St Finbar's Glenbrook Parish

Bishop Anthony Address: “Young Men Accepting the Challenge of Living True to their Faith in Contemporary Australia”


Address of Most Rev Anthony Fisher OP to Students Yrs 10-12
Redfield College, Dural, Monday 28 July 2014

Thank you for welcoming me this morning and inviting me to address you. I acknowledge in particular the Headmaster, Mr James Burfitt, whom I have known since my childhood, and the Chaplain of the College, Fr Felix Navarro.

Two men dressed all in white attend the throne of God. No, they are two popes at whose recent canonisation I was privileged to concelebrate with two other popes, our current Pope Francis, pope emeritus Benedict XVI, 800 or so bishops, and a million or more of the faithful. They streamed into Rome, as if into the heavenly Jerusalem, to rejoice that two young men accepted the challenge of living true to their faith in their times, became the two most famous Catholic leaders of the twentieth century, and went on to join the court of heaven.

Today I’d like to reflect with you upon that challenge in contemporary Australia. I want to suggest that the saints can be great examples for you to imitate, as you navigate the challenges of a culture at once wonderful in the freedoms and opportunities it offers, but also impoverishing because of its shallow materialism, consumerism and even nihilism.

1. Prophetic saints

In a few months’ time the Church will celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the proclamation of Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council’s document on the Church. In it the council said that all the baptized – not just the professionally religious, like Bishops, chaplains and principals, but all the baptized – are called to holiness and share in the triple office of Christ of teaching, sanctifying and leading (LG 31). The Church says you guys are princes, priests and prophets! This is the basis of Pope Francis’ call for all of us to be “missionary disciples”, missionaries not to ‘deepest, darkest Africa’ so much as to contemporary Australia (Evangelii Gaudium 119-120). Like priests you must pray, participate in the sacraments, and offer the sacrifice of your lives to God. Like princes you must give a lead in our world today, through service and authority.

But what does it mean for you to be prophets? First, it means taking seriously Jesus’ rally cry: “Seek first the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 6:33); put God and the things of God before all else. To encounter Christ is to find that He commands our immediate and undivided attention. To know, really know, Him is to sense an urgent, drop-everything-else kind of call. Obedience to Jesus means letting go of our mechanisms of self-protection and self-promotion, control of others and the future. Nothing should distract from throwing ourselves headlong into the adventure of God’s kingdom, not wealth or power or comfort or sex or popularity or substances or gizmos or anything to which young people are attracted. Nothing must get in the way, not even our good aspirations, plans, activities, relationships. Our life-plans must be based on Christ.

Some of God’s prophets did and said some really ‘out there’ things to draw attention to their message. They cried out ‘woe’, ‘repent’, ‘the end is nigh’; they consumed strange substances, such as locusts and wild honey; their eyes were aflame. Izzy was a young dude with say some rather unwelcome things to the people of his day. He stuck up for the little guy – the widows, orphans, refugees – could be rather political, and often criticized the rich and powerful for their lack of justice and compassion. He was strong on sticking to the one true God and predicted that a suffering servant Messiah would come one day. He also predicted big trouble for the Jews back then in the 8th century BC including war, invasion and the like: that’s been the story in that part of the world ever since. Isaiah, known as the prince of prophets, was also a great writer, but he could be a non-conformist in his behaviour. I guess his posh family, and his own wife and kids, were rather embarrassed when he took to walking about preaching completely naked for three years… So the prophets are not always the kinds of people your parents would much have liked you to bring home as a friend! The prophets are divine highlighter pens, fire alarms, pop-ups saying: listen up, pay attention, something really important is being said here.

Jesus asks a question: “Who do you say that I am?” (Mt 16:15). If you answer with Peter, our first Pope, that “you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”, then you are already on the way to becoming the prophet God wants you to be. The pundits might be astonished that talented young men like you would embrace a mission for God and for others, rather than pursuing their own comfort and glory first. It is shocking to our culture that a young person would want to put Jesus and His kingdom first.

Why would a young person do that? In short, because happiness depends upon it. Nothing satisfies until we find “the peace of God which passes all understanding” (Phil 4:7). I recently saw a movie called Restless Heart which is about a dude called Gus who ran away from his family, got an education and a good job, experimented in various new age religions and relationships, ended up getting a girl pregnant and having a kid outside of marriage, got famous but just wasn’t satisfied. Eventually he realized there was more to life than sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, more to life than accumulating gadgets and consumables and fleeting pleasures along the way. We now know him as St Augustine of Hippo, perhaps the greatest theologian of the first millennium. After all his searching he concluded that our hearts are restless until they rest in God; as he wrote: “the fullness of our happiness, beyond which there is nothing else, is this: to enjoy God the Trinity in whose image we were made” (On the Trinity 1.8.18). To “rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil 4:4) is to find the best and happiest life.

