Jesus said to His disciples, “with great desire have I longed to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (Lk 22:15). So too, my dear brothers in the priesthood, and my dear brothers and sisters the faithful of Sydney, I have longed to celebrate Mass with you again while I have been suffering.
It is a special joy for me to be back with you today; a sign that I, through the grace of your prayers and those of so many others and through the assistance of great health professionals, have been gradually returning to full health. I still have some distance to go and so I will continue to rely upon your patience with me and in my present ministerial limitations. I will also continue to rely on the help of Bishop Terry, our Vicar General Gerry Gleeson, our Chancellor Chris Meney and so many others.
Last week we buried Fr Frank Martin who had been a priest of Jesus Christ and of this archdiocese for 75 years. The last time I visited Frank in the nursing home he was in very good spirits, recalling for me the early years of his priesthood which were, I think, the only years he still remembered. After having a long chat with him I then went and visited some of the nuns in the same nursing home and then went and had afternoon tea with the residents. Fr Frank attended and I asked him what he had been up to.
He said to me: “Well, you wouldn’t believe it: the archbishop came to visit me.” I said “Really Frank? Well he must think the world of you.”
We may not all reach 75 years of priesthood but we can be assured that we will have the prayers of the priests and people of Sydney when our time comes. We pray in Thanksgiving today for the following men who have joined our presbyterate in the past year: Frs Thomas Stevens, Lewi Barakat, Joshua Miechels, Mate Litric, Gustavo Criollo, and Daney Irudayadoss. We likewise pray in Thanksgiving and for eternal rest for Fs Peter Quilty and Frank Martin who have gone to God this same year past.
We also celebrate with gratitude those priests who have passed milestones such as diamond or golden jubilees. Our diamond jubilarians: John Lyne, Peter Morrissey, Mark Spora; our golden boys Francis Coorey, James Boland, Robert Stephens; 40 years ordained: young Bill Mullins and Frs Mihai Anghel, Paul Van Chu, John George, Joseph Hiep Ho, and Paul Hilder; and our silver jubilarian Fr Kelvin Lovegrove; and any others I have missed. To all of you a very warm welcome today, it is a great joy for me to be with you.
Google the phrase “Hand of God” and you get photos of hand-shaped astronomical phenomena, of Maradona’s infamous goal against England in the quarter finals of the 1986 World Cup, and Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. The last of these is possibly the most famous painting of all time, recently restored, reproduced endlessly and now the subject of many cheeky internet memes. Painted in 1511 or 1512 as part of his Genesis cycle for the Sistine Chapel ceiling, it has a bearded God, the Ancient of Days, surrounded by His spiritual creation, and a youthful man, brand new humanity, surrounded by material creation. Adam looks languorous, as if a lover just waking from sleep, as he gazes confidently at his Creator.
Instead of the images of God shaping the man out of clay or giving him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to bring life into him that previous painters had used to represent the moment of humanity’s birth, Michelangelo chose to focus on the hands of God and man.
As God stretches out his hand the man responds as if in a mirror image, declaring with the Book of Genesis that man and woman are made in God’s image. Only a sliver of daylight separates God’s hand from Adam’s, showing both how close God is to us and yet transcendent.
Hands of course have great significance: friends shake hands, lovers hold hands, parents touch and tickle and wash children with their hands, we write, paint, play sport, make music, do manual labour, operate, nurse, drive, and so much else with our hands.
Catholicism is a very hands-on religion. We express our faith with hands together in prayer and with hands open in service.
We put our hands to work in making a more just and compassionate world.
And all our sacraments involve hands: pouring water, anointing with oil, absolving and blessing with the sign of the cross, holding hands as we make vows and exchange rings, calling down the Holy Spirit at baptism, confirmation and ordination with hands laid upon head and heart, calling that same Spirit down upon the elements in the epiclesis, holding the Eucharistic species at the consecration and again at their reception. Catholic hands are holy hands because they are for directing all creation to God; priestly hands are anointed with Chrism so they will bless and sacramentalise creation as if the hand of God were once more held out to touch us.
I have come to appreciate the importance of hands much more in the last few months as a result of my sickness. As most of you know, on the night of Christmas, having already been sick a few days, I found my right arm becoming more and more powerless and within 24 hours I was paralysed entirely from the neck down.
My hands, being the first part of me to be affected by the Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are expected to be the last part of me to fully recover, to regain their strength and agility. Very quickly I learnt how important hands are for the simplest things. For hygiene, showering, eating. For scratching ourselves and blowing our nose and so much else that we take for granted when we are healthy.
Even now after three months of care and rehabilitation it is a great struggle for me to do the simplest things with my hands. As a priest and bishop, I miss the use of my hands even more because they are so important to our ministry as priests.
At times I have wished that I had lost the function of my legs for much longer and had my hands back much sooner, but these things are in the hands of God and there is a providence there we know, and I have great confidence that God will bring great fruit from this time of powerlessness and vulnerability for me.
Powerlessness comes in many forms. Certainly sickness and physical impairment are common forms of vulnerability, but there are many others which impact the daily lives of so many.
There is loneliness and isolation, oppression, addiction, being subjected to abuse or violence, mental illness, obsession with money and material goods. Even our own sinfulness and iniquity are reminders of our powerlessness.
In contrast to our powerlessness, the hand of God signifies an immense power which He continues to stretch out to creation.
Time and again in Jesus’ public ministry He demonstrated this power when He touched others: He stretched out His hand to touch and heal a leper, a blind man, a deaf-mute, many others who were sick, and even a dead girl and a dead boy (Mt 8:3; 9:18-26; Mk 7:31-37; 8:22-25; 9:27; Lk 4:40). He stretched out his hands to bless the children and to save drowning Peter (Mt 14:31; 19:13). With His hands He washed His disciples’ feet and held the elements of the first Eucharist at the Last Supper (Mt ch 26). By His outstretched hands He will tomorrow be raised on the cross for our salvation (Jn 19:23; cf 21:18).
On their ordination day the hands of priests are anointed with the oil of gladness.
They are then sent forth to bring the healing power of God to His people, to the people of Sydney: to bring the good news, to bind up hearts, to proclaim liberty and to comfort (Is 61:1-3). We pray today that the priests of the Archdiocese of Sydney will continue to respond to the outstretched hands of God so that, like Adam at Creation, they will gaze with loving confidence on the Father and help all humanity to do the same.
May we acknowledge our own weakness, our powerlessness, our vulnerability in order to rely ever more upon the hands of God, and particularly in this Year of Mercy we pray that the hand of God will be experienced by His people through their priests forgiving their sins and healing their souls. God bless the priests of Sydney. Thanks be to God for each one of you.
Words of thanks
My thanks to our priests who renewed their priestly vows today and daily renew their commitment by their service to God’s people. I think we are very blessed by the priests of Sydney and the other priests who work in the Archdiocese of Sydney, for the service they give to God’s people.
I thank also our deacons, seminarians, servers and choir. I am grateful to the people of Sydney and your shepherds for your patience with me as I continue with my recovery; please keep up your prayers.
This is an edited version of the homily given by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP at the Chrism Mass at St Mary’s Cathedral on 24 March.