26 May 2019

St. Joseph’s Church, Newtown

שָׁלוֹם עֲלֵיכֶם Shalom Aleikhem (Peace be with you) is how Jews says hello and goodbye to each other. وعليكم السلام As-salaam ‘alaykum is how Arabs do so – again, saying Peace be with you. We hear Jesus use this Semitic hello and goodbye many times in the Gospels (Mk 4:39; 5:34; Lk 10:5; 24:36; Jn 14:27; 16:33; 20:19,21,26). The early Christians did the same, with pretty well all the epistles opening and closing with this greeting.[1]

But perhaps the most beautiful use of the greeting is in today’s Gospel passage (Jn 14:23-29). Jesus is making His farewells on the night of His last supper. He tells the apostles He is leaving them. He knows their hearts will be troubled and afraid. He wants to calm their anxieties. He promises to send them the Holy Spirit. And then He says not just “Peace be with you” but something new “My own peace be with you, my own peace I bequeath you.” But that peace is not as simple as it seems…

In the 2000 comedy film, Miss Congeniality, tough-as-nails detective, Grace Hart (played by Sandra Bullock), has to go undercover as a participant in a beauty pageant. In one humorous scene, each participant is asked what they want more than anything in the world, and, one by one, each answers ‘world peace’. When our detective-cum-beauty queen is asked, she begins by detailing social and legal policies she thinks will better the world, but meets stunned silence. After a pause, she adds ‘and world peace’, and receives cheers from the crowd.

The joke, of course, is that while ‘peace’ is a worthy aspiration it has become meaningless on many lips, especially those of beauty queens. The pop culture version of interior peace has become a kind of complacent insensitivity, being free from tension because you don’t much care: but whatever trick we use to anaesthetize ourselves, an underlying restlessness remains. Likewise, what goes by the name of exterior peace can mean leaving each other well alone most of the time, and demonstrating a false charm or icy concord when we have to interact; but that merely keeps grudges or anger between people under wraps, and does not begin to address the underlying causes of resentment and violence. In Jesus’ world Roman armies imposed their Pax Romana, but the fact was that the Jews and others rebelled at every opportunity and the Romans lived constantly on tenterhooks.

In today’s last will and testament Jesus makes it very clear that the peace-the-world-gives is not what He offers us. A quick survey of His life shows it was rarely peaceful as the world sees things: it was spent amidst storms, crowds, persecution; He inveighed against hypocrites, clergy, officials; He cleansed the Temple, wept for Jerusalem, led a noisy crowd; He was brutally arrested, tortured and executed. With a CV like that, no peace negotiation team would touch Him with a barge pole, let alone nay beauty pageant!

Indeed, the very night on which Jesus gave His farewell speech, with its promise of peace, was far from ‘peaceful’ as this world sees it: He instituted his Eucharist amidst Passover remembrance of slavery, liberation and sacrifice, and amongst arguments and treachery of His own intimates. This was no night of cosy concord: “peace on earth and good-will among men” came at a terrible price. The innocent Shepherd was made the Lamb of sacrifice.

True peace the Church Fathers tell us, begins with self-knowledge. It is a contemplative fruit requiring a quiet trust, an unflustered listening: hence our talk of “peace and quiet”. Amidst silent pondering we can face the reality of ourselves and God’s will for us, and so Jesus associates His peace with the Spirit’s truth. Not that truth is always comfortable: it can be confronting to acknowledge the aggressive ambition within, the grudge-bearing, the  penchant for demonizing others. To receive the gift of peace we must face up to ourselves and our own unpeacefulness.

Secondly, Christ’s peace requires receptiveness. When Jesus says “Peace I give you, my own peace I bequeath you” and “My Father will send you the Holy Spirit”, He doesn’t say ‘my peace I force on you’ or ‘The Holy Spirit will possess you’. No, we have to be willing to receive this gift and we changed by it. If we can’t make real peace, only mediate it, so real peace cannot be imposed on us, we must embrace it. And the Mass is a prayer for the gift of peace and for the character to receive it. From the first words of the Risen Christ with which the bishop begins the Mass, Shalom Aleikhem, “Peace be with you”, to the last words of the Mass, “Go in peace”, the Eucharist is one long litany for peace. And so when you come to exchange the sign of peace in Mass today, remember it’s more than a liturgical g’day: we proclaim and mediate to each other that supernatural Peace and divine Presence we could never make for ourselves.

Which brings me to the question of how we manifest or enact that peace once received. Well, as Jesus tells us this morning, ‘if anyone loves me, He will keep my word.’ To have the peace of Christ is to live the peace of Christ; to love the One who gives us peace is peaceably to love those to whom He sends us. Thus for 150 years this parish has ministered to the district through worship and prayer, preaching and teaching, outreach and catechesis, service of the poor and suffering. We give thanks to Almighty God and to generous pastors and parishioners for this.

But that’s no cause for complacency. Even as we overflow with jubilee joy, we recognize that 4 out of 5 Sydney Catholics are not at Mass on Sunday and we ache for their presence with us. And so the challenge I set you for the next 150 years is this: not to remain locked up in a room like those frightened first disciples, but with the quiet confidence that comes from the Spirit of Truth and Peace dwelling within us, to reach out to the unchurched in your community as the first disciples did after Pentecost. Bring those neighbours here to encounter His peace and love.

Happy birthday St. Joseph’s Church! Thanks be to God for the century and a half past. Thanks be to God for each one of you. Ad multos annos!


St. Joseph’s Church, Newtown

Dear brothers and sisters, it’s a great joy to be here this morning to celebrate your sesquicentenary: I think you all look pretty good for 150-year-olds! A French Marist priest, Pere Joseph Garavel SM, was the only priest at home at the time St Mary’s Cathedral caught fire in 1865 and it was he who heroically rushed in to save the Blessed Sacrament. He was rewarded for his heroism with a new parish: the New Town on the first stop of the new railway line out of Sydney. Local Catholics had obtained a site and together they raised the funds to build the church with a school underneath as the state had withdrawn all funding for Catholic schools. On Trinity Sunday, 23 May 1869, the first archbishop of Sydney and of Australia, John Bede Polding OSB, solemnly blessed and opened the still incomplete church. The regional superior of the Marists, Pere Victor Poupinel SM celebrated the Eucharist for the many civic worthies and ordinary faithful present, while the cathedral choir sang a Mozart Mass and the Archbishop presided.

I acknowledge Pere Garavel’s successor as Pastor of this Parish, Fr. Richard Waddell.

As we begin our Mass today, we give thanks for all those who contributed to the building up of this parish and all those whom it serves today, and we commend it to Almighty God for the next 150 years!

[1]     Rom 1:7; 15:13; 1Cor 1:3; 2Cor 1:2; 13:11; Gal 1:3; Eph 1:2; 6:23; Phil 1:2; 4:9; Col 1:2; 1Thes 1:1; 2Thes 1:2; 3:16; 1Tim 1:2; 2Tim 1:2; Tit 1:4; Philem 1:3; 1Pet 1:2; 5:14; 2Pet 1:2; 2Jn 1:3; 3Jn 1:15; Jude 1:2; Rev 1:4; cf. Jas 2:16.