“A young priest’s first important decision: a beard or girlfriend?”

“A young priest’s first important decision: a beard or girlfriend?”

Sydney’s Catholic Weekly featured an article of mine this week, which I had entitled Fools and children speak the truth. The editor, who knows a lot more about attracting readers, changed the title to the above.

Ironically enough, the revised title was out of date the very day it was printed, since I shaved my beard yesterday. (I still have no intention of getting a girlfriend.)

Several months after ordination in 2011, I started my first permanent assignment just in time for the school year. My first official duty was to celebrate the Opening School Mass. Next day, the grade ones were invited to write a story about their weekend. One of the students wrote this:

“On Sunday, I went to church. I was running late. My dad and [my brother] came with me. I was very excited … We sang a song, then I listened to the boy who was talking.”

In the course of correcting her work, a teacher made some enquiries about this boy. Was he one of her classmates chatting during Mass? “No, I mean the boy up the front.”

You mean one of the altar servers? “No. The boy was dressed in Fr Paddy’s clothes.”

News travels fast in the country. By the end of that first week in the parish, the nickname had stuck. I was now ‘The Boy.’

I had also learned one of the most valuable lessons in life: “Fools and children speak the unvarnished truth.”

More recently, I had occasion to visit this student’s class — they’re grade threes by now — and speak to them about the Holy Spirit and the Church’s mission.

The lesson was formatted as an open Q&A, with me in the hot seat. I fielded many of the questions one expects in this situation: “Why did you want to be a priest?” “How long does it take to become a priest?” “Which footy team do you support?”

But there’s always a few curveballs lobbed in such circumstances, and one question especially struck me with its poignancy.

“Why are priests so kind?”

This question was asked by a nine year old who has encountered four priests in his life. There’s Fr Paddy, the parish priest; ‘old Fr John,’ who is a retired priest in residence; ‘young Fr John’ (otherwise known as ‘The Boy’); and Fr Mark,who is chaplain at the MSC secondary school next door. We three diocesans priests make every effort to be in the parish school every week, and the students frequent weekday masses.

So this child’s question — “why are priests so kind?” — was borne from the experience of priests who had only shown kindness to him, to the credit of those four priests I enumerated.

My own childhood view of priests was more complex. I esteemed the priests in my parish because I observed my parents listen attentively to them at Sunday Mass. But I admit I was dark on one priest: Fr George Pell.

Fr Pell was school chaplain when I was in grade prep, and I vividly remember a school mass at which he preached, and preached, and preached some more. Or so I thought at the time — a view I shared with my cousin, who was sitting next to me.

Unfortunately, our teacher caught me in the act, and not content with simply moving me some place else, she humiliated me some more back in the classroom, where I was singled out for bad behaviour. Being something of a goody-two-shoes (just ask my long-suffering brother!), I was not accustomed to such treatment. As hotly as my cheeks burned red, that incident burned into my memory. In my childish malevolence, I absolved myself and blamed Fr Pell’s loquaciousness for my humiliation.

Not long afterwards, Fr Pell was appointed rector of the seminary in Melbourne, so he ceased to be our school chaplain, and it was many years before I met him again. In the meantime though, he was denied any opportunity to demonstrate priestly kindness, so as a grade one at least, my view of priests was not as universally positive as this grade three’s.

Twenty-eight years later, none of this crossed my mind as I contemplated the question before me. “Why are priests so kind?” What did occur to me — and perhaps it occurred to every other adult in the room too — was the question’s correlative: “Why aren’t all priests kind?”

“A priest’s job,” I replied, “is to be just like Jesus Christ. Actually, that’s everyone’s job. We’re all called to be holy. God wants us all to be saints, and we do that by loving as Jesus loved. So if a priest is kind, he’s doing his job well. He’s acting just like Jesus, who was always kind.”

The grade threes and fours faithfully transcribed my answer, and apparently took it to heart. A few weeks later, I returned from my holidays sporting a beard.

