Deciding to win

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Australian Jockey, Michelle Payne, the day after winning the 2015 Melbourne Cup. Photo: Justin McManus/Fairfax Syndication
Australian jockey Michelle Payne the day after becoming the first woman to win the Melbourne Cup. Photo: Justin McManus/Fairfax Syndication

On Melbourne Cup Day we had a staff party in my archdiocesan offices so we could all watch the race together. To be honest I don’t know much about horses. So when I was offered a pick in the office sweep, I thought of my schooldays performance in The Pirates of Penzance and chose the horse Prince of Penzance, even though the official odds were very much against him. I warned my companions my horse usually came last in the Cup and recommended that no-one put any money on him!

In keeping with the commonplace incompatibility of our ancient church and modern technology our internet connection failed and by the time we reconnected the jockey Michelle Payne was taking Prince of Penzance for a victory lap. She’d made Australian sporting history, and Australian women’s history, as the first female jockey to win the Cup. Many of you probably watched and shared something of her exuberance.

Michelle is a young woman from rural Victoria. The Weekly Review said “Hell hath no fury like a spunky Irish-Australian Catholic woman scorned” – referring to her controversial words after the race. She hoped her win would encourage young people, especially young women, to believe in themselves. She, for one, had decided to win the Cup at age seven.

Yet her self-belief is not arrogance. She tries to live her father’s lesson: to be polite, grateful and humble. She’s especially grateful for the “awesome” experience of growing up in a big family in which she was never alone. Yet life was not always easy for “the Queen of the turf”.

Her mum died when she was a baby and so her dad had to raise the 10 children. Her 11-year-old sister would get up at night to give baby Michelle her bottle and then fall asleep from exhaustion the next day at school.

Life on the farm was hard and on the racecourse hazardous. Her sister Bridget died in a horseracing accident. Michelle herself almost died the same way when she was your age. She experienced the trauma of a fall and the field riding over her.

A woman of faith, her immediate instinct was to pray that the horses would not trample her to death.

You see: Michelle knows that even in such moments she is not alone. She prays, sometimes to her deceased mother whom she believes is with God.

That gift of a quiet, humble but confident faith was transmitted to Michelle by her family and her schools – she’s proud to have attended Our Lady Help of Christians primary and Loreto College. She and her family are also devoutly pro-life, a commitment sharpened by their love for her brother Stevie who has Down syndrome. He was celebrated alongside her on Cup Day as strapper of the winning horse. Reporters say his smile can light up the greyest Victorian sky. Michelle thinks he proves people with disabilities can hold down real jobs and be fulfilled.

Michelle and Stevie are inspirational: two young people who have faced real adversity and come out the other end finer people. In modern Australia 19 out of 20 Downs babies are aborted in the womb and so never get to see the light of day, never get the chance to fulfill their potential as a Melbourne Cup winning strapper or in other ways. But thanks to his mother’s generosity Stevie’s beautiful smile has brightened our world.

Ballarat celebrates  Melbourne Cup winner Prince of Penzance, trainer Darren Weir, jockey Michelle Payne and strapper Stevie Payne. Photo: Justin McManus, Fairfax Syndication
Ballarat celebrates Melbourne Cup winning jockey Michelle Payne and strapper Stevie Payne. Photo: Justin McManus, Fairfax Syndication

As the youthful heart of our Church your future, my friends, is bright also. With pure-heated faith and ideals, with strong-hearted dedication and work, with open-hearted support from others and especially from God, you too can believe in yourselves and dare to do great things. This experience with three and a half thousand of your peers means you now know better than before that you are not alone. Your faith, your ideals, your energy are shared by hundreds of millions of young people around our world, hundreds of thousands just like you around our country. And the God who created and sustains you is always with you!

These past three days have been full of faith and fun. You’ve had opportunities to participate in Mass, Reconciliation, Adoration and various devotions; to sing and dance and praise; to hear from and converse with some really switched-on lay evangelists, musicians, sportspeople, religious and pastors; to discuss topics ranging from sex and family, rural life and mental health, to youth ministry, ecology, refugees and so on; to speak your mind and be heard respectfully. Have you prayed lots? Have you learnt lots? Have you had a great time in company with thousands of your peers? Have you enjoyed being unabashedly Catholic for a few days?

It’s been a great festival of faith but its intended as a launching-pad for more. Like Michelle and Stevie you must ask yourselves: what sort of race you are running – by my work and studies, family and friendships, music and sports, involvement in parish and works of justice and mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart,” says Jesus. The Greek word katharoi that we translate ‘pure’ or ‘clean’ means undefiled, uncorrupted, undistracted. What’s the benefit of such a focused, clear-sighted, undivided heart? It’s – wow – what you will see. You will see God – in your life now and close up for all eternity.

