t think it is “secretive” to choose the screen, and so feel pressured to sit face to face.

I also acknowledge the rationale for the alternative arrangement, as I see it. I avoid value-laden language about “maturity,” because I see nothing “immature” about the screen. But I do appreciate that confession is sometimes an occasion for spiritual direction, which is facilitated by face to face dialogue.

Adults often assume that children prefer the face to face option, and that they are intimidated by confessionals. Wouldn’t an open space be better? I am always sensitive to this, and never presume, but my universal experience thus far is that children prefer the confessional, and the screen.

It’s not about the anonymity. Kids typically stick their head around the curtain and say, “Hi Fr John,” before they start. I can only guess they share my sense that kneeling and confessing without eye contact differentiates the sacrament, so that is more a prayer to God, and less a conversation with a neighbour.

The sacrament of reconciliation is intimidating, especially when you’re out of practice. But it’s also exhilarating. And liberating. I wish it was more widely practiced. And I thank God for the Divine Mercy feast and devotion – not only for its role in my own return to the sacrament, but also the return of so many others. I bet we beneficiaries number in the millions. Deo gratias.