“I am a sinner . . .”

“I am a sinner . . .”

It’s instructive, I think, how much Jesus objects to the self-righteous hypocrisy of the Pharisees. In today’s Gospel he enumerates many sins, but nothing raises his ire like the Pharisaical spirit.

When thieves, murderers, adulterers, cross the Lord’s path, they encounter his mercy. They are moved to contrition. But the moral superiority of the Pharisees elicits a very different response from Jesus, probably because it is impervious to mercy. I’m reminded of C. S. Lewis’ insightful warning:

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

Put that way, it’s easy to discern that the Pharisaical spirit is not exclusively religious. There are plenty of moralistic tyrants populating the secular sphere. A few contributors to the global warming and marriage equality debates come to mind.

Nonetheless, the Pharisaical spirit is especially odorous in the religious sphere. It caused the Pharisees to believe they were better than God. Literally. That sort of moral superiority is anathema to Christian discipleship.

Our Lord wants all his disciples, I think, to sincerely believe, and frequently recall, “I am a sinner.” But on its own, that’s not enough. The world abounds with sinners who proudly declare, “I am a sinner,” and extol their wickedness as a badge of honour. How many sins are used as attractive marketing techniques? How many vices have been redefined as virtue?

It’s true that this sort of shamelessness is a safeguard against the Pharisaical spirit, but like Pharisaism, it’s impervious to divine mercy, which means that it’s just as toxic. And yet the opposite of shamelessness — shame — is no less disastrous. Shamelessness and shame are both forms of pride. They are both egotistical. Shame is centered on the self: “I’m so ashamed of myself.” “What will people think of me?”

Shame prevents a person from publicly admitting guilt. Shame causes us to avoid the people we’ve offended. We delay seeking forgiveness. Shame discourages us, and we can wander far from God. Shame usually comes from our own ego, it can come from the evil one, but it never comes from the Holy Spirit. It’s never good to dialogue with shame.

Guilt, on the other hand, does come from the Holy Spirit. Where shame is focused on ourselves, guilt is focused on the wrong we’ve done. When we do something wrong, when we use our freedom selfishly, when we ignore or injure or demean God or ourselves or our neighbour, our conscience bothers us; we feel guilty. Thanks be to God! Guilt is a means to conversion; an impulse to seek forgiveness and make amends.

Guilt is good thing, which safeguards us from the proud spirits of Pharisaism, shamelessness, and shame. But more importantly, guilt makes us responsive to mercy, and grateful for it. A person with a healthy sense of guilt actively seeks divine mercy, and generously ministers mercy to others.

Put guilt and mercy together, I think, and you have a great recipe for humility and love. “I am a sinner,” the Lord wants us to say. But more than that: “I am a sinner, madly in love with God.”

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.

Vale Fr Jordan

Vale Fr Jordan

Father Gregory Jordan SJ has been, for many years, chaplain to the Latin Mass community in Brisbane. Yesterday morning he offered Mass for that community, as he does every Sunday morning, at Brisbane’s “Jesuit parish,” St Ignatius’ Church, Toowong.

Fr Jordan processing into church to offer Solemn Mass yesterday

As he was proclaiming the Gospel, Fr Jordan suffered a massive stroke and collapsed. Among the congregation there numbered four doctors, who rushed to his aid. In the meantime, the rest of the congregation knelt and prayed several rosaries for him. As he was carried by stretcher from the church into a waiting ambulance, the assembly stood in prayerful silence.

Over the next several hours, the number praying for Fr Jordan grew considerably, and extended far beyond the Toowong church. A text message first alerted me to Fr Jordan’s situation at 1pm. In a short time, my Facebook newsfeed was swamped with requests for prayers and updates. It was clear by now that Fr Jordan was dying. He turned 85 only last Tuesday, and his parishioners had planned a birthday party for him at 3pm yesterday afternoon. But it seemed a much greater celebration was planned for him elsewhere.

I met Fr Jordan when I was at university. He was instrumental in reviving and reforming Australia’s peak body of Catholic tertiary students — an effort I was heavily involved in. A confrere from those days remarked how sad she was that he was dying. “I knew Fr Jordan couldn’t go on forever… but… I think I kind of hoped he would!”

