What does it mean to be a priest of Jesus Christ?
In Hollywood’s Golden Age priests were romantic, even heroic, figures.
We think of Montgomery Clift playing Fr William Logan in the 1953 film, I Confess, the story of a priest who would not break the seal of Confession, even if this meant he would be falsely suspected of murder.
Or Gregory Peck as Mons Hugh O’Flaherty in the 1983 film The Scarlet and the Black, the true story of a priest who saved many Roman Jews from destruction by the Nazis.
Or Bing Crosby’s affable Fr O’Malley in the classic Going My Way (1944), the social justice advocate Fr Barry in On the Waterfront (1954), and Anthony Quinn’s strangely prescient all-the-way-to-the-top priest in The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968). Sir Alec Guiness, converted to Catholicism by his experience of playing Fr Brown in The Detective (1954), eventually played the decidedly monkish figure of Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars.
These characters were typecast according to old-fashioned Hollywood ideals of heroism; happily, they also captured something of the self-sacrifice and putting-of-others first that priests of Jesus Christ ought to exhibit.
Jesus teaches us this priestly self-sacrifice, this serving of others, in today’s Gospel: “The greatest among you must behave as if he were the youngest, the leader as if he were the one who serves.” (Lk 22:16) That same Jesus Christ is the God every Christian priest serves, the High Priest in whose priesthood every Christian priest participates, and the sacrifice every Christian priest offers. If this is how He acts Himself, all the more must we humble ourselves, give ourselves, empty ourselves – so it is not us who live but Christ who lives in us (2Cor 5:14), not us we represent but it is Christ whose ambassadors we are (2Cor 5:14-20), not us we preach but ‘It is the Lord who speaks’ through us (Jer 1:8).
For Robert, Matthew and James, there is another reason to consider what kind of minister they will be: because they are members of a religious order, and one that is essentially clerical, if hopefully not clericalist. At the heart of their Dominican vocation is the preaching of the Gospel through the living of a fraternal life, as well as through articulating God’s holy Word, especially in the Sacred Liturgy.
This year Dominicans celebrate 800 years of giving the Church priests and friars, nuns and tertiaries, giving the world the witness of their lives and the overflow of their contemplation in preaching.
Though not yet in Australia for eight centuries, the Dominicans made their mark from very early. They were here in the colonial period, even before the Benedictines and the Sisters of Charity. One hint of that might be the land nearby here known as the Blackfriars estate – though the name may be an echo of Blackfriars London or Canterbury, named for the Dominicans of an earlier age, or it may have been a misnomer for the black-habited Benedictine monks who once inhabited this precinct. In the 1880s the Department of Education resumed much of the land from St Benedict’s parish in what many at the time, including the archbishop, believed to be an act of sectarian bigotry.
Parliament having abolished all funding for Church schools, the department proceeded to build a grand Gothic school, known as Blackfriars Public School (or Blackfriars Nursery School, one of the first in the world to embrace the Montessori method), and a teachers’ college, known as Blackfriars Correspondence School (or the State Correspondence School), right next door to the impoverished St Benedict’s school and teachers’ college.
It is now part of the University of Technology Sydney where Fr Thomas Azzi OP is chaplain. Happily Dominican men and women have long been chaplains at the nearby University of Sydney and involved in the governance, chaplaincy and teaching in the third university in this area, the University of Notre Dame Australia; the new Fr Baxter will be chaplain here in succession to Fr Paweł OP and alongside Fr John Neill OP who has worked here since the 1980s. The Blackfriars precinct will at last be inhabited by several true black friars!
Sad to say, the Blackfriars Hotel or ‘Hellfire Club’, built in the Victorian era on the corner of Regent and Meagher Sts, is no longer a pub and so our chaplains and their charges will have to find another watering hole… But as the famous story of St Dominic converting an Albigensian heretic through all-night conversation in a pub illustrates, zealous young friars will lose no opportunity to preach the word of God. Br Matthew’s experience in the hotel industry could prove especially advantageous in such venues…
All three of our ordinands today are Sydney boys. Br James grew up in a good Catholic family in Gladesville. While in Year 2 at Villa Maria Primary School he remembers realising after a school Mass shortly before Easter that he strongly believed in the Resurrection. While in Year 11 at St Aloysius’ College he recollects talking with an elderly priest in a nursing home and reflecting on what a very worthwhile life the man had lived. But it was not until he was well into his university years that James found himself attracted by the intellectual challenge of integrating faith with secular thought such as he encountered in the law.
By then the now-Fr Thomas Azzi OP and soon-to-be Deacon Robert were his contemporaries and were making a similar vocational journey to his own. An end-of-year retreat in 2003, given by a freshly-minted Dominican auxiliary bishop and Sydney University chaplain Fr Dom Murphy OP, started him thinking more seriously about the mission of the Church and his place in it. He will now bring his passions for beauty, theology and preaching together for the benefit of the young people on this university campus.
Meanwhile, not far from the Baxters young Matthew was growing up in another good Catholic family. After schooling at St Aloysius’, Redfield and Joeys, he took to the study of science, mathematics, classics and hospitality, walked the Camino, and like the others was bewitched by Fr Dom at Sydney University and by the Catholic society there. His family background helps explain his particular passion for the thought of St Thomas Aquinas, and his hope to share it with the people of our age.
A little more exotic is the story of Br Robert.
Born in Bangalore he was in turn a Hindu, an atheist, an agnostic, an Australian, an Anglican and finally a Catholic. Through reading science, patristics and much else at Sydney University, and exploring the things of God in the company of often-exasperated Anglican and Catholic students, he joined the Church and was confirmed in 2003 at that same end-of-year retreat for Sydney University that started to seal Br James’ fate. He got to know the Friars and Sisters at the chaplaincy and was soon smitten by the Dominican thing, and awestruck that God should teach divine truths and minister sacramental graces through human agents.
That awe should be constant in us all. “What could be more wonderful than this?” asks Matthew’s friend St Thomas concerning the Eucharist.
“No other sacrament has greater healing power: through it sins are purged away, virtues are increased, and the soul is enriched with an abundance of every spiritual gift. It is offered in the Church for the living and the dead, so that what was instituted for the salvation of all may be for the benefit of all. Yet, in the end, no one can fully express the sweetness of this Sacrament, in which spiritual delight is tasted at its very source, and in which we renew the memory of that surpassing love for us which Christ revealed in His passion.”
This sacrament of sacraments, now to be confected by our new priests and ministered by our new deacon, is not simply a sign of Christ’s love and desire for communion with us; no, it is Christ Himself, present Body and Soul, Flesh and Blood, Humanity and Divinity, bringing about that communion with us. What a wonder that such an intimate and life-giving divine presence should come to us – from today – through these young men!
So the hour has come, dear brothers and sons, for you to take your place in a new way at the table of the Lord. Like the best Hollywood priests, you must be ready to do your best — but with the assistance of divine grace rather than Obi-Wan Kenobi’s light sabre or even three takes of a camera!
Like them, you will be called upon to be heroes, to sacrifice yourselves, to put others first. You are now called to serve and in that will be your true greatness: “For who is the greater: the one at table or the one who serves?” asks Jesus. “The one at table, surely? Yet here am I among you as one who serves!” (Lk 22:17)
This is the edited text of the homily given by Archbishop Fisher at the ordination of Brs James Baxter and Matthew Boland to the priesthood and Robert Krishan to the diaconate, all for the orders of preachers, at St Benedict’s Church, Broadway, on 9 July.