Homily for Mass Commissioning of Beginning Teachers for Sydney Catholic Schools

21 Feb 2024
Homily for Mass Commissioning of Beginning Teachers for Sydney Catholic Schools

Wednesday of the 1st week of Lent, St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 21 February 2024

Jonah was a prophet from the eighth century before Christ, whose tug-o-war with God gave us one of the great stories of vocational call and response, fright and flight, failure and success in a calling—all of which explains why we hear excerpts from the story in Lent, the season of return and reconciliation. But all most people know about Jonah is that he spent three days social distancing in the belly of a whale.

There’s so much more to Jonah’s story than his strange modes of transport and accommodation! The Book of Jonah is one of the shortest in the Old Testament, yet it details Jonah’s call by God to prophesy against the great Assyrian city of Nineveh, traditional enemies of the northern Israelites. Jonah is not the model prophet: he tells God that a Jew prophesying in Nineveh is a bad idea and he runs away to sea. But his ship is soon caught in a tremendous storm and the sailors discern that Jonah is the problem. Out of sheer misery rather than self-sacrifice, he gets them to throw him overboard. He is then swallowed by a whale and lives a while in its belly. There he repents (as you would), promises God he’ll be a good boy, and after three days is vomited up on the shore. (In our Gospel (Lk 11:29-32) Jesus compares the three days He will spend in the tomb with Jonah’s three days in the sea monster: both are delivered up safe and sound—another reason we hear the story in the lead up to Easter.)

So, Jonah returns to his mission, which is where we catch up with him today. He goes to Nineveh, present-day Mosul in Northern Iraq. He proclaims that because of its wickedness the city will be destroyed in forty days. But in those forty days the authorities, people, even the pets, promptly repent, do penance, and reform their lives—which is, again, a very Lenten story. God sees this and spares the city, to the chagrin of Jonah, who looked forward to Nineveh’s comeuppance and was embarrassed that his prophecy wasn’t realised. He goes off to the desert to sulk and yet again God provides: rather than a whale, the plant kingdom shades him this time. But when a worm eats his canopy, Jonah grumbles about sunburn and says he’d rather be dead. By now, God has had enough of Jonah the Moaner, his mood-swings and ingratitude, and so the book ends with a bad Year 10 report card for Jonah! But the reluctant prophet has played his part in saving the Ninevites from destruction.

It’s quite a story and just waiting to be made into a Hollywood blockbuster starring Hugh Jackman, Chris Hemsworth or some other Aussie. I trust your own vocational stories will be a little less eventful, and that none of you will compare your calling to be Catholic educators with being kidnapped by a large sea mammal or being sent into enemy territory! Still, there are lessons here for all of us: that responding to what God asks of us can sometimes be uncomfortable. In contemporary Australia it will often be counter-cultural. But while we choose our jobs, our vocations choose us. We may be inclined to serve ourselves, but vocations order us towards serving others. If our faith and values put us at odds with those to whom we are sent, courage and perseverance will see us through our prophetic mission. And challenging as it is, it’s also very rewarding. When we apply ourselves to helping others be their best selves and God’s own, we participate in His plan of salvation.

Catholic education is not easy. As well as equipping young people with “the four Rs” of reading, writing, ‘rithmetic and religion, you seek to expose them to the wisdom of various disciplines, to inspire them to attempt great things, and to equip them to flourish in our world. You’ll probably have those Jonah days when you feel your call was a divine butt-dial, and that you aren’t cut out for this mission. Sometimes it can seem like you’ve entered Nineveh where, as Jonah assumed, no one will listen to you.

But, contrary to predictions, they did listen! Jonah’s words made all the difference. While I hope family, parish and the culture will support you in your precious tasks of education and evangelisation, sometimes you will be the only ones to share the Church’s wisdom, above all the message of faith, hope and love with our young people. You will be the prophet sent to them. What a privilege! And be sure of this: as our Gospel said, in Jesus we have something greater than the wisdom of Solomon or the signs of Jonah. Bring Jesus to your preparations and teaching, and you will have the greatest of all teaching aids: divine grace. God never gives us a task without also giving us the tools we need. He has given you the talent, education and drive to be great teachers and mentors. He’s also planted faith in your heart and surrounded you with a faith community, so that you can be prophets and evangelisers. So, be unafraid to be walking, talking, teaching examples of God’s life-giving love.

Pope Francis says that “to educate is always an act of hope”[1] because it is faith and love looking forward. As Catholic educators, you will plant seeds of faith and morals that may take years to flower. Not seeing immediate fruits might be disheartening but we know that no one is outside of God’s love, no student ever a lost cause. Jonah thought the Ninevites were no-hopers, yet God showed Him and us that redemption is for everyone, and that sometimes all people need is to repent and hear the Gospel.

Dear Beginning Teachers, God has called you to serve His children and His Church. Whether you are an overnight star or persevere in playing the long game, He will transform the lives of many young people through you. Serve everyone He has entrusted to your care in the greatest way you can: by showing them His relentless love and always sharing His Good News. God bless you—and may you have a Jonah’s whale of a time!

[1] https://www.vaticannews.va/en/pope/news/2020-12/pope-videomessage-global-compact-education-mission-4-point-7.html

Introduction to Mass Commissioning of Beginning Teachers for Sydney Catholic Schools | Wednesday of the 1st week of Lent, St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 21 February 2024

Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney for our Commissioning Mass for Beginning Teachers in Sydney Catholic Schools. It’s always a joy to see so many enthusiastic educators ready to live out their Christian discipleship in the crucial vocation of the Catholic school teacher.

Catholic education is celebrated as one of the jewels in the crown of the Catholic Church in Australia, a gem that has been shining now for over 200 years. But this jewel is only visible because faithful men and women have put their faith, talents and energies at the service of Christ and His Church. For two centuries the Good News of Jesus Christ, as well as a great deal of more secular knowledge and skill, have been brought to the young people of this city and beyond, thanks in no small part to them. This evening it is my privilege to commission a new cohort for this ongoing task. We ask that Christus Paedagogus, Christ the Teacher, guide and protect each one of you in carrying out your new ministry as Catholic teachers in the Archdiocese of Sydney, and that He reward those who have helped to get you here.

Concelebrating with me tonight are Frs Roberto Keryakos and Ben Saliba. I salute the Executive Director of Sydney Catholic Schools, Mr Tony Farley, together with board members, directors, SCS management and staff; as well as all school leaders, teachers, and general staff. Above all, dear beginning teachers, a very warm welcome to you all.