At that point though, I felt nothing but excitement. Fr Jordan was so evidently in love with God that I knew he must be relishing these moments. Very soon he would be face to face with the Lord himself. Only a short time later though, when news of his death was confirmed, I was overwhelmed with sadness. A selfish sadness, focused on my own loss. I suppose it’s analogous to that moment at the airport, when a dear friend or relative walks through customs and is lost from view. After that there’s only one’s personal loss to dwell on.

Although he lived in Brisbane, and I lived in Melbourne, Fr Jordan had a formative influence on me at university and in the seminary. The seminary enrolment process involves several interviews which explore a candidate’s view of the priesthood. I recall invoking Fr Jordan’s example of joy and piety, and his extraordinary preaching ability. I said I would like to preach as well as did, but doubted I could. I simply didn’t have his wit and erudition. I did not know then what I know now: the impact of Fr Jordan’s preaching did not derive from human talent. It was a manifestation of habitual prayer and intimacy with the Lord.

Seven years later, Fr Jordan graciously agreed to preach at my first Mass. I regret I remember little of that homily. His wit was on display of course. He drew laughter from his reference to the supposed rivalry between the Jesuits and Opus Dei. He spoke about the great strides in ecumenism, which would see a son of Ignatius preach at the first Mass of a son of Josemaría, or something like that.

He spoke too of the renaissance of Catholic faith and culture which was occurring on university campuses all over Australia. He credited me and my peers for that accomplishment, though it is in fact Fr Jordan who deserves all the credit. Typically, he preached ex tempore, so there was no copy of the text I could keep and re-read.


Fr Jordan laying hands at my priestly ordination


Concelebrating at my Mass of Thanksgiving the next day

I caught up with Fr Jordan earlier this month, at the ACCC Conference in Hobart. I was shocked at his physical decline. Nonetheless, he could still command the attention of an entire room. I sat at his table during dinner the first night. It was a large round table, which did not lend itself to conversation across its vast expanse. It was easier, and more natural, to limit conversation to those in one’s immediate vicinity. But when conversation turned to Pope Francis, other conversations stalled, and everyone strained to hear Fr Jordan’s opinions. He spoke as a brother Jesuit, and as an exorcist priest, but really it was his wisdom and holiness which gave his views authority.

For the same reasons, this hour long interview is well worth watching:

Fr Jordan’s last Mass on earth celebrated the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, in accordance with the liturgical calendar of the 1962 Roman Missal. But in the Maronite calendar, yesterday was the feast of St Charbel, whose death parallels Fr Jordan’s. Both suffered strokes while offering the Holy Sacrifice, dying “with their boots on.”

Meanwhile, according to the calendar of the 2002 Roman Missal, we yesterday celebrated the Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time. The readings were evocative of Good Shepherd Sunday, a pastoral motif which suits Fr Jordan very well. But the Gospel is especially pertinent. Having ministered far and wide, preaching the Word and exorcising demons,

“the apostles rejoined Jesus and told him all they had done and taught. Then he said to them, ‘You must come away to some lonely place all by yourselves and rest for a while.'”

And so it was.

Recquiescat in pace

Recquiescat in pace

Bishop Athanasius Schneider

Bishop Athanasius Schneider

It’s many years since I watched Michael Voris’ Vortex. Tuning in this week, I was startled by the changes.

For starters, as one might expect, Voris has perfected his craft. His delivery is pleasing, and stumbles are rare. But the production value of his videos has improved too, significantly. I can only assume that his audience, and hence his funding, have exponentially increased.

I blogged about Voris several years ago, when I still followed him with qualified alacrity. Back then I could appreciate that his polemical style, which is not my cup of tea, achieved some good for some people. Since then whatever enthusiasm I could muster has cooled completely. His crime, to my mind, is intellectual inconsistency. He does not hesitate to loudly and elaborately criticise prelates like Cardinal Dolan for ambiguous statements, but when Pope Francis has made comparable statements, he stays his criticism.

“The Pope,” Voris says, “is different.” We owe him our respect and filial obedience, and it is imprudent to criticise him publicly. Indeed. But what is good for the goose is good for the gander. Having discovered the value of prudence and charity, Voris should apologise for his previous record, and accord other prelates the same courtesy. That, or he should unleash on the pope what he unleashes on others. Consistency is not just important, I think. It is critical.

