07 Feb 2021

St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 5TH

What does it mean for God to pray? More specifically, why would Jesus, who is God, feel the need to pray?

Clearly, it was not for want of confidence in His divine mission or powers. In last week’s Gospel we saw Him on His ‘first day at work’, attending the morning service and quickly taking charge of the synagogue (Mk 1:21-28). So authoritative was He that He could contradict some “traditions of the elders” and standard interpretations of the Bible, saying “you have heard it said of old…, but I say to you…”.[i] When presented with conundrums Jesus didn’t need to seek wisdom: for He is Wisdom – ‘the Way and the Truth’ incarnate and always knew what to say.

Today we see Him, on the afternoon of the same day (Mk 1:29-39), healing Simon’s mother-in-law, and in the evening, healing or exorcising many others. A simple gesture or word from Him and – hey presto! – people were cured. Jesus didn’t need anyone’s help in healing: for He is Health and Wholeness – ‘the Life’ – Himself.

Yet very early the next day, Mark records, He “got up, left the house, and went to a lonely place to pray”.[ii] What was He up to? Is Christ talking to Himself?

Well, one answer might be that Our Lord was simply modelling prayer for us. The apostles asked Him to teach them to pray (Lk 11:1). So, when He raised Lazarus, Jesus looked up to heaven and said, “Father, I thank you for hearing my prayer. I know you always do, but I say this for the sake of those standing here.” (Jn 11:41-3)  Great theologians such as St Thomas Aquinas thought that when Jesus prayed He was usually doing so as a reminder to us to pray and to show us how (ST IIIa, q. 21, a.1).[iii]

But this seems to suggest that when Jesus prayed it was all for show and more than a little fake. What’s more, it doesn’t fit with texts such as ours today that make it clear Jesus often prayed alone: it wasn’t done for any audience. And so St Thomas suggested a second reason Jesus prayed: though truly God, Christ was also truly man, and so shared every human need and desire, including our strong inclination to pray (ST IIIa, q. 21, a.2).[iv] In His human nature Jesus speaks to His Father-God as we do. But for Him this was even more automatic than it is for us, given that in His divine nature He’d been doing so from all eternity in the communion of the Trinity.

But what on earth would God-made-man pray for? Well, there are His please-prayers – asking for things. He petitions the Father to glorify Him, to take away the cup of woe and strengthen Him, and to receive His spirit at the last.[v] He intercedes for others, that Lazarus be raised, Peter strengthened, the Church safeguarded, persecutors forgiven.[vi] Please-prayers are all the more fitting to us, as creatures before the Creator, supplicants before the Judge, children of a loving Father. From Jesus we learn to pray for our needs, for forgiveness and safety, for others, even enemies, above all that God’s will be done.[vii]

Jesus prays plenty of please-prayers, but also thankyou-prayers. “I praise you Father, Lord of heaven and earth for…” (Mt 11:25-26; Lk 10:21 etc.). At His Last Supper, when He took the elements, He “gave thanks” before transforming them into His Body and Blood.[viii] Prayers of thanksgiving should flow as naturally from our own hearts, full of awe at our God, our world, our lives, our fellows. When I call on you before the Eucharistic Prayer “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God”, you will respond “It is right and just”. From Jesus, above all from His Eucharist, we learn to pray both please and thank-you (cf. Mt 6:9).

Prayer, we might say, frames all Jesus’ work. Mark tells us that  Jesus retreated to pray after His first day of frenetic activity, expounding the Scriptures, curing the sick and contending with the forces of evil. But of course He prayed before, during and after those activities. So, too, the Gospels report Him praying before His Baptism, before choosing the Twelve and commissioning Peter, and before working the miracles of the loaves and fishes and walking on the water.[ix] He prayed at the Transfiguration, at His Last Supper and other meals, in the Garden of Gethsemane, and from the Cross.[x] Prayer frames all the key moments in Christ’s ministry. He prays before He works but also as His work.

Jesus is the most perfect case of a human being in conversation and communion with God. And He models for us that we should pray ceaselessly (cf. 1Thes 5:16-18), not just when we’re not busy; we should pray zealously, not just as and when we feel like it; we should pray everywhere, not just when we are at church (Mt 6:6; 26:40-41; Mk 13:32-37). We should pray always.

How are we to find the time and motivation to do that amidst the drudgery, exhaustion and anxiety of which Job speaks in our first reading, the ‘months of delusion’ and ‘nights of grief’ especially in these Years of the Virus (Job 7:1-7)? Well, it’s not a matter of how many prayers we pray or how often – though having a regular rhythm of prayer is crucial. What matters is that we try to make our lives into a living prayer, as Christ did.

