Homily for Mass for the Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

22 Aug 2022

St Patrick’s Church, The Rocks, 21 August 2022

In the introduction to his book, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention, best-selling British author Johann Hari offers a striking illustration of our declining ability to be present and attend to the things right in front of us. On a recent visit to Elvis Presley’s Graceland estate in Memphis, he encountered devout pilgrims of the King of Rock and Roll, both young and old, taking in the experience almost entirely through their devices. Their eyes were glued to their screens as they bumbled around the estate.[1] At one point, a middle-aged man squealed with excitement on realising he could swipe left and right to see different parts of the mansion. Hari interjected with “But sir, there’s an old-fashioned form of swiping you can do: it’s called turning your head [and looking around]. Because, you know, we’re here!”

Hari’s thesis is that we are in the grip of a full-blown, attention-span crisis. His book charts an almost endless stream of tech-driven distractions that are now part and parcel of our lives and are mortally wounding our ability to concentrate. Is it all worth it? Is the infinite information through the-internet-in-our-pockets worth it, if we can’t really concentrate anymore? Is the facility for instant communication via the social media worth the price of no longer connecting properly with people in the real world?

We’ve all seen people so distracted by what’s coming through their headphones or smartphone screens that they bump into people or objects on the street: I usually assume they are reviewing last Sunday’s homily! We see groups of friends at cafés constantly checking their notifications or texting rather than enjoying each other’s presence. In many households double or triple screening has replaced genuine human interaction. Perhaps we’re in the habit ourselves of watching TV, talking to someone and following some feed on our smartphone all at the same time, so none gets our undivided attention. Such behaviours, scientists warn us, are linked to growing levels of loneliness, stress and depression, especially among the young.[2] But even if we are not so affected, we surely all recognise the decline in attention spans.

Human beings have always been easily distracted, yet our ability to focus and judge what is truly worth our attention is crucial for navigating life. Jesus repeatedly exhorted us to focus on what really matters and beware distractions. He praised Mary of Bethany for sitting at His feet and listening, and challenged beloved Martha not to forego God’s presence for earthly concerns (Lk 10:40). He knew our weakness and temptations and warned that the Gospel seed planted in the soul can be choked by the cares of this world.[3] He told a rich young man and others that their wealth was getting in the way of following Him; for others it was their work, sex, family, whatever.[4] He suggested that if the birds and flowers have what they need without angst-ing about it all the time, we too should trust more in providence.[5] If we keep the kingdom of God firmly in our sights, we can rest assured that God will take care of the rest.[6]

“Sir, will only a few be saved?” a man asks Jesus today (Lk 13:22-30). He’s not really asking for the few: he wants to know “Will I be saved?” He wanted confirmation he’d be on the right side when Jesus came to dividing sheep from goats. As is often the case, Jesus responds to this abstract question with a call to a more personal reflection: “Try your best to enter by the narrow door, because I tell you, many will try to enter and not succeed.” Rather than answering the man’s curiosity about numbers, or appeasing his personal anxiety with feel-good statements, Jesus challenges him to focus, strive, get his own house in order. Faith and reason should intensify our concentration; but if we are distractedly looking at our device all the time, we might miss the narrow door and walk into the wall!

Notice Jesus says “try your best to enter”. Mother Teresa used to say, “God doesn’t require us to succeed, He only requires that you try.” Jesus knows we might fail our first attempt at the spiritual or moral life—and our second and third also. He knows that just being children of Abraham is not enough, that we are weak and cannot do it without Him. So He gives us every signpost we need, every empowerment and incentive. He doesn’t want us weeping and grinding our teeth. But in the end, we must want heaven for ourselves. If we walk around like spiritual zombies, we’ll miss the opportunities.

Earlier in Luke’s Gospel we read that “As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” (Lk 9:51) Today’s Gospel makes it clear He’s still determinedly fulfilling His destiny: “Jesus went teaching in the towns and villages, making his way to Jerusalem.” (Lk 13:22) If we are called to be resolute, it is only because He has gone before us and is beside us in this. Through the grace He won for us in Jerusalem, we can make our way with Him.

Grace makes it possible; it doesn’t always make it easy. Today’s epistle says there are times in the spiritual journey when it feels like we are being chastised (Heb 12:5-13). Sure, it’s for our own good, to put us back on “the straight and narrow”, so we’ll ultimately “bear fruit in peace and goodness”. But at the time it can feel hard.

