"Prophets, saints and pilgrims en route to Rio" WYD13 Pre-Pilgrimage Catechetical Address by Bishop Anthony Fisher O.P. at St Patrick’s Church Blacktown, 6th June 2013.
Jesus seems a little grumpy in our Gospel reading (Lk 9:57-62). He talks as if He were against family, home-ownership, works of mercy like burying the dead, and plain good manners like saying good-bye and telling your parents where you’ll be. So what’s going on?
Well, one thing’s for sure, Jesus wasn’t anti-family. The Son of God chose to be born into a human family. He lived under obedience to His parents. He launched His public ministry at a wedding reception and in answer to His mother’s request. He preached on the indissolubility of marriage and made it one of His seven sacraments. He praised and blessed children. He visited His disciples’ families. Even from the Cross He provided for His mother’s care. In due course He gave her the greatest funeral in history, by carrying her body and soul to heaven and crowning her Queen! Clearly Jesus loved marriage and family, and so have His disciples ever since…
So why does today’s passage seem to run against the Gospel grain? It doesn’t in fact. At the heart of the Gospel is Christ’s rally cry: “seek first the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 6:33), put God and the things of God before all else. To encounter Christ is to find that He commands our immediate and undivided attention. To know, really know, Him is to sense an urgent, drop-everything-else kind of call. Obedience to Jesus means letting go of our mechanisms of self-protection and self-promotion, control of others and the future. Nothing should distract from throwing ourselves headlong into the adventure of God’s kingdom, not wealth or power or comfort or sex or popularity or substances or gizmos or anything. Nothing must get in the way, not even our good aspirations, plans, activities, relationships.
No goodbyes now: leave the dead to bury the dead. The prophets say and do some really ‘out there’ things to draw our attention to their message. They cry out ‘woe’, ‘repent’, ‘the end is nigh’; they consume strange substances such as locusts and wild honey; their eyes are aflame and their bodies naked of all but beards and animal skins… They are not the kinds of people your parents would like you to bring home as a boyfriend or girlfriend! The prophets are divine highlighter pens, fire alarms, saying: listen up, pay attention, something really important is being said here. But taking the prophet’s words seriously is not always the same as taking them on face value. Sometimes we have to go behind the attention-grabbing behaviour of a prophet like Jeremiah or a saint like Francis or of a pope with the same name, to the message for which our attention is being grabbed. That’s what’s going on when Jesus uses the radical language He does tonight.
Jesus asks a question: “Who do you say that I am?” (Mt 16:15) You are, in a sense, giving your answer right now just by being here tonight. You will be giving your answer again when you step onto that plane to WYD2013. All the world’s eyes will be on Rio, where our brand new Pope Francis will celebrate Christ with the youth of the world, with you! The media like him – at least for now – but they don’t really ‘get’ him. Recent astonished headlines have included “Pope makes sandwich for Swiss guard”, “Pope says atheists could go to heaven” and “Pope makes Mafia offer: Repent – or go to hell”. Of course it’s unusual for a Pope to make a ham and cheese sandwich for someone; of course we might be surprised who is in heaven and who is in hell when, hopefully, we get to join the heavenly crowd. But when the Pope says and does such things we know what he’s about. He is about Jesus Christ the Redeemer, the servant of all who died for all, and who asked the Father to send the Holy Spirit to guide the Church into the future.
In a few weeks we will see perhaps the most famous image of Christ the Redeemer with His arms wide open. The media think it’s a sort of city logo for Rio, like the Opera House is for Sydney: but we know it is so much more than that. The image is of God with arms wide open for the Indians, the black slaves, the poor, the migrants of Rio; with arms wide open for the lost or confused, for sinners, criminals, even journos, if they repent; with arms wide open now for the young people of the world, for you. The pundits might be astonished that beautiful, talented young people like yourselves would want to receive His embrace when you could be shopping, clubbing or Snapchatting. It is shocking to our culture that so many young people would put Jesus and His kingdom first and gather for catechesis and Adoration on a Thursday night in Blacktown or save like crazy to go half way around the world for the same. Why would young people cast aside “sex and drugs and rock’n’roll”, the commercialism, technobabble, and other fleeting pleasures of the world, and flock to see a 76-year-old dude with a great smile and some cool hats but wearing the same old white stuff all the time and preaching the ancient Christian message?
