06 Mar 2022

St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 6 March 2022

Part of being human is experiencing fear and anxiety. From a very early age, we recognise that some things are a threat to us and even the thought of them can make us tremble. When fears become phobias they can be quite irrational and controlling. Some phobias are trivial, if odd, for example Arachibutyrophobia which is fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth, Nomophobia or fear of being without your mobile phone, Omphalophobia or fear of belly-buttons, and Plutophobia which is fear of money and very rare indeed!

Other fears are more rational—as in fear of heights or venomous creatures or global conflict. We know that these things can do us harm and so we must be cautious, without over-reacting which can be crippling. But whatever your anxiety, it’s often consoling to know that there are others out there who share it, who feel what you feel. You are not alone!

What, then, of the fear of being alone (eremophobia)? It’s particularly debilitating because it goes to the heart of our humanity. Despite what some people think, we are not just individuals sharing a common space, bouncing off each other, rivals for getting what we want, in short-term alliances to serve our interests. No, we need each other, not just in order to get what we want, but also because what we most deeply need is to love and be loved.

So God’s first bit of advice to us was: “It is not good for a person to be alone” (Gen 2:18; Tobit 8:6). Research confirms that loneliness not only makes us unhappy but is literally a health hazard.[i] And no end of gadgets, luxuries or leisure experiences will shield us from what Pope Francis calls “the drama of solitude”; we all need relationships.[ii] The depressed Job says ‘leave me alone’ as he curls up into a ball of grief and depression (Job 7:16; 10:20; cf. Jer 15:17) but the Book of Ecclesiastes points out that “if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone?” (Eccles 4:11).

Yet the same wisdom literature says that “It is good to sit alone with the Lord” (Lam 3:28). Not all solitude is without purpose. In the story of faith, being alone often precedes a life-changing event. Noah’s family are alone for forty days and nights in the flood but are saved for a new start for humanity (Gen chs 6-8). Moses is by himself when he receives the ten commandments; after the first tablets are broken he receives a replacement set, but only after fasting alone for forty days and nights.[iii] Elijah is also by himself when he receives his mission and again it’s after fasting alone for forty days and nights (1Kings 19:8ff). And reprising all this, Jesus fasted in the desert for forty days and nights, while tussling with the ancient Enemy (Lk 4:1-13).

Jonah and the Whale by Pieter Lastman (1621), Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf; Christ Tempted in the Desert by Botticelli (1481) Vatican Palace

Not every case of godly solitude in the Bible is for a Lenten forty days and nights. Jacob is alone before he “sees God face to face” and becomes Israel (Gen 32:22-31). Moses is by himself when God is named in the burning bush and he receives his mission to deliver Israel from bondage (Ex 3:1-9). Daniel is on his own when he has his vision (Dan 10:7-8). John the Baptist lives reclusively in the bush before calling the people to repentance (Lk 1:80; 3:2). Jonah is alone in the belly of the whale, as Jesus will be in the belly of the tomb, for three days and nights (Jonah 1:15,17). On various occasions we read that Jesus sought solitude for Himself or His men.[iv] And Paul’s loss of sight while undergoing his conversion must have been very lonely indeed, even if the greatest missionary adventure in history was about to begin (Acts 9:8-10). Sometimes in our lives there’s a quiet before the storm!

Some of you may have felt quite alone at times on your own faith journey. Even if you were growing in certainty that God was with you, you may have been unsure where He was leading you or what He was asking of you. When Jesus today recites the old wisdom that worldly bread will never suffice and that for fullness of life we need the word of God, we can take comfort in the fact that we often hear God’s words most clearly when we are most alone. Not just because we need peace and quiet to hear them. Not just because the fewer the distractions, the more attentive we can be. But because it’s amidst loneliness that our spirit reaches outwards and grasps that we are never truly alone. The ancient prophetic, eremitical and monastic traditions of the Church testify to the discovery of God’s presence in solitude and silence.

But coming to know that God is our refuge and strength (Ps 91:2), that He walks with us every step of the way, does not mean it will always be easy! Jesus warns us that following Him will require taking up our cross not evading it (Lk 9:23), amidst predictable tribulation (Lk 21:12-19; Jn 16:33). But we know this is not the end of the story. The final act awaits us all at Easter.

So, my dear catechumens and candidates: when anxieties or loneliness rear their head, remember two things: God is with you, and we are with you! Our word “Church” comes means assembly, but it’s more than a party or a football crowd: it’s a unique combo of Christ as head and us as organs of the body, Christ as shepherd and us as flock, Christ as trunk and us as branches, Christ as architect and us as the stones of the building. To be Baptised and Communicated is to be part of something much bigger than ourselves, something that stretches across the world, across time, even beyond this cosmos into the afterlife, the kingdom of heaven. Take comfort, then, that as we keep praying and declaring at Mass “The Lord be with you”, in you, around you. Whatever trials come, He is your refuge and His family the Church are your fellow-travellers, spiritual siblings, field hospital, well of inspiration and strength. Welcome to the Catholic Church!

[i]               E.g. Loneliness Among Older Adults: A National Survey of Adults 45+ (aarp.org)

[ii]               Pope Francis, Homily for 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B (4 October 2015). Holy Mass for the opening of the 14th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops (4 October 2015) | Francis (vatican.va)

[iii]              Ex 19:20; 34:28; cf. Ex 24:2,15-18; Dt 9:9,11,18,25; 10:10.

[iv]              e.g. Mt 14:23; 26:39; Mk 6:31,46-47; 9:18; Jn 6:15,22; 8:9.


Dear catechumens and candidates, godparents and sponsors, priests and catechists, relatives and friends: welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral as we begin the Lenten season of spiritual renewal and preparation for the life-giving mysteries of Easter. As Christ’s body, the Church, journeys with Him into the desert for forty days of prayer and fasting, we look ahead to the other end of Christ public ministry, when He emerges triumphant even over death. Today is especially joyous as we enrol candidates for Full Communion with the Church, and elect catechumens on their road to Baptism. I acknowledge all those who have accompanied you on your journey and prepared you for the Easter to come; I know they will continue to walk with you afterwards. I thank you all for persevering in such a tumultuous time when it would have been easy to throw in the towel or wait another year or two. 

It’s often said that parishes without catechumens don’t fully experience Lent and Easter. Well, bishops without catechumens don’t fully experience episcopacy either—for in the ancient tradition bishops played an important part in instructing those preparing for Baptism at Easter. Most of what we know about the catechumenate in the early centuries of the Church is in fact from those instructions to catechumens by the early bishops. So I thank you for giving me this opportunity to be part of your Rite of Election today! A very warm welcome to you all.