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 Christmas Novena

The Christmas Novena

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In the words of the Australian Ordo, “the Christmas novena begins today. At this point, the Advent focus shifts to the Christmas story and the Virgin Mary. These days serve to prepare more directly for the Lord’s birth.”

There are many excellent way to prayerfully observe ‘the pointy end of Advent.’

O antiphons

You might pray with each day’s ‘O antiphon,’ for example. Fr Z has excellent reflections on these ancient prayers of the Christmas novena. Why not pray with the Church? Chant each day’s ‘O antiphon’ — in isolation, or with the Magnificat, or in its proper context in the daily office of Vespers.

Devotional prayers

Perhaps you’d prefer a devotional novena. EWTN has a nice one. The O antiphons are liturgical prayer, which makes them official and public — a corporate act of the whole Church, on earth and in Heaven. In contrast, EWTN’s novena is private, which in the eyes of many means inferior or deficient. Don’t buy into that. Remember the counsel of the saints: “pray as you can, not as you ought.”

A good confession and daily communion

Of all the excellent ways to keep the Christmas novena, I think this one is the most excellent. It’s no coincidence that Jesus was born in Beth-lehem — “house of bread” — and laid in a manger: a structure used to hold food!

God so desires our trust and intimacy, that when he assumed flesh, he first came to us a newborn baby. How can anyone be wary of, or fearful of, a baby? In the same way, he approaches us under the form of bread and wine, risking the indignity of profanation so that he might have communion with us.

There is no better way to prepare for the Lord’s nativity, I think, than to make a good confession and receive him in the Eucharist each day. There should be no aspect of our life wherein we echo Bethlehem’s inn keepers: “Sorry Lord, there’s no room for you there.” Make the room — invite him into every aspect of your life, including the broken and sinful aspects. Name it to the priest, and permit the Lord to recreate you:

If it’s not possible to make a sacramental communion each day, make a spiritual communion instead. Make the effort to visit a church, and pray before the tabernacle. Offer up any inconvenience this causes in lieu of the holy Sacrifice of the Mass you’re unable to attend.

And make your communion, sacramental or spiritual, in the spirit of Advent. Prepare for the Lord’s arrival. Make room for him.

I wish my Lord to receive you, with the purity, humility, and devotion with which your most holy mother received you; with the spirit and fervour of the saints.

Keep Christ in Christmas

Keep Christ in Christmas

If your Christmas Day celebrations are dominated by food and presents, you might like to introduce this Nativity story-telling to your family rituals. It is a fun and attractive way to be mindful of the birth of Jesus.

I devised this ‘Australian recipe’ last year, hewing as closely as possible to the Gospel accounts of our Lord’s nativity. It has proven to be very popular in my parishes, not to mention in my own family.

The Story of the First Christmas, told with Chocolate!


All listed chocolates are available in Australian supermarkets. Overseas readers might need to adapt this. (Here’s the UK original.)

  • Boost
  • Bounty
  • Chomp
  • Cadbury’s Dairy Milk
  • Crunchie
  • Dream
  • Flake
  • Furry Friends
  • Kinder Surprise
  • Mars Bar
  • Milky Way
  • Picnic
  • Rocky Road
  • Smarties
  • Time Out
  • Turkish Delight
  • Twirl
  • Twix


1. Download and print The Story of the First Christmas told with Chocolate.

2. Narrate the script and hold up each chocolate as it is mentioned in the story.

That’s it! A guaranteed crowd pleaser, which also keeps Christ in Christmas. There are many adaptions to the method which make it more interactive. Here’s a few examples:

