Congratulations Aisling

Congratulations Aisling

Sibling weddings are great. I hope this is the first of many. Within reason of course. Hopefully no more than one each, by the grace of God.

But when you’re one of nine, that still adds up to a lot of weddings!

Aisling and Benn: just married

Aisling and Benn: just married

Cutting the cake

Cutting the cake

Family photo

Family photo

 

The power of speech

The power of speech

Two weeks ago, Pope Francis inaugurated a “Festival of Forgiveness,” which he hopes becomes an annual Lenten fixture all over the world.

The initiative includes a 24 hour vigil, wherein churches remain open, and confession is continuously available, for a 24 hour period. The Pope celebrated a Second Rite of Penance and Reconciliation in St Peter’s Basilica, and heard confessions himself for an hour. There is nothing radical in this. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict both heard the confessions of lay faithful in Lent and at World Youth Days.

However, the following footage shows something unprecedented:

To my knowledge, no pope has ever gone to confession in public. But it’s no great surprise that Francis should be the first to do this. Not only because he is a master of startling but simple gestures, but because he is devoted to sacramental confession, and so eager to promote it. He has spoken more about this sacrament than any other. (Just last month, a journalist asked him for a self-assessment of his papacy. Francis declined: “I do that every fifteen days — but only with my confessor.”)

Last Sunday’s Gospel — the raising of Lazarus — is laden with symbols relating to this sacrament. The Church Fathers excelled at reading spiritual meaning into the Scriptures, without in any way rejecting the literal historical meaning. St Augustine suggests the death of Lazarus symbolises our own death. Not in the sense of illness and physical death, but in the sense of sin and spiritual death. This sort of death is very subtle, because it is disguised as life: having eyes but not seeing; having ears but not hearing; having a heart but not loving. Spiritual death is also very gradual: a slow enslavement to bad habits; a slow deadening of the conscience; a slow distancing from others.

Augustine sees in the stone sealing Lazarus’ tomb the addictions and desires which enslave us, denying us freedom. The tomb itself is the darkness which blinds us to God’s presence in our lives, in strangers and friends, and in ourselves. And perhaps most compellingly, he likens the bandages binding Lazarus to the shame and discouragement and fear which hampers our conversion. This is what us stops us from praying after we fall into sin. It stops us from “starting again” with simplicity and optimism. And it stops us from going to confession.

I think it’s very telling that the Sunday Gospel before this one had our Lord healing a blind man by spitting into the dust and creating an ointment. Jesus could have healed the man by a simple act of the will, but instead he made use of physical symbols, in a way very evocative of the sacraments he has bequeathed us.

In the case of Lazarus, our Lord again does something which isn’t necessary, except for the edification of onlookers. This time, he looks up to Heaven and prays aloud. Then he shouts at Lazarus to come out. He needn’t have done this. Again, he could have performed the miracle by an invisible and instantaneous act of the will. But instead he employs speech, and explains his actions:

I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.

Jn 11:42

Words matter. Confessing our sins — naming them aloud — matters. Similarly the words of absolution, spoken by the priest but really pronounced by our Lord himself, matter.

The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, St Augustine counsels, rolls away the stone, banishes the darkness, and unbinds us. “When we live with sin, we lie in the arms of death . . . But when we confess, we come forth.”

Liberal v. progressive

Liberal v. progressive

Andrew Sullivan has an interesting post this week. Sullivan, for those who don’t know, is one of one of the grandfathers of blogging, launching The Dish back in 2000.

He is also one of the grandfathers of the gay marriage movement, and it is on this subject that he is most interesting. Sullivan has discerned two “core narratives” shaping the debate over gay marriage in America. Apart from the obvious conservative-progressive dichotomy, there is also a liberal-progressive dichotomy. (Did I mention Sullivan is English? That’s probably important. I don’t think Americans, whose understanding of liberalism is a little parochial, would have coined this argument.)

Here’s Jon Lovett making a fundamentally liberal point:

The trouble, I think, is when ostracizing a viewpoint as “beyond the pale” becomes not an end but a means to an end; that by declaring something unsayable, we make it so. It makes me uncomfortable, even as I see the value of it. I for one would love homophobia to fully make it on that list [of impermissible opinions], to get to the point where being against gay marriage is as vulgar and shameful as being against interracial marriage. But it isn’t. Maybe it will be. But it isn’t. And kicking a reality-show star off his reality show doesn’t make that less true. Win the argument; don’t declare the argument too offensive to be won. And that’s true whether it’s GLAAD making demands of A&E or the head of the Republican National Committee making demands of MSNBC.

