24 Mar 2019

Suffering. Innocent suffering. What sense can any human being, any religion make of it? And how can we believe in a good God in the face of it? The common answer in the ancient world was: he got what he deserved. The Galileans who suffered at the hands of the tryrannical Pilate, or the Siloamites who suffered a natural disaster, or the victims of the terrorism in Christchurch, must somehow have brought it upon themselves.

Nonsense, Jesus says (Lk 13:1-9). They deserved it no more than any other human being. If there are laws of nature, a natural rhythm to the universe, a background to our free human choices, then there will be weather events, cyclones, bushfires and the rest, and sometimes buildings will fall. And if God takes the gamble to make us free, some people will abuse that freedom and hurt others, as Pilate did – and as Brenton Tarrant did. Don’t blame the victims.

The question is: when bad things happen, how do we respond? When people somewhere are suffering drought and starvation, or cyclone and destruction, or civil war and being driven from their homeland, or unjust imprisonment and other persecution, how do we react? Jesus says we should repent.

Sounds a little harsh. Why should I repent because of some weather event, or the actions of some tyrant or terrorist? Because when people do violence, we see our own vengeful hearts in a mirror. Because when people are suffering, we so often do nothing about it. If you claim to have faith, it should play out in how you respond to crises. And here enters the parable of the fig tree…

There are fig-trees all over the Middle East and Mediterranean: their aggressive root systems mean they tolerate seasonal droughts, and their sweet nutritious fruit mean they’ve been cultivated since ancient times. The Roman emperor Augustus, whose census forced Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, was poisoned with figs from his own garden smeared with poison by his own wife Livia: to this day the Roman fig is called the Liviana!

Lebs, Syrians, Turks and their neighbours know about figs. There are over 750 varieties native to the Middle East. In the Book of Genesis God is presented as a gardener, just as Jesus is mistaken for one after his Resurrection (Gen 2:8-9; 3:8; Jn 20:15). The fruit He forbade Adam and Eve to eat (Gen 3:7) was probably the fig rather than the apple, since they covered themselves with fig leaves after their fall (Gen 2:15-17; 3:1-3); in the Sistine Chapel, the fresco is of a fig tree. So common were figs in the Holy Land that they appear in almost every book of the Bible and God is often the fig-dresser.[1] So when Jesus tells His story today about caring for the fig-tree, His hearers understood it was about Himself caring for the fig tree that is every soul, to ensure that it is fruitful. And He does that still, through His Church. So when people are suffering, whether from natural or man-made evils, Christians should be bountiful in their care. As St James said in his epistle: “Suppose a brother or sister is naked and hungry. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and fed” but does nothing to help, what good are such words? Faith without deeds is dead.” (Jas 2:14-25)

The task of this parish, you might say, is to ensure we all repent, respond to suffering, and are fruitful as in Jesus’ teaching this morning. Fr Joseph and his collaborators serve alongside Christ the Preacher and Pastoralist to help that happen. He must encourage you to use your freedom for good rather than ill, to choose life rather than death, to flourish rather than perish, to be fruitful rather than barren.

The good news in our story is that God will give us the extra time we need for this. Your parish patron, St. Jerome, spent his whole life looking for his nook, wandering from thing to thing;  studied rhetoric, philosophy, languages, theology and eventually scripture; he experimented sexually and later lived chastely; he tasted various religions before settling to Christianity; he travelled all over Europe and the Middle East, including Rome, Constantinople, Antioch and Alexandria, looking for the best teachers and for his place in the world; he tried the eremitical life, then that of the secular clergy, then that of a monk in a cave in Bethlehem. He had many jobs and even more moods. He could be vitriolic with his pen: if only they’d had social media in his day he could have joined the worst of the trolls. Jerome’s sainting was a slow process, like the fig-tree that needed extra time and extra fertilizer – a consoling thought for us, that we too can hope for God’s gradual converting grace as He makes us into saints! And in the meantime, as with Jerome, God can turn even our foibles and particular temperaments to His holy uses.

This parish, too, has its particular qualities. It is fruitful with many ministries, including liturgical and devotional ones, teaching in the primary school and SRE in the state schools, service of the poor through St. Vincent de Paul, hospitality and more: almost as many ministries as St. Jerome! There are many causes for celebration in this – but not for complacency. If more than 1 in 10 Catholics in this area attend Mass on Sunday that’s great and we thank God for it; but we ache for those who are not with us, and for others who still have no spiritual home even to be neglecting. We must ask ourselves, again and again, how we can best reach out to the unconverted and the diverted, so they will come home to the Father here.

Fr Joseph will now be responsible on my behalf for the worship, evangelisation and service in this parish. In his priestly service, he must sanctify you by prayer and sacrament. In his prophetic ministry, he must proclaim the Gospel and Church teaching in season and out. In his shepherding, he must lead and serve as Christ did. But he cannot do this all by himself. Together, priests and people achieve far more than any one of us could do alone. To strengthen Fr Joseph for his new task, we now have the formal Rites of Installation of a Parish Priest. They are a useful reminder to us all, not just of his mission but of yours as brothers and sisters in the Lord. I ask you, of your mercy, to keep supporting Fr Joseph, as he prays for and serves you.


St. Jerome’s Church, Punchbowl

Welcome to this morning’s Mass, when I will formally install Fr Joseph Gedeon as Parish Priest of the parish of St. Jerome, Punchbowl. As a boy I lived for a few years in Wiley Park: It is good to be back!

I acknowledge concelebrating with me today Fathers Maroun Youssef, Maroun Kazzi

Assisting at the altar are Fr Emmanuel Seo and Deacons Ronnie Maree and Michael Suliman.

From the civic community I acknowledge Councillor George Zakhia, and from St Jerome’s Catholic Primary School, the Principal Carolynne Cavanagh, and the Assistant Principal Joseph Lyshaa. I welcome also the various members of the Parish Council, Finance Committee or other ministry leaders.

A special welcome to Fr Joseph’s family who are with us today, especially his parents, Afif and Raymonda Gedeon, along with his sisters Micheline and Nadine and their families.

Finally, a very warm welcome to the parishioners of St. Jerome! It might seem strange to be installing Fr Joseph after he’s been with you for so long, but that’s the efficiency of the Catholic Church for you! In any case, in witnessing the Rites of Installation of a Parish Priest we all have a chance to reflect not just on his job but on the stages of the faith journey of each one of us. So as we begin this Mass, giving thanks for our faith and Church, let us repent of our sins…

[1] e.g. Dt 8:7-10; Num 20:5; Jud 9:10-11; 1Sam 25:18; 1Kings 4:25; 2Kings 18:31; 20:7; 1Chr 12:40; Ps 105:33; Prov 27:18; Song 2:13; Isa 34:4; 36:16; 38:21; Jer 5:17; 8:13; ch 24; Hos 2:12; 9:10; Joel 1:12; 2:22; Amos 4:9;7:14; Mic 4:4; Nah 3:12; Hab 3:17; Hag 2:19; Zech 3:10; Tob 1:7; Mt 21:18-22; 24:32-36; Jas 3:12 etc.