  • Gifts for the King. As the story is narrated and each chocolate is named, it’s placed before the manger. This is a nice reminder that just as the Magi presented gifts for the newborn King, so can we. (Not so much chocolate as acts of kindness, works of mercy, small mortifications.)
  • Fill the gap. The chocolates are piled in the centre, and as the story is told, the narrator pauses at the naming of each chocolate. Whoever correctly identifies the chocolate wins that item.
  • Links in a chain. The story is divided into small portions of text, each extract printed on an individual card, and placed in a numbered bag or box with an assigned chocolate. As each person reads their text, which ends just before a chocolate is named, the next person opens their bag to find the unnamed chocolate, and the next part of the story. People can try guessing which chocolate comes next.
  • Treasure hunt. The chocolates are hidden in the garden. As the story is narrated, children have to correctly fill in the gap, and then be the first to find the chocolate. (This is maybe not so good in a heat wave!)
  • Pass the parcel. As the story is narrated, people constantly pass a wrapped parcel around the room. When the narrator pauses at the name of a chocolate, whomever is holding the parcel unwraps a layer and finds the chocolate which fits that part of the story.

This year, my nephews have opted for the pass-the-parcel method. We’ll see how it works out. Merry Christmas!

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.”

The day I drank poison and developed spidey sense

The day I drank poison and developed spidey sense

So I drank some toxic lamp oil on Saturday. The oil was mistaken for water, and I drank it while purifying the chalice at Mass. My weekend wasn’t pleasant, but I’m totally recovered now.

The chapel in the house I’m staying at eschews wax candles. Instead, the altar is adorned with oil lamps made to look like candles. That probably sounds weird, but it looks fine:


“I can’t believe it’s not a candle!” Right?

I like these oil lamps pretending to be candles. They’re a neat and elegant solution to wax spills and wastage.

Now here’s a picture of the oil used to fuel the lamps:


If you smelled this, you’d smell nothing

This oil is clear, it is odourless, and its viscosity is similar to water. In other words, it looks and smells like water. At Mass on Saturday morning, one of the cruets was mistakenly filled with lamp oil instead of water. I purified the chalice immediately after communion, first with wine, and then with the lamp oil. It was only after I had swallowed the oil that I realised.

I went straight from the altar to the bathroom to rinse my mouth out with water. And then I did a very foolish thing. I returned to the chapel for ten minutes of thanksgiving. In other words, I resumed my normal routine.

Me praying my Thanksgiving after Saturday's Mass. (Recreated. May be slightly dramatised.)

Me praying my Thanksgiving after Saturday’s Mass. (Recreated. May be dramatised.)

Office workers at New York’s World Trade Centre who survived the collapse of the twin towers on September 11 fled the buildings as soon as the first plane hit. They were bewildered that co-workers carried on as normal, some making phone calls, others walking into meetings. But under such circumstances, head-in-the-sand behaviour is surprisingly common:

Research has shown that, when a fire alarm rings, people do not act immediately. They talk to each other, and they try to work out what is going on. They stand around.

I read that quote years ago, and memorised it. It startled me. It took no effort at all, to recall the article from which it comes: The Fire Alarm is Ringing. What Are You Waiting For? And yet, when the proverbial fire alarm sounded on Saturday, I stood around. I felt fine, admittedly. But still, I had ingested poison, and then I resumed my routine. (You have permission to yell at me.)


Thank you. Your feedback is noted. Please stop yelling now.

Finally, when I had finished praying, a full fifteen minutes after I swallowed the oil, I returned to the sacristy and inspected the label. It warns:

“HARMFUL OR FATAL IF SWALLOWED. If swallowed, call a Poison Control Centre or physician immediately. DO NOT INDUCE VOMITING.”

A call to the Poison Information Centre was reassuring. Fatality arises when the oil enters yours lungs, which happens if the oil goes down the wrong way, or if one aspirates during vomiting. In my case, I had sculled the oil in one gulp, without coughing or spluttering, and so the poison was localised to my gut. In there it’s painful, but there’s no long-term harm.

Hopefully, next time I will remember the lesson of September 11. When faced with unexpected danger, break routine. Don’t be an ostrich. Keep your head out of the sand and react immediately.