If that is crucial for all Christians, it is especially so for catechists. Only by returning again and again to the well of prayer will you have the inspiration and clarity, creativity and energy to do this task well. But if conversation with God is the well-spring of your life, it will well-up with words of wisdom for your students. St Paul in our epistle says proclaiming the Word of God or catechising is no hobby or optional extra, not even something he chose for himself: rather, it is a calling, something that chose him (1 Cor 9:16-23). Quoting this very passage, the Second Vatican Council taught that “the true apostle is on the lookout for occasions of announcing Christ”.[xi] The fourth-century Bishop of Constantinople, St. John Chrysostom, went further: “There’s nothing colder than a Christian who is not concerned about the salvation of others,” he said. “Don’t say ‘I can’t help others’, for if you are truly a Christian it is impossible not to do so… The light of Christians cannot be obscured, a lamp shining so brightly cannot be hid.”[xii]

On this Word of God Sunday we celebrate 6,000 Catholic catechists who participate in the religious education of 200,000 children in government schools around our land. We celebrate those who’ve recently completed all three levels of training, all our High school student-catechists, all those who have engaged in this ministry for many years, and those marking significant jubilees of service as catechists of Sydney. Of all of you I say with pride: you have not hidden your lamps under a bushel! You have made yourselves voices for the Word of God in our government schools, offering in St Paul’s words “the Good News for free”.

Some have suggested substituting a secular ethics course for SRE. Now, there’s a lot to be said for secular ethics, ‘Aussie values’, ‘civics’ etc. A good secular ethics course might offer young people some much-needed pointers on what’s right and wrong – or at least give them a smorgasbord of options. But it cannot make them want to know and do the good, let alone the perfect. The best motivator for that is the prayerful encounter with Jesus and grace of conversion we hope comes through SRE.

A good secular ethics course might provide some ways of thinking through ethical puzzles. But again, it’s unlikely to encourage a child to interrogate their own preferences and the judgments of their peers and subculture. SRE, however, challenges the wisdom of the age and the relativism of the young.

A good secular ethics course might point to the right thing to do in some cases. But it will not give our young people the grace to do it when it’s hard or countercultural. SRE, however, points them towards that Word and those sacraments that will empower them to be heroes, to be saints. So, fan as I am of ethics, it is no substitute for formation in faith, conscience and prayer. I thank God for your wonderful work in that sphere. With Christ I pray God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done, in your hearts and the hearts of your stude

[i]      e.g. Mt 5:21-48; 19:7-9 et par; Mk 7:1-23; Jn 8:1-11; cf. Jn 1:17; 9:28

[ii]     Mk 1:35; cf. Lk 5:16; 9:18; 11:1

[iii]    Corey Barnes, “Thomas Aquinas on Christ’s Prayer,” in Roy Hammerling (ed.), A History of Prayer: The First to the Fifteenth Century (Brill, 2008), 319-36

[iv]    Dawn Eden, “St Thomas Aquinas on the Prayer of Christ as Manifest in the Prayers of the Mass,” Homiletic & Pastoral Review (2012)

[v]     Mt 26:36-44; 27:46; Mk 14:32-9; 15:34; Lk 9:16; 22:40-46; 23:46; Jn 12:28; 17:1-5

[vi]    Lk 22:32; 23:34; Jn 11:41-2; 17:11-20

[vii]    cf. Mt 5:44; 6:5-15; 21:22; Mk 11:25; 14:38; Lk 1:13; 6:28; 11:2-14

[viii]   Mt 26:27; Mk 14:23; Lk 22:17-20; 1Cor 11:24

[ix]    Mt 14:23; Mk 6:41,46; 8:7; 14:22; Lk 3:21; 6:12; 9:18; 22:31-2; Jn 6:15

[x]     Mt 8:6; 14:19; 15:34-6; 26:26, 36-44; 27:46; Mk 6:41; 14:22, 32-9; Lk 9:16, 28-9; 22:19, 40-46; 23:34,46; Jn 6:11; 17:1; 24:30

[xi]    Vatican Council II, Apostolicam actuositatem, 6

[xii]    St. John Chrysostom, Homily on Acts, 20

Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral for the Annual Catechist Mass at which we celebrate the work of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. We recognise all those who completed third level training in 2020, our 551 student catechists from Catholic high schools, and those who have been serving much longer. In particular we honour today those SRE catechists of twenty or more years who have reached certain milestones in their service.

Today in Australia we celebrate ‘Word of God Sunday’, an observance instituted by Pope Francis to remind us of the central role Sacred Scripture plays in our faith, worship and daily life. It is a particularly fitting day on which to celebrate the ministry of those who bring the Word of God to our state school students.

I acknowledge concelebrating with me the Episcopal Vicar for Education Fr Michael McLean, and several of my brother priests who are great supporters of the work of our catechists. I salute Mr Doug Mawhinney, Director of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine in Sydney, and his staff. To all our catechists with the families, and anyone joining us by live-streaming, a very warm welcome!