Blog Archives

Talk: “The Catholic Thing” @ the Australian Catholic Youth Festival

PrintHi everyone, it’s nearly two weeks since the inaugural Australian Catholic Youth Festival.  It was a great success!  Xt3 recorded workshop talks and here’s the link to one of my talks.  It’s called the Catholic Thing… but the byline is a little misleading.  The talk is really about belonging, vulnerability, shame, courage and other universal experiences, and how the Catholic “thing” speaks to those experiences.

You can check out other great talks from the festival here.

Hope you enjoy it.

Pub Talk: “When Beauty Hides no Longer: Exploring Grace, the Cross and the Glory of it all”

This is the podcast of a pub  talk I gave at “Truth on Tap”, in the Broken Bay Diocese earlier in the year.  You can listen to it at the XT3 website here:   You can also download the podcast from the XT3 site.

The basic thrust of the talk is this: that faith is the result of an encounter with Christ the Beautiful One. Christians are fundamentally lovers of Beauty. It examines the difference between a theoretical or purely conceptual encounter with Christ, and the actual encounter with Christ. Christ is beautiful, even and especially as the Crucified. These topics are explored through the story of one young man’s encounter with Christ.

The talk draws upon the theological project of  Hans Urs von Balthasar.

Why am I a Catholic? A Letter to K

A funny thing happened to me the other day. I got a letter, and I mean a letter, not an email, facebook message or sms, but a real letter with a stamp on it and everything from a twenty-year old.  I know, it floored me too.  And it included a self-addressed stamped envelope and a blank piece of paper so I could reply.  The letter went more or less like this:

Dear Fr Chris, I was wondering if you could do me a huge favour.  If possible could you please respond to the question, ‘why are you Catholic’? on the enclosed paper.  God bless, K

So I hopped onto Facebook to ask K if she would mind if I posted my answer on this blog.  No, I wasn’t oblivious to the irony of that either.  K said it was ok, so here it is:

Dear K,

Thanks for writing to me, it was great to hear from you. And thanks for letting me post my response to your question on this blog.

Why am I a Catholic?

I’m a Catholic because I believe that Jesus of Nazareth is Emmanuel: God with us.

I’m a Catholic because I believe in the God that Jesus Christ reveals to us: a God of unfathomable love, beauty and goodness.

I’m a Catholic because I believe that Jesus also reveals to us what it means to be truly human.

I’m a Catholic because I believe that the Spirit of Jesus has been given to me through baptism.  And as a consequence of the Spirit’s power at work in me, I know, as the deepest truth of my life, that I am so completely loved by God that the only Son of God was crucified for me and rose from the dead so that I might  participate in the very life of God.  This means that I experience myself as forgiven, loved even in my blackest moments.  And it means that I believe I have already begun to share in the Love that is God.

I believe all this because I have discovered an inexpressible joy that bubbles up when I least expect it, a joy that emerges when it should least be present, because it is the joy of knowing that even death has been defeated by the One who was raised from the grave.

I’m a Catholic because I believe that all of what I have described above is possible because of the mediation of the Church.  It is in and through the Church that I have met and continue to meet the risen Jesus.  I experience the saving love of Jesus in her Sacraments and in the Scriptures.  I experience the saving love of Jesus in the witness of those saints present and past, those publicly canonised and those hidden and almost unknown.  In the Church’s prayer and in her action on behalf of the weakest and most vulnerable and rejected members of the human family I meet Jesus the Lord.

I’m a Catholic because the journey is better with friends; in fact they’re indispensable.  Being Catholic means we’re in it together.  And there’s more laughs that way.

I’m a Catholic because Catholicism takes both my brain and my body seriously.  As a Catholic I neither have to leave my mind at the door of the Church nor pretend that I am an angel or merely a spirit.  The Catholic faith has real intellectual depth, and yet it is not a religion of the elite but is good news for those who can become like little children.

The Catholic faith provides the only response to the reality of human suffering that comes close to doing justice to the mystery of human misery that I see in the world. For only Christian faith says that God cared enough about our agony to join us in it. And my faith does justice to my deep sense that such suffering should not be by promising that it will end, for our destiny is a life free from suffering and pain, where every tear will be wiped away.  My Catholic faith commits me to the alleviation of suffering wherever I find it too.

I’m a Catholic because it offers a message of sanity and hope when many are peddling messages that are anti-human and destructive.  I’m a Catholic because our faith tells me that me, you and this world are all fundamentally good, but radically damaged, and that Jesus Christ is the Healer who can return you, me and this world to wholeness and harmony.

I’m a Catholic because I value the teaching office of the Church.  That’s not because I can’t think for myself, but because I trust in the wisdom that has been distilled over two thousand years and because I believe that the Lord promised to continue to guide and care for his Church.

I’m a Catholic because I know that I need to be challenged to truly love others as Jesus has loved me. The teaching of Jesus continually puts forward an ethic of radical loving that is at the same time deeply merciful and compassionate.  Being Catholic means that I am challenged not to be content with mediocrity or superficiality.  God means to make me whole, holy, truly human.  And he won’t be content until I am.

I know too that the Church’s witness to all of this is often disfigured and that her members all too often obscure rather than proclaim the truth of God’s saving love.  I know that I too don’t bear witness to Jesus as faithfully or as fully as I truly desire.  That means that I cannot say that the Church’s failures are simply ‘out there’ , because I fail to love as radically as  the Gospel calls me to too.   The Church has never been completely faithful to her mission to bear witness to Christ.  And so the Church always needs to be renewed through the power of the Spirit.  But I’m convinced that the light of Jesus still shines in and through his Body the Church.

Dear K, I’m a Catholic because the Catholic faith claims that Love is the meaning of the universe.  I find that immensely beautiful… and true.

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.

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.


%d bloggers like this: