Confraternity of Christian Doctrine

By God’s grace a band of teachers: Peter, Paul and Mary


Second Address of Most Rev Anthony Fisher OP - Day of Reflection for Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, St Patrick’s Cathedral Hall, 24 June 2012

'Saint Peter' by Peter Paul Rubens
'Saint Peter' by Peter Paul Rubens.
Peter …

Some of you will recall the band Peter, Paul and Mary, folk singers whose careers have lasted 50 years and continue even after the death of Mary Travers. Who of my age or older could forget their renditions of Puff the Magic Dragon, The Times They Are a-Changin’ or Blowin’ in the Wind? Well, you’ll be relieved to know I’m not going to attempt my own performance of those songs today, but I am going to reflect with you in the company of a different Peter, Paul and Mary, two of them ultimately Roman martyrs and one an Aussie teacher and nun.

While for Protestants it might be the other way around, Catholics tend to know Peter better than Paul and to have more affection for him. That’s understandable enough: we stand to hear the Gospel read every week and stories of Simon Peter appear many times, whereas Paul had not yet come on to the Christian scene during Jesus’ lifetime and so does not appear until the Acts of the Apostles and the epistles.

Another reason, of course, is that Simon was the first of the apostles to profess that Jesus was the Christ. He was the one renamed Cephas, Peter or Rocky, foundation for an irrepressible Church, the key-bearer with power to ‘bind and loose’. That role is so important that the Church discerned there must always be an individual who is the Successor of Peter, an individual we call the Pope, to carry forth his mission; whereas no one is designated to carry forward the mission of Paul as ‘the Successor of Paul’ unless it is every Christian (a matter to which I shall return). People of all faiths and none, when imagining or joking about the afterlife, have St Peter as gate-keeper at the ‘pearly gates’ because he’s got the keys.

We do well to remember how Jesus chose Peter. He clearly was not the ideal choice of the local employment agency: he had no CV, no references, no degrees or diplomas, no course-work or relevant experience as a catechist, theologian or Church leader. Yet somehow Jesus sized him up and grasped something of the man: his impulsiveness, impetuosity, spontaneity; his trust, fidelity, capacity to love. Jesus chose the impetuous and loving one for whom he had great plans; formed him, graced him, but never quite ironed out all the kinks, or at least not until the end.

So the same Peter who tries to chase Jesus across a lake out of pure love and fidelity, then looks down out of impure fear and infidelity, and finds himself drowning. The same Peter who says he intends to block Jesus’ way to His passion in Jerusalem out of protectiveness, will flee the scene and deny he ever knew Jesus when the crunch comes. The same Peter who is determined not to let the Lord serve him at the Last Supper, then begs that the Lord baptise him all over when he realises what divine service really means. The same Peter who three times protests he’s never met Jesus on the night of trials, later professes his undying love for Jesus three times more after the Resurrection. And so on … Peter was a bundle of contradictions, a very human human being, but he’s the one Jesus chose as chief catechist.

Peter wasn’t worthy to be Jesus’ disciple, let alone His apostle, priest, bishop, pope, teacher or catechist, none of us is. None of us is remotely sufficient to the task and so if we required our candidates for those jobs to be worthy we’d have had none since Christ. There’s consolation in that and in knowing what extraordinary things God can do with people as unqualified as Peter. We rely on God’s grace. None is worthy or dares think himself so. None perhaps, except perhaps Paul, who for all his talk about grace was never lacking in confidence …

'Saint Paul' by Philippe De Champaigne
'Saint Paul' by Philippe De Champaigne.

… Paul…

Two millennia ago a boy was born in Tarsus in what is today Turkey and, at his circumcision on the eighth day, was given the name Saul. His family were Jews but also Roman citizens and they had a large tent and sail-making business. He was sent to the best boarding school in Jerusalem to study under famed Rabbi Gamaliel, where he mastered Jewish law and languages. He joined the most rigid Jewish denomination, the Pharisees, and like most was horrified by the advent of the Christian heretics. He manned the cloakroom at the first Christian martyrdom, that of St Stephen, and went on to become an enthusiastic persecutor of the Church until his famous conversion on the road to Damascus.

Blinded by the light and converted by a personal encounter with Christ, he took time out for prayer, meditation and catechesis before taking up preaching and teaching the Catholic faith himself. When he was finally ready – after as many as 17 years of preparation – he went up to Jerusalem to get his catechist’s certificate from Peter and the other Apostles and then entered upon his three great missionary journeys, becoming ‘the Apostle to Gentiles’ and in the process drawing Christians beyond their Jewish origins and comfort zone.

There are many great stories told of Paul in the Acts of Apostles and he was ultimately recognised as one of the greatest missionaries and theologians in the history of Church. A theologically sophisticated and eloquent writer, he (more or less) single-handedly contributed one-third of the New Testament through his epistles. He was imprisoned, shipwrecked, beaten, banished and finally martyred for the faith – a fourth saint in today’s gallery to lose his head – but not before he had founded churches all around the Mediterranean and had a profound effect on Christian theology ever since, especially on matters such as Christology, sin and grace, free-will, faith, baptism, Christian life and more.

