Highlighting the necessity of humility in Christian discipleship, Bishop of Broome, Christopher Saunders, delivered an address to Catholic educators at the National Catholic Education Commission (NCEC) conference in Perth on Sunday 19 June 2016. Bishop Saunders’ address is available below or you can view it on YouTube.
Matthew 28:18-20. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the very end of time.”
Thank you very much for your kind introduction. I wish to acknowledge the Whadjuk Noongar people of this region upon whose ancestral country we stand.
I also respectfully acknowledge His Eminence, Cardinal Maradiaga, my brother bishops, other dignitaries, and delegates of the Conference and I add in particular my Metropolitan, the Archbishop of Perth, Timothy Costelloe, in whose ecclesiastical domain we gather. The Archbishop and I share a passion for AFL football. However, we don’t barrack for the same team. As I take a Black and White approach to things, he is much more economical in his football loyalty and prefers the Black and Gold variety. Unfortunately for both our teams the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune appear to have descended upon them in matted clumps this season. But that is a matter for lamentations in another place.
A very good afternoon to you all who have travelled so far to be here and to all home grown products also. It is a privilege to share this part of the day with you.
When I was asked to speak with you on the matter of Christian discipleship I was happy to accept although it occurred to me that so many of you are already living lives of discipleship…in your commitment to Christ, in your service of the Church, in the way you belong to the faith community. My quest is merely to add to your experience and to suggest some matters for your consideration and attention.
While wondering how best to approach this critical matter of Christian Discipleship today I recalled how it was so many years ago when I entered the seminary. Many of the students in first year took up an interest in playing musical instruments. The guitar was the favourite instrument, although one student took up the tuba – As you can imagine he didn’t have many friends at all – but he did have more friends than the fellow on the bagpipes. I took up the harmonica as I figured they couldn’t ask you to play and sing at the same time – like those poor fellows on the guitar. So, one evening we had an impromptu concert and we each played a song or two. I did a medley of old campfire favourites, which I erroneously thought people were enjoying. When I finished I said a little too eagerly: “What Will I Play Now?”
To which one of my classmates replied in a rather unkindly manner at the top of his voice: “Why Don’t You Play Something You Know.”
Well you’ll be happy to hear that today I am going to try and play something that I know. This topic of Pathways For Christian Discipleship is something that I intend to approach in some part through my pastoral experience in the Kimberley, to contextualise the topic to some extent within the Diocese of Broome. Naturally, after forty-one years of ministry, this territory is familiar ground to me.
Many years ago I had the privilege of driving interstate with a very good friend of mine, a social commentator and a sociologist, a graduate of Pro Mundi Vita, a great formator in the world of social justice and a Columban priest, Father Cyril Hally. May he rest in peace. We travelled from Sydney to Melbourne, a journey that took then about twelve hours and Cyril spoke for about eleven of them. If any of you knew Cyril you’d appreciate how usual that was for him.
And how engaging it must have been for me. He was always a most interesting man. We spoke of many things – about a changing world and about a Church that was grappling with these constant changes. Cyril then made a comment that has rung repeatedly in my ears over a long period of time. He said: “This era we live in is the first time in the history of the human race that every culture in the world is in crises. Every culture.” I began to measure that statement against my own experience. Within the span of my adult life massive changes have overtaken us and the adage that ‘the only constant is change in today’s world’ rings with a distinct note of inconvenient truth about it.
This change is being pushed by an ever-expanding globalisation that is overtaking nations and continents transforming them into a secular likeness. At the heart of this globalisation is of course technology and the technological revolution or what is now referred to as the fourth industrial revolution, the digital revolution. It is bound up as it is with various economic drivers – the pursuit of trade, the competition for wealth and dominance, the ascent of computerised and automated industry. We have now become victims to some degree of all of those things we adopted to give us a greater and better lifestyle. The change, the globalisation, the secularisation, is happening with such rapidity that in so many civilisations, more and more, people are simply not coping.
