Homily for the Ordination to the Diaconate of Brothers Matthew Boland OP and James Baxter OP

04 Jul 2015

Introduction to Mass of Ordination to the Diaconate of
Brothers Matthew Boland OP and James Baxter OP
St Benedict’s Church, Broadway, Feast of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, 4 July 2015

Welcome dear friends to this happy day in the life of the Dominican Order and the wider Church in Australia. Today I will ordain Brothers Matthew Boland OP and James Baxter OP to the Diaconate, as they make their progress to the priesthood of Jesus Christ. I salute Very Rev. Kevin Saunders OP, Prior Provincial and other members of the Dominican family, the concelebrating clergy, and the family and friends of our ordinands. Above all I welcome James and Matt themselves with gratitude for their generosity in giving themselves to the service of God and His people!

Homily for the Ordination to the Diaconate of Brothers Matthew Boland OP and James Baxter OP
St Benedict’s Church, Broadway, 4 July 2015

“To live without Faith, without a patrimony to defend, without a steady struggle for Truth: that is not living but just existing”. Ninety years ago today, the young man who uttered these words was born into eternal life, aged only 24. Born in the same year as the nation of Australia, into an important Turin family that did not share his piety, he embarked upon his own spiritual quest. He happily discovered the Dominicans to assist with navigating the ways of faith, prayer and apostolate. In a short time he demonstrated great spiritual maturity and inspired first his city and then the world.

The name of this young man was, of course, Pier Giorgio Frassati, a Dominican tertiary beatified in 1990 whose feast day is today. I have been lucky enough to know his family a little, to have visited both his city and country houses (even his bedroom), to have shared with his niece the family stories and relics, and to have prayed at his several tombs: the first, in Pollone Cemetery where first he was interred; then, in Turin Cathedral to which his incorrupt body was transferred after sixty years and where Pope venerated his relics only last week; then in this very church to which his relics were transferred in the lead up to World Youth Day in 2008; and finally to St Mary’s Cathedral for veneration by the young people of the world. His story has truly inspired me, as I know it does so many young people – and the young of heart.

But who inspired him? When St John Paul II beatified him, he called Pier Giorgio “the man of our century, the modern man, the man who loved much, the man of the beatitudes.” Yet this very modern man’s heroes were three Italian Dominicans from the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries! When entering the lay Dominicans Frassati took the name Jerome after his personal hero, Girolamo Savonarola, the fiery Dominican preacher and reformer of Renaissance Florence. What he loved in him was his passion for the faith, and his willingness to speak the truth to power, even at risk to popularity, position, his own life. “We are living through difficult days for the Church,” he said, “the persecution rages more than ever, but this should not frighten you, brave and good young people. Always remember that the Church is a divine institution and it cannot come to an end.” Stand in her and by her and for her. Frassati was awake to the rise of the isms that brain-washed the twentieth century and were to do did such violence to human bodies and souls. A century later the Church faces different kinds of persecution, to be sure, with more martyrs daily than ever before in her history and a ‘soft’ totalitarianism in countries like ours that brooks no dissent on issues like the redefinition of marriage and would relegate faith and the faithful to the margins.

Thus, while he threw himself into all sorts of groups and apostolates, Frassati’s favourite was “the apostolate of persuasion”. Of all apostolates this, said the twentieth century Savonarola, is “the most beautiful and necessary. Young people, approach your colleagues at work who live their lives away from the Church and spend their free time not in healthy pastimes, but in vices. Persuade those unfortunate people to follow the ways of God, strewn with many thorns, but also many roses.” Pier Giorgio even used games to this end: “if I beat you in billiards you must come to Mass or catechism with me” he’d say. And he spoke, as in our epistle, “with words that seem to come from God”.

His second favourite Dominican was Aquinas, the example par excellence of our epistle’s “calm and sober mind” (1Pet 4:7-11). He loved to study St Thomas’ doctrine, as do both our candidates and Matt, we know, comes with a very Thomist pedigree. St Thomas is, of course, the patron of the universities and it was at Sydney University, under the bad influence of Fr Dominic Murphy and the chaplaincy team, that our two candidates discovered their Dominican vocations. Like Pier Giorgio they didn’t just receive but determined to give, becoming heavily engaged in the works first of the chaplaincy and then of the Order.

