02 Mar 2022

St. Mary’s Basilica, Sydney, 2 March 2022

In 1988 two brothers, Thomas and John Knoll, created a computer programme that would be so widely used that thirty-plus years later the noun has become a verb and describes an activity no matter what app is used. Photoshop was originally intended for graphic designers, but it’s now well and truly mainstream. Chances are many of you have access to Photoshop or something like it on those nifty devices you carry around in your pockets but of course never use during class time!

To photoshop is to alter a picture to our own liking. We might choose to add ourselves to a group photo that we missed out on being there for. Or to crop out some distraction so as to focus attention on a particular part of a photo. Or to create something humorous, by e.g. attaching one of your heads to a muscleman or an animal. Most often, however, photoshop is used to iron out any imperfections—real or imagined—and present an idealised version of ourselves to our friends and followers. Researchers say that many young people spend an inordinate amount of time updating and perfecting their image on social media accounts and dating apps, possibly giving a quite false impression of who they are.

In trying to appear physically perfect, even if only online, we can forget that there’s so much more to us than meets the eye. Physical appearance is important, but it’s not the be-all-and-end-all. Christians say that the soul of a person, that animates and is revealed by the body, is far more important. To be the most physically beautiful man in the world might help you win friends and influence people, at least while your looks last. But it won’t ensure you make the most of yourself, contribute all you can to the world, cultivate deep friendships, or are happy and holy. How often, in fact, are ‘the beautiful people’ dissatisfied with how they look, despite spending a fortune on cosmetic surgery, designer labels and the rest, and end up with eating disorders or gym compulsions or narcissistic personalities or self-hating, in a series of broken relationships or on drugs or miserable…

Lent is a big reminder that we are spiritual beings, that what’s inside is the most important, and that spiritual renewal—of our hearts and minds, character and values, relationships with God and others—is the real way to perfection. And unlike Photoshop, the Lent’s renewal tools are not artificial, not just about look, but about who we really are; not just temporary, but about who we are becoming long-term; not just about us, but about who we are for others. And so instead of the crop function, colour, brightness and contrast settings, and the lasso tool, the Church offers prayer, fasting and almsgiving as the tools to make a better me.

The Prayer function on the Lent app is especially important. During moments of quiet time, reflection and communication with God, we can consider who we are and are becoming, where we’ve missed the mark, where we’d like to improve. Recalling our failures to love others as we should allows us to seek the tenderness and compassion of God described by the prophet Joel today (Joel 2:13-14). There are so many Catholic ways to pray. From Ukrainian and other ancient Eastern Christianity we have the ‘Jesus Prayer’. It consists of reciting “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” under our breath many times a day, reminding us of what’s most important, our need for God, repentance, mercy, and His offer of grace to be more and better. Other prayers are often of intercession, asking for things not just for ourselves but for others: today we pray for an end to the war in Ukraine and the safety of our brothers and sisters there.

The Fasting tool has health benefits and can impact the way we look. But does being hungry assist us spiritually? Well, if prayer is about the relationship between us and God, fasting is about the relationship between our inner and outer selves. The ancients fasted in repentance or before coming into in the presence of God (Ex 34:28; 1Kgs 19:8; Dan 9:3) and Jesus fasted for forty days before beginning His public ministry (Mt 4:2; Lk 4:2). By denying ourselves some comfort, we are able to gain in self-mastery, to recalibrate to what truly matters, so our mind and will trump our ego and desires. Fasting reminds us that beyond the physical being with its physical needs there’s something deeper that needs soul food. Like prayer, fasting can take many forms. One modern example is to delete an app like Facebook, Instagram or TikTok for the whole of Lent! The point is: self-denial, taking up our cross and following Jesus (Mt 16:24). Today we do so for those suffering deprivation due to the war in Ukraine.

The final function of our spiritual photoshop is charity. Having improved our relationships with ourselves and with God, we are ready for better relationships with others. We can become, Paul says, ambassadors for Christ, fellow workers, even “the goodness of God” (2Cor 5:20-21), and so be good for others. That’s why it’s not only the rich who are called to give: each of us, in our different ways, has something to share of our comfort, gifts, selves, with those in need. In the process we become the face of Christ to them. So how we relate to God, ourselves and each other are all interrelated. Today we resolve to contribute to the Caritas Appeal for Ukraine or to help in other charitable ways.

So the Lent App offers us three really good tools, not for cheating people by making us look better that we are, not as magic as if the wave of a mouse can make us better people, not even for the sake of some spiritual honour. No, Jesus says, we are to use these tools humbly, with our hearts set firmly on God. The ashes about to be imposed on your heads remind us that the physical will pass to dust, but the spiritual dimension is eternal. We are being called back to communion with the God who is love, Love on a cross, Love rising from the dead (1 Jn 4:7).


Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral, your College chapel, for our Ash Wednesday Mass marking the beginning of Lent. I acknowledge your Principal, Mr Michael Kelleher, teachers and staff, above all, all the students: a very warm welcome to you all!

As we gather for Mass the world is watching on with horror at the events unfolding in Ukraine. A sovereign, peaceful, democratic country is being overrun by a rapacious, imperial power and as a result thousands will die and millions be displaced. One of the motives is the independence that the Ukrainian Catholics and Orthodox claim from the Moscow patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Eighty years ago Europe seemed finally to have stopped eating itself up and especially its young men (not much older than yourselves) in war after war. Sixty years ago President John F. Kennedy declared: “Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind.” St Paul VI then prayed: “No more war, war never again.” Last weekend Pope Francis spoke to the Ukrainian President and expressed his “most profound pain” that Europe was again at war and the Ukrainian people suffering. The day before he made the diplomatically unprecedented move of turning up at the Russian embassy in person to call Russia to account. He has asked that at this Mass today we join our prayer and fasting to his—for an end to this war and for the safety of our sisters and brothers of Ukraine.

Lent is a time of spiritual renewal, and so the Church exhorts you to abstain from meat today and on Good Friday at least, and perhaps every Friday of Lent; to fast and pray more than normal; to be extra-generous in charitable giving and works of mercy; to join in devotions like the Stations of the Cross and making a good Confession. Fr Lewi Barakat, your college chaplain, will be happy to provide the Sacrament of Penance for any boy who asks for it at any time during Lent. So in this ‘purple time’ there are lots of options for doing something special for your spiritual life. One of those is the Imposition of Ashes which we will now move to celebrate…