In Australia, a nation that once wore the title “The Lucky Country”, there are grave signs that this inability to cope with the way we have to live is reaching epidemic proportions. How often in a day or a week do you hear the word “stress’’ from the mouths of ordinary people. Look at the rising rates of suicide and family disintegration across our nation. And meanwhile almost every day we hear something about drug addiction, drug and alcohol abuse, about mental health issues and the growing dependency on prescription medicines – all of them being desperate attempts to cope.
In Broome, a town that is regarded as laid back and forever lounging in vacation mode, we have someone walk around the cathedral property, which is opposite a hospital, every morning, looking for discarded syringes. Muted complaints that the younger generation were lost to the amorphism of marijuana have been over- taken by the cries of distressed relations observing the increased use of needles and very harmful drugs by the young and not so young alike.
Donald Horne, journalist, social critic and author wrote a classic commentary called “The Lucky Country”. He said his image of the typical Australian that he held then in 1964 was that of a man on a street corner in “High Street” on a Saturday morning holding the hand of his five year old son, both of them licking their ice creams and both of them lounging in shorts and thongs. What is the image of an Australian today? Well, let me give it a go. It’s still Saturday morning because the myth persists that this is the land of the great long weekend. And the family is now at the boutique market place. The father is taking pictures with his iPhone of his child eating multi-cultural inspired fast food while the child is on his iPhone talking to his friends who aren’t too far away. All of them are wearing designer clothes. Some things have remained the same but you notice there are significant changes. The family is more affluent than before, technology has entered their life in a dominant way, and its effect is inter-generational; parents are not nearly as important as they used to be to their children, the choices available to all of them have multiplied, and the world has become smaller but more complex.
So, why should we be surprised if confusions reign-supreme in the Church too at times and within its institutions, with the many challenges parading unremittingly before us, including the matter of Catholic identity, one of the most pressing issues facing our agencies and institutions today – hospitals, schools, social service organisations. And all this has come to our world in our time. Before building any pathways of discipleship we are called to understand the challenges of our era, what is happening to us, to our society, our parishes, our schools, and then learn firstly to cope with the changes, and then please God to live in hope that we might thrive.
When talking about the realities, the facts of what we are dealing with in our world, Father Cyril Hally had a little saying: “That’s how it is”, he would say. “It’s a fact. It’s not good. It’s not bad. It’s just a fact. So deal with it!” Most certainly this is a worrying time for all Catholic people but it is especially so for people in leadership positions. A school Principal, a Commission member, a classroom teacher, a parent, a Religious, a priest – and a bishop too.
Some of you who know me know that I have three hobbies –fishing, photography and art. Unfortunately, for me, as therapeutic as it is, art these days is reduced to mere sketching or even cartoons. But some time ago after I had been bishop for some years I was painting in my study with watercolour. An American priest friend of mine came to visit and I took him into my makeshift studio. “What’s the picture?” he said. “It looks like a sailing boat on the ocean.”
“It is a fishing boat on the sea of Galilee,” I said, and “As a matter of fact,” I said,” it’s the barque of Peter”.
‘’Oh,” he said. “But it’s listing to one side”, “Yes, I know”, I said,
“And it’s very low in the water,” he said,
“I know”, I said,
“It looks like it’s sinking”, he said,
“Yes I know”, I said.
“But that’s terrible”, he said,
“I know”, I said, “but that’s how I feel”!
I imagine anyone in leadership at one time of their life or another feels that way, as I did. Such experiences should lead us to a greater dependence on the Grace of God because experience over the years teaches us that God is the safest port in any storm. And further, we would do well to remember that the symbol of the Barque of Peter was actually a symbol of triumph. Tossed by tumultuous seas, driven by relentless winds, nonetheless the Barque of Peter, like the Ark of Noah, finally brings her people to friendly shores. “Surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age”, says Jesus.
