18 Jul 2021

Live-streamed from St. Mary’s Basilica, Sydney, 18 July 2021

I know what it’s like. My Dad’s nursing home is closed to the public and my Mum is in hospital, allowed no visitors. Today I’m saying Mass in an empty cathedral and miss my people very much. I’ve had to postpone this month’s ordinations, confirmations and more. And priests and others I’ve long awaited from overseas are shut out of our country indefinitely.

So I know what it’s like for people. The spike in cases of COVID-19 and subsequent restrictions have separated us once more from relatives, friends, parishioners, school and work colleagues, and we feel it very keenly. We all sympathise with our public officials in their balancing act to keep us safe. But because we human beings are social animals, hardwired for company, separation affects us deeply. Protecting us from disease or unemployment is important but it’s not enough. We have to remember what health and economy are for – to experience relationships, truth, beauty, goodness, leisure, worship and more – and lockdown impedes them all. Even if it’s necessary, isolation comes at a great human cost.

Christians are not unfamiliar with all this. In today’s Gospel Jesus and the apostles seek some solitude (Mk 6:30-34), but in our epistle Paul has isolation thrust upon him. He is writing from prison,[1] and from his cell he reminds the Ephesians that they too had experienced alienation – from God, Israel, each other (2:12; 4:18). Lacking the anchors of faith and community, they’d been tossed to and fro by fads, fake news and scams (cf. 4:14). They lied and stole, wrangled and slandered one another (4:17-5:20). If ever people were socially distant or self-isolated, it was in their pre-Christian days! As if writing for locked-down Sydney today, Paul demonstrates that every human being feels caged in some sense; we all experience alienation, separation or loneliness at some time; we all know the consequent powerlessness and depression (1:18; 2:1,5,12,14).

Rembrandt, The Apostle Paul in Prison (1627)

Yet something changed for Paul and his disciples. Today we hear that “You that used to be so far from us” – and from each other – “have been brought very close”; the old hostilities and barriers have been broken down; Christ has united us (2:13-18). “So then,” Paul continues, “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but citizens with the saints and members of God’s household” (2:19). Jesus Christ is the antidote to spiritual isolation and social distance, the bridge between God and man, between one person and another. So even from prison in Rome, Paul feels very close to the Ephesians in Turkey. We call this communion, a joyful sharing of lives and hearts and faith, modelled by the Blessed Trinity, participated in by the Church on earth and in heaven, and most intimately experienced in this life in Holy Communion.[2] Which challenges us all in this time of separation: how do we maintain our closeness to God and each other during lockdown, and help each other through? How can we make the most of this time of enforced retreat and make a spiritual communion when we can’t make a sacramental one? What more might we be doing?

This past week the News Corp papers issued “A Call to Arms”.[3] The message was straightforward: “This is a war against a deadly, invisible enemy. We will not win it unless we get serious and on the same page… and get the jab done.” The invisible enemy is, of course, COVID; the soldiers, health professionals; the generals are health ministers and officials; the weapons, lockdowns, distancing and vaccines; and the spies are neighbours dobbing each other in. For 18 months now world leaders have talked of ‘war’, ‘emergency’, ‘darkest hour’.[4] Here in Australia we have a national cabinet “on a warlike footing” and a Lieutenant-General in full uniform directing vaccine distribution. We’ve even been instructed to narrow our conception of family to exclude grand-parents, aunts and cousins, and to avoid touching loved ones – as if they were land mines!

The portentous rhetoric has succeeded in getting people to take the pandemic seriously, focused energy and resources on public safety, excused suspension of ordinary liberties and routines, and achieved a high level of compliance. But it also risks magnifying people’s anxiety and alienation, causing panics such as world war loo over toilet paper, encouraging passivity or dividing neigh-bours.[5] In such a context, Paul’s words today are prophetic: in Christ we renounce the old rivalries and hostilities; Christ is God holding us close to Himself and so drawing us closer together.

 Christ is the bridge, the glue, “the peace” between us, Paul says, “destroying in his own person the hostilities… restoring harmony through the cross… uniting humanity as a single Body and reconciling them with God.” (Eph 2:13-18)

Yet this “Gospel of Peace” is not the wisdom of our age. Interior peace, as this world understands it, is being tension-free: but that can be out of drugged stupor or distraction, insensitivity or because we don’t much care. Yet try as we might to anaesthetise ourselves, crises like COVID force their demands upon us. The question is: how are we to care without losing our inner serenity?

External peace, by this world’s lights, is not fighting: but that, too, might be the result of false charm, icy concord or simply failing to engage. It can leave threats and violence simmering beneath the surface. Sometimes a call to arms is appropriate. But how can we respond to the very real challenges without compromising the very things our struggle is supposed to save? Beyond preserving life and economy, how do we protect relationships, community, education, artistic and spiritual lives?

