19 Sep 2020

St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 19 September 2020


The word pandemic comes from the Greek words pan meaning all – as in ‘panorama’ and ‘pandemonium’ – and demos meaning the people – as in ‘democratic’ and ‘demography’. During the Antonine Plague of the 2nd century A.D., the great Graeco-Roman physician Galen first used the term pandemic to describe a contagion that threatened everyone.[1]

But the word didn’t always refer to disease. Before Galen pandemic was used simply to denote whatever affected everyone.[2] In the Symposium the philosopher Plato, for instance, used it when referring to our natural love for humanity.[3]

In the Old Testament it was said that ‘all men’ sin and fall short of the glory of God[4] and ‘all flesh’ will therefore perish like grass.[5] Yet hope there was, because God is a god ‘for all people’.[6]

In the Gospels we hear that ‘all the people’ were drawn to Jesus’ teaching[7] and astonished by His miracles.[8] Jesus’ coming is ‘joy for all the people’ and His second coming judgment upon all.[9] In our epistle Paul is overwhelmed by love when he recalls that Christ died that all the people might live. Christian ministers, he says, must be ambassadors of a mercy offered to all. (2Cor 5:14-20)

And so, unlike priests of old who only attended to their own, our Ordination Rite today will consecrate these four young men, not just for service of a particular community, but for the salvation of all. They must be πάνδημοὶ, for all the people, spiritual pandemics as it were.

Go out to all the world, Jesus said, offering word and sacrament and service (Mk 16:15-16). It’s a big ask – but God supplies the wherewithal. St Thomas Aquinas teaches that, as by the sanctifying grace of Baptism a man is adapted to receive the other sacraments, so by Holy Orders he is ordained to dispense them.[10] God enables a priest to be “all things to all people” (1Cor 9:19-23) and so serve them in many different ways.

The Antonine Plague that occasioned our use of the word pandemic was a particularly nasty one. Waves of what was probably Smallpox claimed around 1 in 10 lives in the Roman empire, even more of the army, and two emperors.[11] Panic spread, so that the rich and powerful and even Galen himself fled Rome, corpses littered the streets, and survivors left to starve.[12] But the Christians stayed. In an empire with no public health authorities or institutions, they filled the void with Christian caritas, so that work for the needy was thereafter called ‘charity work’, and with Christian hospitalitas, a care that still names our ‘hospitals’. Staying to feed, nurse and pastor the sick, they saved thousands of lives, their priests shone as heroes, and this inspired many conversions.[13] But this was no numbers drive: they were demonstrating the self-sacrificing love of today’s Gospel (Jn 15:9-17).

My sons, at your hands babies will be made children of God in Holy Baptism, souls made faithful through hearing the Holy Gospel, sinners made saints in Holy Penance, bread and wine made the Body and Blood of Christ in the Holy Eucharist, lovers made spouses in Holy Matrimony, the sick made healthy or ready for life eternal by Holy Anointing. What an awesome mystery! Yet after the disillusionment caused by the child sexual abuse crisis, and the corrosion wrought by the unremitting march of secularism, COVID-19 has brought an extended period of restrictions upon our worship and other activities. It seems that every time we come up for air, another wave dumps us!

The Class of 2020 will forever be identified with the Year of the Virus, and this will shape your mission: for beyond COVID you must help rebuild people’s confidence and trust, reawaken their hunger for that Eucharist and community they can only find at Mass, and resacralize a culture increasingly profane, anxious or indignant. Where health authorities act as if preserving life were all that matters and politicians talk as if the economy is the only other thing, you must stand for a richer conception of the good life: one that gives due importance also to family and friendship, truth and beauty, work and leisure, integrity and justice, above all to the sacred. You must be vectors of a spiritual pandemic. But of what sort precisely?

Well, dear John, you bring to this task the courageous faith of the Vietnamese martyrs and the migrant experience of so many Australians. Attracted from an early age to the ‘cool’ things of the priesthood, you were encouraged by priestly and religious relatives. Seeking a better education in Australia, you took part in the Sydney World Youth Day, and as a language student and pre-seminarian came to Good Shepherd Seminary in 2011. Now you are ready to bring a virus of hope and courage to our world beyond the hurts, anxieties and despond of recent times.