It’s worth remembering too that Jesus was born into a world that was turned upside down. His country was occupied by a foreign power. It was ruled by a Godless pagan puppet Prince, while the leaders among his countrymen were largely corrupt and self-serving. His time of birth was in an era of great expectation, the historians have told us. Indeed, the Messiah that the people of Israel longed for was one they expected to liberate them from occupation, from tyrannical rule and exploitation. Jesus’ response to the expectations the people had for Him and the challenges there-in to his ministry is roundly contained in the passage of Scripture I read at the beginning today as an introductory prayer. Jesus called upon the apostles to “Go” and make disciples of all nations. His response to the secular expectations of so many consumed by the prevailing agenda was nothing less than a call to discipleship. This discipleship was the means by which Jesus was to win the world to Himself, to God.
Jesus we know made very few converts of His own. Most of His effort was directed at forming those known as the Twelve, who would come after Him. To those who believed in Him and have been loved by Him in this special way, so as to be called by Him, to them his FIRST Command is to “GO”. He sends them… “Missio” to send…to Go, On Mission.
Now there is an extraordinary truth that we are called to participate in and to celebrate here – one that it is in fact very necessary for us to recall if we are to be the disciples Christ called us to be. Namely, that the mission on which we are sent is God’s Mission and has its origins in the mysterious life of the Blessed Trinity. The Father Missions the Son into the World and thus the procession of the Son from the Father is what we call the incarnation – “Änd the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us”. (Jn 1:14) The Son Missions the Apostles while the Holy Spirit confirms the Apostles in the Mission emanating from the Father and that proceeds through the Son. ‘’As the Father sent me I also send you”. (Jn 20:21) So it is that the Apostles and their successors preach and teach with power and authority as Christ himself taught. And, importantly, the Mission of the Apostles and that of the Holy Spirit are united in the Church in a harmonious cooperation. Here is the basis of Jesus assertion that ‘all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me’.
Taken in its entirety, this command to Go, to make Disciples, to Baptise in the name of the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) and to teach to obey everything Christ has commanded, was something that the Apostles took seriously. So seriously did they take it, that all but one – namely John- died violently for the sake of this mission given to them. That’s what our tradition has told us.
The First Priest to disciple the Kimberley was a Scotsman, usually portrayed wearing a rather ridiculous Cabbage-tree hat, who arrived to take up this most difficult post on the peninsula out of Broome in 1884 at the ripe age of sixty- three. A first cousin to Mary MacKillop, Father Duncan McNab had already cut his teeth on the Aboriginal missions in Queensland and for his trouble was hounded out of that Colony by self-serving Pastoralists who saw his discipleship, with its particular bent towards social justice, as a threat to their authority and wealth. He moved to Western Australia and was chaplain to Aboriginal prisoners on Rottnest Island, off the coast of Perth.
Under the auspices of Bishop Matthew Gibney of Perth he set off to work among tribal peoples, the Bardi and the Nimanbur peoples in particular. He had no grounding in culture, nor in anthropology nor in language. But he had a disposition towards people that was humble, charitable, patient, inclusive and driven by faith. His determination was nourished by this sense of having been called by God for a purpose. Ever since he heard of his cousin Mary MacKillop’s work in rural Australia he had felt called to work particularly with the Indigenous people of Australia. He came from Scotland with that calling in his heart.
Another spectacular hero in the story of the Kimberley Mission is Spanish Priest Nicholas d’Emo who had been working in Patagonia in South America when he heard that the French Trappists were going to the Kimberley to work among the Aboriginal people of northern Australia. He joined them in 1895 and was assigned to Broome as Parish Priest. His decision made in Patagonia was clearly, he said, to dedicate the last years of his life to the mission in the Kimberley. He felt strongly about his calling, so much so that when the French Trappists left the Kimberley to return to Sept Fons in 1900 d’Emo remained not as a Trappist but as a Diocesan priest working on mission. His work in Broome is the stuff of legends where he began an orphanage, built and staffed a school for homeless children, ran a medical service among the poor, united the town Filipinos into an effective association, built houses and a Church and was regarded as an influential citizen in the town that was dedicated to the care of the poor and marginalised. He was prayerful and had a zeal for the gospel and an enthusiasm that was irrepressible.