2. Manly Saints

How do we get this peace, happiness and joy? There was a young guy called Jonno who took a rather different path to Gus. Already by adolescence he exhibited a deep desire to know God and come closer to Him in Christ. He adopted certain spiritual habits, such as praying for fifteen minutes upon waking each morning and doing some spiritual reading and meditation each day. As he got older he’s go each day to Mass and pray the Divine Office. Each week he’d go to Confession and fast on Friday and Saturday. Each month he’d ask a trusted friend to observe him and point out his faults. Each year he’d go on retreat, and so on. Few of us are in such a helpful rhythm of prayer and even fewer are humble enough to ask that our faults be regularly identified – though you might cop your share of criticism from some of your mates! Jonno started these good practices while still a schoolboy, so that not praying became as unthinkable for him as not brushing his teeth. What you start at school can set you up for life. In Jonno’s case it set him up for eventually being Pope John XXIII, St John XXIII.

Another guy who was no spiritual slouch when he was young was named Charlie. His Mum died when he was young but his Dad was an ex-solider and made his home a sort of “domestic seminary”. As the Dad was a man of “constant prayer” Charlie learnt early that this was part of real manliness. This sustained him through the really rough times, through the grief in his family life, through the challenges of growing up under oppressive authorities and the rest. Eventually Charlie – Karol Wojtyła – grew up to be Pope John Paul the Great, St John Paul II. By then, though the busiest man in the world, JP made time to pray for up to 90 minutes each day before the Blessed Sacrament. On returning home after an especially arduous international journey, his minders led him to his bedroom – only to find his bed untouched the next morning: he had spent the entire night on his knees in prayer. When Parkinson’s Disease confined him to bed where his minders could not, he asked for the Blessed Sacrament to be reserved in his room so he could be close to his Beloved. I was lucky to meet JP about a dozen times. He was smart and funny. He seemed to look through you to your soul. People say it started early.

Another interesting young chap was Marty. His Spanish Dad had two illegit kids with his Mum, a former slave who had African or part-Native American blood, and came and went from their family, like happens a lot in Australia today. Marty was a bright kid in an age when blacks, ‘half-castes’ and ‘bastards’ like him weren’t expected to amount to much. He was apprenticed to a barber and learnt surgery on the side. He had a healing touch and might have amassed a great fortune as a miracle worker. But he wanted to use his gifts for God’s glory, not his own. So after work each day he’d volunteer in the slums. Soon his home town of Lima Peru was full of rumours about his miraculous cures: headaches and fevers were relieved, dislodged eyes returned to their sockets, deep wounds healed while people watched.

Marty didn’t like the attention much, so he’d retreat to the Dominican church for peace and quiet. Eventually they accepted him as a brother, gave him job of house nurse, cook and cleaner. He continued his work amongst the slaves and outcasts and would sometimes offer them all the friars’ food and even beds. He was said to have talked the rats into living outside so as not to disturb the friars. In sacred art he’s often portrayed with a broom in hand, talking to friendly rodents, with beggars or lepers nearby and a rosary around his neck. Martin had discovered, early in life, that he was loved, if not consistently by his earthly father, infinitely and constantly by his heavenly Father. The God he knew loved the despised and outcast as much as governors and archbishops. He never forgot his equality before God with the highest and lowest. At his funeral in 1639 not only did a great crowd of the poor attend but all the members of high society vied to be his pallbearers. Jonno – Good Pope John – canonized Marty as St Martin de Porres in 1962.

Izzy, Gus, Jonno, JP and Marty were young men from very different backgrounds and periods in history who heard God’s call in their lives and never looked back. You don’t have to talk to rodents to be saints like them. You don’t have to preach repentance in the nude. You don’t have to work miracle cures while alive or dead, though that’d be nice. You don’t even have to join the priesthood like Jonno and JP did, or religious life like Gus and Marty did, though that’d be nice too. But we do all have to find our way to serve God and humanity, our way to be saints. For most of you, that will probably mean marriage and raising families, like Izzy, working and providing for your wife and children’s needs: clothing, shelter, healthcare, education etc. For all of you, it must involve a sincere gift of self in which you sacrifice your own comfort, ambitions and desires for the good of others in light of eternity, indeed you find your real comfort, your highest ambitions, your deepest desires actually satisfied in doing this, without which you will remain restless souls. To be saints in the next life is to be true priestly-princely-prophetic men in this life. It doesn’t mean success in the World Cup or State of Origin or whatever is the equivalent in your life, though that would be nice; it means doing your duty as a son of God and that will require the manly virtues of those guys I have described: courage and purpose and self-sacrifice.