The bottom line is, you don’t beat an idea by beating a person. You beat an idea by beating an idea.

Then there is another approach, in which creating a progressive culture in which some things are unsayable is the whole point of the exercise. Here’s a piece by J. Brian Lowder with that perspective. Money quote:

Tim Teeman wrote on Friday that “the ‘shame’ axis around homosexuality has positively shifted from those who are gay to those who are anti-gay.” He may be right about that, but speaking personally, I am not interested in shaming anyone; it would be enough for me if those people who are so ignorant or intransigent as to still be anti-gay in 2014 would simply shut up.

This is not a minor disagreement. It’s a profound one. One side wants to continue engaging the debate. The other wants one side to shut up.

For what it’s worth, Sullivan sides with the liberal approach. He wants to engage debate, rather than shut down debate. Read the whole post to find out why.

I don’t agree with Andrew Sullivan on many things, but I agree with him on this.

Fr Des Byrne, RIP

Fr Des Byrne, RIP

Father Des Byrne, a diamond jubilarian priest, died last night.

Kairos published a panygeric to him on the occasion of his sixtieth anniversary of priestly ordination two years ago.

He was parish priest of Oak Park for longer than I have been alive (33 years), but he is best remembered for the Confraternity of St Michael, a remarkable apostolate which formed a generation of young Catholic leaders in Melbourne.

By the time I moved to Melbourne it was winding up, so I had no direct involvement. (I started uni in 2000; Fr Byrne retired in 2002.) However, I quickly became familiar with the Confraternity, and with the name of Fr Byrne, because – or so it seemed – every orthodox Catholic under 40 had reaped its fruits.

I didn’t meet the man himself until I was in the seminary, and I quickly learned Fr Byrne possessed a forceful will, and an indifference to human respect. I guess these qualities are necessary in anyone who bucks the trend and defies the establishment.

In recent years, I saw him regularly, and he frequently expressed his desire to die. Not in a morbid and self-pitying way, but in a faithful and hopeful way. His energy was spent, and he desired the promises of Heaven more than the delights of earth.

It’s significant, I think – or apropos, anyway – that Fr Byrne died on the Vigil of the Fifth Sunday of Lent. Here we are, contemplating our Lord’s power over death, and the promise of our bodily resurrection. Moreover the raising of Lazarus is so rich in the symbolism of sacramental confession, that this is what I preached on this weekend. For a priest who was so dedicated to that sacrament, and who persuaded many others to love and frequent the sacrament as Fr Byrne did, I can think of no better tribute.

May his good deeds go with him, and may he rest in peace.

Exposing abortion secrets

Exposing abortion secrets

This year’s Lenten programme from the Brisbane Archdiocese is very good. Each week is focused on the Sunday gospel, and incorporates both a homiletical reflection, and a personal testimony.

This week’s testimony came from Melissa Ohden, who defied the odds and survived a saline abortion in 1977. It’s a remarkable story of endurance and healing.

As I listened then and pondered later, I concluded things have only gotten worse since 1977. In many parts of the world, survivors of abortion are refused medical care and deliberately left to die. Or they are actively murdered.

This tragedy — and scandal — has been on my mind all week, so the emergence of this fundraising appeal is very timely. A trio of journalists and film-makers have launched a crowd funding campaign to produce a TV movie documenting the crimes of Kermit Gosnell.

Dr. Kermit Gosnell is the most prolific serial killer in American History, but almost no one knows who he is… Gosnell is serving several life sentences but the media basically ignored his crimes and his trial.

It’s very encouraging that, in the United States at least, abortion on demand is perpetuated only under a cloud of misinformation and censorship. It suggests that the more the truth is told, the less people endorse the pro-‘choice’ policy agenda.

Visit gosnellmovie.com to assist this worthy cause.

The Wednesday audience

The Wednesday audience

This Sunday’s Gospel lends itself to the sacraments.

