ANZAC Day and the cross

ANZAC Day and the cross

Large crowds populated all the Anzac Day ceremonies I attended yesterday.

The breakfast which followed the dawn service included rum mixed with International Roast. That combination is probably the best and only way to consume those two beverages.

I heard a lot of stories about war. Good and bad. I heard the story of a ten year old in WWII whose hawkish arguments were only curtailed when his uncle described his own experience in WWI:

I fought on the Western Front. On my first day at the front line, we were ordered to take the German trenches.

Machine gunfire mowed us down, and we fell back. The dead and injured were left in no-man’s land. We couldn’t retrieve them because leaving the trenches meant instant death.

For five hours, we endured their cries for help, and tried to block it out. We had no choice.

Then a man cast his shadow over our trench. We looked up, and saw a seven foot German looking down at us. He was carrying one of our injured. ‘Help your friends,’ he told us.

He handed us the injured Australian, and then he turned around and walked back to the German line. We shot him in the back.

Isn’t that an awful story? It was enough to stop a 10 year old in his tracks, and realise that not every German was a baddie, and not every Australian was a goodie. More broadly, it reminds me of one of the many evils of war. War is barbaric. War is an occasion for good people to do horrifically bad things.

Of course, the opposite is true too. War can also be an occasion for noble sacrifice and heroic goodness. Simpson and his donkey are just one example, and more broadly, I think the Anzac Spirit is another example.

There are some Australians who were uncomfortable with this week’s Anzac celebrations. They feel the celebrations glorify war and romanticise violence. But I’m not convinced that’s what is occurring in the hearts and minds of Australians.

It’s significant, I think, that Anzac Day commemorates not a military victory, but a noble defeat. That points to something. The Anzac spirit doesn’t celebrate war. It celebrates a spirit of service; heroic generosity; and friendship.

“Greater love hath no man than this,” Jesus tells us. “To lay down his life for his friends.”

This Sunday’s Gospel contains similar words:

“I am the good shepherd . . . I lay down my life for my sheep.”

Now of course, the Lord wasn’t talking about death on a battlefield. It would be perverse to say that. Jesus is a master of non-violent resistance. He was talking about his death on a cross. But it’s not perverse to see an analogy in the mystery of the cross — the Lord’s cross and your cross and my cross — and the Anzac spirit.

The Lord wants us to foster a spirit of service. He calls us to heroic generosity. He gives us the means to love as he loves, even to the point of death. This doesn’t “baptise” or “canonise” war. War in itself is evil, and as that story from the Western Front reminds us, war is also an occasion for great evil.

The Lord’s words don’t give us license to die for any cause of our choosing, either. A suicide bomber dies for a cause, but he is no martyr. A martyr would rather suffer death at the hands of his oppressors than renounce his beliefs. Killing yourself and innocent people to make a point is an act of oppression, not resistance to it. That’s not martyrdom, it’s brutal murder.

In any event, God doesn’t actually ask us to be martyrs. He calls us to be heroes. A hero would die for love, but he’d much rather live for it.

That’s the Anzac spirit I think. And it’s also the lesson of the cross.

Create a civilisation of life

Create a civilisation of life

Some time ago, I contributed to a crowdfunding campaign which raised $2 million for the Gosnell movie.

Dr Kermit Gosnell, you might remember, is an American abortion doctor who was convicted of infanticide and many other crimes which occurred at his abortion ‘clinics.’ His trial, which exposed the horrors of abortion, was shamefully ignored by the mainstream media.

The Gosnell film makers have launched a new appeal, hoping to secure 100,000 financial backers. This isn’t about money — they have the finances they need to start the project. It’s about the number of backers, and gaining unstoppable momentum:

We have 27,000+ backers of the Gosnell movie. That’s a pretty impressive number. But it would be a lot better if it were 100,000. The biggest ever crowdfunded movie campaign is Veronica Mars, about a teen detective. They had 91,585 backers: that put them in a great position when seeking distribution.

