17 Oct 2021

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

Master of Lourinhã, The Calling of the Sons of Zebedee (1520)

They’re at it again. James and John are lobbying for special positions in Jesus’ kingdom (Mk 10:35-45; cf. 9:30-37). For the second time in two chapters Jesus exhorts them to let go of any ambition to lord it over others. “Anyone who wants to be great among you must be your servant, anyone who wants to be first must be slave to all.”

If the apostles were slow to hear this message, so has the world been ever since. Jesus’ subversion of power as service and call to be a deacon or slave is not the wisdom of this world. Indeed the great German philosopher of modernity, Friedrich Nietzsche, wrote off Christianity as a ‘slave morality’, rooted in weakness, envy and fear. Humility, shame, docility, obedience: with these silk threads, he said, the ‘spider god’ weaves his web to enfeeble and trap us. Nietzsche’s alternative—the ‘superman’—would be liberated by egoism and ruthlessness: no servant-leadership here.

True enough, choosing to follow rather than lead is sometimes a cop-out, an evasion of the responsibility. But does all the talk of crosses and self-sacrifice make Christians masochists or cowards? Or worse, are they hypocrites who pretend servant leadership while actually imposing control? Or perhaps worst of all, is it all a power game, one-upmanship, so that I’m proud of how humble I am—so much humbler and more deserving than everyone else?

Jesus Washing the Feet of His Disciples by Albert Edelfelt (1898), Bodil Karlsson Nationalmuseum

We use the words serve, servant and service in many different ways. We talk of the health service, return to normal service, receiving good service, using a service entrance. We give public service, do jury service, use legal services, join the armed services. We sign a service agreement, play a second service in tennis, use a dinner service or have our cars or debts serviced. We can even conduct a service: a divine service. What’s the common thread here? Well, the Latin word servus, meaning slave, is the root of our words serve, servant, servile and subservient. But a different Latin word servare, meaning to save, protect or pay heed, is behind our words services, observe and preserve.

Jesus knew full well that service could mean many things and that it’s a risky business talking of servant-leadership and the authority of the slave. So He offered us the gold standard: “like the Son of Man who came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

At His Last Supper Jesus undressed and knelt like a slave to wash His disciples’ feet. But He was no groveller, no doormat. Jesus taught, criticised, even cursed. He commanded, not just men but storms, sickness, demons. He was a thorn in the side of the powerful. Even as He submitted to death, there was strength in His resignation. If we are to take up the cross, it’s not because we weakly want to be crucified, but because we strongly want to follow Him (Mk 8:34 et par.). That means spending ourselves for others, especially the needy, with the generosity and humility of a servant. But it also means intervening to save, deliver, protect. We must be both strong and weak then, purposeful and obedient, decisive and docile. If it’s greatness you want, Jesus says, lead and serve like Me.[i]

One our Church venerates is “Servant of God” is Eileen O’Connor. She devoted herself to the service of the poor, sick, debilitated, distressed, dying. Compassion means suffering with and she had this in spades: a grave spinal injury in childhood, a heart condition and eventually tuberculosis of the bone, left her dwarfed, often immobile, always in pain.

Eileen O’Connor, often wheelchair bound but always joyful

At age 19, Eileen received an apparition of Our Lady offering her three options: to die quickly and go straight to heaven; to be miraculously healed and live comfortably on earth; or to offer all her torments and energies to Our Lady’s work of building up God’s kingdom. This pint-sized dynamo of prayer and compassion chose the last. It mystifies our age that demands quick fixes for anything unpleasant or ends suffering by killing the victim. But she knew the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, whose agonies “justified many, taking their faults on Himself” (Is 53:10-11). Eileen would join Christ in healing through her suffering.

With MSC-Father Edward McGrath she co-founded Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor to serve the sick and needy in their homes. Though only in her twenties she was known as ‘the Little Mother’ and inspired many to seek her counsel and join her apostolates. But she also knew misunderstanding, judgment, obstruction from those who could not see beyond her disabilities, youth and littleness to the mystic within.

As she lay dying, aged only 28, people flocked to her home to see her before she died or pray with her from outside. When her body was exhumed 16 years later, it was found to be incorrupt and her tomb is a place of pilgrimage. She’s now revered as a holy woman in Australia, the Pacific, even the United States. In this centenary year of her death, we ask for miracles that highlight her sanctity but also bring an end to the pandemic.

I’ve another intention to lay at the feet of the Little Mother today. New South Wales is on a precipice. This week a bill was introduced to Parliament to allow the killing of the likes of Eileen or assist their suicide. Camouflaged ‘voluntary assisted dying’, it’s the very antithesis of Eileen’s caring for people to the end. It cuts the care short, by cutting short the patient’s life.

It’s the most radical piece of social legislation ever proposed in NSW. It will create two classes of people: those whose lives are sacred, and those judged better off dead; those whose right to life is inalienable and those who’ve lost it or can give it up; those shielded by our homicide laws, and those subject to state-sanctioned killing; those discouraged from suicide, and those assisted with it. No relative or friend can protect them, not even a church hospital or nursing home. There will be few real safeguards for the vulnerable or for the consciences of others. People will be free to incite someone’s early death and provide the means. No treatment for their depression, no palliation of their pain, just a lethal jab like an execution.