Nonetheless, this week I paid the $10 monthly subscription fee to ChurchMilitant.tv to view Voris’ recent interview with Bishop Athanasius Schneider. I met Bishop Schneider two weeks ago, when he addressed the ACCC conference in Hobart. He impressed me very much. Here is a man who is absolutely consistent in his ideas.

Bishop Schneider is an expert in the Church Fathers, and in many ways, he resembles one. He is a shepherd in the Church in Kazakhstan, which like the early Church is very small but deeply committed and radically counter-cultural. The population of Kazakhstan is 17 million: 70 per cent are Muslim, and less than one per cent are Catholic.

Like the Church Fathers, Bishop Schneider speaks plainly, and he is provocative. Unlike Michael Voris he is not polemical, and nor is he shrill. On the contrary, he is unfailingly serene. In Hobart Bishop Schneider struck me as a holy and prayerful man. There is a peace about him which can only be the fruit of prayer. Indeed, several times during the conference I sighted him sitting before the tabernacle, in conversation with the Lord.

Below is a recent episode of The Vortex which illustrates the contrast between Voris and Schneider. In his interview with Schneider, Voris raises the spectre of universalism, which is a devastating and prolific heresy. This is what Bishop Schneider is asked about, and this is what he comments on. But in his editorial, recorded later, Voris conflates universalism with the famous (notorious?) speculative hypothesis of Hans Urs von Balthasar, that we might hope all men are saved. That suggestion is daring (and in my view lacking), but it’s not universalism. The differences are nuanced, to be sure, but theology is nuanced. Truth is nuanced! Voris effectively implies that Schneider critiques Balthasar, when in fact he critiques something else. I don’t think this shows malice on Voris’ part, but certainly it shows sloppy thinking.

Complaints aside, this is a wonderful interview. Bishop Schneider is a man who deserves a wide hearing. His teaching is a compelling demonstration of veritas in caritate, well worth the $10 subscription fee. Let me add though: if you’re patient, you can watch it for free next month. (If I’d read the fine print earlier, I might have saved myself $10!)

One day retreat, Saturday 18 July

One day retreat, Saturday 18 July

Next Saturday the Dominican friars in Camberwell (Melbourne) are offering a one day retreat. The theme of the retreat is Knowing Jesus.

Fr Dominic Murphy OP, who is prior of the Camberwell community, will share a preached meditation on knowing Jesus through the sacraments. Br James Baxter OP, who was ordained a deacon last Saturday, will lead a meditation on knowing Jesus through the rosary.

The third preacher is a wild card. I’m neither a Dominican friar nor a Dominican tertiary, but I have been invited to share a preached meditation on knowing Jesus through the Scriptures.

In addition to the three preached meditations, participants will pray together at Mass, at Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer of the Church, and there are provisions for Eucharistic adoration, sacramental confessions, and solitude in the grounds at Nazareth House in Camberwell.

The cost is only $40, which includes lunch and refreshments. The day begins at 9am and concludes at 4pm. For more information email stdominicevents@hotmail.com, or call Fiona on 0402 474 074. Book online at trybooking.com. Bookings close on Friday.

A time of grace

A time of grace

Just thinking out aloud: something has shifted, I think, in the past few weeks. At a purely anecdotal level, I have encountered hostility where before there was indifference.

But I have also encountered a deeper yearning for Christ, sometimes from unexpected quarters. This is a time of grace.

The gospel reading in today’s Mass is fast becoming a critical gospel for our time.

Brother will betray brother to death, and the father his child; children will rise against their parents and have them put to death.

The idea that Jesus and his teachings are divisive is surprisingly remote from the popular view. Surprising to me, anyway.

Call me naive — I guess I am — but I have in the last few weeks been astonished by the number of Mass-going Catholics who have told me, in good faith, that the hierarchy is out of step with Christian teaching.

‘What would Jesus do?’, they ask. In answer to their own question, they sincerely reply that Jesus would celebrate gay marriage and congratulate Caitlyn Jenner. He may not agree with them, but still he would support and affirm them.

What on earth is going on here? In the first place, I’m guessing (?) that many Catholics, still, after all those Vatican II reforms, don’t read the Scriptures much, which means they don’t have a fully-fleshed view of Jesus. The Gospels present him as someone who is in fact quite provocative.


