Monthly Archives: July 2011

On Judith Lucy’s Spiritual Journey

I happened to watch the first episode of Judith Lucy’s Spiritual Journey during the week.  I think I need to mention up front that the show clearly warrants its M rating.  And I think that some, probably many, Catholics will find some of the material offensive too. It is part-memoir, part-documentary and part-comedy sketch (with more than a few echoes of John Safran and Fr Bob Maguire’s religious odyssey of a few years ago).  But I must confess that I found the show a little intriguing too, because it seemed to me that in the midst of much that I didn’t really enjoy or find funny, we were being given an insight into a genuine spiritual quest.

In this initial episode Judith explains that she grew up as a Catholic, entertained thoughts of becoming a nun, and had become an atheist by the time she had left school.  As she revisits her spiritual origins, she talks to Sister of Mercy Rebecca McCabe; Dr Gerald Gleeson, a Catholic priest and philosopher; and Peter Kennedy (until fairly recently of South Brisbane parish). Despite being  impressed by Sr Rebecca Judith ultimately dismisses any chance of a return to the Catholicism of her youth and resolves to look elsewhere for answers to her questions about faith, meaning and spirituality.

There is probably plenty of fodder for a blogger here, but I found myself focusing upon one aspect of the show that really struck me.  It’s about the attitude required for faith, or what Blessed John Henry Newman called one’s ‘disposition’.  The show first reminded me of Newman when Judith interrogates Fr Gerald about the ‘doctrines’ she cannot accept.  When Charles Newman similarly took on his brother John Henry, Newman told Charles that Charles was ‘not in a state of mind to listen to argument of any kind’.  Like Charles Newman Judith’s mind was made up well before she talked to the priest.  More accurately though, Judith’s attitude or stance or predisposition was already decided.  It is not so much an intellectual position that she arrived at as a conviction that she had already settled upon.

A very different disposition emerges when Judith spends the day with the  Sisters of Mercy (especially when Sr Rebecca prays for her).  The sisters remind Judith of aspects of the Church that she has missed and Judith is so impressed by the nuns that she wonders aloud whether she is having second thoughts about her rejection of Catholicism.  Judith comes to respect and admire the sisters, and an openness to faith emerges.

According to Newman the deciding issue will be what ultimately takes hold of Judith’s imagination.  We get a brief glimpse of Judith’s mental image of a Catholicism suggested by the Sisters of Mercy that Judith finds attractive.  From her comments we may assume that the image of faith suggested by the sisters is intellectually respectable, compassionate, has a place for women and offers a connection with the transcendent.

Then Judith’s alternative image of Catholic faith kicks in: intolerant, divisive, sexually repressive.  And thus unacceptable.  Note that the implicit image here of Catholic faith is that it is predominantly a moral code. But it is important to note that it is the image that Judith has rejected as much as any rational arguments.  She cannot picture herself within the Church and so she rejects any return to her faith because the image of Catholicism that wins the day is distasteful.

So I couldn’t help wondering what might have happened if Judith had been a little more open to discovering a more compelling image of Catholic faith and its corresponding image of God.  Because she has a pretty distorted picture of Catholicism in her head. I found myself wishing that Sr Rebecca and Fr Gerald had been given the chance to say what faith meant to them, what their image of God is, and who they understand Jesus is, rather than simply have to explain their lifestyle choices or defend the Church’s moral teaching.  That might have made for some really interesting viewing.

Hans urs von Balthasar on Aiming Too Low

Studies of so-called generation Y regularly make the point that young people’s ‘worlds’ today are paradoxically small.  While they have virtual access to every corner of the planet through the web they don’t belong to many actual groups, clubs, associations or other organisations.  (I know there are always exceptions, but the studies show that this is generally true).  They are deeply committed to their families and friends… but that’s about it.

