03 Feb 2021

Seminary of the Good Shepherd, Homebush, Feast of St. Blaise

Typecasting. If a young lawyer wins a complex case in an obscure corner of the law such as admiralty or financial derivatives, he or she may spend the rest of their life being given cases in that same area. “Go to Jane, she knows about derivatives law…”

The same thing can happen to actors. An important part early in their career may trap an actor in the same sort of part for ever. “I can only really imagine him playing a villain…” we might say.

It can happen to saints too! Blaise was a 4th-century philosopher, physician and churchman, rising to being Bishop of Sebastea in Armenia (in modern-day Turkey). He brought together his intellectual, spiritual and healing arts to cure people with ailments of mind, body or spirit. Legend has it that he cured wild animals too and some came to him for a blessing! Catholic and Orthodox Christians remember him for his fidelity in the face of persecution and eventual martyrdom by being flayed alive with metal combs and beheaded. Yet what is he remembered for? Throats.

Why throats? Because he once cured a boy who was choking on a fishbone and was forever typecast as the go-to guy for throats… By the Middle Ages he’d joined the team of the ‘Fourteen Holy Helpers’, each dedicated to a particular body part; pray to the team and you had the whole body covered. For ancients and medievals like St Thomas Aquinas, God was not excluded from any space or time: the whole of creation is a theatre for divine grace, and that includes every organ of the human body.

There’s a bishop I know who picks a different body-part as the springboard for his annual Chrism Mass homily: hands, feet, mouth, heart. We’ll see if there are fourteen such homilies! But why would the throat get a patron all to itself? Well, one reason might be that a sore throat can be a symptom of something more serious, like COVID-19 or bubonic plague. If someone coughed or sneezed in earlier times, you got praying quick. The nursery rhyme “Ring a ring a rosie”-a-ring o roses” is about that too.

But there are other reasons why throats mattered and still matter. Throats have three distinct purposes, and each can be a site for St Thomas’ axiom ‘grace builds on nature’, healing and elevating it rather than replacing or annihilating it. So a graced throat is one that serves well all three uses. What are they?

First, respiration: the throat is the snorkel between mouth and lungs through which we breathe. Like the plants we need oxygen and like the animals we get it by breathing.[1] Strangulation,  beheading (such as Blaise suffered) or accidental choking (like the boy with the fishbone) mean suffocation and death.[2] As if life itself weren’t miracle enough, grace builds on nature, protecting or healing blocked throats, so that we breathe to live another day. It also elevates this mundane activity into something divine: for the Book of Genesis describes the infusion of the soul into the first clay man as God breathing His divine breath, ruah or spirit into humanity.[3] To die is to “breathe your last”[4] and to kill is to take someone’s breath away.[5] Resuscitation returns breath to the dead[6] and resurrection confers a new, immortal life-breath.[7] So the throat, you might say, is the site of the resurrection.

The second use of the throat is for communication. Making sounds in the throat that carry on the air is something animals do. But speech, that tool of thought and sharing thoughts, and song, that means of moving hearts, are unique to humans. Speech and song can be turned to great good; but tongues can deceive and throats be open graves.[8] Again grace builds on nature, protecting or healing us so we can chant once more. It also elevates this natural activity to the supernatural realm of Christ, who is the Word spoken by the Father from all eternity and spoken now in time, in the flesh, and whose story and teachings we never tire of proclaiming. And if grace turns words to saving action, so it promotes song to the realm of paradise, where we join a heavenly choir. The throat, you might say, is the site of mortal speech and immortal song.

Throats have a third end, of course: they are the conduit for food and water. All living things need nutrition and all animals swallow it. In biblical terms to be thirsty or hungry is to be deprived;[9] to have food and drink is to be satisfied;[10] and to be sated is to be truly blessed.[11] Yet again, there’s a deeper human and divine angle on this. Meals don’t just feed us, they draw us together and civilize us. Then grace builds on nature, protecting or healing us from what starves and isolates, but also elevating this human activity into something divine: Holy Communion. By passage of the throat we are united with God and the Church, and will eventually enjoy the heavenly banquet.

At least three reasons, then, why St Blaise was not wasted in being assigned throats to intercede for!

Promoting the good life, including breathing, eating and drinking, speaking and singing, are tasks for Christians in every age but especially for priests for whom words are the principal tools of trade: words of proclamation, evangelisation and preaching, of dedication, consecration and communion, of absolution, anointing and healing, of teaching, challenge and consolation. Priests must also feed the spiritually hungry and build the local community, especially through the sacred banquet that is the Eucharist.

Through priests babies are made children of God in Holy Baptism, souls made faithful through hearing the Holy Gospel, sinners made saints in Holy Penance, bread made the Body of Christ in the Holy Eucharist, lovers made spouses in Holy Matrimony, the sick made healthy in Holy Anointing, the dead commended to God in Holy Requiem. All these things require the mouths of priests. And to these sacred words are often joined some celebratory eating and drinking such as a wedding feast or wake. In the Eucharist the throat becomes a pyx!

So St Blaise’s speciality turns out to be central for every priest and those preparing for such a life. Not a career but a vocation. Not for self but for service. Our calling is to be voices for God, with His words in our mouths, His life-breath in our souls, His bread of angels in our bodies. What a privilege, my sons! So discern honestly, open your hearts to formation, your minds to your studies. Persevere bravely, learn zealously, pray ceaselessly. Make every moment a chance for grace to heal, elevate and perfect nature! God bless you in 2021.


Seminary of the Good Shepherd, Homebush, Feast of St. Blaise

Welcome dear seminarians to this morning’s Mass, on the Memoria of the bishop-martyr Blaise, marking the opening of the 2021 seminary year. I acknowledge concelebrating with me this morning the new Rector of the Seminary of the Good Shepherd, Very Rev. Michael de Stoop, along with seminary staff, vocations directors, external spiritual directors, and brother priests. I also recognise all other seminary staff. Above all, I welcome the seminarians who begin their first year of formation, with their families and friends, and their ‘older brothers’ who are beginning another year of their progress to ordination. A very warm welcome to you all.

[1]        cf. Gen 1:30; 7:15; Ps 150:6; Eccles 3:19.

[2]        cf. Mt 18:28.

[3]        Gen 2:7; cf. 2Macc 7:22; Job 12:10; 27:3; 32:8; 33:4; Eccles 11:5; Wis 15:11; Acts 17:25.

[4]        Gen 25:17; 35:29; 49:33; Judith 7:27; Mt 27:50.

[5]        Gen 6:17; 7:22; Dt 20:16; Josh 10:40; 11:11,14; Job 34:14; Pss 104:29; 146:4 etc.

[6]        1Kings 17:17.

[7]        2Macc 7:23; Ezek 37:5-10; cf. Jn 20:22.

[8]        Ps 5:9; Rom 3:13.

[9]        Ex 17:3; Dt 28:48; Judg 15:18; 2Chr 32:11; Judith 7:22,25; Ps 69:3; 107:5; Isa 32:6; 41:17; Jer 2:25; Amos 8:13; Jn 19:28; 1Cor 4:11 etc.

[10]       Judg 4:19; Neh 9:15,20; Judith 8:31; Ps 107:9; Prov 25:21; Mt 25:35-44 etc.

[11]       Isa 55:1; Jn 2:1-12; ch. 4; 6:1-15 et par.