Today’s news that our beloved Marist Fathers will relinquish their responsibility for the Church Hill at the end of 2025 might feel to some like one of those hard trials in the spiritual life. There will be grief. Yet we remember that there was a time before the Marists, when lay people kept the Church alive in the absence of priests and demonstrated a love for Christ in the Eucharist that has marked this place ever since. We recall that their irrepressible cry for the sacraments brought priests to the colony and allowed Catholics to assume their rightful place in a multi-religious, if sometimes irreligious, society. We rejoice that it was here that a diocesan priest, Archdeacon John McEnroe, erected the church and built up the parish before in passed into the care of the Marists.

The Marists built on that great foundation and we have celebrated their extraordinary contribution and will yet do so again. But soon it will be for others to carry this work forward. The question for us now in the face of change is will we be distracted by memories and anxieties, or will we remain focused on Christ who is the gate (Jn 10:9)—the door to abundant life here and in eternity?

[1] Johann Hari, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention—and How to Think Deeply Again, (London: Bloomsbury, 2022), 4.

[2] https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00296-x; https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0165032716309442; https://www.centreformentalhealth.org.uk/blogs/anxiety-loneliness-and-fear-missing-out-impact-social-media-young-peoples-mental-health

[3] Mt 5:29; 6:13; 13:22; Mk 1:13; Lk 21:34-36; 2Cor 12:9; Heb 4:15.

[4] Mt 5:27-28; 6:24; 16:26; 19:12; 25:1-46; Mk 10:2-16,23-27; Lk 9:51,57-62; 16:10-31; 17:1-37; 18:18-30.

[5] Mt 6:25-34; Lk 22:32.

[6] Mt 5:48; 6:33; 24:13; Jn 14:6.

Announcement at Mass for the Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
St Patrick’s Church, The Rocks, 21 August 2022

I echo those words of welcome to St Patrick’s Church Hill for our Solemn Mass today. I acknowledge concelebrating with me, Very Rev. Tony Corcoran SM, Provincial of the Marist Fathers, Rev. Michael Whelan SM, Parish Priest, and other members of the Marist community.

Back in May 2018 the Bishops of Australia joined us in marking the bicentenary of the Blessed Sacrament being reserved near this site; and the subsequent arrival of priests and building of the first churches in the colony, St Patrick’s Chapel amongst them. I recalled the work of Archdeacon McEnroe as Parish Priest and his dying wish that the French missionary fathers who were evangelising the Pacific be given the care of this port parish.

Later in the year we celebrated the sesquicentenary of the fulfilment of McEnroe’s dream, when Archbishop Polding entrusted the parish to the care of the Marists. I acknowledged that under their direction this beautiful shrine has been renowned for its worship, pastoral care, adult ed and other outreach to the people of this city. I joined this Congregation in thanking God for the many graces bestowed on the pastors, lay leaders, congregants and visitors to this shrine this past century and a half. And we gave thanks to the Marist Fathers even as we recognised that increasing age and declining numbers were making the task a very difficult one for them to continue.

St Paul reminds us that according to God’s ordering, one plants and another waters, but only God gives growth. Similarly, one lays a foundation stone and another one builds upon it (1 Corinthians 3). With this in mind, I announce today that the Marist Fathers will relinquish their entrustment of St Patrick’s Parish, Church Hill, on 31 December 2025. They have generously given us forty months to prepare for this, with Fr Michael’s continued leadership till then, and have offered, even after I have found a new parish priest or community, to assist in the ministry here for as long as they can. After Mass Fr Michael will tell us more of what is projected in the forty months ahead: in particular, about the Process Group that will organise forums and promote prayerful listening and discerning. This will help us all in charting the course forward. But even as our hearts overflow with gratitude, there will be sorrow also, and so we pray for each other and for the future of this wonderful shrine and its outreach to our city, confident that this 154 years past the Marist Fathers and their collaborators have laid the best of foundations for its next chapter.

I ask you to join me and the Marist Community in praying for the future direction of this parish, let us begin this journey together, united with the offering of Christ in the Holy Mass. Let us now prepare ourselves to celebrate the Sacred Mysteries by repenting of our sins and entrusting ourselves to God’s mercy.