13 Jun 2021

St. John of God Church, Auburn, Feast of St Anthony of Padua

There’s an old Peanuts comic in which everybody’s self-appointed life-coach, Lucy, is telling her younger brother Linus about the many uses of a tree. “They provide shade from the sun,” she tells him, “and protection from the rain. They prevent erosion, and their wood is used to build beautiful buildings.” Then she and Linus come across poor old Charlie Brown, downtrodden and depressed, hunched over with his head against a tree: “And when life gets too hard,” Lucy sagely informs Linus, “they are very good to lean against.”

Ezekiel and Jesus would have said Lucy is right on the money. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if Charles Schulz, a Christian lay preacher who used his Peanuts comics to preach,[1] had today’s First Reading (Ezek 17:22-24) and Gospel (Mk 4:26-34) in mind when writing. (In case you haven’t noticed before: the first reading at Mass is always paired with the Gospel of the day; the epistle, on the other hand, often explores different themes.)

Today’s first reading tells us of ‘a noble cedar’ tree atop a high mountain, branching out, bearing fruit, sheltering every kind of bird, and demonstrating that it is God who gives growth to all living things. Christians are no strangers to the image of trees and vines bearing fruit: the Gospel is full of such metaphors for conversion of life that yields a virtuous character, for good deeds that reveal the inner health of the soul, or for persons grafted onto Christ as the source of their inspiration and holiness.[2] So we know biblical trees bear metaphorical fruit: but the idea of trees providing shelter for birds is a less common trope in the Scriptures. Yet that’s what they are for in today’s readings.

Birds, of course, have various associations in the Bible.[3] In the New Testament they mark the relationship between God and humanity. The Spirit descends upon the Lord at his Baptism in the form of a dove (Mt 3:6; Mk 1:10; Lk 3:22; Jn 1:32). The dawn cockcrow marks Peter’s betrayal of Jesus (Mk 14:30-31,66-72 et par.). Jesus likens himself to a hen gathering chicks under her wings (Mt 23:37; Lk 13:34), and uses birds as metaphors for innocence and trust in divine providence (Mt 6:26; 10:16,31; Lk 12:6-7,24).[4] And of course we hear Him today talking of birds of every sort that come and make their nests in the mustard bush (Mk 4:32; cf. Mt 13:32; Lk 13:19). So the birds in Ezekiel’s cedar and in Jesus’ mustard tree are us, you and me, sometimes more like the dove of the Holy Spirit, at other times more like the rooster of fickle Peter, but at all times chicks of Jesus relying upon His providence in our lives, sheltering in that capacious tree that is the Church.  

Yet Jesus describes Himself rather than the Church as the True Vine (Jn 15:1-11). “I am the vine, you are the branches… My Father is the vinedresser who prunes you so you bear much fruit…If you remain grafted onto me you will continue to do so… but cut off from me you wither and die.” This suggested to the Fathers of the Church a different way of reading the parable of the mustard seed: instead of thinking of the mustard seed as our small but growing faith and the mustard bush as the tiny but eventually worldwide Church, we might instead (or as well) read them as about Christ Himself. As St. John Chrysostom points out, there is nothing greater than God and nothing lowlier than Jesus crucified. Thus Our Lord carried within Him both the tininess and humility of the mustard seed and the power or greatness of the full-grown bush.[5]

This is why, in the first Gospel parable this morning, Jesus says a man throws seed on the land but has no idea if and when and why it sprouts; it’s as if, of its own accord, the land produces the grain. If God the Father or Christ Himself were the farmer, they would surely know the whys and wherefores. But in this story we are the farmers and Christ is the seed, planted in the soil of our world. We faith farmers can do no more than scatter, watch and wait: once planted in the individual heart or the culture, the Gospel grows as it wills, unfolding like a seed with the plan and power within it. And if we have been seeded with Christ, the seed of heaven, then we must let Him grow in us into a big crop for harvest, or let the tiny mustard seed of faith erupt into a great shrub which we can share with others of all sorts.

Eight centuries ago, my name-saint Anthony, would have been very much at home with all this nature imagery. Not because he was a farmer – he was in fact very much a city boy, academic, and cleric. Like St John of God, he was in fact Portuguese in origin. Born in 1195 into a wealthy Lisbon family and baptised Fernando Martins de Bulhões, he eventually joined the Franciscans and their romances with nature and poverty. In a century of great preachers, including St Dominic, St Thomas Aquinas, St Albert the Great, St Francis and St Bonaventure – to name a few – Anthony was the stand-out preacher: as testament to that, his tongue remains incorrupt to this very day, eight centuries later in the Basilica in Padua. Yet in typical Franciscan fashion, when people wouldn’t listen to his preaching he’d go and preach to the birds or, on one famous occasion, to the fish who promptly leapt out of the water to hear the Word of God!

Apart from preaching the faith with the aid of Mother Nature, Anthony was also in true Franciscan fashion espoused to Lady Poverty. He regularly distributed food to the poor in life and even after his death. According to one early legend, when a child drowned near the Paduan Basilica during its construction in 1263, the mother cried out to the Saint to bring her boy back to life: in return, she promised to give her boy’s weight in bread to the poor. When the child was miraculously revived, the mother made good on her promise. Ever since Franciscan churches have called their poor boxes St Anthony’s Bread and used the proceeds to feed the poor; but some parishes also took to blessing and distributing small loaves on this day, 13th June, to mark the day St Anthony died.

Being 28km from the sea here in Auburn, I’m not sure Fr Gustavo will have much opportunity to preach to the fish; but if the people of this district don’t listen to him he might try preaching to the cockatoos. In any case I’m confident he will share in St Anthony’s love for our faith and of the poor. And he will find here a parish that like the mustard bush shelters birds of all kinds: a Filipino choir, a Tongan choir, a Multicultural choir, an Italian Prayer Group, a Fijian pastor, then an Ecuadorian pastor, as well as the multicoloured feathers of the Legion of Mary, Mary MacKillop Group, and St Vincent De Paul.