The 3/4s whole-heartedly approved: “Jesus had a beard, and your job is to be just like Jesus, so you should keep the beard.”

The grade fives and sixes, however, who hadn’t had the benefit of my theological reflection, were more divided in their opinion of the beard. ‘Fools and children,’ you will remember, ‘speak the unvarnished truth.’ One grade five girl — who’s no fool (in all seriousness, she sometime startles me with her spiritual depth) — ventured her opinion.

“No offence Father John,” she said. No offence? I steeled myself.

“No offence Father John, but if you want to get a girlfriend, you have to shave the beard.”

Fools and children.

Guest Post: “I am so sorry.”

Guest Post: “I am so sorry.”

While I was in Adelaide, celebrating my dear friend Fr Michael Romeo’s ordination, Melbourne was hosting a chapter of the World Congress of Families.

My Facebook feed — and probably yours too, if you have one — was filled in recent weeks with often vicious and always misrepresentative attacks on the WCF, which isn’t as extreme as its opponents pretend it to be. Not that the “mainstream” media admit to that.

As objective reporting on the subject is apparently beyond the scope of Fairfax, News Limited and the ABC, I’m very happy to reproduce here a report on the conference from a long-time blog reader. Since she attended the congress and supports its aims, her report is subjective not objective — but I maintain it’s more representative of the truth than The Age’s effort.

I am so sorry.

So very sorry for you, the luminaries of the Church and Parliaments, state and federal, who know who you are.

So sorry for you, because you missed the World Congress of Families conference in Hallam on Saturday. You were all on the program to speak but you failed to be there.

But don’t worry.

The love, respect, admiration and loyalty we had stored up in our hearts, ready to pour out on you for showing us leadership, direction, protection and the assured influence of your respective offices, did not go to waste.

It was poured out like honey on those politicians and pastors and speakers who did turn up and who filled in at the last minute for those who left the vacancies. This is who did turn up and give us the benefit of their wisdom and expertise:

Dr David van Gend, Dr Mark Durie, Geraldine Roelink (director of pregnancy support agency Options Plus Care), John Morrissey, 90-year-old Dr Joseph Santamaria (brother of B.A.), the stunningly elegant Louise Kirk (How did you do it, Babette?), David Perrin, Warwick and Alison Marsh, Dr Larry Jacobs, Paul Hanrahan, Dr Angela Lanfranchi, Therese Martin and Cr Rosalie Crestani, Peter Stevens, Tanya O’Brien, thank you, thank you all.

To those who were missing: I didn’t miss you, because the conference was AMAZING in its solidarity between Catholics and Protestants of all stripes, in the admiration for experts who came to Melbourne at a couple of hours’ notice and gave presentations that this little usual afternoon Noddy lapped up.

Oh, the protestors? Our poor brothers and sisters, all 40 of them, clustered outside the gates trying to prevent us from getting in. Were these the thousands of monsters who threatened mayhem, to shut down businesses, perhaps even death to the VIPs who attended the conference?

If you who were missing only paid closer attention to the usual suspects of the opposition who turn up at every March for the Babies and pro-life conference, you would know they are but the wizened of Oz – tiny, disenfranchised, hurt and angry, making much noise, but to be pitied and prayed for. But never to be feared nor hated, nor judged nor condemned. They are the fallout of the culture of death.

So sorry for you who believed what you read in the newspapers.

And all power and kudos to Babette Francis, an 80-year-old grandmother and her venerable grandmother helpers, who endured threats, cancellations, lies, attacks by the lamestream media, financial loss and waste to convene the event and for not caving in to the rage and hatred of those who want the destruction of the family.

And to Catch the Fire minister Danny Nalliah who was shamefully and despicably blamed for the big wigs’ no-show, for giving the conference its home, promising not to cancel. Why was he blamed? Because he said God punished Victoria for removing all protection from unborn children in 2008 by sending the Black Saturday bushfires a few months later.