3. Thoughtful Saints

How, you ask? Well, at heart, our saints were contemplatives. Izzy liked to get away from things, to go bush and think and talk to God. Gus set up a monastery in his house and spent a lot of his life getting or giving an education, thinking and writing. Marty, Jonno and JP were all enthusiasts for staying close and quiet and listening before Christ in the Blessed Sacrament and Mary in the Rosary. Those times of tranquillity rested them for the busy times, recharged their compassion batteries for the fatigue ahead; inspired them with their sense of identity and mission. So I ask you all to nourish your contemplative side every day by going to Mass or praying the Rosary or making a visit to the Blessed Sacrament or finding some space for prayer and meditation, for examining your conscience and doing some spiritual reading. Without that kind of you time, you-and-God time, you won’t be much use to others.

You see: us Aussies tend to value ourselves by what we do, but how much we make and achieve, whether that’s money or goods or trophies or work hours. We are active, noisy people. But if we are to hear the still small voice of God, we have to stop and listen. Senior years at high school can be so busy that like worker bees we have no time to smell the roses or taste the honey. So cultivate your contemplative side. Sit and be quiet and think and stop thinking sometimes. Stop talking for a bit, even to God, and just adore Him silently. Being a Christian isn’t a career, as Pope Francis has pointed out. It’s not about getting a holiness CV and achieving promotion to sainthood by doing lots of spiritual things that will draw people's attention or by making your mark in the world by noisy activity. That was the last thing Isaiah or St Augustine or St Martin de Porres wanted: they craved anonymity, to be left alone. In the end God and His people wouldn’t leave them alone. But they were humble enough to let God do His work in them and they did what they did for His glory, not theirs.

4. True Greatness

Some of you might have seen Baz Luhrmann’s remake of The Great Gatsby last year: it won two Oscars, Best Production Design and Best Costume Design. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jay Gatsby, a poor man ‘made good’ and living an endless party life surrounded by luxury and beautiful women. Filmgoers delighted in the expensive costumes, elaborate sets, special effects set on Long Island but actually made here in Sydney. It evoked a wave of Gatsby-themed parties and a revival of 1920s flapper fashions.

The fashionistas might miss that the story is really a critique of the American Dream, the emptiness of the consumer culture on the eve of the Great Depression. Nick Carraway, Gatsby’s next-door neighbour who narrates the story, begins the film starry-eyed about the Gatsby lifestyle. But as he is drawn into Gatsby’s entourage, he becomes more and more disturbed by the promiscuity, drunkenness and corruption. Gatsby started out poor as Marty did, but instead of turning his opportunities to service like St Martin de Porres, he is entirely focused on self. After an obsessive romance with a married woman he’s eventually shot dead. Though so long the favourite of high society none attends the Gatsby funeral as they had St Martin’s. Instead of calling him ‘the Saint’ our narrator canonises Gatsby ‘the Great’, but there’s bitter irony in this as his hero had by then been exposed as a miserable liar and mafia man.

Our saints offer us nobler versions of greatness: lives dedicated to placing our talents at the service of God and others. They didn’t fall for the allurements and glitz of worldly success. They lived instead according to principle, God’s principles. In so doing, they became truly great men, true priests and prophets and princes.


Pope John XXIII once asked a young boy what he was going to do when he grew up. The boy said he was either going to be a policeman or a pope. “Aim high and be a policeman,” John said. “They’ll take anyone as Pope – just look at me.”

Redfield boys are in a privileged position to receive the sort of education that means they could be popes or policemen or many other things, but that lets them know that such work is a way to sainthood. It helps you resist the allurements of materialism, consumerism and nihilism, while also discerning what is good about our surrounding culture and society and aspiring to make it better. It allows you to live well in this world but never to be entirely children of this world, for you know that the answer to the restless heart is God.

You are privileged because you are being given an education to be truly prophets, truly manly, truly thoughtful, truly great. Take advantage of your schooling in virtue, self-sacrifice and regard for others. May it be the foundation of a long and happy life as true men of God!

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