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Archbishop Fisher: 150 years of Marists’ ‘Zeal for God and souls’

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Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP celebrates the 150th anniversary Mass with the Marists Fathers. PHOTO: Patrick J Lee
Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP celebrates the 150th anniversary Mass with the Marists Fathers. PHOTO: Patrick J Lee

It’s one of the harshest lines in the Gospels, certainly one of the harshest to come from Jesus’ lips, and it’s addressed to the very man Jesus is preparing to lead after He has gone. “Get behind me, Satan” (Mk 8:27-35) isn’t the language we associate with the Jesus of the Beatitudes, of telling us to love, give, forgive. Why so stern? Is Jesus just in a bad mood, like we all are from time to time?

Maybe. But I suspect there’s more at issue here than a bit of short temper… James in his epistle today gave us his famous teaching about faith and works (Jas 2:14-18). It seemed such a ‘Catholic’ teaching that Martin Luther famously wanted to excise this ‘epistle of straw’ from the Bible. But of course St. James’ oft-quoted statement that ‘faith without works is dead’ was not about justification by works rather than by faith. It was making a deeper point about human nature: we are a unity of material and spiritual, the outer and the inner person. Christians must be people of integrity, whose actions tell of the justice and compassion in their hearts, people who teach what they believe and practice what they preach. It’s not enough simply to have high-minded ideals or beautiful rhetoric, if these don’t translate into action. That’s just smoke in the wind…

So for Peter to say that he believes Jesus is the Christ and then attempt to divert Him from His saving course was a failure to practice what he believed and preached. Indeed it was to line up with the Tempter who had on a previous occasion in the Gospel tried to divert Jesus from his mission with three great temptations. Jesus is consistent in being short with hypocrisy and with efforts to get him to renounce His hard but necessary way.

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But why doesn’t He cut poor Pete a bit of slack, since his heart is in the right place? Because it isn’t – and Jesus loves him too much to leave him there. Peter is failing to live a unified life. He proclaims Jesus Messiah but then demands Jesus be his kind of Messiah, thinking as Peter thinks and acting as Peter would want Him to act. Peter stands for each and every one of us here. How often do we say to God “your will be done” – only, let your will line up with mine please. Get back in line, behind me, Jesus says. A disciple is a follower, so follow and learn, so you in turn can lead.

Get behind me, or else you’ll be an obstacle in my path. And instead of an inner you who says “I will follow you” and an outer you who whinges and whines every time that’s challenging, make the outer you and inner you consistent. As St. Thomas Aquinas (who started an academy here at St Pat’s) put it: ‘The truth of faith includes not only inner belief, but also outward profession, not only declaration of faith but actions that demonstrate that faith”. True faith, then, is not a peg on which to hang our own opinions or paradigms, or by which to explain away our bad behaviour: it must be a transformative and lived, uniting the inner and outer person, unifying the material and the spiritual.

When the Marists were asked to take the care of St Patrick’s they were still a fairly new invention. Already active across the Pacific, they were troubled not only by loss of life, including most famously that of St Peter Chanel, but also ‘by autocratic bishops under whom Marists suffered gross privations’. By the late 1850s they’d negotiated a rule to safeguard them from bossy bishops and sent Fr François Victor Poupinel to Oceania as visitor-general. From Villa Maria in Hunters Hill he reached out to the missions in New Caledonia, New Zealand, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Rotuma, Wallis and Futuna. Here in Australia there were no head-hunters but there were Church heads to deal with. Archbishop Polding preferred Benedictine-inspired schools, and there were the English-Irish rivalries for these Frenchmen to negotiate. It took some time for relations to be sorted out, and Archdeacon McEncroe’s proposal that the Marists succeed him in this parish was no doubt intended as something of an olive branch.

That the proposal came from McEncroe meant it must be taken seriously. Former chief Catholic chaplain to the colony, advocate of convicts and workers, leader of charities and the temperance movement, friend of religious orders, founder of the forerunner of The Catholic Weekly, and in his latter years Parish Priest of St Patrick’s in the Rocks, he was perhaps the most loved priest of the colony. His was one of the biggest funerals ever seen in the colony and his remains were ultimately interred in the crypt of St Mary’s Cathedral alongside those of Therry and Polding. It was at that very funeral that Polding’s Vicar-General offered Poupinel the care of this port shrine and parish, which would have had many attractions to the order. You never know what politicking is going on between the clergy at a funeral or at the wake thereafter!

But who were these Frenchmen, so quickly spreading through the Pacific? Well, the day after his Ordination in 1816 the young Fr Jean-Claude Colin gathered with some friends in a chapel in Lyons to pledge to found a Society of Mary.

He could not have guessed where that would lead him and his spiritual family. Fr Whealan has been giving you a detailed history in the bulletin each week, so I won’t retrace that. But I dare say the Marists were from the beginning men who strove for that unity between the inner man and the outer, the spiritual and the material, the leader and the follower, to which we are called in today’s readings and which is exemplified in their patron Mary Our Mother. In living, praying, reflecting, and living together in relative harmony, religious offer testimony to such integrity of life. In missionary endeavours to the Pacific and beyond, the Marists told in action of an interior zeal for God and for souls. And in the near-perpetual adoration and administering of the Sacraments here at Church Hill, they ‘teach what they believe and practise what they preach’.

So on behalf of the Church of Sydney I today join with this Congregation in thanking God for the many graces He has bestowed on the congregants of this shrine and parish, and upon all those who have led and served here. We give thanks to the Marist Fathers who have contributed so much to the spiritual growth of Sydney and of Oceania. Happy Anniversary, dear Marists of Church Hill.

Ad multos annos!

This is the edited text of the Homily by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP at the Mass for 150th Anniversary of the Marists at St. Patrick’s Church, The Rocks on 16 September 2018.

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