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Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP: Tend the garden of your souls

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The Archbishop gathered with the newly-commissioned pilgrims and leaders whose joyful spirits made for an atmosphere of excitement and anticipation. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
The Archbishop gathered with the newly-commissioned pilgrims and leaders whose joyful spirits made for an atmosphere of excitement and anticipation. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

This is the edited text of the homily given by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP at the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, World Youth Day Commissioning Mass at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 16 July 2023

Weather charts, soil quality, ploughing, seeding, growth, pests and weeds, first-fruits, harvesting, grain yield (Isa 55:10-11; Ps 64(65); Rom 8:18-23; Mt 13:1-23)—today’s readings are positively horticultural. God is presented as a gardener from the opening pages of the Bible. In the story of creation, he organises the preconditions for life—earth, air, seasons, light and water. He creates the plants and animals, with human beings as the pinnacle of creation. He plants a garden in Eden for them, and sets them the task of managing that paradise (Gen 1-3). So, Adam and Eve are the first botanists, naming the flora and fauna, cultivating and enjoying the natural world. But something went very wrong in their relationship to God, each other, the natural order. We call that wrong turn “original sin” and to this day we notice its effects.

It was in another garden—the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem, one some of our pilgrims will soon visit—that those original missteps were finally corrected. Where the first Adam had said “no” to his gardening task, ambitioning instead for a godlike control over good and evil, this second Adam, Jesus, said before He suffered, “Not my will, Father, but yours be done.” Where the first man’s sin damaged the whole cosmos, turning things against each other and themselves, the new man healed humanity and the universe by giving up his life at Calvary. He was then buried, John’s Gospel tells us, in a nearby garden (Jn 19:41). On the day of the Resurrection, Peter and John returned to the garden: Jonno, being from the World Youth Day cohort, outran old Pete (Jn 20:4). But they found the tomb empty and went home mystified. Mary Magdalene, however, stayed there weeping. When she saw a man, she mistook him for the gardener and asked if he’d moved the body; but it was, of course, the Risen Jesus (Jn 20:11,15-18).

In Fra Angelico’s beautiful fresco of the incident, Mary can hardly be blamed for her mistake: Jesus is carrying a garden hoe over his shoulder! She reaches out to him, but he side-steps her, saying she must let go of him as he is returning to the Father, and asking her to be the first to proclaim his resurrection. All of this happened against a garden backdrop: clearly God likes gardens!

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Yet even gardens as grand as the Royal Botanic Garden nearby must start somewhere. Before a jacaranda can stand tall or a waratah flourish, a seemingly insignificant seed must find an hospitable environment. Many seeds come to nothing, as Jesus observes today, because the soil is too rocky, the rains too few, the sun overpowering. Despite the awesome inner dynamism of living things, for a seed or seedling needs the right conditions.

So too, with the Christian life. In Matthew’s Gospel, God’s Word is powerful. It sprouts even in sparse soil, despite scorching sun or choking weeds. But it’s not magic. If people are unreceptive, distracted by riches, worries or evil, or unwilling to endure trials, then no matter how inspiring the preacher or the Word, the Gospel will not take. God and the church scatter seeds everywhere, but that’s no guarantee of yield. Even when faith finds “good soil,” Jesus says, in yields a hundredfold in some, a smaller harvest in others. The soil of the soul must be tilled, stony obstacles removed, virtues cultivated, if the message is to hit home. We must allow a space for God in the garden of our hearts and in turn become spiritual gardeners.

It requires intentionality and effort. If we’re only half-serious about our beliefs and ideals, if we are easily sidetracked or less than dogged, the seed of faith might thrive for a time, but then it dies. Many Christians are practical atheists. They say they believe in God, maybe at some level they do, but they live as practical atheists, as if God didn’t exist or had no purchase on their lives.

Sociologist Christian Smith has observed that many young people live the religion of MTD—Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Their god watches over them and wants them to be nice, but they don’t involve him much in their lives, unless they’ve got problems. Happiness, on this account, is about feeling good about yourself, whatever you believe or do, but. As long as you do what makes you feel good, you’ll get to heaven.

MTD is shallow soil religion. It’s the kind of faith that flags under the scorching sun of real life. It’s easily swamped by the thorny weeds of distractions. It ends up, like the first Adam, in sin territory, bored with having to do good stuff all the time, or thinking we know better than our Designer, or engaged in a fair-weather discipleship that cops out at the first sign of bad climate. You guys are worthy of so much more.

In 1984, one of God’s assistant gardeners, Pope John Paul II, called the young people of the world to join him in Rome for a meeting to deepen and celebrate their faith. Many of his advisers in the curia were against it. They said young people wouldn’t come. Or if they did, they’d be rowdy. It would be an embarrassment. But St John Paul knew better. He knew the young soul, knew the rich soil that was there, awaiting Gospel seed. They would come. So began the World Youth Day movement. It was on a Palm Sunday, for it was on the first Palm Sunday that young people gathered in large numbers, blocking the streets, waving palms and singing Hosannas, as they welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem. When the authorities complained about the racket, Jesus recalled the prophecy that out of the mouths of young people would come perfect praise (Mt 21:16; Ps 8:2). This sometimes quiet, sometimes noisy, sometimes private, sometimes public encounter with Christ animates all Christian pilgrimage.

My young friends, some people think World Youth Day is just Schoolies on steroids with rosary beads, but it’s so much more than that. It’s the best of places to cultivate the garden of your souls and make you the spiritual gardeners of your generation. You will join millions of others in being nourished by Word and Sacrament, in celebrating your love for God, humanity and the world, in sharing your high ideals and being encouraged. It’s the garden where, like Mary Mag, you may encounter the Risen Christ—”Christ really alive” as Pope Francis has emphasised. Someone said World Youth Day was just about affirming and welcoming people, not converting them. Nonsense! World Youth Day is life-changing, a journey of transformation, to conform you more closely to Christ. The divine hardener is not interested in planting a new Eden near the Euphrates River; He wants to plant it, right here and now, among you. The seed of Gospel faith is for your souls, if you will let it in, watering it by learning about your faith, resisting the temptations and distractions that endanger it, bringing forth fruit in good works, if you will let God the Gardener produce a rich harvest in you. He will! Amen.

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