The media, the world, doesn’t get it and so be prepared to experience a very different World Youth Day to that which is reported on the news. A few demonstrators drawing attention to themselves or a few commentaries on the implications of WYD for the Olympics, will probably be all they report back here in Australia. mX will say there’s a big rave on in Rio and then feature a few clueless people saying the Church is out-dated and that what young people today really want is a series of highs, followed by a gay marriage or two, and finishing with euthanasia. They won’t actually ask any of you. They won’t be interested in your ideals for yourself or your hopes for the world. The Holy Father, on the other hand, is there precisely to get to know you. He’s not into spin or negativity or fashion causes. He’s into the Good News of Jesus Christ and he cares deeply about you because Christ does.
I’d like to tell you a bit about my family – my Dominican family that is. On our way to WYD most of us are going to Lima, hometown of Dominican saints including St Rose of Lima and St Martin de Porres. From an early age they both went against the culture by rejecting the endless pursuit of power, prestige and position in favour of the service of God and humanity. Though regarded as very beautiful, Rose knew it was inner beauty, beauty of soul, that most matters. She wasn’t going to be anyone’s sex object. As a young girl suffering an excruciating operation without anaesthetic she came to realize what Christ had endured for her and us. She stopped complaining when things were hard and embraced hard penances that shock our generation. She’d wear a crown of thorns and put rocks and broken glass in her bed, practices I strongly recommend you don’t imitate. It was a different age. But her inspiration was that she wanted to be close to the suffering Jesus, Christ the Redeemer, and closer to poor and suffering people. When we meet hardships, as we might on our pilgrimage to Rio and certainly will on our pilgrimage through life, she is an example of patient endurance and attendance to what really matters. That makes Rosey well worth our attention. She died in 1617 and all the officials of Lima attended her funeral, with the archbishop presiding. She was canonised in 1671, the first saint from the Americas.
Her friend Martin de Porres was a bright kid in an age when blacks, ‘half-castes’ and ‘bastards’ like him weren’t expected to amount to much. His Spanish Dad had two illegit children with his negro Mum and came and went like happens in so many families in Australia today. Marty grew up in poverty when his father was away and in rather better circumstances when his father was more interested in him. He was apprenticed to a barber and learnt surgery on the side. He had a healing touch and might have amassed a great fortune as a miracle worker. But he wanted to use this Divine gift for God’s glory, not his own. So after work in the barber’s shop he’d volunteer in the slums – like we will do in Lima’s favelas. Soon Lima was full of rumours about his miraculous cures: headaches and fevers were relieved, dislodged eyes returned to their sockets, deep wounds healed while people watched.
Martin didn’t like the attention this drew and he’d retreat to the Dominican church for some peace and quiet. They eventually accepted him as a brother, gave him job of infirmarian or house doctor, as well as cook and cleaner. He continued his work amongst the slaves and outcasts and would sometimes offer them all the friars’ food and even beds. He was said to have talked the rats into living outside so as not to disturb the friars. In sacred art he’s often portrayed with a broom in hand, talking to friendly rodents, with beggars or lepers nearby and a rosary around his neck: of the thousands of Dominican saints, including St Dominic, St Thomas Aquinas, St Catherine of Siena, St Albert the Great, Bld Pier Giorgio Frassati, Bld Fra Angelico and so many others, he is undoubtedly the most popular and the only Dominican counterpart to St Francis. Fortunately, like Francis, Martin was an excellent fundraiser; he’d persuade so many to give that he fed many inside and outside the priory, provided dowries for poor girls and financed the first orphan school in the Western Hemisphere. Like Rose he embraced various asceticisms so as to unite himself with the sufferings of Christ and of the black slaves, plague victims or cripples of Lima.
As Martin’s fame spread he was soon sought out by the high-and-mighty as much as by the down-and-outs. Due to his mixed-up origins and profession, he could relate to people of all classes. Above all, Martin had discovered, early in life, that he was loved, if not consistently by his earthly father, infinitely and constantly by his heavenly Father. The God he knew loved the despised and outcast as much as governors and archbishops. He never forgot his equality before God with the highest and lowest. At his funeral in 1639 not only did a great crowd of the poor attend but all the members of high society vied to be his pallbearers. Bld John XXIII canonized Martin in 1962.
Both Rose and Martin were young and intelligent, if a little peculiar, but they heard God’s call in their lives and never looked back. We don’t have to do things like wear a crown of thorns or talk to rodents to be saints like them. We don’t have to stand on street corners calling the world to repentance like the prophets or produce miraculous cures while alive or dead – though that would be nice. We don’t even have to join the Dominicans, as they did, though for some of us it might just be our way to salvation. But we do have to find our way to serve God and humanity, our way to be saints. For Rose and Martin that meant serving the poor and that’s something we will join them in doing in Lima.