Can anyone prove to me that this statement was not true?

I could happily write pages on the event, on the palpable atmosphere of peace, happiness and unity at the congress, but it would fill volumes.

You could have been there.

You can obtain recordings of the conference speakers through the Endeavour Forum: babette@endeavourforum.org.au.

Ordination in Adelaide

Ordination in Adelaide

Adi Indra, a second year seminarian for the diocese of Sandhurst, has applied his considerable talents to the production of a short film promoting Corpus Christi College.

Having credited Adi, I don’t want to diminish the work of the priests and seminarians which collaborated with him. The result is an engaging and informative glimpse into seminary life.

One of the seminarians featured in the video is Rev Michael Romeo, whom Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson will ordain to the priesthood this Friday. Keep him especially in your prayers!

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin

Dublin’s Archbishop Diarmuid Martin made news earlier this month for his remarks about a young priest wary of ‘the Francis Effect.’ His words as reported — and the response from Ireland’s Association of Catholic Priests — were, I think, justly criticised.

To be fair, I haven’t read the Archbishop’s speech in full. It seems to me that his broader point about ideology was a good one, but his example was imprudent. Be that as it may, when Archbishop Martin speaks, I listen. His 2011 address at the University of Cambridge related to the state of the Church in Ireland, but it is equally applicable to the Church in Australia.

More recently, he shared a compelling vision of what the Church can become in the wake of the clergy abuse scandal:

The Church must not just be transformed into a place where children are safe.  It must also be transformed into a privileged place of healing for survivors. It must be transformed into a place where survivors, with all their reticence and with all their repeated anger towards the Church, can genuinely come to feel that the Church is a place where they will encounter healing.

Ireland co-hosted the 2014 Anglophone Conference in Rome, which brought together bishops from all over the world who shared best practice on how to respond to clerical abuse. I think Archbishop Martin’s introductory speech is worth reading in its entirety. Here’s another worthy extract:

The words of Jesus about leaving the ninety-nine to go out to find the one who is lost, refers also to our attitude to victims.   To some it might seem less than prudent to think that the Church would go out of its way to seek out even more victims and survivors.  There are those who say that that would only create more anguish and litigation and that it would be asking for trouble and would be more than a little ingenuous. The problem is that what Jesus says about leaving the ninety and going out after the one who is lost is in itself unreasonable and imprudent, but, like it or not, that it precisely what Jesus asks us to do.


Cardinal Burke

Cardinal Burke

Cardinal Burke arrived in Australia last night, and will attend several public functions during the next week.

Cardinal Burke, you probably already know, is Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, which makes him the Church’s chief canonist, after Pope Francis who is Supreme Legislator. In some ways, he could be likened to the Chief Justice of a nation’s highest court.

He is also a refreshingly outspoken prelate. You’ll never hear Cardinal Burke indulging in the beige and politically correct messaging that afflicts so many bishops. Just google “Cardinal Burke” if you doubt that.

He is primarily in Australia to address the World Congress of Families in Melbourne next Saturday. But as I said, he will also share his wisdom at several other functions in Sydney and Melbourne. I’ll meet him on Thursday, at an ACCC-sponsored event for priests.

Other notable events include:

  • Benediction at St Mary’s Cathedral. Followed by drinks in the Cathedral Crypt. 5:30pm, Tuesday 16 August.
  • Q & A at the University of Sydney. 12 noon, Wednesday 17 August.
  • Pontifical Mass in the Extraordinary Form at St Mary’s Cathedral. 7pm, Wednesday 17 August.
  • Theology at the Pub conversation at the Pumphouse Hotel in Melbourne. 6:30pm, Friday 20 August.
  • Pontifical Mass & Confirmation in the Extraordinary Form at Bl John Henry Newman Parish, North Caulfield. 10:30am, Sunday 22 August.

For more information on the Cardinal and his visit, go to Oriens.

You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my ecclesia

You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my ecclesia

The setting of today’s Gospel is like a cross between Lourdes and Las Vegas.