What wisdom isn’t reducible to memes?

In the second place, I’m guessing that in the absence of personal scriptural reading, the vacuum is filled by decades of Sunday Mass homilies which focus on niceness and tolerance while avoiding controversy and division. If I’m honest, I must confess I have contributed to this. It’s easy to affirm and comfort. It’s much harder to challenge in a way that is serene and encouraging. But that’s what the times call for.

Even more important, though, is that every disciple fosters their personal relationship with Jesus, nourished by frequent reading of the Gospels. As St Jerome so famously remarked, “ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ.”

Heaven and Hell

Heaven and Hell

From time to time secondary school students request my assistance in their research assignments. In the past, I have received questionnaires on euthanasia, abortion and homosexuality.

This week I received a questionnaire which surveys my views on Heaven and Hell. Of course, as much as possible I conform my views to the Church’s views, so I thought I’d share my answers here.

How do you define Heaven?

Heaven is the beatific vision, wherein we see God face to face. It’s the infinite satisfaction of the ultimate yearning, and the experience of perfect love.

How do you define Hell?

Hell is the complete absence of God, and the terrible triumph of ego. The Other is withdrawn completely, and one’s universe is reduced to self.

Hell is also eternal punishment for sin, or put another way, the natural and logical fruit of a life of egotism.

How do you define Purgatory?

This explanation of Purgatory comes from a wise Jesuit priest who was Spiritual Director in the seminary for many years.

We can imagine a great many people lining up at the Gates of Heaven on the morning of September 11, 2001. Among them were nearly 3,000 victims of terrorism, and 19 agents of terrorism. St Peter welcomes them all, and explains a few things.

“In Heaven, there are no half-measures. Every citizen of Heaven loves God with their whole heart, whole soul, whole mind and whole strength. And we love each other that way too. So who’s ready to enter?”

We can then imagine the victims contemplating the pain their premature deaths have caused their loved ones, and struggling to forgive and love their murderers. We can imagine the terrorists looking at their infidel victims, whom they hated and willingly killed in the name of Allah, and struggling to love them.

Until all these people can love as God loves, they are unable to enter Heaven. The time and effort it takes for them to get to that point is what Catholics call Purgatory.

To what extent is a belief in Heaven and Hell relevant to your life? Why?

Heaven is not only my ultimate personal objective, but also my professional objective. My job, as a Catholic priest, is to bring souls to Heaven.

Hell is relevant insofar as it’s the negative correlative to Heaven. I need to avoid Hell personally. And I need to deliver souls from Hell. But my focus is on Heaven, not Hell.

How does your belief in Heaven and/or Hell influence your values?

As much as possible, I value holiness and strive for it, and I teach others to do likewise. Holiness is good for us in this life and the next. Holiness makes the world a better place; it attracts people to oneself and more importantly it attracts them to Christ; and it opens oneself up to grace, by which souls are received into Heaven. Heaven cannot be earned of course. Heaven is grace — a gratuitous gift given by God, not earned by us.

As much as possible, I avoid sin, and I teach others to avoid sin. Not only to avoid sin, but to despise sin as the ultimate evil. There is nothing in the world we should really fear, except sin. Not harm, nor death; only sin.

How does your belief in Heaven and/or Hell influence your actions?

I try to examine my conscience every day, so I am alert to defects and vices, and any sins I might have committed in thought, word or deed. I make an act of contrition and ask God for the grace not to sin again.

I try to get to confession every week to confess my sins and receive absolution. The formal act of contrition which I use in confession contains a reference to Heaven and Hell:

“Oh my God, I repent with my whole heart of all my sins, and I detest them, because I have deserved the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell, but most of all because I have offended you in your infinite goodness . . .”

In the same way, I encourage Catholics to frequent sacramental confession and to never stop struggling against sin and towards holiness. The same goes for non-Catholics too of course, except for the bit about sacramental confession.

I have not ministered the rite of exorcism myself — that only occurs with case-by-case permission of the bishop — but I have assisted an exorcist priest in assessing cases. I have seen it with my own eyes: the demonic is real and dangerous. I take the occult very seriously, and I warn people against seances, Ouija boards, New Age practices, etc.

