Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP,
14 Feb 2018

St. Mary's Cathedral, Sydney, 14 February 2018

Memento homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris: Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return - so we are reminded every Ash Wednesday of the words of the Book of Genesis. It was the moment when humanity had its first premonition of death as a result of Adam and Eve's fall - and in this terrible getting of wisdom it was our first attempt to make sense of our mortality.

Just over two years ago I could have died. I suffered a devastating autoimmune disease called Guillain-Barré Syndrome which kills 1 in 13 sufferers. Because it afflicts only 1 in 100,000 people not much is known about it. But it meant my immune system set about attacking my peripheral nervous system, and over a period of 12 hours I went from having a tingling in my right arm to being totally paralysed and in excruciating pain. My breathing was also compromised, which is how it kills some people. I was lucky to be diagnosed quickly and treated effectively. But even with the best care in the world, it took five months in hospital rebuilding my broken nerves and withered muscles, learning all over again how to walk, climb stairs, use cutlery, hold the chalice....

It was all a rather confronting reminder of what Lent says to us: Remember that you are mortal - mere dust - that you will die and return to the earth. As an extra reminder of this reality, we will today receive dust and ashes on our foreheads. The practice of 'putting on ashes' goes back to the ancient Jews, for whom it was both a reminder of mortality and a sign of remorse, repentance, humbling oneself 'to the dust'. Christians 'baptised' this symbol by making it a cross-shape on the forehead, recalling the cruciform anointing with the oil of catechumens at Baptism, when we reject Satan, embrace the Holy Trinity, and are promised eternal life. We recall that event from the start of our Christian life today, but with ash rather than oil, as we once again reject sin, turn to God, while being reminded that our time on earth is short. You young men, most of you, are at the peak of your health and fitness and death may seem very far away. The ashes remind us that it is an ever-present possibility and so, without being morbid, should affect how we think and choose and act.

Memento homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris: Remember [young] man that you are dust and to dust you shall return. One traditional Lenten response to this is to pray. Of course, as Cathedral College men you do that every day: I often hear you praying the Angelus at midday and join in with you myself. Our best and greatest prayer is, of course, Mass on Sunday. No doubt you pray at other times too. But by focusing on the closeness of death in Lent, we're called to do a bit extra: you might attend a few weekday Masses during Lent in that rather grand 'chapel' that's on your doorstep, or just drop by for a quick prayer in whatever corner you've identified as your spot here. Prayer is conversation with God and that's a relationship we all need to work on.

A second Lenten response to our mortality is fasting, giving up something we like for a time, especially some food. If we are mortal, bodily animals, as much as immortal, spiritual beings, we must get both body and spirit in shape, under control. As growing lads you're probably good eaters. But Lent says: hold back for a bit. What's that about? We fast to get a grip on our bodies, our desires, our weakness, our sinfulness. It's a private thing, as Our Lord says in today's Gospel (Mt 6:1-6,16-18). If prayer is conversation with God, a relationship we all need to work on, then fasting is a conversation with ourselves, a kind of self-control that also needs practice.

Fasting adds to prayer, because it requires a kind of self-investment. It can be too easy to rattle off a few Hail Marys with our minds far away. But if we are a bit hungry, have engaged in a little self-denial, it testifies to our seriousness about this. It also lets us experience a little of the hunger of more needy people than ourselves.

Which brings me to our third Lenten response to our mortality: almsgiving, fundraising for the poor, charity. If prayer works at deepening our relationship with God, and fasting at deepening our relationship with ourselves, the result should be that we are better with other people also. To have felt a little of the spiritual hunger of those yearning for God and the physical hunger of those yearning for food, means we will be motivated to do something about it. Caritas' Project Compassion is one common Lenten project of Catholics in Australia. Our Lenten reminder of our mortality is a reminder that we are all vulnerable, as the sick and poor are, all in this together.

Every sin is a little death and it has three lethal effects: alienation from ourselves, each other, and God. We see that in the story of the first sin, when Adam and Eve immediately set to blaming each other, hating their own bodies and hiding from God. Then they were reminded that their days were numbered, that to the dust they would return. But Jesus offers us three Lenten antidotes to these lethal effects of sin: prayer to reconcile with God, fasting to reconcile with ourselves, and almsgiving to reconcile with each other. Three therapies for three maladies of the human heart; three signs of the cross to redeem the blackening ashes.

Memento homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris: Remember my young friends that you are dust and to dust you shall return. My shock two years ago is not one I want for any of you. Lent is a rather gentler reminder that we are mortal beings, that we have only so much time, and so now is the time to work on our relationships with God, our neighbours and ourselves. Remember that you are made of star dust, made of the same atoms as every material thing, made of dirt like the plants and animals, made of clay like a potter making a figurine. But in your case the Divine Potter breathed a spiritual soul into that clay, a divine spark, a bright promise of immortality.

God bless St Mary's Cathedral College in 2018.

St. Mary's Cathedral, Sydney, 14 February 2018

Welcome to St Mary's Cathedral, your College chapel, on this morning for the Ash Wednesday Mass, marking the beginning of Lent but also the beginning of your new school year. I acknowledge the presence of your Parish Priest and Dean of our cathedral Very Rev. Don Richardson, and your College Chaplain Rev. Emmanuel Seo, my friend and your principal Mr Michael Kelleher, with the staff of the College, as well as the Regional Consultant Mr Phil Gane. To teachers and students, and all others present this morning, a very warm welcome!