But apart from that lesson, the poisoning episode has also given me a new talent: I can now smell odourless lamp oil! I remember the taste of the oil vividly. In the immediate moment, the taste was not unpleasant. Yet when I recall the taste now, nausea overwhelms me and my stomach aches. Yuck.

Because I know the taste, I can smell the oil! It is subtle. Very subtle. But where others smell nothing, and so still mistake the oil for water, I smell the oil. I’m all over the proverbial Pepsi challenge. Point unscented lamp oil in my direction, and I will dry retch every time!

I see this as a positive development. My very own spidey sense, by which I can always avert repeat accidents. I’m virtually like Spider-Man. But actually, I think I’ll answer to Iron-Gut from now on.

“Good morning Fr John.”

“Oh, there’s no need for that. Call me Iron-Gut Corrigan.” 😉

Recommended movie

So I’m on my annual course this week and next, which mostly consists of study. We’re studying Amoris Laetitia by Pope Francis, and doing some always useful revision of the Catechism and moral and pastoral theology.

But the annual course isn’t all work. There’s a few sight-seeing trips, and an occasional movie. I don’t watch many movies — the annual course and long haul flights is it, generally. I think this makes me more discerning, and demanding, than less. I used to persevere with average movies (— and mediocre books, and bad wine —) until the bitter end, but now I walk away much sooner. Life’s too short for bad wine. And the rest.

Hence I’m very confident that anyone who heeds my advice on this occasion will not be disappointed. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a great movie. It’s laugh out loud funny and fast paced. It evokes a sort of Harry Potter universe, wherein the kids are responsible and the adults are insane. But it’s not fantastical — it’s mostly observational humour, and occasionally absurdist.

It’s also unmistakably Kiwi. Anyone who liked Seven Periods with Mr Gormsby will love Hunt for the Wilderpeople. It’s much more family friendly than Gormsby, which is also a big plus. Rotten Tomatoes gives this one a very fresh score of 98 per cent. It is a very safe DVD purchase. I guarantee you’ll love it.

And — refreshingly — the trailer is very true to the movie. So here’s a useful preview.

Is the Trump train derailed?

Is the Trump train derailed?

One thing’s for sure: the 2016 US Presidential election has ruined my interest in future campaigns. Other election cycles will never be as interesting as this one.

In the meantime, though, I can enjoy reading and thinking about what’s left of this campaign. Scott Adam’s prophecy of a landslide victory to Donald Trump may not come to pass. If the lewd hot mic video in the present media cycle isn’t enough to kill Trump’s candidacy, the release of similar tapes may finish it.

Or maybe this is a storm in a teacup, which won’t impact voters who have already made up their minds. All will be revealed soon — on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, when Americans vote.

Here are my thoughts.

1. The video should surprise nobody

What Trump says in that video is gross and indefensible, but none of it is surprising. Everyone knew already that Trump is a womaniser and an adulterer. His sexual immorality is notorious, and so is his crass language. As soon as I watched the video, I recalled an article published ten months ago, wherein Trump is quoted saying something similar:

About 15 years ago, I said something nasty on CNN about Donald Trump’s hair. I can’t now remember the context, assuming there was one. In any case, Trump saw it and left a message the next day.

The quoted message, like the hot mic video, is lewd. Follow the link at your discretion.

Many people are offended by Trump’s personal values and sexual behaviour. I’m one of them. But his values and behaviour isn’t news. Trump has been a playboy since, forever. The hot mic video doesn’t bring anything new to the table. I doubt this will sway Christian voters who were already holding their nose to vote for him anyway.

That ten-month-old column makes the point well:

You read surveys that indicate the majority of Christian conservatives support Trump, and then you see the video: Trump on stage with pastors, looking pained as they pray over him, misidentifying key books in the New Testament, and in general doing a ludicrous imitation of a faithful Christian, the least holy roller ever. You wonder as you watch this: How could they be that dumb? He’s so obviously faking it.