I often bless and exorcise holy water and blessed salt, and I encourage people to use these sacramentals liberally, whenever and wherever they feel oppressed by evil spirits. In this instance I’m not talking about ghosts or demons, but oppressive experiences like extreme envy, depression, lust, and obsessive/addictive behaviours. There is often a spiritual component to these afflictions, which demand a wholistic response, not an exclusively materialistic one.

Maybe the most significant action, though, is my prayer. I try to spend half an hour each morning and each evening sitting before the tabernacle. During these times I bring a book which I might read for a few minutes now and then, but mostly I just talk to the Lord about my day, about friends and associates, and about life in general. I also spend time listening. By that I mean I still my body and my mind, and focus on the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Sometimes I’m filled with understanding and spiritual consolations, most times nothing much occurs, and on occasion it’s a real battle to stay and pray. But I try to be faithful to these times of prayer, and I look forward to Heaven, when prayer will be as effortless and as satisfying as the best times spent with friends.

How much has your belief in Heaven changed throughout your life? If so, why did your belief change?

I remember a conversation I had in grade prep, driving home from school. I declared that in Heaven, we’ll never be short of Tim Tams, and we can eat them all the time. My tastes have changed a bit since then. I like St Brigid’s vison of a lake of beer:

I should like a great lake of beer to give to God.

I should like the angels of Heaven to be tippling there for all eternity.

I should like the men of Heaven to live with me, to dance and sing . . .

. . I should like Jesus to be there too.

I’d like the people of heaven to gather from all the parishes around.

I’d give a special welcome to the women,

the three Marys of great renown.

I’d sit with the men, the women of God,

There by the great lake of beer

We’d be drinking good health forever,

And every drop would be a prayer.

It’s very natural, I think, for us to mature in our understanding of Heaven. It’s much deeper than never-ending Tim Tams, white clouds and golden harps. As I spend time with our Lord every day, and grow more deeply in love with God, my vague imagining of Heaven deepens too. But at the end of the day, I’m with Paul on this one:

“So we read of, Things no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no human heart conceived, the welcome God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Cor 2:9)

How much has your belief in Hell changed throughout your life? If so, why did your belief change?

My belief in Hell has changed quite significantly. There was a time when I suspected that it was a mediaeval construct, something used to scare and exploit the credulous. But when I was 19 or 20, I took an intensive course in the Silva Method, which claims to unleash hidden powers of the mind by means of willpower and transcendental meditation. In a very short time I was receiving detailed and correct information about strangers from a “spiritual advisor” whom I assumed was a figment of my imagination, and I was also practising reiki.

My grandmother was very dubious, and gave me a book which links the Silva Method and other “mind-control” pseudosciences to the occult. I read the book, and took it to prayer, and I was soon convinced that my insights were not co-incidental, and the powers I used were not my own. For the first time in many years, I went to confession and requested deliverance and absolution. The priest was not only sceptical, but quite dogmatic in his rejection of my account, but that’s par for the course. Many priests take the view that hell and the devil are metaphorical , which is not faithful to the Catholic tradition.

Anyway, after this experience, I learnt more about my faith, and became a more committed and active Catholic. I fear Hell very much. That’s not to say I fear an angry and vengeful God. I don’t relate to Jesus that way at all — and it is Jesus who judges us, not our Heavenly Father. I put much faith in our Lord’s divine mercy, which diminishes any fear I might have in his divine justice. However, I still fear, very much, my own capacity to reject God. To turn away from the true and the good and the beautiful, for the sake of my own ego. I am a selfish and proud person. Many times in the past I have cut off my nose to spite my face. Some people sincerely wonder how anyone could possibly be in Hell. Not me. I can too easily imagine condemning myself, and stubbornly refusing the Lord’s entreaties.

Do you think that Heaven and Hell are relevant to Australians today? Why or why not?

I think Heaven and Hell are absolutely relevant to modern Australians because none of us are immortal, and within the next century or so, every one of us will have to choose our eternal destiny. Will it be Heaven? Or will it be Hell?

But I’d add that Heaven and Hell are irrelevant to modern Australians insofar as very few actually believe in one or even both. One of the devil’s greatest triumphs is the widespread disbelief in his existence, and Hell’s existence. Unbelief doesn’t make Heaven or Hell any less real, but it does diminish their relevance in people’s daily lives.