We need to show distributors that there is a huge demand for the Gosnell Movie. Getting 100,000 donors would also get big name actors very excited about starring in the movie. And together we have the power to do this.

Hence this invitation to my readers. Please consider donating one American dollar to this project, and contributing to an important pro-life initiative.

Abortion is like war. Both are barbaric, and in a modern democracy, both are sustainable only so long as the truth is hidden. Since the Vietnam War, television has had a lasting impact on warfare. I think Gosnell could have a similar impact on the abortion industry.

Donate now.

The beast is clever
but God is Wisdom

The beast is clever but God is Wisdom

When it comes to poetry, I’m an absolute troglodyte, though a much quoted cliche might be applied in my case: “I don’t know much about art; but I know what I like.”

Was it Mark Twain who said that? Or the vaunted Anonymous? Anonymous is at it again, sending me this beautiful, and I think insightful, reflection on the interior life and spiritual battle.

It begins, incidentally, with a verse from scripture — 1 Peter 5:8-9 — which is prayed during Compline every Tuesday night.

Which hand?

The devil is prowling around like a roaring lion,
looking for someone to eat.
Stand up to him,
strong in faith.

The beast is clever; he knows our weaknesses
and he knows how to push our buttons.
But God is Wisdom; He knows our strengths
and He gives us the grace to overcome temptation.

The beast is full of hate; he wants to trap us
and leave us devoid of hope.
But God is love; He reaches out his Hand
and pulls us out of darkness.

The beast is sadness; he wants to drag us into the pit
and keep us away from light.
But God is joy; He wants our ultimate good
and our presence in His light.

The beast is cunning; he knows how to use us
– our weaknesses, our brokenness, our hopelessness –
to stray.
But God is infinite. He is Truth;
He knows how to use weaknesses for Good,
He uses our brokenness to show Beauty,
He uses our hopelessness to manifest Truth.

The only condition is that we cooperate with Him.

When God reaches out His hand, we decide whether we take it.
When God grants us His grace, we choose what we do with it.
When God gives us His own self, we can take it or we can leave it.

The devil puts out his hand;
So too does God.

To which hand will you hold?
The one that will push you into the pit
The One who will pull you out?

The shape of the confessional

The shape of the confessional

The Divine Mercy of our Lord – the feast, the image, and the devotion – is very important to me. It was pivotal to my return to sacramental confession.

Some people, I know, think the Divine Mercy image is kitsch, or worse. Maybe it isn’t great art, but that’s not really the point. Sacred art is not intended to evoke admiration; it is meant to evoke prayer. St Faustina was very distressed by the first portrait of the Divine Mercy, which she considered quite ugly. (It is!) But our Lord assuaged her concerns:

Not in the beauty of the colour, nor of the brush lies the greatness of this image, but in My grace.

In any event, I like the image very much, regardless of respective versions’ artistic merit. One of the ordination presents I most cherish is a large oil on canvas of the Divine Mercy, which was a gift from the Peart family. (Deacon Joel Peart is a serial commenter on this blog.)

Most years it is solemnly blessed on today’s Feast, though not this year. The painting is in Casterton, but my Mass schedule was elsewhere. The image is put to good use. It was originally in my study, but not long after arriving in Casterton, I restored the confessional to it intended use and hung it there: 

The first thing one sees when entering . . .

As you can see, penitents have two options before them. They can kneel at the prie-dieu, and maintain their anonymity, or they can sit face to face with the confessor.

Many people have expressed surprise at this choice, and advised me that the first option was abrogated by Vatican II. (The mythology surrounding that Council is remarkable!) Some of them were not only surprised, but delighted, when I assured them that the screen or curtain is allowed:

Can 964 §2. The conference of bishops is to establish norms regarding the confessional; it is to take care, however, that there are always confessionals with a fixed grate between the penitent and the confessor in an open place so that the faithful who wish to can use them freely.

