Homily for Mass of the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time C + Dempsey Medal

15 Aug 2022

St Mary’s Basilica, Sydney 14 August 2022

Earlier this morning tens of thousands of participants in the annual City2Surf race set off from just outside our cathedral. Now in its 51st year, the race has become something of an institution, drawing considerable media attention. Alongside world-class runners and wheelchair athletes are mum and dad hobbyists, work colleagues dressed as Smurfs, superheroes or Teletubbies, octogenarians, pram-pushers, pets, and more. Many of the runners have people sponsoring them and this has proved to be a boon for some charities and a testament to people’s generosity.

In 1991 Aussie marathon legend, Steve Monoghetti, completed the 14km course in just 40 minutes—80 minutes shy of the average runner and a record that stands three decades later. Distance running, as many of today’s participants could attest, is gruelling both physically and mentally. Along with good health and fitness from hours of practice, it requires tenacity and the ability to withstand physical distress. Every runner will tell you that, before the high of reaching picturesque Bondi Beach, what they most remember is the gruelling two-kilometre ascent from Rose Bay to Vaucluse known as “Heartbreak Hill”, where internal voices tempt most of them to give up. To transcend that challenge, runners must find a certain comfort in their discomfort and exercise the fortitude to stretch towards their goal even as every part of them screams “quit”.

Benjamin West, Joshua passing through the Jordan (1800) Art Gallery of NSW
Benjamin West, Joshua passing through the Jordan (1800) Art Gallery of NSW

If there is no gain without pain in long-distance running, this is equally true in the spiritual life. Providentially, today’s Epistle to the Hebrews uses the analogy of running to speak of our faith journey: “With so many [runners] on every side we should cast aside all distractions, especially the sin that clings so easily, and keep running steadily in the race we have started. Let us not lose sight of Jesus, who leads us in our faith and brings it to perfection: for the sake of the joy which was still in the future, he endured the cross.” (Heb 12:1-4). Elsewhere in the New Testament Paul also uses sporting metaphors, as if the spiritual life were like competing in an ancient Commonwealth Games (Phil 2;16; Gal 2:2; 5:7; 2Tim 4:7; cf. 1Cor 9:24-26; 2Tim 2:5). Coaching us as he would the participants in today’s race, Paul says that when tough times come we must stay focused, put one foot in front of the other, ignore the distractions and focus on the finish line. This finish line of heavenly glory with all its laurels has already been won for us by the spiritual Steve Monoghetti, Jesus Christ, but as He struggled, so must we.

Sébastien Bourdon, The Burning Bush (1643), Hermitage Museum
Details from: Sébastien Bourdon, The Burning Bush (1643), Hermitage Museum

In our Gospel today (Lk 12:49-53), Jesus’ unpacks something of those pains-before-the-gains: division over our beliefs; tensions in relationships, sometimes even with those we love; ‘distress’ of various kinds; what He calls a ‘baptism of fire’. The spiritual ascent that comes with following Him can mean our own ‘heartbreak hills.’ The same gentle Jesus whom we call Prince of Peace, who blessed us with peace and blessed others who bring peace, and taught us to turn the other cheek,[1] does not underestimate the strength that gentleness requires, the contest involved in peace-making: Don’t suppose my coming will mean everything is tranquil and comfortable. In some situations, I am a provocation. Even friends and relatives will divide over me. There will be fire upon the earth.

Fire is, of course, a symbol of God’s presence. Moses saw God in the burning bush at Horeb and fire on Mount Sinai; a pillar of fire led the wandering Israelites; tongues of flame fell upon the apostles at Pentecost; and seers saw God’s blazing brightness.[2] Jesus, too, is described in the Scriptures as light amidst our darkness, warmth for our coldness, zeal in our mediocrity, renewal after decline, and glory after tribulation.[3] He teaches, exhorts, graces, forgives.[4] In our City-to-Surf, Christ is the coach prepping us for the contest, the partner running alongside to pace and encourage us, the ambulanceman intervening when we collapse, the line-judge holding out the reward.