Eileen O’Connor prayed, counselled and led even from her bed

Of course, those supporting this are motivated by mercy. But as former Deputy Premier John Watkins observed this week, in this brave new world the rich will continue to have access to the best of health and palliative care and mostly be able to live comfortably to the end, even if they have cancer. But the poor will not, nor rural and remote people, nor indigenous Australians, nor the voiceless. If ever we needed the spirit of Eileen O’Connor to rise up and inspire our people it’s right now. If ever we needed her to teach us the meaning of service—health service, public service, divine service, it is today. Pray for us Little Mother!

When the Church needs renewal, one strategy is to call a council. We’ve been celebrating one just recently in Australia; now the march towards an international one in Rome in 2023 has begun. It will focus on synodality and so what servant-leadership means today: the call to attend and listen, discern and decide, accompany and protect. Saint and synod teach us the life of service, especially of the Lord and His little ones, the needy, suffering and unheard.

See you next week, hopefully here in person!


Join the Friends of Eileen O’Connor at eileenoconnor.com.au  

Portrait of Eileen O’Connor by Norman Carter (1920)  

My thanks to you all for joining me at this Mass to mark the centenary of the death of Servant of God Eileen O’Connor. In launching today the new Friends of Eileen O’Connor Association we hope to draw together her long-term devotees and a new generation of her friends in a growing awareness of her life and spirituality, through prayer, the social media, a new website, regular newsletters and events, virtual tours and more. Please visit the website eileenoconnor.com.au.

It is wonderful news that from tomorrow our churches can reopen to all comers and that subject to some continuing restrictions we can at last gather again for Mass together. I’ve missed you, my dear friends, and I know all our bishops and priests have missed you. Next week we hope to see you in person, when it will be our privilege to give you Holy Communion at last.

But not all the news is good. Having put much of our lives on hold these past two years, in order to keep the elderly, frail and dying safe, it is an extraordinary contradiction that a bill has now been introduced to parliament that will put those very people at risk. Don’t be cowed by the talk that everyone supports euthanasia and that it is inevitable: most people have little idea about what is at stake in euthanasia and no idea what’s in the Bill; but almost everyone, if asked, would prefer we ensured all the terminally ill had access to the best contemporary palliative care, before we consider going down the path of euthanasia and assisted suicide.

To join the campaign against euthanasia go to: www.noeuthanasia.org.au

So please call or write your MP to say you don’t want our state to go down this path. Go to www.noeuthanasia.org.au. St Joseph is the patron of a good death; Eileen O’Connor was a servant of such a death for all. St Joseph and Servant of God Eileen O’Connor, pray for us!

A warm welcome to St Mary’s Basilica in Sydney for the Solemn Mass of the 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time. Today marks the end of our celebrations of the centenary of the death of Servant of God Eileen O’Connor, whom we hope one day to call Australia’s second saint!

When the cause for Eileen’s canonisation was opened last year, little did we know that within the year, the whole world would be enveloped by plague and lockdown, and that we would all be called to reach out to others as Eileen did, especially the shut-in, to put ourselves out for the elderly, sick and dying, to care till the end. May the ‘Little Mother’ intercede for an end to this pandemic and guide us in the meantime.

Today we launch the Friends of Eileen O’Connor, to support her devotees, increase awareness of her life and spirituality, and win her new friends. I welcome concelebrating with me Auxiliary Bishops (Most Rev.) Terry Brady and Richard Umbers, Bishop Emeritus of Broken Bay (Most Rev.) David Walker, Vicar General (Very Rev.) Gerry Gleeson and Judicial Vicar (Very Rev.) Fr Julian Wellspring, Dean Don Richardson and the Cathedral clergy.

I welcome our Archdiocesan Chancellor Chris Meney and our Eileen O’Connor Catholic College Principal Gail Story who will read this morning. I acknowledge those joining us via livestream, especially the members of Eileen’s Order: Sisters Gabriel Bast, Margaret Mary Birgan, Pauline Fogarty, Greta Gabb, Kerry McDermott and Patricia Malone, along with Sr Laureen Dixon, Congregational Leader of the Sisters of Charity and Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor; and all friends of the Brown Nurses.

If you don’t know Eileen’s story already or would like to join her friends, please try our new website eileenoconnor.com.au.

Last Sunday, as the First Assembly of the Fifth Plenary Council of Australia wound to a close, the journey to the Synod of Bishops on Synodality in 2023 began. The Holy Father asked us to mark this locally today and we shall do so in our prayers. Sadly COVID restrictions preclude a fuller celebration of this event.

That we may all be worthy followers after the saints and Servant of God Eileen, as well as worthy members of a truly synodal Church, let us repent of our sins, confident in God’s mercy.

[i] We must be like the One who “even though He was God did not count his equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, assuming the form of a slave. And being born in human form, he humbled himself further, in obedience even unto death, death on a cross” (Phil 2:6-8). But if that sounds hopelessly weak, the Philippians hymn goes on: “Therefore God has highly exalted him, raised him above all others, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend and every tongue confess: ‘Jesus Christ is Lord!’” (Phil 2:9-11).