Caesarea Philippi is like Lourdes because there was a grotto and spring there, which was a place of pilgrimage. The Greeks built a pagan Temple dedicated to Pan at the grotto.

Caesarea Philippi is like Las Vegas because it was a place of outrageous excess. Immoral rituals occurred in the temple sanctuary. Sacrifices were thrown into the cave. If victims disappeared into the water, that was a sign that Pan had accepted the sacrifice. But if blood from the sacrifice turned the spring red, that was a sign of Pan’s displeasure.

For all these reasons, “Pan’s Grotto” was also known as “the Gates of Hell,” or a portal into the underworld.

So that’s the setting of today’s Gospel. Our Lord obviously planned this interaction with his disciples. “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” he asks. But he probably wasn’t very interested in the answer. That was just a lead in to his second question. “Who do you say I am?”

Peter gets it right! So Jesus then makes one of those divine calls which resonate down the ages — as significant as God’s covenant with Abraham, and His Law given to Moses.

“You are Peter and on this rock I will build my –”

We know how it finishes. Jesus doesn’t say, “I will build my Temple.” He doesn’t say, “I will build my Synagogue.” But in that same spirit, nor does he say, “I will build my Church.” In this instance, the English language betrays our Lord’s meaning.

What our Lord actually says is, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my ἐκκλησία.” “My gathering of people.” “My popular movement.”

It’s an important distinction. A growing movement has to grow and has to move. But the very human response is to build walls which contain that movement. So maybe there’s some psychological explanation to the English translation of ἐκκλησία. “Church” doubles as our Lord’s assembly, and the buildings in which they gather. Strictly speaking, an ἐκκλησία is a constant work in progress, but a church is a finished structure.

This contrast was underlined at an Evangelisation conference I’ve just returned from. The whole focus of the conference was on the parish. How to inspire the churched. How to attract the unchurched. How to rebuild our Lord’s popular movement.

The conference was attended by 500 people from all over the country. Nearly ten per cent of those people came from parishes in the Ballarat diocese. This is a huge investment of people, time and money from a small diocese.

This week’s conference showed how we can arrest the Church’s decline, and get the movement growing again. In the weeks and months ahead, you’ll hear how we can do this at a parish level. You and I need only look around this church to see one symptom of the decline. There’s lots of empty pews.

We can look at our own families and see something similar. There we find people whom we love, people whom Our Lord loves, people who love our Lord, but they’re not going to Mass. It’s discouraging. It’s disheartening. It can foster something like the Church’s decline in our own hearts.

But today’s Gospel reminds us that the Church Jesus built isn’t about walls and structures. It’s a popular movement. A work in progress. And the gates of the underworld can never hold out against it.

How to evangelise effectively

How to evangelise effectively

By all accounts, the Catholic Voices workshop was one of the standouts of yesterday’s Proclaim Conference. I was not there myself — there were lots of great workshops, which I’ll blog about in future — but a good number of Ballarat delegates attended, and they were impressed.

The workshop’s title — ‘How to explain your faith without raising your voice’ — tells you everything you need to know about its contents, and derives from a similarly-titled book by Austen Ivereigh, co-founder of Catholic Voices in the UK.

The good news is that similar workshops are now available for schools and parish groups. At present, CVA has not expanded beyond its base in Victoria, so the workshops are advertised for parishes in Melbourne and schools in Victoria. However, I’m sure the team will field enquiries from schools and parishes further afield.

Catholic Voices has produced a simple brochure which describes the workshop:

I think the feedback from a participant in Chelsea sums it up:

“When Catholic Voices came to our group I didn’t know what to expect. I was so inspired by this professional and practical presentation. It is our responsibility to evangelise our families, our friends and the people we meet. Catholic Voices has given me the tools to do this with compassion, joy and love. This way of speaking is in line with Pope Francis’ call for every Catholic to be a witness. This presentation must be given in all parishes and groups!”