Homily for Mass for Wednesday of the 4th Week of Ordinary Time, Year 1 + Opening of the Seminary Year 2023

21 Feb 2023

Seminary of the Good Shepherd, Homebush, 1 February 2023

It’s a well-known rule of social etiquette: never bring up politics or religion at a dinner party. What’s the go with this advice? Well, the thought seems to be: don’t spoil a social engagement by raising a topic that might prove divisive or even cause a heated disagreement. Questions concerning how we should be governed and by whom, or what we should believe about God and the things of God, are the sorts of things about which people often have strong but differing convictions and over which they can be quite animated, even hostile. Better to stick to topics like sport, fashion, children, the weather or something equally innocuous…

On the face of it, this seems to be prudent if somewhat boring counsel. Considering how polarised our political culture has been of late and how politics even divides families, avoiding such matters on social occasions makes sense. But what of faith? Is there ever a time when speaking about our belief in God should be out of bounds?

Well, it all depends. It is said about St Dominic that he always spoke either to God or about God. Some might think that sounds boring. Or fanatical. Or a bit aspy. But if we are really in love with God and care for His people, we really want people to get to know and love Him too. Our first vocation, before seminarian or priest, is as baptised Christian and all the baptised are called to be missionary disciples, as Pope Francis has often put it. Christ’s mandate to us was not ‘Stay with your e-fans, e-friends and favourite blogs; stick to your loyalty groups and your familiar environments.’ No, Jesus’ parting charge to us was to go out to all the world, proclaiming the Good News, making disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey His commandments, baptising them in the name of the Holy Trinity, confident He is with us always (Mt 28:19-20; cf. Mk 16:15-18). So sharing the Good News is no optional extra for us; not something we can leave till it’s safe and comfortable. It won’t always be easy. No spiritual pain, no missionary gain to paraphrase our epistle (Heb 12:4-7, 11-15). But being missionary disciples is our way to holiness.

St Dominic always spoke either to God or about God. But that doesn’t mean he always spoke. He chose whom, when and how. We must all do likewise. Not because faith is private and it’s optional whether we share it; not because all faiths are equal, and we don’t really care what others believe or how they live; not even because we’re hyper-cautious about hurting other people’s feelings. No, the reason we choose carefully to whom, when and how we speak is because faith is precious and so are people. We need to cultivate prudence or practical wisdom so that we know to whom to speak and when, and we need a thorough formation of our hearts and minds so we know what to speak and how. All of which is part of why you’ve come to Good Shepherd Seminary.

Even then, there are no guarantees that people will accept the Gospel from us. Jesus tells us that no servant is greater than his master (Jn 13:16); as he was rejected by some, so too will we be. In his own hometown, as we hear in today’s Gospel, Jesus wasn’t accepted; indeed their resistance amazed Him (Mk 6:1-6). Despite amazing teaching and miracles, many were unmoved. “He’s just a carpenter” they cried, “not a theologian, a rabbi, let alone a Son of God! He’s just from nowheresville, not from the big smoke. He’s from an ordinary family: we know his rellies. He’s no prophet: he’s a special effects artist. How can we take him seriously?” It was identity politics at its finest. And it resulted in Jesus being so thoroughly cancelled that Mark says He could work no miracle there—apart from a few cures.

Which could be rather demoralising if we were doing the Gospel thing in order to add more notches to our conversions belt, feel good about ourselves, impress the boss by beating our evangelisation KPIs. But as Jesus had to teach the apostles again and again, it’s not about us. “He brings down the mighty from their thrones and raises the lowly” Mary said to prepare us for him (Lk 1:52). “I must decrease that He might increase,” the Baptist said also (Jn 3:30). “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all,” Jesus echoed (Mk 9:35). “I am gentle and lowly of heart” (Mt 11:29-30) so be like Me. “Blessed are the poor in spirit… and the meek… those who are persecuted and reviled.” (Mt 5:3-12). “When you give to the needy, don’t trumpet it about like the hypocrites.” (Mt 6:2) “Whoever humbles himself like this little child will be greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 18:4; Lk 9:48) “For the greatest among you must be your servant. Those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Mt 20:26-27; 23:10-12; Lk 14:7-11) “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” (Mk 10:45) “If I the Lord and Teacher have washed your feet you must wash each other’s feet. For no servant is greater than his master.” (Jn 13:14-16) They had only three years in formation and yet Jesus managed to say it to the apostles at least a dozen times!