So how to get pure? Where’s the soul bleach, the washing machine for the heart? Look in the mirror of the beatitudes, Pope Francis says. Examine your conscience. What’s in the way of me embracing the great adventure of the Gospel? What little fear or anxiety, big sin or bad habit, temptation or addiction? Am, I jealous, unforgiving, gossipy, insensitive, vain? You’re not doomed to be that way. Go to Confession, that great look-at-yourself-honestly sacrament, and perhaps get some spiritual direction. The mercy received in the sacrament of Confession is so mercy can be experienced in the sacrament of the Eucharist; and the mercy experienced in the sacrament of the Eucharist is so mercy can be shared in the ‘sacrament’ of Service. We’ve got a year ahead of us for purifying our hearts and minds and imaginations, a year for receiving and experiencing and sharing mercy, a Jubilee year for seeing God.

We also have two Advent saints to show us how. Throughout Advent we walk beside Mary. She’s fat with child. And the One soon to emerge is the child of her pure-heated, strong-hearted, open-hearted yes to God.

But we’ve also got the example of John the Baptist and he’s a little more complex. He’s not the sort of guy your parents would want you to bring home as a boyfriend or a mate! Jonno the B has eyes aflame, like he’s on some party drug; his eating habits – locusts and honey – are as peculiar as a vegan or a McDonald’s addict; his personal grooming would fail any job interview; and his dress sense – naked or in animal skins – was fine for Fred Flintstone and the hippies but doesn’t work for the contemporary Australian party scene. Then there are the strange things he said: repent, because God’s coming. God’s coming, so roll out the red carpet. Iron out all the bumps in the hills and valleys (Lk 3:1-6). Make room for the Christ to come into your life. Make your heart a pure place, a crib in which to lay the Christmas babe.

My young friends: there are voices out there that would sell you short. They say that young people aren’t up to much; that they are no longer interested in great ideals, no longer willing to sacrifice themselves for them; that they are only interested in themselves, in gadgets, consumables, fleeting relationships and even more fleeting pleasures. I say, the Church says: nonsense. These past few days you’ve demonstrated that you aspire to more that the shallow versions of fulfillment too often offered in our surrounding culture. By God’s grace and with the support of family, friends and Church you can do great things! Like Michelle and Stevie you can run the good race and make the world a better place – for women, the handicapped, refugees, the poor, the natural and social ecology of our common home. Christ runs before you, Christ behind you, Christ within you, Christ all round you in the race of your life.

With Jesus and Paul and Jonno the B, with the bishops of Australia and all the Church surrounding you this night I thank God for you and I pray: that your love keeps overflowing, your knowledge keeps growing, your understanding keeps deepening (cf. Phil 1:3-11). And with such pure hearts, recognising what is good and true and beautiful, you will choose well and reach that perfect goodness for which Christ has made you – for the praise and glory of God.

Finally, I have two very important announcements to make. Some years ago something extraordinary happened to Australia. Many of you were too young to be there, but your older siblings, parents, teachers, group leaders or clergy will remember when hundreds of thousands of young Aussies were joined by the Pope and the youth of the world. It was, of course, World Youth Day 2008 in Sydney and it is etched in our minds as the happiest and holiest week in the history of our country.

WYD08 continues to bear fruit in youth ministries, in priestly, religious and married vocations, and in the evangelical mindset and youth-ward outreach of our Church. Before we know it, it will be a decade since that great moment of grace. I am therefore excited to announce that the Australian Bishops have decided to celebrate a Year for Youth from December 2017 to December 2018, marking the 10th anniversary of WYD. This Year of Youth will be dedicated to reflecting on how young people can and do contribute to the life of Church and society, and how the Church can best be there for them.

That very exciting Year of Youth will be launched by our next national youth festival, to be held 7-9 December, 2017. I am pleased to announce that the next Australian Catholic Youth Festival will be held in Sydney.

I invite every one of you, with your peers, to join me at the tomb of our first saint, Mary of the Cross MacKillop, at the mother church of Australia, St Mary’s Cathedral, and among the people of the Archdiocese of Sydney and surrounding metropolitan dioceses, who will welcome you with open arms.

Thank you again, young faithful of Australia. See you at my place in Sydney in 2017!

This is an edited version of the homily given by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP at the closing Mass of the Australian Catholic Youth Festival at Adelaide Convention Centre on 5 December.