27 Jun 2023


As a Fisher I am pleased to observe that there’s plenty of Anglophone idiom about fish. When asked before the last conclave if he was in the running for pope, the late great Cardinal Pell said it was one thing to be “a big fish in a small pond” like Australia, but that there were “plenty of fish” in the sees of the universal Church. He was himself subsequently the victim of “a fishing expedition” by Victorian police, who, though without allegations or evidence, were determined to net “a big fish”.

Some people “fish for compliments”; others “drink like a fish” or are a “cold fish”, “a slippery fish” or even “a fishwife” (meaning loud or argumentative). We say it’s “better to teach a man to fish”, meaning to skill people up to sustain themselves; and that “the fish rots from the head down”, suggesting that dysfunction or corruption in organisations starts with the leadership.[1] And we call something a “fisherman’s tale” if it’s embellished, exaggerated, boastful, even fantastical.

Sir James Thornhill, The Miraculous Draught of Fishes (c.1730), Royal Academy

Much of this idiom might seem rather unfair to honest folk involved in the fishing industry! Certainly, tonight’s Gospel tale (Lk 5:1-11) is far from fantasy: it points to the extraordinary historical fact that the men Jesus chose as collaborators, pillars and evangelisers were not theologians or rhetoricians, but mostly labourers, especially fishermen. In calling them to be “fishers of men” rather than fish, He was not demeaning their former work, even if they weren’t always a great success. One says tonight, “Sir, we worked all night long and caught nothing, but if you say so, I’ll pay out the nets.” On the face of it, he was remarkably docile towards this carpenter-turned-rabbi who was offering fishing advice. Perhaps he sensed “there were bigger fish to fry” beyond the Galilean trawling industry, that while he’d be “a fish out of water” when it came to evangelisation, this guy would teach him a new way to fish, and that he would be telling not fish-tales but true.

At first Luke calls this fisherman ‘Simon’. Simon demonstrates remarkable openness, docility, even nascent faith, as he responds to the Master’s command to “Put out into the deep.” Once that faith is clarified and magnified by a miracle, he kneels before Jesus and calls Him ‘Lord’. At that point Luke pre-empts Jesus in naming him ‘Simon Peter’. The new name told of a new mission, not just as a fisher of men but as Cephas, Rocky, bedrock for the early Church. Awed by the Lord of the Sea and sea-creatures, who honours human labour and multiplies it by divine grace, Peter hears those characteristic words of Jesus, “Be not afraid” (Lk 5:10; cf. Mt 8:26; 10:26,28,31; 14:26-27; 17:6-7; 28:10; Mk 5:33-34; Lk 8:50; Jn 6:20; 14:27 etc.)—the motto of Cardinal Pell, which he took from St John Paul the Great, who was, of course, quoting from Christ.

Some of you may know that I am part Spanish-Basque. In Spain I’d be Antonio Pescador Maguregui. One of my Basque cousins is named Jesus-Maria-José which is even more extravagant than the founder’s baptismal name Josemaría: indeed, to Anglophone ears it sounds positively greedy! But the instinct is a sound one: for we believe, first and foremost, not in propositions about Christ but in Jesus Himself. A life of faith should lead us to kneel before Jesus and follow Him, as Simon did, to learn from and conform ourselves to Him, and as friends do, to identify our fate, mission and being with His. St Josemaría urged his followers to see Christ, not as a figure from the past, a mere memory or tradition, but as alive and present to us right now.[3] Christ returned to the Father not to be less present to us but to be more so—present not just in Israel but on every altar and tongue, at every Eucharist in every Catholic Church in the world.

St Josemaría Escrivá considered the events at the Sea of Galilee that day to be “a miracle that is repeated each day”.[2] I think it’s safe to assume he didn’t mean that inordinate numbers of fish daily jump into fishing nets with no reasonable explanation. Rather, it is that each day ordinary Christians admit Christ into their hearts; they hear the Master’s call; they decide to obey Him, whatever their doubts, temptations or feelings of inadequacy; they elect to trust in the One who can fill their nets with His life and love. And God does this for the descendants of those first parents, who were simple gardeners (Gen 2:4-9,15), of those first disciples, who were simple fishermen.

The intimacy God wants with us is told in the story of our creation, when God made us, not just from His imagination as He did everything else, but “in His own image”; not just by an act of will, but with His own potter’s hands; not just with a word but with His own breath (Gen 2:4-9,15). Likewise, Paul tells us tonight, everyone moved by the Holy Spirit is a son of God, with the confidence to cry out ‘Abba, Father!’, and a co-heir with Christ, sharing in His sufferings so as to share in His glory (Rom 8:14-17). This is key to Opus Dei. In 1931 St Josemaría recorded his inspiration: “I understood that divine filiation had to be fundamental to our spirituality. Abba, Father! By living from within this, my children would find themselves filled with joy and peace, protected by an impregnable wall… They would know how to be apostles of this joy, how to communicate their peace, even in the face of… suffering—just because we are convinced that God is our Abba-Father.”[4]

That’s what gives us the confidence to pray to God as Dada, Father, what gives us the pluck to work in the Father’s Garden, what allows us to persevere despite difficulties. And difficulties there will be. Jesus warned His disciples that “If the world hates you, know that it has hated Me first” (Jn 15:18). Our late Cardinal is celebrated by many as a white martyr, someone who suffered in witness to the faith, even if he was spared a bloody death. The same media stable that hunted him to the grave went after the Opus Dei family at the time of his funeral, and I am sure he was interceding for you and reminding you all of his motto Be Not Afraid. Divine filiation gives us confidence because our own brother, Jesus Christ, has “overcome the world” (Jn 16:33).

So what’s the end goal of the Work? For St Josemaría there was only one answer: holiness. We are each called to sainthood, to be living breathing witnesses to God’s love, in all we do and to all we meet in this life, so as to join the saints in the next. Through the Work we are given many opportunities to become what St John Paul II called “the living reflection of the face of Christ”.[5] So let us serve God and His people, as St Josemaría said, “to the last drop”.[6]  

[1] Carole Ford, “English idioms with fish and fishing,” The London Link 24 February 2023.

[2] St Josemaría, The Way 629. See also https://stjosemaria.org/our-empty-nets/

[3] St Josemaría, The Way 584; Christ is Passing By 102ff; Giulio Maspero, Faith and Life in St Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer.

[4] Andrés Vazquez de Prada, The Founder of Opus Dei, I

[5] John Paul II, Novo millennio ineunte, 7.

[6] https://stjosemaria.org/towards-holiness-2/


Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney for this evening’s Mass for the feast of St Josemaría Escrivá, founder of Opus Dei.

As I am recovering from surgery on a broken ankle, I trust you will excuse me not mounting the stairs of the sanctuary or the pulpit. I thank Most Rev. Richard Umbers and Very Rev. Iñigo Martinez-Echevarria, who will assist with the celebration of the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Concelebrating are several priests of the prelature of the Holy Cross and other priest friends of the Work.

With us this evening are also many numeraries, supernumeraries, cooperators, friends and benefactors of the Work. A very warm welcome to everyone joining us on this joyous feast.