So we are but instruments for God’s use. We must shed our egos and make space for that humility that St Francis de Sales called ‘holy indifference’. Not being uninterested in people or spiritually apathetic. But having hearts so fixed on God that our passions are unperturbed by how successful we are in this life or how well regarded by others.[1] God’s will becomes our will; only God’s ambitions, desires or plans ours.[2] We don’t just do loving, as a PR strategy, we become love, as is God, and this acts as a magnet to others.

[1] Evagrius of Pontus (345-399) is considered by many to be the strongest proponent of ἀπάθεια. See Joseph H. Nguyen, Apatheia in the Christian Tradition: An Ancient Spirituality and its Contemporary Relevance (Eugene OR: Cascade Books, 2018).

[2] Euan Mc Donnell SDB, “Holy indifference: Freeing the heart for pure love,” Journal of Salesian Studies 18(1) (2017): 5-6.

Introduction to Mass for Wednesday of the 4th Week of Ordinary Time, Year 1 + Opening of the Seminary Year 2023 – Seminary of the Good Shepherd, Homebush, 1 February 2023

Welcome dear seminarians, I am delighted to be here with you this morning to celebrate Mass for the opening of the Seminary Year 2023. I acknowledge the relatively fresh Seminary Team that are here today: Fr Michael de Stoop, your Rector, whose been here a while now; Fr Paul Durkin your new Vice Rector; Fr Dominic Nguyen the new First Year Director; Fr John Armstrong the old-timer Spiritual Director; Sr Susanna Edwards OP, the newish Dean of Studies; Sr Lydia Allen SM the oldish Director of Human Formation; along with Della and the other staff.

Our epistle this morning is addressed to the first year seminarians in the year 64 AD (Heb 12:4-7, 11-15). So far, it says, you guys have had it easy. But now you’ve entered formation you will face some real challenges. Don’t be discouraged: if you are corrected by your formators on His behalf, it’s a sign the Lord loves you. As every sportsman or soldier knows, suffering is part of training: no pain, no gain. And so, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews says, no grumbling or bitterness, that only poisons the seminary community. The important thing is that you persevere through your trials as that is the way to build that spiritual six-pack we call holiness.

Not that we are planning any arbitrary obstacle courses for you guys! Let me assure you we are very excited to have the eleven first years and six who have received some prior formation elsewhere, making a total of seventeen new admissions this year. This is in fact the largest admission of new seminarians in the history of Good Shepherd Seminary; you have to go back 37 years to 1986 since that many entered its predecessor seminary in Manly. It is a source of great hope for the future but also of consolation in our present loss. Families often remark that when one of their elderly members dies, a new member is often born, as the cycle of life and grace plays out. I have come this morning direct from receiving the body of Cardinal George Pell at St Mary’s Cathedral where he is now lying in state for people to pray with him and for him. On this eve of the burial of a such great friend of seminarians and young priests, and especially of this seminary, I dare say that your vocations are in part the fruit of the Cardinal’s intercession. You can ask him now to keep interceding for you.

Please know that you are greatly loved for yourselves and for your courage and generosity in taking this next step in your vocational discernment. And parents and family members, please know we will be doing all in our power to ensure your sons and brothers thrive in this situation. You, too, are most welcome here. To those in second year and above, my congratulations on reaching the next stage of your formation and your journey to priesthood. It’s great to see you back and great to be back with you myself.