Personally, I much prefer this option, both as penitent and as confessor. To my mind, this arrangement manifests the supernatural character of the sacrament. You’re not confessing your sins to a priest; you’re confessing them to Jesus. I often explain this rationale to people, so that they don’t think it is “secretive” to choose the screen, and so feel pressured to sit face to face.

I also acknowledge the rationale for the alternative arrangement, as I see it. I avoid value-laden language about “maturity,” because I see nothing “immature” about the screen. But I do appreciate that confession is sometimes an occasion for spiritual direction, which is facilitated by face to face dialogue.

Adults often assume that children prefer the face to face option, and that they are intimidated by confessionals. Wouldn’t an open space be better? I am always sensitive to this, and never presume, but my universal experience thus far is that children prefer the confessional, and the screen.

It’s not about the anonymity. Kids typically stick their head around the curtain and say, “Hi Fr John,” before they start. I can only guess they share my sense that kneeling and confessing without eye contact differentiates the sacrament, so that is more a prayer to God, and less a conversation with a neighbour.

The sacrament of reconciliation is intimidating, especially when you’re out of practice. But it’s also exhilarating. And liberating. I wish it was more widely practiced. And I thank God for the Divine Mercy feast and devotion – not only for its role in my own return to the sacrament, but also the return of so many others. I bet we beneficiaries number in the millions. Deo gratias.

Borrowed time: an age of mercy

Borrowed time: an age of mercy

At 1:30 this morning — 5:30 Saturday afternoon in Rome — Pope Francis walked to the holy doors in St Peter’s Basilica, which are opened only a few times each century, and convoked the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy.

This Holy Year of Mercy begins in December. For the duration of the year, the holy doors in Rome’s basilicas will be open, symbolising the extraordinary pathways to grace available to the Church during the holy year.

“This is the time of mercy,” Pope Francis declared.

It is important that the lay faithful live it, and bring it into different social environments. Go forth!

In fact, Pope Francis has made God’s mercy the centrepiece of his pontificate. And in doing so, he joins the company of Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II.

Pope Benedict invoked divine mercy when he was elected pope in 2005.

Dear friends, this deep gratitude for a gift of Divine Mercy is uppermost in my heart in spite of all. And I consider it a special grace which my Venerable Predecessor, John Paul II, has obtained for me. I seem to feel his strong hand clasping mine; I seem to see his smiling eyes and hear his words, at this moment addressed specifically to me, ‘Do not be afraid!’

St John Paul II invoked divine mercy again and again during his 27 years as pope. After the attempt on his life, he visited and forgave his would-be assassin, relating the importance he attached to divine mercy:

Right from the beginning of my ministry in St Peter’s See in Rome, I consider this message my special task. Providence has assigned it to me.

The Polish pope was very familiar with the diary of Sr Faustina. He read it as a priest, and defended it as a bishop, even though the Vatican condemned it. As pope he lifted the ban, and heeded the request our Lord made to Faustina, that the Church honour his divine mercy on the Sunday after Easter. Moreover, Pope John Paul canonised St Faustina in 2000, making her the first saint of the new millennium.

There is an interesting passage in Faustina’s diary which may describe the Polish pope:

I bear a special love for Poland, and if she will be obedient to My will, I will exalt her in might and holiness. From her will come forth the spark that will prepare the world for My final coming.

Apocalyptic themes permeate Faustina’s diary.

You will prepare the world for My final coming.

Before the Day of Justice, I am sending the Day of Mercy

Before I come as a just judge, I am coming first as the King of Mercy. Before the day of justice arrives, there will be given to people a sign in the heavens of this sort: All light in the heavens will be extinguished, and there will be great darkness over the whole earth. Then the sign of the cross will be seen in the sky, and from the openings where the hands of feet of the Saviour were nailed will come forth great lights which will light up the earth for a period of time. This will take place shortly before the last day.

None of us are obliged to believe the apocalyptic prophecies in Faustina’s diary — nor are we obliged to accept that Jesus really appeared to her. Nonetheless, Faustina is a holy woman, canonised by a pope who is himself now canonised. That’s enough for me take seriously everything she writes.