This shrub of St John of God Parish, Auburn, has weathered some storms, including the loss of Fr Ray at the height of the COVID-19 lockdown last year, which precluded the parish gathering to grieve collectively and to commend him to God. Yet Fr Epeli assures me that it is a parish of genuine and loyal faithful. With Fr Gustavo’s help I trust you will let Christ grow in you and in your community, scatter the seed of the Gospel far and wide in the district, and shelter many birds in the mustard tree of St John of God. God bless you all!


St. John of God Church, Auburn, Feast of St Anthony of Padua

Welcome all to our celebration of the 11th Sunday of Ordinary Time. Today we also celebrate the feast day of my name-saint, St. Anthony of Padua and so, in keeping with a long-standing Italian custom we will bless and distribute St Anthony’s Bread following this morning’s Mass. With that in mind I recognise and thank the parish St Vincent de Paul Team who provided the bread and the Pope Francis Award students from the parish school who will distribute it. My thanks to the Fijians for their traditional welcome and to those who have been preparing for the celebrations of this Mass and the activities afterwards.

I welcome: some sisters from St Joseph’s Village; the Principal of St John’s Primary School, Mrs Louise McGuire; the Vice Principal of the Trinity Catholic College, Ms Dona McLaughlin; children of the parish with their parents; and senior parishioners who have contributed to the life of our church for decades.

When last I was here it was to celebrate the Funeral Mass for your beloved pastor, Fr Ray Farrell. COVID-19 restrictions robbed many of you of the opportunity of attending and, though I know many of you took part via live-streaming, it’s not the same and I promised that when things returned to normal I’d return to pray for him with you all.

A faithful disciple of Jesus Christ for 73 years, Fr Ray joined the Seminary in Springwood in 1967 and was ordained almost 30 years later. This was not because he was a slow learner! He took leave to care for his aged parents and older sister, pursued a successful career in the local courts, re-entered the seminary, was ordained, and served in Liverpool and Sydney parishes before coming to his beloved Auburn where he served from 2002 till his death. He was also regional Dean, Chaplain to the Catholic Women’s League and spiritual adviser to the Archdiocesan St. Vincent de Paul Council. He was very involved in the local schools. But his passion was this parish, which he served as a gentle and wise pastor. You had the blessing of his dry wit, his delight in simple pleasures, his realism about humanity informed by his court experience, but his Gospel mercy and compassion also. I’ll always remember visiting him in the palliative care ward as he was dying and witnessing him giving phone instructions to his trusty Secretary about keeping the parish going in his absence! That unwavering dedication was told in other ways, too, such as celebrating every Mass, every weekday and weekend.

Concelebrating with me today are Fr Epeli Qimaqima the former Administrator of this parish who is handing over a parish he has come to love. Fr Epeli is as you have come to appreciate a wise, joyful and holy priest who also serves as the Director of Vocations for the Archdiocese: I thank him for his generous service here and thank you for looking after him as he juggled his two jobs. Vinaka vaka levu!

Now replacing him as the Administrator of the Parish is Fr Gustavo Criollo Farfan. He is from a small Ecuadorian family of only 15 children – of which he is the ninth! An electronics technician, he discerned his vocation to the priesthood in the Neocatechumenal Way, entered the Redemptoris Mater missionary seminary in Sydney in 2008, and I am proud to have ordained him six years ago. Since then he has served as Assistant Priest at Holy Family Parish Maroubra and as Chaplain to the University of New South Wales. He’s rumoured to be a good soccer player. Aware of his own poverty of spirit, and Christ’s providence in his life, he told me once he wants to proclaim God’s unconditional love to a world crying out for love. I am sure he will bring that love and passion to his new parish and I ask you all to encourage and support him. Bienvenido padre!

I also welcome today Very Rev. Eric Skruzny, Rector of the Redemptoris Mater Seminary where Fr Gustavo trained, with seminarians. To everyone present, a very warm welcome!

[1] Charles Schulz, “Knowing you are not alone,” Decision (Sep. 1963), 8-9, at p. 9.
[2] Mt 3:8,10; 7:15-20; 12:33; 13:23; 21:43; Mk 4:20; Lk 3:8-9; 6:43-44; 8:14-15; 13:6-9; Jn 4:36; 12:24; 15:2-8,16; cf. Rom 7:4-5; 8:23; 11:16; 1Cor 15:20,23; Gal 5:22-23; Eph 5:9; Col 1:6,10; 2Thess 2:13 etc.
[3] Gen 8:6-12; 40:19; Ex ch. 16;  19:4; 1Sam 17:44-6; Dt 28:26; 32:11; 1Kings 14:11;  16:4; 21:24; Ps 55:6: 57:1; 63:7; 102:7; 127:4;Prov 7:23; Song: 1:15; 4:1; 5:2; Hos 7:11-12; 11:11; Lam 3:52; Isa 13:21; 34:11-15; 38:14; 59:11; Jer 48:40; Hos 8:1; Zeph 2:14; etc.
[4] Birds also have their nests while Jesus lacks a permanent home: Mt 8:20; Lk 9:58. As birds swoop upon seeds planted in the earth, so the Evil one comes and snatches away the Word of God sewn in the heart: Mt 13:1-23; Mk 4:4; Lk 8:5. Birds were sold in the temple precinct and used in sacrifice: Mt 21:12; Mk 11:15; Lk 2:24; Jn 2:14-16.
[5] St. John Chrysostom, Homily 7