He left the comparative comforts of Broome in 1906 to sail north to work among tribal people on the Dampier Peninsula. He went on to establish a Mission at Cygnet Bay, and then assisted the Benedictines to start the Drysdale River Mission, the most Northern settlement in Western Australia. After two years with them he returned to the Peninsula and joined a Filipino Thomas Puertollano to found the Lombadina Mission where he died in 1915. Before his death, after twenty years of hard toil, he made it known that he was to be buried like the locals on a nearby sand-hill in a blanket and strapped between two boards. A humble ending to a humble life. Again, the hallmark of his mission was humility, poverty, and a keen sense of actively responding to the call of God to be part of the Divine mission.
The Kimberley Mission has been abundantly blessed over its years with heroic Religious and Lay Missionaries who have pioneered some remarkable work in the fields of education and health and social services.
Early on in our history the St John of God Sisters under the faithful and able leadership of Mother Antonio O’Brien, came to disciple among the peoples of the West Kimberley. Later they moved to the deserts of the East Kimberley where they lived in intolerable conditions while some of them staffed a Leprosarium where they were instrumental in developing a cure for that dreadful disease of Leprosy.
Such heroism was followed in the work of other Congregations such as the Josephite Sisters whose marvellous work in the field of education and inculturation is to be found amply demonstrated in the pages of the book “From Digging Sticks To Writing Sticks” and which I believe is on sale here today.
One of the enduring sadnesses in our Christian lives is how so often we separate our calling from our mission. It has been all too commonplace in this country I’m afraid – so many of our people have been content to receive inwardly what God offers them but not to give out to others in the way of mission. In 1975 in that wonderful document Evangelii Nuntiandi (para.#24) Pope Paul VI says: “it is unthinkable that a person should accept the Word without becoming a person who bears witness to it.” It is a fact that in the gospels there is a radical connection between calling and mission. Jesus calls his disciples to follow him and then he sends them out on their first teaching pracs, they have received much from Jesus and then they are called to give in return to those to whom they are sent. When the Holy Spirit comes upon the Apostles at Pentecost they are bursting to share the beauty of God’s Word; this Good News they have received they cannot keep to themselves. Rather they are compelled to communicate it to others.
In like manner, in John’s Gospel, Jesus engages with the Samaritan woman at the well, enriching her with his presence and Word, while she responds by enthusiastically telling others of her experience. Her life is changed forever and so too are the lives of many of those Samaritan townsfolk. The Gospel is punctuated with stories of people who heard the word, received the calling and then acted in mission on what they have received.
Think of Zacchaeus, the contemptible tax collector in Luke 19, and the reformed anonymous women who washed with tears and then anointed the feet of Jesus in Luke 7. A powerful story of mission is Jesus washing the disciples’ feet in an act of service and humility, one that we have ritualised and introduced into our liturgy on Holy Thursday evening. We remember his words: ‘’If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” (Jn. 14:13) In other words, having been called to receive, you must respond with giving.
Damien was a fifty eight year old Aboriginal man when I first came across him in Halls Creek. He was a man whose life had been in ruins, destroyed by the limitations of a willful and selfish personality, ravaged by the abuse of alcohol. Many years before I met him he had come from a Catholic Mission station where he had learned to work with cattle. The opportunity came one day for him to go droving and to work on better paid cattle stations, where he lived and worked in difficult conditions.