The poverty will be confronting. It is something most of us have never experienced. It will make us truly thankful for what most of us have here in Australia and hopefully more aware both of the poor in our own country as well as overseas. We must extend the loving hands of brothers and sisters to the people there and that they in turn will extend God’s loving hand and theirs to us. We will discover that there are some things more important that wealth and comfort and that one of those things – faith – Peruvians have in abundance. They understand tonight’s Gospel passage about putting God before all else. I hope they will infect us with their piety that endures through hardships.
Though our two Lima Dominicans were out and about serving God and people all the time, they were both at heart contemplatives. Though they made a difference in the world, what they most wanted to do was stay near Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament and Our Lady in the Rosary. Those times gave them the tranquillity that carried them through the busy times; that adoration recharged their compassion batteries when suffering from fatigue; that was where they got their identity and mission.
There’s a lesson in that for us amidst all the busyness of school or university or work or family or friends. It’s in the quiet times with God that we are most likely to hear Him. If we spend all our time doing things, even good things, we may leave no time or space or opportunity for God to speak to us. Even a pilgrimage can be like that if we are not careful: we can be busy bees with no time to taste the honey. So before you go and while you are away cultivate your contemplative side. Sit and be quiet and think and stop thinking sometimes. Stop talking for a bit, even to God, and just adore Him silently. Being a Christian isn’t a career, as Pope Francis has pointed out. It’s not about getting a holiness CV and achieving promotion to sainthood by doing lots of spiritual things that will draw people's attention. That was the last thing Rose or Martin wanted: they craved for anonymity, to be left alone. In the end God and His people wouldn’t leave them alone. But they were humble enough to let God do His work in them and they did what they did for His glory, not theirs.
The movie remake of The Great Gatsby was released this week. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jay Gatsby, a poor man ‘made good’ and living an endless party surrounded by luxury and beautiful women. Filmgoers will delight in the expensive costumes, elaborate sets, special effects. Already it’s evoked a wave of Gatsby-themed parties and a revival of 1920s flapper fashions.
The fashionistas might miss that the story is really a critique of the American Dream, the emptiness of the consumer culture on the eve of the Great Depression. Nick Carraway, Gatsby’s next-door neighbour who narrates the story, begins the film starry-eyed about the Gatsby lifestyle. But as he is drawn into Gatsby’s entourage, he becomes more and more disturbed by the promiscuity, drunkenness and corruption. Gatsby started out poor like Martin de Porres, but instead of turning his opportunities to service as Martin did, he is entirely focused on self. After an obsessive romance with a married woman he’s eventually shot dead. Though so long the favourite of high society none attends the Gatsby funeral as they had Martin’s. Instead of calling him ‘the Saint’ our narrator canonises Gatsby ‘the Great’, but there’s bitter irony in this as his hero had by then been exposed as a miserable liar and mafia operator. Amidst the poverty, Marty, Rosey and the living saints we’ll meet in Lima offer us a nobler version of greatness.
Next we’ll make a retreat at Iguazu Falls amidst some of the most spectacular natural scenery in the world and in the company not of Dominican saints this time but Jesuit ones – real heroes many of them, martyrs for the Faith. Hopefully we’ll find some spiritual superheroes amongst the 250 of us too. By the time we get to the Stations of the Cross on Copacabana Beach in Rio and the Vigil on the night before the Papal Mass, we’ll already have had lots of opportunities for private prayer, Confession, Adoration, Rosary, all those good things that make us contemplatives ready for conversion, ready for action.
But as part of your own spiritual preparation, between now and the next time we meet on 30 June, I encourage you every day to go to Mass or pray the Rosary or at least our pilgrim prep prayer and examine your conscience. Reflect upon the kind of person you are now and might become by God’s grace. Share your experiences of your pilgrim formation with your friends, relatives, fellow parishioners. Read the WYD newsletter and website with all its helpful practical and spiritual tips. Familiarise yourself with the itinerary and set a goal for each experience. Reflect on the lives of the WYD Patrons on the website. Join Rosey and Marty in meditating before the Blessed Sacrament. Bring your family and friends with you to our Commissioning Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral Parramatta on Sunday 30 June, at 6pm. Christ the Redeemer is waiting for you with His arms wide open in Rio. Christ the Redeemer is waiting for you with His arms wide open in the monstrance if our altar here, ready to embrace you in the Most Blessed Sacrament.