14 Aug 2019

St. John’s College, University of Sydney, 14 August 2019

In the Gospel of John is the story of a crowd of vigilantes about to stone a woman caught in adultery (Jn 8:1-11). Jesus intervened, writing the sins of the crowd in the sand and charging them: “Let the one without sin cast the first stone.” According to legend a pebble then flew through the air, landing near the woman. Jesus turned around and said, “Mother, stop that!”

It’s a very Catholic joke! While the Feast of the Immaculate Conception recognizes Mary’s sinlessness from the beginning, tonight’s Vigil of the Assumption pays tribute to her sinlessness to the end. That’s why Catholics love to pray the Hail Mary, and so I’d like to offer a reflection on that great prayer tonight. To the non-Catholics here, and the not-sure-if-I-want-to-be Catholics here, I say: thanks for joining us for one of our favourite feasts and for letting me explain this Hail Mary things Catholics do…

  1. The Hail Mary: A Catechism on Grace

“Hail Mary, full of grace,” the angel says and we echo. In many ways I think we might regard this prayer as a short catechism on grace. As Mary herself said in her Magnificat, my soul is bursting as it magnifies the Lord. My spirit is overjoyed with God my saviour. He looks on me in my lowliness and raises up all the lowly. He loves me in my emptiness and fills all the hungry with good things. He recognises me in my nothingness and has all generations call me Blessed. Gift after gift, grace upon grace, that’s my experience of God, Mary says. 

“Hail Mary” says the angel at the Annunciation. Not just hello. No: praise, honour, I salute you Mary. Why? Because you are “most highly favoured”. Grace is just that: divine favour. The Holy Spirit will over-shadow you, the angel says, to bring about the Incarnation; but the Holy Spirit is already at home with you, for you are “full of grace” and He is the One who fills with grace. Pentecost is every day for you. 

But what is this grace word Christians throw around so freely? Grace is the life of God, as the three Persons give and receive their substance, identity and mission from each other. Grace is the life of Mary also, and so of each of us, as we receive our substance, identity and mission from God too. Grace is God creating and sustaining, recreating and inspiring, communicating and caring. “The Almighty works marvels for me, hallowed be His name!”

Dominus vobiscum,” we say, literally “Lord with you”. Mostly we mean the Lord BE with you. But in your case, Mary, we mean “the Lord IS with you”. Grace comes from God alone, and through God alone, and with God alone. Grace is God, operating within you and for your sake, and through you for the sake of others. 

Mary, you are full of grace; Mary, the Lord is with you; and so you are the “most Blessed of all women”. Ever since the Visitation (Lk 1:39-65) when Elizabeth said “Blessed are you among women”, ever since that day related in tonight’s Gospel (Lk 11:27-8) when a women in the crowd cried out “Blessed the womb that bore you and the breasts that suckled you” all generations have called you “The Blessed Virgin”. From there our litanies grew and grew, as each generation recognised your virtues and invoked your intercession. Each title describes one of your graces. Grace preserved you from sin. Grace prompted your Yes to God. Grace made you persevere, all the way to your Son’s cross and tomb, rising and ascension. Grace raised you up also, assuming you to itself, crowning your earthly journey. Most blessed woman: your destiny is our trajectory, too, by God’s grace – more about that in a moment. 

Mary, you are full of grace, you have the Lord with you, you are the most blessed of all women: but all this is for one reason only: you carry the Most Blessed One within you. “Blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.” Grace puts Him in you and you in Him. Grace upon grace. No longer is it you that lives only, but Christ who lives in you. You are the ark, He is the Tablets within (cf. 1Chr 15:3-4,15-16; 16:1-2). You are the tabernacle, He is the Bread of Presence. You are the monstrance, He the Host. You are the lamp, He is the Light shining through you. 

All this is grace. God with us. For us. Now. And you, Mary, teach us about divine grace. 

  • The Holy Mary: A Catechism on Eschatology

All this is grace. God with us. For us. Now. But what is our future, “Holy Mary, Mother of God”?

Well, we are graced, made holy, in the present moment, for the present moment, but for the future also. Holy Mary means Saint Mary, Mary made for eternity, for communion, for heaven. We, too, are graced now, for now, but also for eternity. 

The moment Jesus was made “the fruit of your womb”, you Mary were made “Mother of God”. For then. For now. For ever. So, too, when God graces us, He doesn’t just turn a blind eye to our wickedness, He doesn’t just put some overalls over the dirty clothes within: no, He changes us, builds on our natures, elevates us to be more and better. He might not make us Mother of Jesus and so Mother of God – that is uniquely the title for one of us – but he does make us Brother or Sister of Jesus, and so Brother or Sister of God, made for an eternity in God’s family.

“Pray for us”, Holy Mary, Mother of God, for we need to be filled with grace as you were, we need the Lord with us as He was with you, we need to be blessed among people as you are, we need the fruit of our lives to be blessed also. But more than this, Holy Mary, pray for us, that we may be these things not just now, not just fleetingly, but enduringly, and forever. 