You, Noel, share the Prophet Jeremiah’s sense of calling from the time of your almost-miraculous conception (Jer 1:4-9) and were named for your Christmastide birth.

Though from a Filipino family, you grew up a typical young Aussie and joined John and half a million others at World Youth Day 2008. At an associated Youth for Christ rally you had a radical experience of God’s love and grace. Now you are ready to infect our world with that love and mercy, the antidote to its anger and tensions. And because you’ve been a merciful tennis partner to your Archbishop, I am confident you will go far…

When I first met you, Roberto, you were a chorister in this cathedral with mischief written all over your face. Few would have voted you Most Likely Future Priest of your year. But Br. Rafferty of the college, Elizabeth Swain of the choir and Daniel Hill at the university chaplaincies all hinted you might have a vocation. It’s a reminder to us all of our roles helping each other discern our gifts and calling, nurturing vocations and supporting each other to live them well. Every baptised Catholic in Sydney is hereby officially appointed as Promoter of Vocations for the Archdiocese.

World Youth Day in Sydney features in your story also, Roberto. As a Year 12 student at Cathedral college you sang for the Pope and, as you recently confessed, even plonked yourself in the papal throne after the final Mass! (I will determine an appropriate penance later.) From your chorister days you’ve been captivated by the beauty of our faith and liturgy. Now you must bring beauty and goodness to our post-COVID world, in place of the blandness and meaninglessness all too prevalent today. 

As a casual music teacher at Redfield College, Roberto taught young Jonathan Vala: rarely do we ordain teacher and student together! But you, Jonathan, put your vocation down more to your parents’ example of sacrificial – and thus priestly – devotion to their family, and to the formation you received in the Pared schools and from the Friars of St Francis. You learnt sentire cum ecclesia – to think with the Church – and were attracted to the heroic yet graced life of priests, as they reconcile, consecrate and proclaim.

Having begun my thirtieth year of priesthood this past week, I sometimes regret waiting till age 25 to enter the ‘seminary’. You were more mature and clear-headed than I, and already knew your vocation by age 16. So you’re the baby of the class of 2020, if a big baby! Through you the truths of faith and reason must go viral in a world so often faithless and unreasonable but hungry for a deeper wisdom.

“It shall come to pass,” God said through the prophet Joel, “that I will pour out my Spirit upon all the people, so your children prophesy, your old people dream dreams, and your young people see visions” (Joel 2:28; Acts 2:17). God wants a spiritual pandemic and the class of 2020 must be its vectors. You must see visions and prophesy, so that there is an epidemic of hope and courage, love and mercy, beauty and goodness, faith and reason in our times. Be from today πάνδημοὶ – for all the people.


Before Genuflecting

Because current circumstances continue to impede attendance at Mass and reception of Holy Communion, I invite those who are joining us by live-streaming to ask God that by spiritual communion you might receive the graces of sacramental communion. Offer this Mass and your hunger for the Eucharist for the safety of your loved ones, for our new priests and for all priestly vocations.


Thank you Fr Noel. I echo your words of thanks to all who’ve contributed to this beautiful ceremony today, those who’ve formed our candidates, and the families, friends and schools who gave them to us. Amongst those assisting today, I note in particular Fr Lewi Barakat who so ably keeps me on the straight and narrow, the Dean, Precinct Manager, Events Manager, ushers and other staff of the Cathedral who have enabled us to gather with COVID-safety and at short notice about numbers. In a time of such anxiety and uncertainty about our future health and happiness, including our freedom to worship, it is especially encouraging to have four new priests ready to spread a pandemic of faith and reason, beauty and goodness, hope and courage, love and mercy.