Reflecting on Paul’s conversion along the road to Damascus in modern-day Syria makes us think about that word conversion. What do we think of when hear that? People at rallies declaring they have suddenly accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Saviour? Non-Christians and non-Catholic Christians becoming Catholics through the RCIA or more private instruction? In Saul’s case it was something rather different: he was turned around, inside-outed, radically reoriented; it was much more than a passing buzz of emotion or group hysteria or a mere change of denomination. His whole life was changed, and his orientation to life, and this was reflected in the name change from Saul to Paul.

Paradoxically, if Saul’s transformation into Paul was more fundamental than much of what goes by the name of conversion these days, it was also less complete: Paul took a long time to be ready for his mission and martyrdom; having encountered Christ and realised the gap between his life and Christ’s, Paul was blinded by the light rather than enlightened by it. So if Peter went to work with very little formation – unless you count the three years he spent on the road with Christ which was the best of all possible formations I suppose – Paul had to spend several years hearing the stories, doing the courses in catechesis and formation for mission (cf. Gal 1:17-18; 2:1). Even after his ‘ordination’, he had repeatedly to refer back to the Twelve, the bishops if you like, for direction, to be sure he was on the right track. His life, like ours, required ongoing formation, continual questioning and updating. The sort of formation and teaching Paul required and then offered to others is the sort of formation and teaching which you receive and in turn provide through the CCD. Think about the greatness of your calling, then, in being the successors of St Paul and, in turn, forming the new little-Pauls of the next generation!

Paul had to inform his mind, form his heart, tame his spirit – or let God do these things – all of which was and is a very gradual process. The sinner Saul was not made into the Saint Paul all at once; he only gradually softened and submitted to God’s will. What did Paul bring to his mission? He brought Saul, i.e. his family and race, his past experience and scholarship. His conversion meant no repudiation of these things, even if some realignment. He also brought his temperament: a kind of fanaticism which in saints we call holy zeal, that sense of always-being-rightness that in saints we call constancy, that stubbornness that in saints we call single-minded devotion, that abrasiveness and hard-to-get-along-with-ness that in priests and religious we call personal charism. These qualities meant he could endure great persecutions while preaching the Gospel more widely and successfully than any other in his generation and arguably than any other in Christian history. By the end he could honestly brag that: “Through me the whole message of the Gospel was proclaimed to the pagans.”

On the other hand, the same qualities meant he was constantly fighting with his associates, the churches he had founded or nurtured, and the civic and ecclesiastical authorities: he split up with his mentor Barnabas, argued with Peter and the other apostles, wrote some rather cranky letters to his own communities who never seemed to measure up to his expectations. The fact is that Paul was a passionate and faithful lover of God and his particular flocks; but he was also bull-headed and cranky at times, a bragger, sometimes aggressive, sometimes defensive. He had a complex personality, even after his conversion to Paul. The grace of conversion does not iron out all wrinkles all at once, make Christians into true images of Christ immediately: rather, Christ built on Paul’s gifts and his very flaws – the miracle of grace by which God can write straight with our crooked lines.

Saul’s transformation to Paul was gradual, which might be consoling for us: that if we allow God’s grace to blind and enlighten, to encourage and challenge us; if we remain passionate in our concern for truth, totally committed to learning and sharing the faith; if we remain open to God’s Holy Spirit converting us at many levels — then He will turn even our peculiar history, experience and temperaments to the good: all this is subject of grace and of mission.

It was therefore only at the end that the student Saul, who became the persecutor Saul, who became the student Paul, who became the apostle Paul, finally became the saint Paul. Only at the end could he say, as we all pray we will all be able to say at end: “I have fought the good fight to the end; I have run the race to the finish; I have kept the faith.” It makes him a great example of that slow but steady conversion we hope is going on in every one of us; and of the challenge to be apostles to our age, to grow steadily in our own formation and faith education so that we have something to share with others.

So just as I suggested in Part One today that John Fisher and Thomas More complemented each other in important ways, so Peter and Paul balanced each other. One was an uneducated fisherman, the other a scholar and theologian. One was inconstant, fickle and flexible, the other ever-constant, determined and unyielding. One was humble, the other something of a bragger. One was a home missionary, the other a missionary to foreign parts. But what they had in common transcended at differences: a deep and abiding love for the risen Lord and a willingness to be witnesses to Him, even unto death, a witness they ultimately both gave as martyrs in Rome.

So these two very different men had very different temperaments. Like Paul, Peter’s failing was also his gift: the impulsiveness which led him to jump into the water and nearly drown also allowed him to offer the right answer to Jesus’ question about Who he was, that first very simple Creed “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!”, bedrock for early Church. That same impulsiveness that meant he rarely lived up to his promises to live and die for Jesus – a terrifying promise we in fact all make at our Baptism – also meant he did just that in the end. Like you and me, the great founders of our Church after Christ had their strengths and weaknesses, and they were often the very same qualities. They were faithful yet needing more faith, uneven in zeal, virtuous but sinning, sinning but repenting. And if first Peter and Paul were very human saints, with very human failings and strengths, so are their successors.