It may be that Pope Francis thinks along similar lines. He has repeatedly advised journalists to read Robert Hugh Benson’s The Lord of the World, which is an apocalyptic novel written in 1908, describing a world eerily similar to the modern day. Last month, speaking to priests in Rome, he suggested the times are urgent:

The Holy Spirit speaks to the whole Church of our time, which is a time of mercy. I am sure of this. We have been living in a time of mercy for the past 30 years or more, up to today.

Whatever of end time prophecies, one thing is certain. You and I will die some time in the next hundred years. The world will end for each one of us. So with that in mind, we can all profit from the central message St Faustina related: a message of unconditional love and infinite mercy.

Tell sinners that I am always waiting for them, that I listen intently to the beating of their heart . . . When will it beat for Me?

10 years ago: where were you?

10 years ago: where were you?

I was astonished when I realised today is the tenth anniversary of the death of Pope John Paul II. It seems like yesterday, not a decade ago!

I remember the day very clearly. I was in my first year at the seminary, but we were on our Easter break, so I was staying at the beautiful parish of St Mary Star of the Sea, West Melbourne, which was my adopted parish throughout my university years. Heck, it’s still my adopted parish when I’m in Melbourne.

I’d arranged to catch up with an acquaintance who had been in the seminary when I was at university, and who probably suspected I had a priestly vocation before I was aware of it. He had left the seminary just before I started. We never caught up, because the news of the pope’s death upset him too much.

My dear friend (now-Father) Nicholas Pearce went to the cathedral when he heard the news. Or perhaps he was staying at St Patrick’s, just as I was staying at St Mary’s. I forget. In any event, he joined the crowd massing at the cathedral doors, most of whom were Catholics of my generation, then in their late teens and early twenties. Unfortunately nobody at the cathedral had the wherewithal to throw open the doors and welcome the pilgrims inside, so the spontaneous vigil of prayer occurred in the cathedral grounds. I bet that’s a vivid memory for everyone who was there.

For my own part, since my dinner plans were cancelled, I retreated to my room, where I listened to the ABC news radio coverage. That was a mistake. A Jesuit priest (again, I forget who) was interviewed, who offered only very faint praise of the polish Pope. When the interview became focused on the semantics of obedience, and why it is perfectly legitimate to be selective in one’s obedience to the pope, I switched off. Back then I wondered what St Ignatius would say to that. Now I wonder what Pope Francis would say!

In the end, I walked over to the locked church, and kept a holy hour for the late pope in the darkened sanctuary. That might sound a bit depressing, but actually it is an experience I cherish, and praying alone in that church is never lonely. I’ve always considered it one of the greatest privileges God has given me, to have such unique access to that holy place. When I’m in Melbourne I often pray there late at night.

St Mary's sanctuary in all its splendour.

St Mary’s sanctuary in all its splendour.

I remembered all this during my prayer tonight, as I kept vigil with our Lord at Gethsemane. I remembered too, Holy Thursday of 10 years ago. At that stage I was a seminarian for the Melbourne Archdiocese — I moved to Ballarat later — so I attended the Mass of the Lord’s Supper at Melbourne’s cathedral. Seminarians were free to keep watch for as long as they liked afterwards. I stayed as long as I could, until the doors were locked at midnight. I remember praying very intensely: not only for my priestly vocation, which was in its infancy, but also for our pope, whom the world knew was dying.

It all came back to me tonight. I relived not only some of the sorrow the Lord experienced in the Garden, but also my own sorrow, at the death of the pope I’d grown up with. The man whom I’d likened to my grandfathers. And now he shares in the glory of the saints, where I might go too, God willing.


Gethsemane via Casterton.

Ten years ago, in early April. Ten years ago, during the Triduum (late March). Where were you?

Confessions for kids

Confessions for kids

A couple of my parishioners made their first confession this morning. Many more will make their first confession next term.

