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Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP: Receiving God like a child

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Children join in the March to Parliament House on the Day of the Unborn. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Children join in the March to Parliament House on the Day of the Unborn. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

This is the edited text of the homily given by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP at the Solemn Mass of the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 9 July 2023

Recently, some MPs joined some young people at the Federal Parliament to launch the ‘Make it 16’ campaign.[i] : They were supporting lowering the voting age so teens will be more politically engaged and bring their concerns to government. At present young people can work, pay taxes, serve in the armed forces and make other social contributions, they can drive, be sexually active, be held responsible for crimes, and may soon be able to choose an early death by VAD in Canberra, but they cannot vote for those who make the relevant laws. Countries such as Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Cuba, Indonesia, Malta and Scotland have already lowered the voting age and so, the campaigners say, should we.

Not everyone agrees. Some argue that most under-18s lack the maturity or motivation to participate in elections. After all, in those countries that already make provision for it, very few younger people actually vote.[ii] Even if they can work from an early age, die for their country, or be prematurely sexualised and exploited by adults, that’s no argument for robbing them of more of their childhood or putting even more adult responsibility on their shoulders. School-aged voters might also be subject to overwhelming influence of parents, teachers, peers, political parties and social media. While some 14-year-olds have more life experience, better cognitive skills or maturer political judgment than some 20-year-olds, they are exceptional. We have to pick an average, and most countries have gone for 18.

I don’t know where Jesus would have come down on the question of voting age—it wasn’t a big issue in His day! But He had plenty to say about young people.[iii] In taking our flesh Jesus walked the path of every young person. As an adolescent He was already about His Father’s business and teaching the teachers in the Temple. He said He desired to gather the children of Jerusalem “as a hen gathers her brood under her wings” and sometimes He affectionately called His disciples “children”. He told them to assume the humble posture of the junior. Those who welcomed and served the ‘little ones’ and ‘the least’ would be rewarded; conversely, it was better to be cast into the sea and drowned, than lead the young astray.

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Jesus regularly encountered young people.[iv] He called the youthful John to be the ‘beloved’ disciple who leant on His breast at the Last Supper. When a young guy told Jesus he’d observed all the commandments, Mark says Jesus “looked at him and loved him”. He stood a child in front of His disciples to give them a lesson. He healed a mute kid, an epileptic lad, a widow’s dead son and an official’s gravely ill boy. He raised another official’s daughter. Taking her hand he said: “‘Little girl, I say to you, arise.’ And immediately she got up and walked all about, for she was only twelve years old.” (Mk 5:41) Jesus laid hands on and blessed any young ones brought to Him, sick or healthy, and scolded His disciples for denying them access. “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly, I say to you, if you don’t receive the kingdom of God like a child, you shall not enter it.” (Lk 18:17) Jesus gives young people ‘the vote’ when it comes to discipleship!

Nor were young people only passive recipients of Jesus’ attentions: Mary was a teenager when she consented to the Incarnation; a mere boy provided the bread and fish for Jesus’ great miracle; and it was children who outraged the religious authorities by openly singing Jesus’ praises as He entered Jerusalem. Then Jesus recalled the Psalmist: “Out of the mouths of babes and children come perfect praise”.

Not that the Gospels romanticise children. A girl beguiles King Herod with her dancing and gruesomely asks for the Baptist’s head (Mt 14:1-12). At one point Jesus says, “To what shall I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplace” demanding fun and games, and complaining when they don’t get their way (Mt 11:16-19).

In today’s Gospel we hear Jesus’ revelation about revelation. God doesn’t show Himself to the professionals, especially to “the learned and clever” priests and theologians. No, the Father entrusts everything to the Son, and the Son choses to reveals those things to the νηπίοις or “nippers”. But is Jesus being ageist, telling older folk they’ve got no chance of grasping the divine? That God’s only interested in the World Youth Day cohort and younger? Or is He saying something deeper about the human heart and what it takes to come close to God?

Well, amongst grown-ups there’s the nagging temptation of self-sufficiency. We think we’ve got all the answers, through life experience, scientific observation, thinking things through. We imagine we need no-one’s help finding the answers to life’s questions or addressing them. Our egos, worldly wisdom and self-reliance can leave little room for God. Lost in the noise of human achievement and bloated self-belief is the gentle knocking of God upon the door of the human heart, calling for encounter.

However, the disposition of a child is very different to this closed-in posture of the know-it-all or the incredulous. The young heart is curious, imaginative, open to surprises. It is needy, dependent, trusting of others. The childlike are less likely to be tainted by the scepticism and cynicism that often infects adults. They are more like sponges, soaking up every experience, constantly learning, receiving correction as a necessary part of discovery rather than a personal slight. Their innocence lets them easily forgive and be forgiven. Without sentimentalising young people, there are things we older ones can learn from their open-heartedness and docility to having new things revealed to them.

The great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy captured some of this in his short story, The Wisdom of Children or as it’s sometimes translated ‘Little Girls Wiser Than Old Men’. Two girls in fresh new dresses find themselves in a tangle after one splashes the other with dirty water from a puddle. When the child’s mother gets involved, it quickly escalates into an all-out neighbourhood war, with everyone wanting a piece of the action. Lost amidst the chaos of adult shouting, the two young girls have reconciled and are back laughing and playing together. Tolstoy ends with Christ’s words, “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 18:3)

Spiritual childhood isn’t easy and growing pains are to be expected, but Jesus’ words today are for all the children of God who receive what He reveals with open hearts: Come learn from me, for like a child “I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

[i] Shalailah Medhora, “Campaign kicks off to lower Australian compulsory voting age to 16,” ABC News 13 June 2023.

[ii] E.g. Markus Wagner, David Johann and Sylvia Kritzinger, “Voting at 16: Turnout and quality of voter choice,” Electoral studies 31(2) (2012): 372-83.

[iii] Jesus amongst the doctors in the Temple: Lk 2:41-52. Jesus speaks of “children of God”: e.g. Mt 5:45; 13:38; Lk 6:35; Jn 1:12; 11:52. Jesus says he desires to gather the children of Jerusalem together “as a hen gathers her brood under her wings”: Mt 23:37. Jesus calls the disciples “children”: Jn 13:33; 21:5. Jesus tells the disciples to assume the posture of the junior: Mt 23:11-12; Lk 14:7-24; Jn 13:5-17. Jesus says that welcoming and showing hospitality to ‘little ones’ and ‘the least’ is showing hospitality to Him and will be rewarded: Mt 7:9-11; 10:40,42; 18:1-5; 25:40; Lk 11:11; 14:5. Jesus says that it is better to be cast into the sea with a millstone around the neck, than to lead the young astray and He scolds His men for blocking the children from attending Him: Mt 18:6; 19:14-15; 23:15; 25:45-46.

[iv] Jesus called the youthful John to be His ‘beloved’ disciple: Jn 1:35-39; 13:23-25; 20:1-10; 21:20-23; Mt 4:18-22. On encountering the rich young man, Jesus “looked at him and loved him”: Mk 10:17-31. Jesus called a child to him and stood the kid in front of them to give them a lesson: Mt 18:2. Jesus healed a mute boy, an epileptic boy, and the gravely ill son of an official: Mt 17:14-21; Mk 9:14-29; Jn 4:46-54. Jesus raised a widow’s son and an official’s daughter from the dead: Mt 9:18-26; Lk 7:11-17. Jesus laid hands on and blessed the young ones: Mt 18:2-3; 19:13-15; Mk 10:13-15. A boy provided the bread and fish for Jesus’ great miracle: Jn 6:9. The religious authorities were outraged because children were openly singing Jesus’ praises: Mt 21:14-17. But, as Jesus recalled, the Psalmist had prophesied that “Out of the mouths of babes and children come perfect praise”: Ps 8:2.

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