St Mary of the Cross MacKillop
St Mary of the Cross MacKillop.
… and Mary

Yet here we are 2,000 years later at the opposite side of world, joined with them today because we share not only their faith but their love for that man they called both master and friend, God and man. Enter a more contemporary, more feminine and more Australian spirit, in St Mary of the Cross MacKillop. There are so many things we could say about her and have said about her over these past few years that we have celebrated her canonisation. This Year of Grace that we have just begun to celebrate in the Church in Australia has been entrusted to her patronage. With God’s grace, anything is possible – as Paul taught so passionately and Mary MacKillop demonstrated in a life lived fruitfully against all the odds. By human reckoning she could never have succeeded; but grace is our word for that power by which such people, exactly such people, do in fact succeed.

The international Year of Faith into which our national Year of Grace will dovetail, will invite us to reflect upon what we believe, indeed so Who we believe – in company with the great documents of Vatican II and its Catechism, 50 years after the opening of that great Council. Our more local Year of Grace adds reflection and celebration of how and why we come to believe, recalling two events of our recent history. The World Youth Day in Sydney in 2008 was an explosion of youthful energy and joy that pointed to how we connect with God and people. The canonisation of St Mary MacKillop in Rome in 2010 was a pointer to the goal of it all, why we believe, i.e. holiness of life and communion with God and His saints. In life Mary MacKillop and her daughters played a very significant role in building up the faith in Western Sydney; a century later the grace of World Youth Day fanned that faith and showed us how to hand it on to generations to come; you SRE teachers continue her mission to such a new generation.

Now, theological sophisticates from the CCD are no doubt at ease talking about Grace, but most Catholics would I suspect be stumped if you asked them what it meant. Some probably think it is a prayer you say before meals, or the name of an actress who became a princess, or a furniture removal company, or just one of those strange Church words. Some older theologies spoke of the divinisation of the human person by God’s life or favour, of perfect and imperfect beatitude, beatific union or vision, divine adoption or indwelling. Some distinguished natural from supernatural graces, but when ‘grace builds on nature’ it is really grace upon grace. Others distinguished sanctifying or habitual grace from actual grace; creative from redemptive or healing graces; the illuminating grace of the intellect from the inspiring grace of the will; preventative from co-operating graces; efficacious from sufficient grace, and so on … Pelagians, Semipelagians, Augustinians, Thomists, Scotists, Molinists, Lutherans, Calvinists, Congruists and Jansenists all had their say. In the celebrated debates between Jesuits and Dominicans over grace and free will things got so heated that the Popes had to step in and forbid further discussion. I would not recommend these controversies as the starting point for catechising your students, clients and friends in this Year of Grace! But teach about grace we must. The saints give us one way: point to them and our young people will see grace in action, grace in narrative form.

In Lumen Gentium: The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church the Fathers of Vatican II spoke of God’s presence to people even before or outside of Christianity, ‘giving all men life and breath’, moving them sincerely to seek God, revealing Himself to them ‘in shadows and images’ and propelling them to strive by their deeds to fulfil God’s will. “Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel.” (16) But believers, the Council continued, are “called by God, not because of their works, but according to His own purpose and grace. They are justified in the Lord Jesus, because in the baptism of faith they truly become sons of God and sharers in the divine nature. In this way they are really made holy. Then too, by God’s gift, they must hold on to and complete in their lives this holiness they have received … They must follow in Christ’s footsteps and conform themselves to His image, seeking the will of the Father in all things. They must devote themselves with all their being to the glory of God and the service of their neighbour.” (40)

The Catechism puts it this way: we are justified by God’s grace or favour, His free and undeserved help to respond to His call to become children of God. Grace is a participation in God’s life, introducing us into the intimacy of the life of the Trinity. Only God can reveal and give God to us; only God can heal us of sin, sanctify us, and infuse us with the Holy Spirit. By grace we are prepared for faith and the sacraments; by grace we receive them; and God is free to grace us in other ways too. God’s free initiative demands our free response; we cannot be forced to love; but even our response is due to the longing for truth and goodness he has put into our souls. Baptism begins this process of sanctification or deification which is extended by other sacramental graces and special favours to build us up and build up the Church. (CCC 1987-2029) The saints, in whose company we have been reflecting today are the ostensive definitions of grace, the point-to effects of grace, its end-game. To see them is to see grace in action, the curtain between the action of God in time and the action of grace in eternity drawn so thin it is almost transparent.

Through the intercession, example and lived witness of St John the Baptist, Saints Peter and Paul, Saints John Fisher and Thomas More, St Mary McKillop and the other saintly catechists of the past two millennia in our world, the past two centuries in our land, may you grow in confidence in your vocation and be empowered to transmit the Gospel anew. I am so proud and thankful for what our 1,076 CCD catechists in the Diocese of Parramatta do.

All holy men and women, pray for us!

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