Unfortunately, in the off-seasons, he began to develop a chemical addiction to beer and hard liquor. The frequency of his drunken bouts soon played havoc with his life. Over the years he became increasingly unreliable, then unemployable and dangerously violent towards his family and others. He assumed the local descriptive title of ‘’a broken-down man”. His family left him for reasons of safety – something they hadn’t known for some years – while he languished in outback towns, homeless and despondent. In one of those despondent moods he began attending AA meetings and over a period of time he ceased drinking. He became as they say ‘a dry alcoholic’. In that process he rediscovered the beauty of prayer. Like ‘the anawim’ of the Old Testament, the poor and marginalised and broken- hearted, who found in God the source of all hope, Damien found through prayer a new relationship with God, who became the source of all his hope. In this he developed a kind of dependency upon the life of the Holy Spirit within him while abandoning his dependency on alcohol.
When I first met him in Halls Creek he was sitting on the roadside kerb with his arm around an inebriated countryman, simply holding him so that he did not fall and hurt his head. In his hand Damien held his rosary beads and prayed for his new found friend as much in prayerful supplication as in gratitude for his own deliverance from a self-destructive life. Over the years Damien continued to care for ‘the lost and suffering broken-down men and women’ of the north. He gave of himself generously travelling far and wide to wherever he thought his prayers and compassion were needed. He found spiritual nourishment in the Eucharist and a purposeful prayer in the Mass. He discovered a continuing strength in the Rosary, that prayerful devotion that he had known at home in those early mission days. Now with a calling in life and a pathway of discipleship to walk, he felt secure in his Catholic identity, grateful to have received and now anxious to give back. In him there was no credibility gap between receiving and giving, between his calling and his missioning.
A most moving occurrence in recent times for me was the picture of the Holy Father washing the feet of male and female prisoners at Rebibbia Prison in Rome on Holy Thursday evening in 2015. In an act of servitude, of humility, echoing the Lord’s actions on the night of the Last Supper, the Holy Father visibly connects the institution of the Eucharist, of worship, with an act of charity in a most humble yet in a most extraordinary way. Once more the mission of the Blessed Trinity, through Christ and the Holy Spirit, comes alive now in the actions of the Pontiff, who hears the Word of God emanating from Christ’s love, and joined with the actions of the Holy Spirit in the community of the Church and in love, he responds in this manner of service.
It is most important that we acknowledge that all of us are called but according to the particular circumstances of our lives. Our response in mission will be also according to the particular circumstances of our lives. The mission that emanates from our calling, in which we become Christ to others, may be within the limitations of our neighbourhood, or our place of work, or in the bounds of our community, or simply within the family into which we are born.
There is a woman about whom we know so very little but whose very existence is a cause of constant inspiration to us. Her greatness is to be found in her humility, a humility that is ever before us as a pathway to discipleship. This becomes so discernible to us in that beautiful song, that poem so profound, the Magnificat. Mary, our mother and the mother of Jesus, is often referred to as the first missionary because when she visited Elizabeth her cousin (Lk 1:39), as she did so she carried the Christ in her womb. She brought Him as Good News to someone else, which is of course precisely what we do as disciples ourselves. We hear the Word and we share the Good News, and by what we say and do, we present Christ to others. It is obvious, is it not, that we are most effective, most authentic, when we are humble, when the power of discipleship we exercise is born not out of pride but of humility. In humility we place ourselves in right relationship with God, and with our neighbour.
Certainly this is what the attitude, words and actions of Mary reveal to us in the Magnificat and in the visitation to Elizabeth as found in the first chapter of Luke.
Rosemary’s early life in a remote Kimberley town is best described as adventurous – a rollercoaster of love affairs, of partying, of violence, of abusive relationships coupled with serious chemical addictions. In her middle age, after bearing five children, she settled with a good man with whom she had one more child. She reconnected with the faith of her family and recalled the holy and pious ways of her own mother. Gradually she drew nearer to Christ and found peace in her life. She identified readily and publicly with the sinful woman of Luke 7. In serving Jesus she found the wonder of his presence. Over time she assumed the mantle of a person renowned for her own faith. She was a daily communicant, she led rosaries at the graveside, and she visited the sick in hospital and the new mums in maternity.