They know that already. I doubt there are many Christian voters who think Trump could recite the Nicene Creed, or even identify it. Evangelicals have given up trying to elect one of their own. What they’re looking for is a bodyguard, someone to shield them from mounting (and real) threats to their freedom of speech and worship. Trump fits that role nicely, better in fact than many church-going Republicans. For eight years, there was a born-again in the White House. How’d that work out for Christians, here and in Iraq?

2. Much of the criticism is transparently opportunistic

I like Senator John McCain. I’ve followed his career since his presidential run in 1999, when he almost vanquished George W. Bush. I think he would have made a good president. But I think his recent conduct towards Trump is cynical and opportunistic.

The same goes for all those critics on the right, who initially endorsed Trump, only to rescind after the hot mic video was broadcast. If what Trump says on that video disqualifies his from office, then so does his myriad of public affairs and serial divorces. If Trump’s character is a problem to them, McCain and the others had no business endorsing Trump in the first place. They were either insincere in the first instance, or insincere in the second. Or, most likely, they were insincere both times.

Trump’s critics on the left, meanwhile, are hypocritical. The progressives who insist Trump’s private vices have disqualified him from public office, have previously insisted that Bill Clinton’s private vices had no bearing on his public office. But even more galling is the progressives’ pretence at offence, when most of them are moral relativists. Here’s a well-reasoned article which calls out the double standards:

For years, Christians in particular have been attacked and silenced as they’ve tried to challenge the immorality that is pervasive in today’s society. When they tell people casual sex is wrong, they get the inevitable, “You have no right to tell me what I can or can’t do.” If they oppose sexual immorality in any form, including adultery, they’re maligned as sanctimonious puritans by lovers of libertinism.

Those who are complaining about Trump today have no basis for their moral outrage. That’s because their secular amoral worldview rejects any basis for that moral judgment. Any argument they make against the “immorality” of Trump is stolen, or at least borrowed for expediency, from a religious worldview they have soundly rejected.

The faux outrage of the unapologetic architects of our cultural decline is almost enough, in itself, to compel a vote for Trump. If I could vote. Nonetheless:

3. #NeverTrumpers deserve an honourable mention

A month ago, another priest and I debated the merits of Trump’s candidacy. I think, if I was American, I would probably vote for Trump. My friend could not countenance voting for him, because Trump’s character flaws are disqualifying.

I see his point. It’s one shared by Aristotle and St Thomas Aquinas, who insisted that only the most virtuous should lead the polis. Many #NeverTrumper conservatives have invoked this rationale for their position.

Joshua Mitchell put it well (again, last month, well before the hot mic video), in an excellent survey of the intellectual currents informing this year’s election campaigns. He called it ‘The Aristotle Problem’:

One can say that Trump has revealed what can be called The Aristotle Problem in the Republican Party. Almost every cultural conservative with whom I have spoken recently loves Aristotle and hates Trump. That is because on Aristotelian grounds, Trump lacks character, moderation, propriety and magnanimity. He is, as they put it, “unfit to serve.” The sublime paradox is that Republican heirs of Aristotle refuse to vote for Trump, but will vote for Clinton and her politically left-ish ideas that, while very much adopted to the American political landscape, trace their roots to Marx and to Nietzsche. Amazingly, cultural conservatives who have long blamed Marx and Nietzsche (and German philosophy as a whole) for the decay of the modern world would now rather not vote for an American who expressly opposes Marx and Nietzsche’s ideas! In the battle between Athens, Berlin and, well, the borough of Queens, they prefer Athens first, Berlin second and Queens not at all. The Aristotle Problem shows why these two groups—the #NeverTrumpers and the current Republicans who will vote for Trump—will never be reconciled.

Kudos to the #NeverTrumpers, whose criticism of Trump is consistent, and depending on the election results, may well be vindicated.

The last word goes to Scott Adams, just because his blog posts and tweets have so enhanced my enjoyment of this very long election campaign. He’s good at one-liners:

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