When I first read this the question that came to my mind was, ‘what happens if the support of family or friends fails?’   Today however, I found myself asking more about why young people might be making those choices.  Interestingly the springboard for these reflections came not from the most recent sociological study into Gen Y, but from a theologian writing in 1963.  Hans Urs von Balthasar’s insight may well have been accurate back then, but it now seems  quite prophetic, preceding the sociological data by nearly fifty years.  In Love Alone, the Way of Revelation von Balthasar says this (please excuse the non-inclusive language which I have left as it appears in the original):

…deep within his heart man knows that he is crippled, corrupt and numbed, that he cannot satisfy any code of love, however vaguely defined.  He does not dare to believe that there could be such a fulfilment of his being…. the path is soon shrouded in darkness; and so his guilt collapses into a more natural resignation.  There it can rest and be protected from itself… The finite limits of human existence seem to be a permanent justification for the finite limits of love – and since life as a whole cannot be explained in terms of love, love withdraws into little islands of mutual sympathy: of eros, of friendship, of patriotism, even a certain universal love based on the nature common to all men…(p56)

Von Balthasar’s take?  He is basically saying that deep down we know we are failures when it comes to truly loving.  And he suggests that the product of that knowledge is guilt, but because we don’t want to admit our failure to love (and because our culture is allergic to any admission of guilt, I might add) we settle into a state of resigned acceptance that this is all there is. Von Balthasar then suggests that ‘this is all there is’ is a safe place from which we engage in picking and choosing – whether in romantic relationships, friends or the security of family – it is love on our terms.  As a further example, when he speaks of a ‘certain universal love’ von Balthasar is referring to a widespread attitude which says something like, ‘I love all people’, but struggles to actually love this or that particular, concrete person, especially if they are offending or annoying me.  In other words, we’re picky: we love who and when it suits us, and we pretend to ourselves that we do not feel guilty when we give into selfishness and our failures to love become manifest.  Von Balthasar is not saying here that these loves are wrong in themselves, but that our loving is insufficient in its pedestrian complacency and its selectiveness.

The crucial sentence in the quote is this: ‘He does not dare to believe that there could be such a fulfilment of his being’.  In other words, because we do not dare to believe that absolute love is possible, we settle for so much less.  Here’s the ‘creed’ of young people today according to Australian researcher Michael Mason and his colleagues:

my goal is to be happy by being myself and connecting with others, having fun, enjoying leisure activities, making use of all the information available, opportunities for creativity;… when bad things happen I will find support from friends and family… with these and other resources available today, I will be able to move back towards happiness.
That sounds very similar to von Balthasar’s depiction of us as living lives of quiet resignation, our guilt from our failures to truly love lying hidden and unacknowledged.
I think that the Catholic response to a young person espousing such a creed should be: ‘Well, that is fine as far as it goes, but do you really think that’s all there is?  What if absolute love had a face and a name?  What if absolute love entered into our human condition and somehow took upon himself all of our failures to love and the consequent guilt we experience and in so doing forgave us for them?  It would mean living for absolute love, because absolute love had come to us.  Wouldn’t that make for a life that far surpassed the lowered expectations that we are currently settling for?’
Absolute love does have a name.  Because of Jesus Christ we are made for far more than half-heartedly loving in the shadows.  We are made for a love that we could not have predicted or expected, but a love that has come to us nonetheless – a divine love that can forgive our failures in the adventures of loving, but can also transform us so that we can learn to truly love too.

WYD08 – 3 Years on

Today marks the third anniversary of World Youth Day 08 in Sydney.  For me, as for most I suppose, it seems like those three years have flown by.  I get asked fairly regularly about what I think WYD08 achieved, especially for the Church in Australia, and I think there are plenty of possible answers to that question.  I’d like to highlight just one central point for us to give thanks to God for on this anniversary.  It might also help to explain why WYD continues to matter to young Australian Catholics as many young pilgrims make their final preparations to attend the next World Youth Day in Madrid.