I thank our lay faithful for your love for your priests: it is a tribute to your love for Jesus Christ, whose word and sacraments they bring you. Keep treasuring and encouraging them. We need more priests: any young men watching who are eligible should contact our Vocations Office immediately. To the rest of you I say: remember you are all part of our vocations promotion team, so please pray for and encourage more young priests and religious. And to the priests of Sydney and beyond, I say: the people of God love you for all you do for them. Thanks be to God for you in these troubled times!

Now my friends, may I join you all in congratulating Father John Pham, Father Noel Custodio, Father Roberto Keryakos and Father Jonathan Vala.

[1]    Galen,  Methodus Medendi 17 and elsewhere.

[2]    Cf. for example Sophocles, Ajax, 175; Antigones, 7; Euripides, Alcestis, 1026.

[3]       Plato, Symposium, 180e.

[4]       Gen 6:13 etc.; cf. Rom 3:23.

[5]       Job 34:15; Isa 40:6 etc.; cf. 1Pet 1:24.

[6]     Gen 9:16-7; Dt 5:26; Ps 136:25; Isa 66:23; Jer 32:27 etc.           

[7]       e.g. Mt 13:2; Mk 4:1; 6:39-41; 9:15; Lk 19:48; 21:38; Jn 8:2.

[8]       e.g. Mt 12:23; Mk 5:20; Lk 18:43.

[9]       Lk 2:10; 3:6; Mt 24:30.

[10]     St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Suppl. 35,1.

[11] See Sarah Yeomans, “The Antonine Plague and the spread of Christianity,” Biblical Archaeology Review 43(2) (2017), 22-24 & 66.

[12]   Cf. Sean F. Everton & Robert Schroeder, “Plagues, pagans, and Christianity: differential survival, social networks, and the rise of Christianity,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 58(4) (2019), 775-89 at p. 778.

[13]   Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 86.

Welcome to St Mary’s Basilica in Sydney for the priestly ordination of Rev. John Quan Trung Pham, Rev. Noel Custodio, Rev. Roberto Keryakos and Rev. Jonathan Vala. The Ritual Mass of Ordination in Time of Pandemic is one we mercifully have little experience of celebrating, but it includes a somewhat simplified ritual, a good deal of hand-sanitizer and many people joining us remotely: I salute you all this morning. That permission was granted for extra places at the last minute has been an added bonus and so to those lucky enough to be here today, a warm welcome to you also.

I acknowledge the presence of my predecessor as Archbishop of Sydney, His Eminence Cardinal George Pell; the Auxiliary Bishops of Sydney Most Rev. Terry Brady and Most Rev. Richard Umbers; the Vicars General of Sydney Very Rev. Gerry Gleeson and of Broken Bay Very Rev. David Ranson; Cathedral Dean Very Rev. Don Richardson; with other vicars and deans. Also present are Good Shepherd Seminary Rector Very Rev. Danny Meagher and CIS President Prof. Sr. Isabell Naumann ISSM, representing the staff of their two institutions and also of the North American College in Rome where Jonathan is studying.

I extend a particular welcome to our ordinands’ families and friends who’ve nurtured their faith from birth. From the Vala clan we have Jonathan’s parents, Peter and Tracey, his siblings Nathaniel, Rebecca, Rachel, Jessica and Benjamin. Roberto’s family include his parents, Diana and Maroun, his siblings David, Christopher and Christina and his Nonna, Anna Maria (live-streaming from her nursing home). For Noel we welcome his parents Dom and Nelia, his siblings Gerard and Raymond, his sister Maria and family (watching from London), and his extended family – that is, the entire Filipino-Australian community. John Pham’s parents, Xuan Pham and Puong Bui, could not come from Vietnam, nor his other overseas or interstate relatives, but we welcome his uncle and aunt Viet Phuong Bui and Tram Bui and cousins, representing them all.

I also acknowledge the priests of Sydney and beyond, who welcome these new brothers into their ranks with great joy, along with the seminarians who can better see the light at the end of their own tunnels today, and the lay faithful from the parishes from which our ordinands hail or in which they have served. Our ordination has been postponed and restricted but thanks be to God – and a little technology – we are able to gather nonetheless. To everyone present, in one way or another, a very warm welcome to you all!