Rosemary was now in her late fifties when she found some sense of purpose and direction in her life. She was admired in the community of the faithful as a holy woman. However, her older children were on a downward spiral socially, behaviourally; that was a reflection of her earlier life in so many ways. She felt responsible for their inordinate behaviour and encouraged them as much as possible to be different, to find Christ in their lives. But they were as strong willed and as self- centred as she had been in her youth and it seemed that there was no way to bring them to their senses. All she could do, she concluded, was pray for them and so she did. Very often, with a deep faith and with a great hope in her heart, she prayed. According to her particular circumstances in life Rosemary was a disciple who achieved greatness in the most humble of ways.
We live in a fascinating time in the history of our Church. Against the terrible tide of shame and disappointment and in the face of the onslaught of secularism, there is a strong voice and notable visible action emanating from our First Pastor, Francis. The humble ways and words of the Holy Father are actively encouraging us to embrace as Christians, as Church, today, that foundation of virtues, HUMILITY. It is a palpable call to be humble in the service of God and humanity, to place service before self.
I have a Catholic Layman friend who is a constant source of inspiration to me in the way he lives, in how he prays, in what he says and in the manner that he lives in right relationship with others and with God. Many years ago, just as we began to realise that matters of child abuse in our Church were a greater scourge and horror than we first thought, he said to me that he had observed that whenever in the history of the Church the institution behaves in a triumphal way, in a manner born of arrogance, when it is lacking in humility, it is then the most damage is done to its credibility, its mission and its effectiveness. To its authenticity, if you like.
Without doubt the authenticity we seek has been dealt a severe blow by the stories emanating from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The plight of victims of sexual abuse by Church personnel is a horrible crime and an ugliness that is frequently before us, and rightly so. The shame and the discomfort that this brings to us as Church must serve not just as a cause for contrition but for a conversion of heart that will compel us to see to it that such terrible violations never occur again in our midst. The Truth, Justice and Healing Commission is outlining an appropriate response to this whole issue to help us always to act promptly, justly and decisively where the law is broken when people are abused. Once again, humility teaches us the way to truth and to just behaviour. This wounded Church of ours, this field hospital, must forever become a healing hand stretched out in Grace for all those who suffer and are in need of the loving care of Christ.
To be lacking in humility is to put ourselves before God, to promote ourselves before His call and His mission to us. A lack of humility, or anything resembling it, such as clericalism, is an obstacle that closes the pathways to discipleship and renders our service of the Lord and our fellow human beings, and his Church, as insipid, tasteless – like the salt that is thrown out and trampled underfoot.
When the Holy Father says to us that the name of God is Mercy he points out that Mercy is divine but it has an accompanying human quality and that is – Compassion. Compassion is an integral part of mission. It is, if you like, an imitation of God’s mercy. Without practising compassion we cannot lead ourselves or others to the Mercy of God or witness to the hope of God as all merciful and therefore all loving. Humility. Truth. Mercy. Compassion. These are reflections of the beauty of a life led in discipleship.
There is a beautiful story in the gospels that includes all of the above elements and it is the story of Bartimaeus the blind beggar who, although blind, sees in Jesus his hope and deliverance. (Mk 10:46-52) In his humility he seeks the healing power of Christ. When he finally connects with Jesus the Lord asks him; “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus answers simply. He has no outrageous demands, he answers with a simplicity of faithfulness – “Master. That I may see again.” There is no bargaining nor huxtoring with the Lord. With Bartimaeus, what you see is what you get. A person who is content to be simply dependent on the Mercy of God. The Mercy of God works through Jesus and Bartimaeus is healed, his sight is restored. In his compassion the Lord reminds this man who has been led out of darkness into a newfound light that his faith has saved him. And so it is that Bartimaeus follows the Lord along the pathway of discipleship, just as in today’s world there are others who meet the Lord in the simplicity of their lives. For them the eyes of faith are opened that they may see again and therefore follow the Lord with love.