You have probably noticed that it’s not all that easy to be a young Catholic in Australia at the moment.  The truth is, it never really has been.  The first young Catholics in this country were Irish convicts, victims of repressive measures in their homeland.  And for the first half of the twentieth century to be Catholic was to be a member of a vilified minority.  In the early part of the twenty-first century young Catholics do not suffer outright persecution, but are all too often easily ridiculed, dismissed or mocked for their religious beliefs.

It is important to ‘read’ WYD08 against this cultural backdrop.  World Youth Day was far from being a dramatic ‘in your face’ sort of challenge to the mockers and scorners, a sort of victory by sheer overwhelming mass of numbers.  This wasn’t a moment of revived triumphalism where we stood down our detractors and got a bit of our own back.  WYD08 was a moment where we recognised and celebrated, in large, loud and highly symbolic terms, that we are part of the Church universal.  Again, this meant more than simply meeting pilgrims from other countries or simply being part of the largest Catholic crowd this country has ever seen.  It wasn’t about safety in numbers, but was rather a reminder that here in Australia, we are not alone, but are part of something bigger.

More than that, World Youth Day helped to connect us to the universal Church not simply in space but also in time.  We are a young Church here in Australia, and unable to trace our Christian roots directly back through several hundred much less a thousand years.  But three years ago today we were made vividly aware through the identifying characteristics of our faith – such as the proclamation of the Word of God, the Eucharist, the presence of the successor of Peter, and the presence of peoples from lands that have an ancient Christian heritage – that our faith is not something that we hold alone, but something we hold with others across the world and in union with others who have gone before us.

For that week it was transparently clear that being a Catholic does not always mean feeling foolish or dismissed or rejected.  Here was a moment where we belonged, where we were reminded that we share in a rich and substantial tradition, where people helped us to understand the rich intellectual vigour of our faith and where we deepened in our love for the Lord Jesus and his Church.  It is not too trite to say that WYD08 encouraged us – it literally gave us new heart in our faith as Catholics as we were reminded that we are part of the Church of Jesus Christ.  May the memory of that week in July 2008 give us renewed strength to give others a reason for the hope that we have.

As Madrid draws near I pray that the pilgrims attending this next World Youth Day will similarly find that their faith is richly confirmed.  And I pray that those of us who were present at Sydney might also be reminded of Pope Benedict’s challenge to us:

Do not be afraid to say “yes” to Jesus, to find your joy in doing his will, giving yourself completely to the pursuit of holiness, and using all your talents in the service of others!

PS I know the photo is of Barangaroo and not Randwick. It’s just too good a photo not too share!

Theology of the Body as Apologetics

I’m back from the parish mission in Hobart, and looking forward to six consecutive weeks in Melbourne.  The mission gave me plenty of food for thought, much of which may well end up here in one way or another.

As I mentioned in the previous post, the mission began with a Q and A style talk in a pub.  About 80 people showed up on a bitterly cold evening (it had been snowing for much of the day) for the conversation.  I really enjoyed the evening, although there were a couple of questions that I would have dearly loved another go at because I wasn’t all that happy with my answers!  The night was billed as “Reasons to Believe, Questions of Faith”, and it was very interesting to hear the questions that emerged in the light of the promotional material and my introductory remarks about trying to offer some intellectual credibility for what we believe.

The last question remained with me, partly because it was the last question, and partly because it was one that always comes up in these sorts of events.  The young woman who asked it grouped together a number of issues that might be more or less summarized as ‘the Church’s teaching on sexuality’.  Rather than go into sex before marriage, same-sex attraction and contraception point by point (I had five minutes before the scheduled conclusion of the evening), I tried to quickly and simply outline the two foundational principles for the Church’s teaching on all matters sexual.

I began by explaining that as human beings all our means of communication take place through our bodies.  Every form of communication is, in some sense ‘body language’.  And that especially includes sex.  When a human being has sex with someone else they are saying with their bodies that they love the other person, totally and completely.  And if the rest of their lives backs up that statement, then that sexual action is not only good, but holy.  It actually mirrors to us what God is like: full, total and complete self-giving love.

