Homily for Mass for the Feast of St Christopher + 70th Anniversary of the Parish
St Christopher’s Church, Panania, 24 July 2022
“Lord, teach us to pray,” the disciples ask Jesus. But what does it mean to ‘pray’? Put simply, prayer is raising our heart and mind to God, mostly with a view to encounter and conversation. So Jesus begins His short course on prayer with saying: “Speak to God as Father, our heavenly holy Father.” Begin with your relationship with God, then, lean into your prayer as a child asking a loving father for help, as an aspirant to heaven speaking to the king of heaven, as a creature called to holiness addressing the One with the holiest name of all. Speak with confidence to the God who wants that kind of relationship with you. [CCC 2558-65,90]
Prayer has, of course, been a phenomenon in every civilisation, at least till now. Great Old Testament figures such as Abraham (Gen 18:20-32) and the Psalmist (Ps 137(138)) were models of prayer: as seekers who struggled and walked with God, as disciples who heard and obeyed, as shepherds who interceded and led, as mystics who lingered in holy conversation, as worshippers who praised God’s mighty deeds, as agents inspired to action. Jesus, too, is often seen in solitude and communion with his Father-God: even from the cross He offers trusting prayer as He fulfills the Father’s plan and takes upon Himself the sins, sufferings and petitions of humanity. In teaching us the Our Father today, Jesus is giving us a glimpse of His own prayer, teaching us how and what to pray. [CCC 2574ff]
Jacobus de Vora/gine (c.1230-1298) was a thirteenth-century Dominican chronicler and archbishop of Genoa. In his lives of the saints, The Golden Legend, he tells the story of a third-century, 7½-foot-tall Canaanite, perhaps descended from Goliath, with “a terrible and fearful cheer and countenance”, known as Reprobus or the reprobate.[i] Moving from employer to employer in pursuit of worldly greatness, he joined a mighty king only to be put off when his master made the sign of the cross at the mention of the Devil. Reprobus thought this indicated weakness and so switched allegiances, this time to the Devil himself. But when he witnessed the Devil “afeard and fleeing” upon seeing a Cross along the road, he realised that Jesus was the One he should be serving.
With no nav-sat or Google map to guide him, he asked a holy hermit how to find this Jesus. He was told he should fast, which the big man found very difficult. He was told to rise early each day and say many prayers, but he didn’t know how to pray. So the holy man said that since he was big and strong and lived by a river, he should apply himself to helping people cross. One night he was woken by a child’s cry for such help. When he finally found the source of the voice, he took the child on his shoulders and waded through the rapidly rising water with a rod in hand to steady himself. But the further he went in and the higher the water, the heavier the child became, and it was only with great effort that he reached the opposite shore. There the Child revealed that He was Jesus Christ, and that the great weight was in fact the sin and suffering, needs and aspirations of all humanity for which Christ had given his lifeblood. Reprobus had at last found the King of kings and had been carrying on his shoulders unawares not only the world but its Creator, and hereafter would be known as Christ-opher, the Christ-carrier. The next day his staff bloomed with flowers, a symbol of his own new life in Christ. Chris went on to be an heroic saint: prayerful, non-violent, solicitous of others, converting people by word and deed, until his martyrdom under the Emperor Decius in 251.
The story of your parish patron has many sides to it. It is a story of asking: as Abraham beseeches God’s mercy for Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18:20-32), so Reprobus asks the hermit and others where he can find one worthy of his service; ever since, people have invoked St Christopher in prayer in the face of storms and floods, dangers on the road, toothache and eye disease. It is a story of perseverance: like Abraham bargaining with God, like the man in our parable knocking till he gets what he needed (Lk 11:1-13), so Reprobus kept searching for his vocation; ever since St Christopher has been a patron for travellers, children, mariners, athletes, gardeners and tall people. It is a story of conversion: like the reluctant giver in the parable who finally gets up and does what is right, so Reprobus changed from monstrous reprobate to sainted humanitarian to eventual martyr; ever since he has inspired conversions and Christian communities such as the cathedrals of Seville Spain and Canberra Australia, and the parishes of Holsworthy and Panania in Sydney. So in His lesson on prayer, Jesus emphasises asking in prayer, persevering in prayer, and being receptive to prayer’s answers.
But there is still more in Jesus’ teaching and Christopher’s story for us today. The Boychild on Christopher’s shoulders must trust him not to drop Him in the river, and the man, as he discovers a weight almost too heavy to bear, must trust the Child to get him through. That is the kind of trust that Jesus says today is at the heart of prayer, trusting God like a father to give us what we most need—our physical, emotional and spiritual daily bread. And we must also let go of emotions and grudges that make us monsters like Reprobus, opening ourselves to the grace of the God who forgives those who forgive others. So along with interceding, persevering and openness in prayer, we must be trusting and merciful in prayer.
In St Christopher’s Cathedral in Seville, at the tomb of Columbus, there is an enormous fresco of the saint, a giant carrying a tiny Child on his shoulders and turning to look and listen to Him. Reprobus wanted to serve power but had no idea where true power lay and where it is best directed. Instead of the comfortable life in some royal court, he would ultimately give hard service to others; instead of rich rewards in this life, his would be the crown of martyrdom in the next. We, too, children of the Gospel and parishioners of St Christopher’s, must learn the way of intercession, perseverance and receptivity in prayer, of trust, mercy and reliance on the God of surprises. With such prayer we can then be Christophers ourselves, bearers of Christ to our families, friends, schools and workplaces, our whole community.
A blessed jubilee St Christopher’s Parish! St Christopher, pray for us!
[i] Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, vol. 4: https://www.belmontabbey.org.uk/the-true-story-of-st-christopher; https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/goldenlegend/goldenlegend-volume4.asp#Christopher; https://www.vaticannews.va/en/saints/07/25/st–christopher–martyr.html.
Introduction to Mass for the Feast of St Christopher + 70th Anniversary of the Parish, St Christopher’s Church, Panania, 24 July 2022
Welcome to Panania for Mass for the Feast of the Parish Patron St Christopher and the celebration of the Platinum Jubilee of the parish. In 1952 Cardinal Gilroy tasked Irish priest, Fr Patrick Landers, with building up this parish and transforming the little weatherboard cottage on this site into ‘the required ecclesiastical buildings’. The cottage became the first church, while a school and presbytery were built. The Panania Star cinema was then purchased and converted into the new St Christopher’s in 1967. The school kept growing as did the parish, and I was here to bless major improvements at the school back in 2018.
Seventy years and remarkably still on only its fourth parish priest, St Christopher’s has flourished. As I said in my visitation report a few years back, there is much to celebrate here: in excellent pastors and lay leaders, in a strong liturgical tradition supported by many ministers and a whopping pool of altar servers, in sacraments, devotions and care of the sick, in the hand-in-glove relationship with the parish school and the dedicated team of state school catechists, in groups for youth, seniors, care of the poor and more. I congratulated you all at the time on one in five Catholics attending Mass and challenged you to get that up to at least one in four next time I came: so I’ll be taking a count today!
Concelebrating with me today are Parish Priest Fr Salas Mutta/thukattil (MSFS) and Fr Bhaskar Mendam (MSFS) and I thank them for their welcome.
I also acknowledge Warren Loy, principal of St Christopher’s Primary School; Narelle Archer, principal of Mount St Joseph Catholic College; Michael Hollis, principal of De LaSalle College Revesby Heights, as well as staff in attendance and distinguished guests. To everyone present today, a very warm welcome to you all…