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.
When unspeakable tragedy occurs — the sort of tragedy which now afflicts Phillip Walsh’s family — a natural question arises. Is God absent?
It’s not a bad question. By that I mean it’s not a sinful question. In fact the question arises quite often in the Bible, especially in the psalms. Our Lord was quoting from one of those psalms when he cried from the cross: Eli Eli lema sabachthani?
Is God absent? is a good question to ask — and now I mean an appropriate question to ask — when we find ourselves in the middle of affliction.
But when we are onlookers, I think it might be the wrong question. When we are bystanders to another person’s suffering, a better question, I think, is How can I make God present?
In some ways, that is a scandalous question, but ours is a scandalous religion. God repeatedly makes Himself vulnerable and dependent on creatures. The Scandal of the Incarnation. The Scandal of the Nativity. The Scandal of the Cross. The ongoing Scandal of the Eucharist.
This strange dependency of God, despite His omnipotency, is evident in a different way in this Sunday’s Gospel:
Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is only despised in his own country, among his own relations and in his own house’; and he could work no miracle there, though he cured a few sick people by laying his hands on them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.
No faith = no miracles. He will not work alone.
So, in the face of unspeakable suffering, when God is apparently absent, it falls to us to make Him present. Or more precisely, to make His presence known.
In the first place, this is achieved by intercessory prayer. We should not underestimate the power of the prayers we pray for others. Pope Francis likens it to “leaven” in the heart of the Trinity:
It is a way of penetrating the Father’s heart and discovering new dimensions which can shed light on concrete situations and change them. We can say that God’s heart is touched by our intercession, yet in reality he is always there first. What our intercession achieves is that his power, his love and his faithfulness are shown ever more clearly in the midst of the people.
Evangelii Gaudium, 283
And then, of course, God also expects us to act on His behalf. Christ has no hands, no feet on earth but yours, in the words of St Teresa of Avila.
In practical terms, that means that when a friend or acquaintance is afflicted by grief, we need to be present. Whether that takes the form of a visit or a phone call or a letter is a matter of discernment: prayerful dialogue with the Holy Spirit.
But we need to overcome the temptation to stay away. To give people space. To pay our respect from a distance.
We don’t need to formulate the right words. We don’t need to contrive the right emotional posture. We just need to be present. When we are present, with our prayers and with our affection, then we have an answer to that question. God is present insofar as we are present.
Last month, in the midst of my blogging interlude, I hit a kangaroo. Or, more precisely, a kangaroo hit me!
I have the photos to prove this version of events. As you can see, my car was damaged on the side. I can assure that I was driving forward, not having mastered the skill of crab-walk driving. So the kangaroo smashed into me, not vice versa:
Just a few days later I noted with interest that a dubious-looking kangaroo has been terrorising innocent citizens in Brisbane.
Speaking of B-grade Aussie horror movies, I came across this last week, when I was starting to despair that I would ever get my car back from the smash repairers. After watching this, I was thankful. My brush with Skippy could have been much worse!
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.
Today, and every day this week in fact, I am in Hobart. It’s several years since I was last in Tasmania.
I remember chewing on Fisherman’s Friends lozengers during my week in Tasmania, which I only do when I have a cold. And I distinctly remember that Pope Benedict published Summorum Pontificum, which liberalised use of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. That was on 7 July 2007. It’s funny the details one remembers.
Back then I was a seminarian, visiting schools to speak about vocations. This time, I’m attending the ACCC clergy conference. We begin in earnest tomorrow. I’m charged with the task of locating suitable local beverages which we will present as gifts to our speakers.
Tonight I prayed Evening Prayer in St Mary’s Cathedral. A beautiful crucifix is suspended over the altar, and it dominates the sanctuary. I took some photos with my iPhone, which don’t do it justice at all:
The crucifix was donated by the Harradine family, in memory of the late Senator Brian Harradine. Thanks to Facebook I tracked down an image of the crucifix during its restoration:
It looks like the crucifix has always belonged in the cathedral, and it’s hard to imagine how the place must have looked previously. It’s a beautiful addition.
Nonetheless, I remember a furore erupting on Facebook prior to its installation. Some parishioners felt that St Mary’s was their church before it was the bishop’s cathedral, and they objected to the bishop’s unilateral decision to accept the donation and install the crucifix so prominently. It was a spurious complaint really, but Archbishop Porteous was sensitive to his people’s grievances, and met with them to explain his rationale and hear them out. I believe everything was resolved quickly and amicably. A good pastoral example to follow, that.