If, however, someone through sexual intercourse says ‘I love you’ with their body but has not completely committed themselves to the other person with the rest of their life (this involves things like living together, publicly vowing that they freely choose this person forever, that they will be faithful to that person, sharing every aspect of their lives: in other words being married), then in the act of intercourse they are telling a lie with their bodies. They are saying ‘I love you freely, totally, and completely’ with their actions, but not with the rest of their lives.

The second principle is this: that love must always be life-giving.  The very nature of love demands this.  And if an act is claimed to be loving but its life-giving potential is frustrated from the outset or is actually impossible, then it cannot be an authentic expression of our capacity to love.

There’s a lot at stake here.  Our sexuality is integral to our humanity, so it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that the future of the species is caught up in these questions.  I’d also like to point out that getting sexuality right will mean we get God right too, or to put it more accurately, getting sexuality wrong inevitably means that our image of God will be distorted.  That’s because the intimacy and fruitfulness of marriage is an icon, a window into God.  The deepest and richest analogue for God is the life-giving love between spouses.

Those who have studied or heard popular presentations of Blessed John Paul II’s ‘Theology of the Body’ will know that this is a very truncated presentation of his seminal ideas.  And that was really all I had time for at the pub that night.  What I noticed was the chord that it struck with the young people present.  John Paul II’s depiction of sex as a language makes sense to young people.  Young people often say to me that they also find it beautiful.

Of course, the Theology of the Body is not the fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  And my little description above does not even come close to doing justice to Theology of the Body in its entirety.  I sometimes wonder if the Theology of the Body gets overdone with young people and in so doing we unwittingly play into our culture’s fixation with sex.  At the same time, my conversation with the young people in the pub reminded me that to fail to present the Church’s teaching on sexuality in a way that young people can understand it and find it attractive will inevitably mean that a young person dismisses the Church as outdated and repressive.

While not denying its catechetical or moral function, Blessed John Paul II’s remarkable Theology of the Body thus serves a really important apologetic function: by providing young people with a credible and beautiful account of why we believe what we believe about human sexuality, it removes a potential roadblock to faith.  If what we teach in this area is both beautiful and true, then a young person may conclude that the Church may have a few other things right too.  The fact that the question came up on this particular evening reminded me that credible explanations of why we believe what we believe not only educate people who have faith, they also play a crucial role in evangelizing those who do not yet believe.

Reasons to Believe

I leave tomorrow for a parish mission in Holy Spirit parish, Sandy Bay- Taroona in the Archdiocese of Hobart.  There are twelve of us going from Melbourne for the mission: myself and three of the MGL brothers in formation for the priesthood, two of the MGL sisters, four single men and women and a married couple from Disciples of Jesus Community.  The mission begins on Sunday July 10 and finishes on Sunday July 17.

The first event for the mission is a pub talk that we have called “Questions of Faith, Reasons to Believe.”  In the talk I am going to try to tackle some common objections to belief in God today, such as:
Can I really believe in a God who I can not see, cannot touch?
Have scientific discoveries like evolution disproved Christianity?
Isn’t ‘God’ the projection of my fantasies onto an imaginary super-being?
How can I believe in God when in the past it has led to the oppression of those who have disagreed with the Church?
How can a loving and all-powerful God allow evil in the world and the suffering of innocent people?
Is Jesus the only way to God?

It is a Q and A session though, so the night will go where the questions lead!

One of my main aims in the talk will be to demonstrate the intellectual credibility of the Catholic faith, in order to show that belief in God does not require jettisoning one’s mind.  At the same time, I also hope to at least hint at the truth that the heart of the Catholic faith is not a great idea, but an encounter with Jesus Christ:

Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est

The Value of Youth Ministry Retreats

I’ve just come home from a youth camp with the Melbourne Youth Mission Team.  I had an amazing time with a wonderful group of young people, and was reminded again of how much I enjoy ministry with young people.

Here’s some of my highlights from the weekend: everyone spontaneously dancing to the Jackson 5 as we re-grouped for the main sessions; a first-time participant being ‘group-hugged’ as he farewelled the rest of the group yesterday; and the group belting out Matt Maher’s ‘Alive Again’ as the recessional hymn for the final Eucharist.

The first two highlights make the third highlight possible.  Faith formation, evangelisation, conversion happens when there is an experience of Christian community.  When young people encounter a genuine faith community who welcomes them they begin to experience the plausibility of Christian faith – that it makes sense, and that it is possible to live out.  Most of all they experience the Gospel as the way of love.  People don’t really think their way into belief (which is not to deny the legitimate and essential intellectual dimension of faith but to contextualise it); they are loved and love their way into faith. Those young people belted out the words of the song because they meant it, they had encountered the One who re-creates us, but it was possible because they had been part of an intense experience of Christian community for the weekend.

YMT launched their new national iStand Generation follow-up ministry over the weekend.  The website is still under construction but it’s worth a look.

The Sacred Heart of Jesus

When I was a kid, I was pretty scared of the classic painting of the Sacred Heart that hung on the wall of my grandparent’s home.  You know how the eyes of people in some paintings seem to follow you wherever you go?  Well, I felt like that bleeding heart wrapped in the crown of thorns followed me.  That’s pretty unnerving when you are a little kid.

Fortunately my understanding of the Sacred Heart of Jesus has developed a little over time.  There are two scriptural images that are the biblical foundation for this devotion.  The first is the image of the beloved disciple resting his head on Jesus’ heart at the Last Supper.   It’s a wonderful icon of intimacy with Jesus, and tells us something vital about discipleship.  Following Jesus involves becoming his close companion.

Then there is the image of the blood and water flowing from Jesus’ heart after the soldier has pierced his side with the lance.  The symbolism here is raw and visceral.  The very life-force of Jesus is poured out for the world, for us.  Devotion to the Sacred Heart takes us to the very centre of the Redemption. He sheds his blood so that we might share in his life.

The meaning of these two scriptural images come together in an experience of St Margaret Mary Alacoque.  She was praying before the Blessed Sacrament one day when she experienced Jesus take her heart and place it in his own, burning heart.  He then returned her heart to her, only now hers was burning too.  To debate what actually happened to Margaret Mary is to miss the point, because her experience is really Christianity 101.  Our hearts are supposed to be set on fire by Jesus’ heart.  Filled with the burning love of God.

A few years ago I spent some time on retreat in the town of Paray-le-Monial, where St Margaret Mary Alacoque received her visions of the Sacred Heart.  I wrote the following poem as a result of the experience.

Paray- le- Monial

 “The disciple Jesus loved was reclining next to Jesus…”

 I wonder, do you pilgrim when you come,

exhale at the ordinariness of it all?

Pews, altar, ambo, tabernacle –

Solid if not stolid, and altogether unremarkable?


Do you wonder:

“will great graces be bestowed upon me here?”

for if not here then where, you

reason, little realising that grace does strike twice.

Are you awaiting wonders and signs in this

House of Apparitions

or do you nakedly seek the Christ

who did bear his heart here once?


Tell me, what manner of wonder

marks your passing pilgrim?

do you catch your breath, then inhale

the peace and power?

Have time and space whittled away to a needle-point

to this moment, at which a new unveiling is taking place?

Do you shudder, anticipation and agony

As truth runs you through

(unsparing honesty)

like a rapier-thrust of light

both unforgiving and merciful

(honest sparing)

Or are you blind to your apocalypse, my friend?


Do not fear, if all or part is hidden still,

Simply tell me this:

Can your heart keep time with his?

You need no other vision.


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