HOMILY FOR MASS FOR CONSECRATED LIFE
St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica, Sydney, Friday of 7th Week of Easter
Trials and errors, courts and appeals have been very much in the air of late! In our two readings this morning both Peter and Paul are on trial, and their further trials are prophesied.
Paul had been imprisoned by the Governor of Judea, Antonius Felix, and inherited as a prisoner by his successor, Porcius Festus (Acts 25:13-21). But Festus could find no evidence that Paul had committed any crime against the laws of Rome or the Jews. His only ‘crime’ seemed to be that he professed that some dead guy was alive. At Caesarea Maritima, Festus reported to King Herod Agrippa II and his sister that he was suspicious of the motives of the Jewish DPP, police and courts, and the vigilante crowd they’d stirred up. Paul was equally sceptical and, having no confidence in his ability to get a fair trial down South, petitioned to be sent directly to the Roman emperor’s Court of Appeal. As Paul’s interrogation continues in the next chapter (Acts ch. 26), Festus exclaims, “You’re crazy, Paul! Too much learning is driving you insane!” – to which Paul responds, “I’m not out of my mind, Your Honour, but speaking the sober truth: that Jesus the Messiah was destined to suffer and rise again.” The judges Agrippa and Festus both think him innocent, but were bound to send him to the imperial Court and ultimately to his death.
Peter gets an easier run in his trial today: Jesus, the just judge, asks if he has really repented of his betrayals and really loves him (Jn 21:15-19). Pleading his love, he is granted forgiveness and commissioned to feed the lambs and lead the sheep – that is, to shepherd Christ’s flock. But Jesus predicts another trial to come: Peter, too, will be tied up and dragged before the imperial courts; like Paul, he will give glory to God by dying for Christ.
Our Gospel story is an example of the balance and beauty of John’s writing. As Peter and the apostles join Christ around a fire for their fish barbie, we recall Peter only days before warming himself before a fire in the High Priest’s courtyard. As Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him, we remember his triple denial on the night Jesus was betrayed. Peter might find this interrogation frustrating, but it’s exactly what he needs, and occasions he triple profession of love.
Why does Jesus put him through this? Is he enjoying saying ‘I told you so’, that you would betray me, and taunting Peter with his weakness? No, as the American Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart suggests, the reality is both gentler and greater. What we are witnessing here is the grace of a second chance: “Peter did not have an opportunity to speak to Christ… before the latter’s death – to confess his failure, to seek forgiveness, to pledge himself anew to his master,” Hart writes. “Within the realm of normal human possibilities, there was no way for Peter to undo what he had done.”[i] But Christ is beyond the realm of normal human possibilities. In giving Peter the opportunity to profess his love for Him three times, Our Lord is not condemning him, not rubbing his nose in his mistake; He’s giving Peter the opportunity to undo what he has done, to make amends. He’s giving him a second chance.
A second chance – not a free pass. Each time Peter professes his love, Jesus responds by telling him what that means practically. He doesn’t say ‘no worries – as you were.’ No, He makes it very clear that loving Him comes with an obligation to live that love, in fidelity to Christ unto death and in care for Christ’s flock in the meantime.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church suggests that this is precisely the goal of religious life: lovingly livingour congregational charisms in fidelity to Christ and in caring for all God’s children (CCC 917ff). A contemplative element is essential to this, even for those most actively engaged in apostolates: we all need time around Jesus’ campfire, being present to and intimate with Him, silent or questioning, in prayer and pondering. Cloistered religious and imprisoned apostles have intensive experiences of that. But it is proper to us all. So the Church looks to religious for deep prayerfulness, to be holding all creation, humanity, the flock up to God. The sheep and lambs – and indeed the shepherds – need your spiritual solicitude and prayer, all the more so in a world where many no longer hold themselves up to God. For this task of loving we were handpicked by Christ, as Peter was.
But campfire spirituality is not enough: much as we might like to remain forever like John leaning on Jesus’ breast. Peter is told to get out amongst the flock, so that in Pope Francis’ terms, he smells of the sheep: knows them and their real needs, offers answers to their real questions, food for their deepest hungers. Peter and Paul must join people in the trials in this life and amidst incomprehension and persecution suffer with them and for them. Religious through the centuries, and often in this city, have braved opposition or indifference as they engaged in a range of ministries, demonstrating evangelical creativity and responsiveness, “in season and out of season”, bringing Christ to the world and the world to Christ. Their works of mercy are in the eyes of many the Church at its best. But appreciated or not, the sheep and lambs – and indeed the shepherds and even the wolves – need your corporal activity and ministry, all the more so in a world where commerce and bureaucracy often confine good works and render them soulless. For this task we were given our ‘second chance’ by Christ, sent out to care on His behalf as Peter was.
Jesus’ first words to Peter were also His last: “Follow me.” (Mt 4:19; cf. 16:24; 19:21; Jn 1:43; 21:19) As the lads return to their familiar world of Galilee and their familiar activity of fishing, so Jesus recalls their first encounter with Him. We too must regularly return to the origins of our vocation, the freshness of that first “Follow me” moment, and the subsequent renewals of vocational call that we have heard. As Eastertide winds to its end, Jesus leaves us with His final words on earth. These final words are, as David Bentley Hart puts it, “the Gospel’s final word upon the new life that is given at Easter: that with it comes the possibility of seemingly impossible reconciliation, the healing of wounds that normally could never be healed, and the hope of beginning anew precisely when all hope would seem to have been extinguished.”[ii] Religious give a unique testimony to Christ’s final words to humanity: forgiveness and love, call and response. Thanks be to God for you!
INTRODUCTION TO MASS FOR CONSECRATED LIFE
St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica, Sydney, Friday of 7th Week of Easter
Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral for the annual Mass to celebrate consecrated life and those who live it. It’s always a great pleasure gather with my fellow religious and is certainly so today. I’m delighted to see so many of you here. Many of you may share my experience of our annual events – birthdays, profession days, Christmas and Easter – seeming to come around every six months these days! As we repent of our sins at the very end of Eastertide and await the coming of the Spirit of Pentecost, let us pray for a new Pentecost for our own congregations and for religious life in our land…
[i] David Bentley Hart, The Story of Christianity: A History of 2,000 Years of the Christian Faith (Quercus, 2009), pp. 24-25
[ii] Ibid., p. 25