Pray for us, Holy Mary, “pray for us sinners”. Pray that temptation, sin, vice will not block the action of grace in us. Pray that we don’t lose confidence when we are weak, don’t give up when things seem too hard. Inspire in us the hope that, like you, we can live without sin. Inspire in us the Act of Contrition, the confidence and prayer that with God’s help we may sin no more. Pray for us sinners, that we might be saints. 

Pray for us, Holy Mary, pray for us sinners, “now and at the hour of our death”. Pray for us when we are in danger of death: physical death, moral death, social death, spiritual death. Pray for the grace of final perseverance, of perfect contrition, of embracing God in eternity. Pray that we will be saints with you forever.

There’s a lot packed into that little prayer, the Hail Mary! Feel free to pray it when you don’t know what to pray. It’s a great prayer for God’s grace and the saints’ help. It’s a great prayers amongst present trials and for our future. On this feast when Mary’s life and prayers came to their fulfilment in her being raised up to God, we should have great confidence that, as Jesus said in tonight’s Gospel, that is the promise to all “who hear the word of God and keep it”. In awe and gratitude let the life and person of each one here tonight declare to all generations: “The Almighty has done great things for me: holy is His name!”

O Blessed Virgin Mary, assumed into heaven body and soul, pray for us!


St. John’s College, University of Sydney

Thank you all for your kind welcome tonight and for hosting me once again at the annual Visitor’s Mass and Dinner. It’s always a great pleasure for me to take a little time out over a meal.

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.  So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.”[i] So declared the Nobel-Prize-winning Richard Fineman Feynman during his 1974 Caltech commencement lecture. Like his colleague, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who also worked on nuclear fission, Feynman had a somewhat philosophical bent – perhaps it’s in the nature of quantum physics and cosmology that you ask the big questions, or perhaps making something as dangerous as an atom bomb has that effect on you.

Whatever the reason, I think Feynman hit on an important, even fundamental, truth. The one thing we tend to be most sure of is ourselves, and that makes it the easiest thing for us to get wrong. Feynman challenges us first to be honest with ourselves, to know ourselves, to be self-critical even. Do we think we are ‘honest’, when in fact we’re pretending, even lying all the time? Are we are we’re courageous, despite the fact we never stand up for what we believe or for the powerless? Do we insist we’re vegetarian and this bacon deluxe cheeseburger doesn’t count?!

The first principle, Feynman insists, must be honesty with one’s self. In science it can be all too easy to make the evidence fit the facts; so, too, in other academic disciplines. It’s all the easier in every-day life, when we don’t have to submit our actions to assessors or to peer-reviewed journals! Human beings are complex and some can be great actors, but in the end maintaining a sense of identity demands some sort of integrity between the different dimensions of the person, between ideals, character and choices, above all between the external, acting, seen-and-heard you and the inner, feeling, unseen you. Without such integrity we experience a troubled conscience, fractured relationships, a messed-up personality. The opposite of integrity is disintegration.

Feynman’s aphorism starts from the internal focus but then projects outward to others. As he notes, if you’ve found personal integrity, if you haven’t fooled yourself in your researches, then it’s much easier to take those findings to others: “You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.”

This ‘conventional honesty’ is about having integrity in our dealings with others. If you’re honest with yourself, it’s much easier to be up-front with others – whether it’s about faith, ideas, friends, your situation, even your bad jokes – no matter what’s around you. The woman whose Assumption the Church celebrates tonight was a realist with herself and others. And that meant she could sometimes carry on, literally bursting into song with her cousin Elizabeth and giving us the beautiful Magnificat (Lk 1:30-56).

In Aussie slang Mary was fair dinkum. The phrase speaks of genuineness, truthfulness, reliability. Australians like to insist it’s one of their national values and characteristics. The origins of the idiom are disputed. Some claim is that it came from the Victorian goldfields, where Chinese workers used the term ‘Din gum’ to confirm a nugget as true gold. Others say it was a 19th century Lincolnshire dialect word for honest toil or fair play.[ii] Fair dinkum captures something of the ideas of being true to ourselves and fair to others, then toiling honestly.

I hope that for each of you, your time here at St John’s College is an opportunity for developing that integrity which will carry you through the years ahead. St John the Divine took Mary to his home and looked after her after Christ had gone; I hope she finds a home in this St John’s also, and that you learn a little of her wisdom, never fooling yourself or others. The English author Aldous Huxley once said, ‘the only corner of the universe you can be sure of changing is yourself’. So start with figuring out yourself – and then be fair dinkum with others. God bless you.


St. John’s College, University of Sydney

It’s a joy to be with you again at St. John’s College as the College Visitor for the annual Archbishop’s Mass and Dinner. Tonight we also celebrate the Vigil of the Solemn Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Concelebrating with me are Bishop Richard Umbers and Vicar General Gerry Gleeson.

I acknowledge the Rector of the College, Adrian Diethelm; the chair and members of the College Council; Nick and Lachlan representing the Senior Common Room; Special Guests; and, above all, all of you students of St. John’s College.

[i] Richard Feynman, “Cargo Cult Science”, Caltech 1974 Commencement Lecture http://calteches.library.caltech.edu/51/2/CargoCult.htm

[ii] https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/fair-dinkum.html; http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-fai3.htm