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Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP: On Social Friendship

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Pilgrims at World Youth Day at the WYD Vigil in Lisbon. Photo: Mathew De Sousa
Pilgrims at World Youth Day at the WYD Vigil in Lisbon. Photo: Mathew De Sousa

Homily by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP for Thursday of the 17th Week in Ordinary Time, Year 1 and ‘Rise Up Meeting’ for World Youth Day, Quinta da Granja, Lisbon Portugal, 3 August 2023

“We don’t need no education,
We don’t need no thought control,
No dark sarcasm in the classroom,
Teacher, leave them/us kids alone.

All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall…”

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Pink Floyds’ 1979 protest song, Another Brick in the Wall, was a massive hit. It topped the charts in fourteen countries—including here in Portugal—and is on Rolling Stones magazine’s Top 500 Songs of All Time list. Many saw it as an ode to adolescent rebellion and Me-generation non-conformism. On this account, authorities like schools, universities and, dare I say, churches confine and isolate young people within various “walls”, compromising their freedom, individuality and community. They are better off without teachers and their constraints. They don’t need no education—even about how to say that grammatically correctly…

But is that true? In our first reading today (Ex 40:16-21,34-38), Moses erects the first מִשְׁכַּן (Mishkan), tent or “tabernacle” for God—a temporary meeting place until a more permanent Temple was built in Jerusalem generations later. He’d received detailed instructions on what this tabernacle should look like. At its heart would be placed Israel’s holiest object, the Ark of the Covenant (of Indiana Jones fame), which contained the tablets of the Law, but also a pot of manna—the bread-like substance on which the Jews lived when wandering in the desert, an intimation of our Eucharist. Moses was told to place the ark behind a veil or screen. So was Israel’s greatest teacher into building walls, as the pop song suggests, walls to separate people from God and each other?

Well, our God is God of closeness. In the Old Testament, His presence is often indicated by signs such as the cloud in today’s first reading. When Moses went up Mount Sinai, he was enveloped by such weather events, until he emerged shining and with the Ten Commandments in hand (Ex chs 24 and 34). Sometimes we, too, experience God in the power and beauty of the natural world, as we discussed in yesterday’s catechesis. At other times, however, we encounter Him in company with others, especially in worship together, as we discussed in today’s catechesis, and as Israel experienced its temples, temporary or permanent, of canvas or of stone.

But Israel’s ways of keeping company with God were but a foretaste of what was to come. The Second Person of God, the Word spoken by the Father from all eternity, and heard only in thunder and prophetic utterance, was eventually spoken to us, by one of us. God joined our time and space as a man. St John describes it as God coming to “tabernacle” or camp amongst us (Jn 1:14), no longer in cloudy mystery but as clear as day, not in weather events but in the flesh.

Pilgrims at World Youth Day celebrate their faith at the Aussie Gathering in Portugal. Photo: Mathew De Sousa
Pilgrims at World Youth Day celebrate their faith at the Aussie Gathering in Portugal. Photo: Mathew De Sousa

It’s an audacious claim. It shocked the Jews, made the Graeco-Romans laugh, and would be blasphemy to the Muslims. But this is our faith: that in Christ we commune with God person-to-person. God is unveiled. Now we encounter Him, not just in the bigness and beauty of the natural world, not just in the cloudy mystery of a temple which only the high priest could enter fully, but personally and intimately and daily in the human world. Now we see Him in a young person like yourselves, and in the company of others. And this young man-God invites us into His life through Baptism and the other sacraments, into His mind through reading the Word of God in Scripture and the teachings of the Church and hearing those unpacked for us, into His work through our outreach in evangelisation and service. When we engage in “corporal works of mercy”—helping the hungry, sick, lonely, imprisoned or poor—or “spiritual works of mercy”—helping the lost, confused, ignorant, depressed or dead—we are not merely “do-gooding”: we are expressing and deepening our faith, mediating Christ to the world and encountering Christ in the needy.

But such intimacy and such action don’t always come easily to us: we need to be schooled in Christian life. There are so many distractions in the social media and antisocial media, in the commercial world and the culture. We are pulled every which way and it’s easy to lose our sense of direction, of God, of ourselves. We need a space for some quiet and reflection, for hearing God’s whispers and addressing our own to Him, for addressing vice in ourselves and cultivating virtue, for communing with our Creator and our fellow creatures.

We call that space “Church”, the new tabernacle, temple or tent of meeting. And it is a school for a deeper humanity. In today’s gospel, the disciples are happily “at school” with Jesus and the Teacher is using His favourite educational strategy: storytelling or parables (Mt 13:47-53). Since several of His best mates were fishermen, He opts for some maritime imagery: “The Kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet cast into the sea to haul in fish of every kind”. The call of the Gospel is for every soul—no-one is left out!

So, far from isolating us, our teacher-Church is about bringing us together. Here at World Youth Day you’ve experienced just that, as a million or so young people of every nation have gathered to celebrate their faith and deepen their ideals. The Church is in fact the most inclusive of all institutions, all families. God’s kingdom is for all humanity, and especially the lost and stray. Far from putting up walls, it breaks them down, so that we become fratelli tutti, brothers, sisters, friends in Christ. If someone is feeling excluded, unwanted, unloved, we must do something about that. We must accompany, invite, encourage. We must by God’s grace evangelise and convert. Only then will Christ’s haul of fish be of every kind.

Which is not to say that the Gospel makes no demands. Some people like to sing “Come as you are” but to come is to accept that God will change who you are if you let Him. Our first Gospel parable has God the fishermen sorting the good fish from the bad, not treating them all the same, as if all human character and action is equally valid. In the second parable God the teacher brings forth things both old and new from the storeroom of our Christian tradition. In other words, we don’t come together just to do our own thing. God wants us to flourish, to be all we could be under grace, to be the lovers we were created to be, lovers of God, humanity, creation. But sin destroys this communion. It puts up a veil of separation between us and God. It closes us in on ourselves. Ego becomes the driver. And though we imagine we are free, we are actually controlled by habit, compulsion, anxiety, social pressure, technology, money, you name it. To come into the house of God is to be freed of all those constraints. Again, it’s breaking down the walls…

Jesus’ life, death and resurrection in obedience to the Father and out of love for humanity were an unequivocal ‘no’ to separation and an emphatic ‘yes’ to social friendship elevated by grace into communion. When Christ breathed His last on the cross we are told the veil of separation in the Temple was rent asunder (Mt 27:51; Mk 15:38; Lk 23:45)! God is now available not just to the High Priest in the Holy of Holies, not just to the Chosen People in the Promised Land, but to all humanity as we’ve experienced here in Lisbon, to every tribe and nation. And it is to every tribe and nation that we, that you, are now sent out, holding out the hand of friendship, your friendship, the Church’s friendship, God’s friendship to everyone else. Go now, my young friends, and break down the walls of separation, inviting all humanity into the tent of God’s converting and healing, redeeming and liberating love!

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