It’s never easy preparing children for confession. I know this not only as a confessor, but because I remember going to confession when I was a kid. There are three pitfalls:

1. Some children are speechless. They don’t know what to confess!

2. Some children confess sins they’ve made up. I remember doing this myself!

3. Some children confess sins which aren’t sinful. This relates, I think, to a child’s very penal view of justice. “If Mum cries bitterly when I accidentally break her great grandmother’s china vase, that must be a terrible sin. But everybody else at school makes fun of the weird kid I pick on, and I’ve never been in trouble about it, so it’s not a big deal.”

The key, I think, is to teach children to practice good examinations of conscience. I’m trying something new this year, which I learned from a good friend in Melbourne who is something of an expert in children’s catechesis.

You start with an empty chest. I was advised to find something substantial, which indicates to the children that this is something important. Something which needs to be taken care of. Something which is sacred.

I bought this on eBay — $20 for three.

I found this on eBay — $20 for three of them!

When I showed the chest to the children, I asked, “What do you find in a chest?”

“Treasure!” they exclaimed.

“That’s true,” I said. “But I’m thinking of a different sort of chest. What do you find in your chest.”

“A heart?” they ventured. Right!

Cor ad cor loquitur — "heart speaks to heart"

Cor ad cor loquitur — “heart speaks to heart”

I bought ten timber heart shapes which fit into the chest, and then I had pieces of cardboard stuck to either side. On one side, I had written sayings of Jesus and other scripture verses. A few examples:

“Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.” Col 3:20.

“No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bed, but puts it on a stand, that those who enter may see the light.” Lk 8:16.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” Mk 12:30.

The children and I then discussed these verses, and what they teach. Based on that discussion the children themselves had to come up with some questions which apply the teaching to their own lives. The corresponding examples:

  • Do I listen to my Mum and Dad? Do I do my jobs?
  • Do I hide my talents? Do I share my talents?
  • Do I pray and listen at Mass? Do I pray the rosary well?
An examination of conscience for children, by children

An examination of conscience for children, by children

Although I had ten timber hearts, the children and I only prepared five of them. The other five can be done later, with their parents, or by themselves.

Now here’s the best bit, which engages the wholistic principles of Sofia Cavalletti’s Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. Whenever they prepare for confession, the children take the hearts out of the chest and read the scripture verses to themselves. Then they hold each verse against their chest, and pray that the Word of God will enter into their heart. It’s very evocative of Cardinal Newman’s episcopal motto: Cor ad cor loquitur — “heart speaks to heart.”

I suggested to the children that when we prepare ourselves for confession, we have to use our hearts and our minds. In the second part of the exercise, the child turns the heart around and reads the questions. Since our answers won’t always be the same, and since sometimes the answer will identify something which is sinful, and other times it will identify something which isn’t sinful at all, we have to use our minds to tell the difference.

If their answers to the questions identify something in their lives which they do think is a sin, they can write it down on their list which they bring into the confessional. If they’re not sure if something’s a sin, they can write it down and mention it during confession, and the priest will be able to help them decide if it’s a sin or not.

The Holy Spirit definitely helped out during this lesson. I had planned to have all the cardboard shapes cut out and attached to the timber shapes before I arrived, but as often happens in parish life, I didn’t get the time. So although I had very neatly cut out the red shapes for the scripture verses, I hadn’t cut out the pink shapes for the questions. Instead, the children cut these out, somewhat more roughly than I would have.

One of them then observed that the red hearts, which looked perfect, were like the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The pink hearts, which looked a bit misshapen, were like our hearts. That was a great observation, which of course I immediately developed. “That’s why we celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation! So that our hearts can become more and more like the Sacred Heart of Jesus.”

That’s the take home message I hope the children received. Confession isn’t simply a matter of reciting a list of bad stuff done in the past. It’s about renewal and conversion — leaving the confessional with a new heart, and leading a holier life.

As I said, the children made their first confessions, and received their first absolution, after this morning’s Mass. Afterwards one of them was heard to announce to his grandmother, “I feel light as a feather!” Deo gratias!

H/T Mishel.