Yet for human beings to encounter this divine blaze is to be enlightened, impassioned but also purified.[5] It is not altogether comfortable. The splendour of goodness can seem a reproach, the light of truth can make us blink, the splendour of beauty be overwhelming. And so we often resist or dissent, like son against father, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law. The spiritual race of life is anything but downhill all the way.

Giotto, Crucifixion (c. 1300), Scrovegni Chapel, Padova
Giotto, Crucifixion (c. 1300), Scrovegni Chapel, Padova

Jesus gives Himself completely, into our hands in His incarnation, into our souls by His sacrifice on the Cross, and into our substance in His Eucharist. He well and truly pays the price. The cost to us in seeking truth, goodness and beauty, in living justice and compassion, is that this can rub up against our own desires or not be honoured by this world. We can feel like Jeremiah sinking in the mud of people’s indifference, even hostility (Jer 38:4-10; Ps 39(40)). Yet in helping carry Christ’s cross, like Simon of Cyrene, we know the gain that comes after any pain, the finish line of eternal glory.

I don’t pretend to judge the worthiness of today’s Dempsey medallists for ultimate glory, but they do offer concrete examples of perseverance in faithful and loving service of Christ and His people. Among them are ordinary women and men who have rendered extraordinary leadership and service in sacramental programmes, prayer groups, parish maintenance, fundraising, liturgical ministries, state school catechetics, taking communion to the sick, hospitality and more. As the next generation of James Dempseys, your run in the spiritual City-to-Surf has been judged worthy of line honours. Congratulations and thank you!

[1] Jesus the Prince of Peace: Lk 1:79; 2:14; 19:42. Jesus blesses with peace: Lk 8:48; 24:36; Jn 14:27; 16:33; 20:19,21,26. Jesus blesses those who bring peace: Mt 5:9; 10:13; Mk 5:34; Lk 10:5-6. Jesus teaches us to turn the other cheek: Mt 5:38-44 etc.

[2] Moses recognised God in the Burning Bush at Horeb and the fire on Mount Sinai: Ex 3:2-6; 19:18; 24:17; Acts 7:30. A pillar of fire led the Israelites in their evening wanderings: Ex 13:21; 14:24; 40:38; Num 9:15-16; 14:14; Dt 1:33; 4:12,15,33,36; 5:4,22,24,26; 9:10; 10:4; Neh 9:12-19; Ps 78:14. The Holy Spirit came at Pentecost as flame: Acts 2:1-4. The prophets and apostles had visions of God’s blazing brightness: e.g. 2Kings 2:11; Isa 66:15; Ezek 1:4,13-14,28; Dan 7:9; Mt 3:11-12; 17:1-8 et par; 1Cor 3:13; 2Thess 1:7; Rev 1:14; 15:2.

[3] Mt 3:11-12; 4:16; 12:49; 28:3; Lk 1:79; 2:32; 17:24; Jn 1:4-9; 2:17; 3:19-21; 8:12; 9:5; 11:9-10; 12:35-36,46; 21:9.

[4] Mt 5:21-26; 10:28; 25:31-46; Mk 9:43-48; Lk 16:19-31; Rom 6:23; Rev 19:20; 20:1-15; 21:1-8.

[5] e.g. Isa 4:4; 6:7; Mal 3:3; Mt 3:10-12; Jn ch 1; 1Jn 1:7.

Introduction to Mass for the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time C + Dempsey Medal St Mary’s Basilica, Sydney 14 August 2022

Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney for the Solemn Mass for the 20th Sunday of Ordinary Time. Due to the backlog caused by the COVID lockdowns, I have the privilege today of presenting the Dempsey Medal to a second group of recipients for this year. The award celebrates the outstanding achievements of those who have significant contributions to building up the Church in Sydney through their acts of service. The medal takes its name from James Dempsey (c.1768-1838), a prominent lay leader in the early convict period of our city. He offered his home as a place of gathering for the much-maligned Catholic community, promoted catechesis and prayer before the arrival of priestly leadership, accompanied the condemned to the gallows, and helped establish the first St Mary’s on this site. And so today we honour those who have, in a similar way, generously given of themselves for the betterment of our Church.

Concelebrating with me today are several of their pastors. I welcome our medal recipients with their families, friends and fellow parishioners, as well as our regulars and any visitors to Sydney: a very warm welcome to you all!