The fact that Our Lord could heal a blind man by an invisible act of the will, but instead spits onto the ground to create a muddy ointment speaks volumes about not only the sacraments, but also sacramentality and the Incarnation.

While researching my homily, I remembered Pope Francis’ currently unfolding catechesis on the sacraments.

Since Pope John XXIII (I think), the pope has addressed the crowds in St Peter’s Square every Wednesday morning, before leading them in the Angelus. I don’t know if John and his two immediate successors prepared systematic talks, or spoke on ad hoc subjects, in response to church feasts and current affairs. I do know that Pope John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI, and now Pope Francis, used their Wednesday addresses to expound on specific themes, creating discrete series which spanned months and even years.

Pope John Paul II obviously accrued a great many series in the Wednesday audiences he delivered over a twenty-six year pontificate. But his most notable Wednesday catechesis is undoubtedly his “Theology of the Body.” This series constitutes 129 addresses, delivered over five years, including interruptions. It derived from, and developed, university lectures Wojytla delivered, and a book he published, many years before becoming pope. (The catechesis is available in book form as Man and Woman He Created Them: a theology of the body.)

Pope Benedict’s most notable catechesis, I’d argue, is his series on the Church Fathers. This constitutes 52 audiences, delivered over two years, which blows out to 108 audiences over four years if one also includes Benedict’s catechesis on men and women saints in the Middle and Modern Ages. These meditations bear shining witness to a lifetime of scriptural and patristic scholarship.

If we characterise John Paul as a philosopher pope, and Benedict as a theologian pope, I think Francis could be characterised as a pastor pope, in the tradition of St Pius X and Bl John XXIII. Where John Paul develops Christian anthropology, and Benedict illuminates our rich patrimony, Francis offers the faithful memorable illustrations of the Faith and practical advice on how to interiorise it. Hence his present catechesis on the sacraments is a boon to preachers. Or to this one, anyway!

Catechesis of the Popes is an excellent resource on John Paul and Benedict’s Wednesday addresses, but it hasn’t been maintained the last 12 months, so it’s not so good on Francis’ audiences. Fortunately, you can catch up on Francis’ series on the sacraments at the Holy See’s website — an activity I highly recommend.

Duties of a priest

Duties of a priest

I attended an excellent seminar today on school governance and the principle of subsidiarity.

Put very simply, subsidiarity is the grassroots antithesis of centralisation. Wherever possible, higher authorities and larger collectives should not take over the tasks of smaller authorities and collectives, but rather help them (Latin: subsidio).

So, by way of example, it’s not the government’s business to to bring up children, but the family’s. The state should never use its power to replace parents, but instead use its power to assist parents.

The presenter at today’s conference, Dr Alessandro Colombo, is an expert in the theory and application of subsidiarity, particularly in the European Union. He suggested, quite convincingly, that the Catholic education system in Victoria is a remarkable model which exemplifies subsidiarity and deserves world attention.

There are many practices which contribute to this. Public education funds are distributed and managed not by the state, but by the Church. Another significant practice, which distinguishes Victorian Catholic schools not only from state schools, but also Catholic schools in other states, is the system of governance.

In the first place, Catholic principals are invested with a lot of authority, delegated to them by the canonical administrator. In contrast, the governance of public schools is highly centralised in the Education Department, and principals have little governing authority.

In the second place, parish schools in Victoria are governed by the parish priest or similar canonical administrator, who is typically close to the ground. But the administration of parish schools in New South Wales — and I don’t know how many other states — is conducted by the diocesan education office.

The NSW system is canonically irregular, but it does free priests from administrative duties, allowing them to spend more time on pastoral ministry. As a seminarian, I was all for it. Priests are called to be ministers and pastors, not business managers!

But now I’m not so sure. Firstly, the priestly office is three-fold: teaching, sanctifying and governing. I was too hasty in reducing administration to a distraction from priestly ministry. Secondly, the centralisation of school governance flies in the face of subsidiarity. In the scheme of Catholic social teaching, diocesan offices should help parishes to govern their schools, not take over the task themselves.

The key to effective priestly ministry, I have concluded, does not subsist in the surrender of administrative duties, but in efficient and intelligent collaboration with parishioners.

And, with impeccable timing, the Holy Father reminded me just this afternoon that my first duty is to foster union with God by prayer, meditation on the Scriptures, daily Mass and frequent confession: