June 28, 2017

Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP: We must decrease, the Church must increase

St Michael’s, Lane Cove, in this undated file photo.

Backed by a rendition of the 1988 song It’s got to be perfect by British band Fairground Attraction, a current TV ad opens with a nappy-clad child rummaging through a woman’s handbag, removing a lipstick and using it to draw on a wall. The mum, not the slightest bit perturbed, simply wipes the wall clean and a caption reads: ‘Perfectly kid-proof.’ Next, the dad trips over the family dog while rushing a snack to his seat in front of the TV. Food and drink splatter on the wall which is licked clean by the dog, and another caption reads: ‘Perfectly dad-proof.’ There are more examples, but we get the message: Dulux Wash & Wear 101 paint is the way to perfection. Well, maybe…

Last Sunday we heard Jesus declare in the Sermon on the Mount that “whoever relaxes even the least commandment shall be least in God’s Kingdom” (Mt 5:19). Next, as if to prove He’s no laxist Himself, He made the rules even harder: “The old rules were: you shall not kill, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not commit perjury. But now I say: no grudges, no lustful looks, no little lies.” (Mt 5:21-37)

In today’s excerpt He adds some really easy precepts like ‘resist no-one; turn the other cheek; love your enemies’. And in case that’s not challenging enough, ‘Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect!’ Jesus clearly had more in mind than repainting the lounge room …

The temptation when confronted by Our Lord’s more breathtaking demands is to explain them away as hyperbole, optional extras or distant ideals. But Jesus is quite clear: you’ve got to be perfect like your heavenly Father. Indeed, the whole of morality might be summed up in three words: Be like God.

The fore-runner of the current church, St Michael’s Church, Lane Cove, built 1926.

But what on earth could that mean for us mere mortals? We can’t cultivate divine perfections like being all-powerful, all-knowing or eternal. The awful revelations in the Royal Commission of late have served to highlight that even our religious professionals are terribly imperfect. So what could we really do to be more godlike? Well, you might not be able to transcend time and space, Jesus says this morning, but you can give and forgive, be generous and merciful. The Old Law measured justice in terms of fair retaliation; His New Law of retaliation is to turn the other cheek! The Old Law measured justice in terms of fair restitution; but His New Law says to give people more than they ask for or deserve. The Old Law distinguished friends from enemies and commanded favouring your friends; but Jesus’ New Law says to eliminate your enemies not by conquest but by making them into friends.

This is the kind of teaching that made the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, write-off Christianity as a ‘slave morality’, rooted in weakness, fear and envy. He thought Catholicism enfeebled believers, turning them into wimps, giving them a victim-complex. The kind of ‘superman’ he preferred – and many social experiments of the 20th and 21st centuries attempted – would be marked by egoism and ruthlessness.

In some ways Nietzsche was right: Christianity does propose a compassion for the little ones and a morality for the big ones that’s often counter-cultural. But I think he was very wrong to call this weakness. As Jesus upside-downed commonsense and tradition, He was introducing a moral revolution that would cost Him and His disciples dearly. By the time He got around to teaching them to “Love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 13:34-35) and to lay down their lives for their friends (Jn 15:13), it was clear that Jesus’ kind of love is not an easy-come-easy-go, warm fuzzy feelings kind of love; it’s the hard slog, forgiving and sticking at it, recommitting kind of love, cross-shaped more than heart-shaped, Good Friday love more than Valentine’s Day love. It’s that cruciform kind of love that Jesus demonstrated that makes us more and more like God.

Not that Christ ever sought to be lynched or romanticised martyrdom. He was open-eyed about the dangers of pursuing reconciliation and avoided lethal confrontation as long as He could. He only submitted to the cross when it was the last hope for breaking the endless cycle of resentment and violence. There may be a temporary strength and satisfaction in harbouring grudges, but in the end, we know, it just eats us up. Jesus liberates us from this. He breaks the chains of sin and division. He enables us to respond to evil with good, to brutality with gentleness. This is, in the end, the only way to disarm evil: while ever we are reacting to someone’s violence or to the sting of the wounds they’ve left in us we are not free. We are only really free when we can sympathise with our enemies, or at least reverence them in their broken humanity, seeing our own brokenness in them and ultimately the image of God as well.

The celebration of Mass in the 1926-built church.

Today we celebrate the 40th anniversary of this ‘new’ church – ‘new’ by the standards of a nearly century-old parish. The first ‘St Michael’s church Longueville’ was built for £850 and is now the Dorritt Street Hall. As the parish grew, a bigger church with a grand facade was built for the princely sum of £6,650 and opened in 1926. That’s the church I knew and attended with my family as a child in the 1960’s and ’70s; I made my First Holy Communion in it with the rest of the second grade from St Michael’s School; and at Confirmation in the fourth grade I had my face slapped by Bishop Muldoon, who was then wearing the very ring I wear today! I remember that church as hot and crowded, with ushers trying to find seats for us. By the 1970s it was clear that even a coat of Dulux paint would not be enough: we’d outgrown the second church as well. In 1976 we returned to Dorritt Street for Mass or to the Lower Town Hall while this new church was built. I recall controversy among some parishioners because the council authorities would not allow us to remove the portrait of the Protestant Queen during Mass!

What is especially unusual about this history is that all three church buildings were administered by the same parish priest: for Monsignor Hughie McGuire was officially parish priest here from 1922 till 1978, even if Father Farrar was largely running things at the end. I used to serve early-morning Masses for the Mons and still have a photo of myself with the other altar boys. On one occasion I asked my mum if Mons McGuire spoke any English; when she asked what language I thought he was speaking when he preached to us, I said I presumed it was Latin. 50 years after arriving in Australia the Mons’ Irish brogue was impenetrable for this little Aussie boy! But his service in building up this parish was truly colossal.

In my youth I attended Mass in this “new” church with the parish youth group and here celebrated my first Mass 25 years ago (editor’s note: the current church opened in 1976, replacing the 1926 church, as pictured here and here). In that time we’ve had six parish priests, and many assistant priests before and since. One thing they had in common was their dedication to loving service not only of those attending Mass but also those shut-in at home or in the many nursing homes and private hospitals of the area. The parish still boasts a thriving primary school, St Vincent de Paul Society, Social Justice Group, Children’s Liturgy, RCIA, and Men’s Group: many different embodiments of the Sermon on the Mount and the kind of loving Christ taught us. Many love to worship here. But there is still much to be done.

Today I want to challenge this generation, as the previous generations were challenged: to reach out to your community, especially to those without a regular spiritual home. In due course I hope to receive your application to build an even bigger church because, like the previous ones, this is judged too small for all who would like to worship here!

She was regarded as rather advanced, even avant-garde in her day, but 40 years on I think we can honestly say she has aged well: happy birthday St Michael’s (third) church Lane Cove! Ad multos annos!

This is the edited text of the homily by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP for the Mass celebrating the 40th anniversary of St Michael’s Church, St Michael’s parish, Lane Cove, on 19 February. Hyperlinks added by The Catholic Weekly.

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