True peace, the Scriptures teach, is not pretending away challenges or evading responsibilities. There was no avoiding the fact that Paul was in prison, with all that that entails; many Christians after him would suffer the same fate. Such things must be faced head on. When Christ tells his disciples to come aside to “a lonely place” (Mk 6:30-34), it’s not to some haven free of tensions and trials. When He offers them a space for peace and quiet, it’s not so they can block out all thoughts and worries. No, Jesus is calling them to restful prayer, to contemplative poise, to unflustered listening. Socrates famously said “The unexamined life is not worth living”[6] and Mother Mary demonstrated that some things must be pondered in our hearts (Lk 1:29; 2:19, 33-35, 51). The question is: how do we make this time of enforced retreat truly reflective, so that by the end of it we will better know ourselves and God’s plan for us, and better serve our loved ones, Church and world?

Ultimately it’s coming close we need as human beings, even when distancing is required; it’s peace of heart and harmony between people we want, not the ‘aggro’ and tension of war. Jesus’ coming is marked by peace.[7]  He greets those he encounters with Shalom Aleichem, “Peace be with you” and dismisses them with “Go in peace”.[8] Paul blesses people in the same terms.[9] Peace, he says, is won by Jesus[10] and a gift of the Spirit.[11]

At the coming Plenary Council of Australia we will ask how we can draw closer to people after COVID and the lockdowns? How will Church and society recover interior tranquillity and external harmony? What meaning and hope can we give people in such troubled times? The call of the Gospel of Peace is clear; the gifts of the Spirit available; Mass and prayer our opportunity to be greeted, blessed and sent by the Christ who is our peace. How, then, will the Church in our times propose anew His Gospel, sanctify the faithful with His spiritual gifts of unity and peace, and reach out to our society to inspire communion amongst us all?


Before Genuflecting

Because current circumstances 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, of yourselves and of our world.

[1] On Paul’s imprisonment Eph 3:1,13; 4:1; 6:20. Some commentators think the letter was written on Paul’s name by one of his disciples.

[2] 1Cor 10:16; Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 4, 7-29, 38, 41, 49-51.

[3] “Call to arms: How Australia can reset the war on Covid with vaccines,” Daily Telegraph 13 July 2021.

[4] E.g. C. Musu, “War metaphors used for COVID-19 are compelling but also dangerous,” The Conversation 8 April 2020, notes the use of such language by Presidents Trump and Biden, Queen Elizabeth II, Italian Prime Minister Conte, UN Secretary-General Gutiérrez. Francesca Panzeri, Simona Di Paola & Filippo Domaneschi, “Does the COVID-19 war metaphor influence reasoning?” PLoS ONE 16(4) (8 April 2021), cite similar talk from Chinese President Xi, French President Macron, and British Prime Minister Johnson.

[5] Musu, “War metaphors”; Panzeri, Di Paola & Domaneschi, “Does the COVID-19 war metaphor influence reasoning?”;  B.R. Bates, The (In) Appropriateness of the WAR Metaphor in Response to SARS-CoV-2: A Rapid Analysis of Donald J. Trump’s Rhetoric,” Frontiers in Communication. 30 June 2020; E. Semino, “Not Soldiers but Fire-fighters: Metaphors and Covid-19,” Health Communication. 36(1) (2 Jan 2021) 50–8; A. Wise, “Military metaphors distort the reality of COVID-19,” Scientific American 17 April 2020; S. Tisdall, “Lay off those war metaphors, world leaders: You could be the next casualty,” The Guardian 21 March 2020; V. Mukunth, “If we’re at ‘war’ with the new Coronavirus, we’re doing it wrong,” The Wire 15 April 2020, Jonathan Marron et al., “Waging war on war metaphors in cancer and COVID-19,” JCO Oncology Practice 16(10) 624-27.

[6] ὁ ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ.

[7] Lk 1:79; 2:14,29; 10:5; 19:38; Jn 16:33; Acts 10:36.

[8] e.g. Mk 5:34; Lk 7:50; 8:48; 24:36; Jn 14:27; 20:19, 21, 26; cf. Acts 16:36. Jesus also calls peacemakers “children of God” (Mt 5:9; cf. Mk 9:50) and rebukes the forces of anti-peace (e.g. Mk 4:39; 26:52; Jn 18:11).

[9] Rom 1:7; 15:33; 1Cor 1:3; 2Cor 1:2; 13:11; Gal 1:3; 6:16; Eph 1:2; 6:23; Phil 1:2; Col 1:2; 1Thes 1:1; 5:23; 2Thes 1:2; 3:16; 1Tim 1:2; 2Tim 1:2. Paul also praises the peaceable: Rom 12:18; 14:19; 2Cor 13:11; 1Thes 5:13; 1Tim 2:2; 2Tim 2:22; Tit 1:4; Philem 1:3.

[10] Rom 5:1; 1Cor 7:15; Eph 2:14-17; 6:15; Col 1:20; 3:15.

[11] Gal 5:22; Rom 14:17; cf. Rom 2:10; 8:6; 15:13; Eph 4:3; Phil 4:7,9.

Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney, for the Solemn Mass for the 16th Sunday of Ordinary Time. This week we gather once more through live-streaming, following the spike in cases of COVID-19 and subsequent lockdown. We continue to pray for those who have died, are sick or caring for them, those who are testing and vaccinating us, those in other countries faring much worse than our own, those who are anxious or at risk, those suffering economically and those who are leading us through this crisis.

To everyone watching via livestream, a very warm welcome!