Realistic as Pier Giorgio was about the temptations and trials of this world – the wolves in our Gospel that feature alongside the lambs (Lk 10:1-9) – he shared the Angelic Doctor’s optimism about the possibilities of human nature under grace. With him he insisted that nature and grace, philosophy and theology, faith and reason, contemplation and action, feast and fasting, hard slog and good fun, could all be united in the truly happy life, the life of the blessed, here on earth as in heaven. This gave him permission to be other than the tepid plaster-cast saints of Pionine piety. Handsome and energetic, he loved sports and it was from his mountain climbing that his motto “verso l’alto”, upward to heaven, came! Nor was the energy all spent on frivolities. At a Church-organised demonstration he endured the violence of the fascist police, but rallied the protestors by taking up a banner and using the pole to ward off the officers. When fascists broke into his parents’ home bent on attacking his father, a liberal news editor, Pier Giorgio chased them away. So this saint was no wimp!

He was tough, but he also relished jokes and had a great capacity for friendship. He was described by friends as “an explosion of joy”. His sister Luciana said “He represented the finest in Christian youth: pure, happy, enthusiastic about everything that is good and beautiful.” The future Master of the Dominican Order, Martin Stanislaus Gillet, met him at university and encouraged him in his Dominican vocation, recording that he was impressed “with his particular charm. He seemed to radiate a force of attraction… everything in him shone with joy, because it grew from his beautiful nature to bloom in the sunshine of God.” We look for such qualities of masculine Christianity and the joy of the Gospel in our two deacons-to-be.

A third Dominican patron of Frassati was St Catherine of Siena. From her he learnt to unite mystical prayer to practical action for the poor. All night adoration, the daily Rosary, the Liturgy of the Hours and annual retreats were his life as much as skiing or cycling. “I urge you with all the strength of my soul to approach the Eucharist Table as often as possible,” her wrote, “Feed on this Bread of the Angels from which you will draw the strength to fight inner struggles.” But like St Catherine he would not be a monk: his prayer was to be expressed in practical action in the world. Though, like our two candidates today, he had enjoyed the best of school and university educations, his heart was for the little ones of this world. As a university student he joined the St Vincent de Paul Society and devoted his time before and after classes to working in the slums. A German news reporter who observed him at the Italian Embassy wrote, that “One night in Berlin, with the temperature at twelve degrees below zero, he gave his overcoat to a poor old man shivering in the cold. His father the Ambassador scolded him, and he replied matter-of-factly without affectation, ‘But Papa, it was cold’.” Cold, of course, for the pauper; cold for Christ in that pauper. He gave away his bus fares and even his graduation money to the poor. When asked by friends why he rode third class on the trains he replied with a smile, “Because there is no fourth class.” Eventually he contracted polio from those very people he was visiting and died an excruciating death. He had spent himself, in the words of our epistle, “in helping, helping as if [his] every action was from God”. Though not ordained, his life had been a diaconal one, marked by love of the liturgy, preaching and service of the poor.

My sons and brothers, Matt and James, thank you for your fidelity and generosity in offering yourselves for service. I pray that your families and religious communities will continue to support you in this. You will now assist at the altar as bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ, and will tender that sacred banquet to the faithful, the sick and the dying. As deacons you will witness the equally extraordinary transformation, at your hands, of infants and adults into children of God through the saving waters of Baptism. You will see single people become couples and families through the awesome sacrament of matrimony. As deacons you will experience the transformation of the unevangelized and uncatechized, through the saving Words of God preached or taught by you. You will attend the transformation of the poor, through works of diaconal justice and mercy such as Pope Francis keeps calling us to. Finally, as deacons you will witness Christian lives brought to their fulfilment and hopefully transformed into saints, as you bury us in the dust and commend our souls to God.

Pier Giorgio used to say: “The day of my death will be the most beautiful day of my life.”  That wish and sacrifice was fulfilled ninety years ago today. What present might we render this man on his 90th birthday into eternal life? Let us give him and the Church of God two new labourers for the harvest (Lk 10:1-9), two new sons of Savonarola, Aquinas and Catherine. I am confident Pier Giorgio is very pleased!