Contrast this to the story in Mark just a few verses before – Chapter 10, verses 17-22. The Story of the rich young man. It must be said that this man of substance who approaches Jesus is no slouch. As Jesus leads him through the Commandments wondering as to the earnestness of his quest “What must I do to win eternal life?” he answers that he has kept all the Commandments since his earliest days. There is a contentment in the young man’s voice, almost a sense of pride in his accomplishment. And then the scriptures tell us in a beautiful phrase – “And Jesus looked steadily at him and loved him.” Then comes the twist in the story. Jesus senses that this man has an attachment to wealth that is spiritually unhealthy and that wealth, which the young man holds in high regard, may be an obstacle preventing him from reaching his potential in faith.
Perhaps the Lord could sense that it may become a cause of his downfall, for while he kept all the commandments and precepts of the law he reserved unto himself a comfortable sanctuary built of materialism and property. “Go sell everything, and give it to the poor” the Lord says to him. “And he went away sad because he was a man of great wealth.” That is one of the most bitterly sad lines in the Gospels. His call to discipleship was clearly palpable but his response in mission was suppressed by the temptation to self- indulgence, to satisfaction through possessions. He was not prepared to love and serve the Lord without reservation. So many of us are like that, are we not? We reserve unto ourselves an aspect of comfort and self-indulgence. Or worse still we come to the Lord announcing that we are prepared to give everything and within a short amount of time we begin taking it back, bit by bit, piece by piece, resolution by resolution.
The pathways to discipleship are a humble and selfless pilgrimage, which requires of us to constantly discard any obstacles we place in our lives to developing a perfect relationship with God and neighbour.
There is an undeniable and essential component of discipleship that is at the heart of our identity and we deny it or obscure it at our peril. It is of course that sign of salvation, the Cross. To be the disciple that we are called to be according to our circumstances of life we need also to be prepared to count the cost and, when necessary, to live with the challenges, the sufferings, the deprivations and the great disappointments in life that come our way.
Because, most certainly, the way of discipleship is also the way of Calvary. When we ask to be Christ’s disciples, to follow him, do we know what we are asking? And are we prepared to carry the cross, to pay the price for following him. To follow Christ as his disciple is no trivial pursuit.
To acknowledge Christ in the midst of our hardships and to find through prayer the presence of Jesus in our lives, is one of the great joys of discipleship. I remember accompanying the World Youth Day Cross throughout the Kimberley in 2008. At one point we visited Balgo Mission in the Great Sandy Desert. The Cross went on display in this large village of 500 people and was venerated by a large crowd of some hundreds on the community basketball court. However there had been a tragedy in the community – a road death, and the immediate relatives of the deceased young man had gone to live in their ‘sorry camp’, a ramshackle collection of roofing iron, blue plastic sheets, and bushes cut from trees; all of it erected in haste on the edge of the village. It is there that the immediate relatives live until an appropriate period of mourning has passed and the deceased person is finally buried.
At one point on the basketball court the call went up to take “the Holy Cross” to the ‘sorry camp’ and so we walked the half kilometre or so through the encroaching darkness and stood the cross outside the humpy of the mourners. The aged mother of the deceased, called Nammee, her head shaved and her body painted with white ochre, walked slowly from her shelter. She grasped the Cross and embraced it tightly, almost collapsing on to it in grief. With tears streaming down her face she wailed the cry of the bereaved and was joined by others in her wailing.
For me, it was the widow of Nain mourning the loss of her only son. It was Mary at the foot of the Cross preparing to receive the broken body of her son in what was the most desperate of moments. And it was the Holy Cross that sign of contradiction, of ridicule and of hope. It was Jesus alive among us. It was Christ made present to us in his passion, death and resurrection. It was a time of profound thanksgiving. And as she returned to her shelter through the smoke of her campfire, without saying anything we all knew that something extraordinary had happened that night: That Christ was among us. The Holy Spirit had come silently into our souls. We had been touched by the hand of God.