This year’s ACCC conference promises to be excellent. We have a world class keynote speaker in Bishop Athanasius Schneider, who will share his expertise on the Church Fathers. Other speakers include Archbishop Porteous, who will speak on “the Kerygma as the gateway to holiness,” and Alex Sidhu, an old university friend of mine, who will speak on “the ‘holiness’ of the State.”
All conference proceedings will be published in the ACCC journal, The Priest, of which I am editor. The journal is sent to all clergy members and lay associates of the Confraternity, and joining is not expensive. It’s worth considering.
The Priest is a great journal. Worth reading. Even if I do say so myself. Just to prove my point, here is an article pulled from the present issue, which was published earlier this month. It’s an encouraging account of good priestly work occurring in the great city of Ballarat.
This morning at Mass, I distributed the Australian bishops’ recent pastoral letter on marriage. Despite its assertive title — Don’t Mess With Marriage — it is a very mild document.
The document presents a case for traditional marriage which seeks to be as inoffensive as possible. By this measure, the document has failed. Here’s a few headlines to prove it:
- Anti-same-sex marriage booklet sent to Catholic schools ‘degrades’ gay students
- Catholic Church “desperate” after handing out anti-gay marriage booklets to children: Brisbane priest
- Penrith Catholic students burn ‘anti-gay’ booklets
- Don’t Mess With Marriage booklet could breach Anti-Discrimination Act
The supreme irony in this is that the document nowhere refers to the Church’s “most offensive” (read, most counter-cultural) moral teachings. No mention of the grave immorality of homosexual acts. No mention of objectively disordered inclinations. These teachings constitute the elephant in the room.
I spoke to a priest last week who was quite animated in his defence of traditional marriage. “Marriage can only occur between a man and a woman. If a same-sex couple came to me, I’d be very happy to bless them. I’d pray that they find God in their love for each other, and goodness in their life together. But it’s not marriage.”
Right. It’s not marriage. But what that priest said isn’t Catholic teaching either. A gravely immoral relationship can’t be blessed. This priest’s position is incompatible with the Catholic moral tradition. But it’s not incompatible with Don’t Mess With Marriage. I don’t wish to suggest that the bishops’ pastoral letter condones same sex relationships. That’s a logical leap too far. But certainly, the letter is ambiguous. It fails to present the full Catholic teaching on the subject.
For this reason, I also distributed to parishioners a much more comprehensive document. In 2003, Pope John Paul II approved the CDF’s Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons. The title is much longer than the Australian bishops’ letter, but the document itself is much shorter. It’s also much more “offensive” — in that it doesn’t mince words and includes very direct exhortations.
Sacred Scripture condemns homosexual acts “as a serious depravity… (cf. Rom 1:24-27; 1 Cor 6:10; 1 Tim 1:10). This judgment of Scripture does not of course permit us to conclude that all those who suffer from this anomaly are personally responsible for it, but it does attest to the fact that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” This same moral judgment is found in many Christian writers of the first centuries and is unanimously accepted by Catholic Tradition.
When legislation in favour of the recognition of homosexual unions is proposed for the first time in a legislative assembly, the Catholic law-maker has a moral duty to express his opposition clearly and publicly and to vote against it. To vote in favour of a law so harmful to the common good is gravely immoral.
Here we have language which is deeply provocative, and I can understand why it wasn’t used in the Australian bishops’ pastoral letter. The bishops want to teach and edify. They don’t want to offend.
But here’s the thing. Catholic teaching on homosexuality is offensive to a growing proportion of the population. We only have to review those headlines above to confirm it. As disciples of Jesus Christ, Catholics need to be comfortable with this. Our Lord, who of course excelled at speaking the truth with love, wasn’t very nice. He offended people left, right and centre. Why should things be different for us?
The furore caused by Don’t Mess With Marriage despite its mild presentation, suggests to me that we may as well be direct and avoid ambiguity. Hence my recommendation to parishioners to take and read both the bishops’ letter, and the CDF’s Considerations.
Many times in the last few years, I have heard bishops and cardinals call for a review of the language the Church uses. To cite a recent example, consider Cardinal Diarmuid Martin’s response to Ireland’s gay marriage yes vote:
“It’s very clear that if this referendum is an affirmation of the views of young people, then the Church has a huge task in front of it to find the language to be able to talk to and to get its message across to young people, not just on this issue, but in general.”
I think this is dead wrong. It’s also a bit patronising. “Marriage equality” activists aren’t offended by the language of Catholic moral teaching. They’re offended by the content. The Church has never waged a petty war of words. The Church is engaged in the noble battle of ideas.
Put another way, the “messaging remedy” is not semantic. The remedy is something which was banished from the Church’s seminaries and universities and schools 50 years ago, at great cost. The remedy is apologetics.
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.