Leading in Faith in the Church of the twenty-first century requires an enormous commitment in discipleship to fulfil our vocation. Educators, like Ministers in faith communities, have to, in this age of acute accountability, strive faithfully to close the credibility gap between who we say we are and how others perceive us. To what degree do we individually, or in our schools or parishes, resemble the Trinitarian call to holiness made evident in our response in Mission? It is up to us in the quest for authenticity to eradicate all those obstacles that separate us from fulfilling our mission of serving our God and neighbour. What are our weaknesses and the obstacles we place between ourselves and the Christ we serve? Are we sensitive enough in faith to hear and to see where it is that like the rich young man of our gospel story we are lacking in commitment, and are we prepared to do anything about it? Do we harbor any attachments to wealth and prestige that are completely worldly, bordering on the sort of idolatry that Christ abhorred? Who are the anawim in our society – have we made a place for them in our institutions, in our hearts, within our ministry?
I am convinced that the call to holiness is, in our age, undoubtedly a call best heard by means of a faith inspired commitment to humility and service. In this manner the Holy Father has spoken and acted plainly in his teaching and in his ministry. He is living as a servant of the servants of God, he has diminished the confusing trappings of ‘Court-ism’ that can so readily fly in the face of gospel values, and he is striving to recognise and assist the poor and marginalised through his teaching and in what he does.
His historic visit to the island of Lampedusa to speak to the refugees who landed on the shores of that place was a witness to compassion and justice. His words and his deeds spoke clearly, unambiguously, of the loving kindness of an all loving God for the poor and the forgotten. Suddenly peoples and governments heard his compassionate words and saw the needs of suffering human beings. Hearts and minds were opened by the Pope’s committed witness to love and justice.
I remember some twenty years ago when the parish priest of Halls Creek, a great missionary, a German Pallottine priest, Father Werner Kriener, began an enquiry among his parishioners as to what image or statue of Mary they would care to see in their Church. He showed them various holy cards – of Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady of Fatima, of Guadalupe, of Garabandal. After sorting through the dozen or so holy cards that were given to them the mothers and grandmothers came to a unanimous decision. The image of Our Lady that most spoke to them in their situation was that of the Pieta, where the broken body of Jesus is lying in the arms of Mary his mother. Why? Their reasoning was clear because that was how they felt, that Image of Mary was reflective of their own experience. They could identify easily with Mary the distraught mother, she who was overwhelmed with sorrow at the death of her son. Like her so many of them had lost sons in tragic circumstances. And what’s more in their devotional lives they too sought solace and hope in the embracing arms of Jesus’ blessed mother. Their image of God was to some significant degree contained in that image of Mary, an image of compassion, of embrace and of hope.
What now is your image of where you are on the continuum of Faith? Do you identify with the compassionate Christ, the one who serves, the word incarnate that has dwelt among us? How do you respond to his call to mission? Is it unthinkable for you to have heard the word without bearing witness to it?
As for me, what is my image of where I am on the continuum of faith? Well, I am still sailing on that leaky barque of Peter, battered but afloat, and happy to be there. Now it’s a hospital ship, and it still sits low in the water, but that doesn’t bother me too much because there is somebody at the helm who knows what He is doing. He delivers us from evil. I believe in the journey – I know that this is where God wants me to be at this time. But I’m not just along for the ride. I’m doing my best to contribute, to lead in humility and in service, quietly confident that my Father in heaven will not dwell on my failures but rather He will remember this my faith. In the assembly of the faithful I am confirmed in prayer, that in God’s good time we shall arrive at our destination, to be held safely, securely, warmly in his all-Merciful arms.
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the very end of time.” (Mt 28: 18-20)
May you enjoy the very best of Conferences these next few days, and all for the greater glory of God.