Homily of Most Rev Anthony Fisher OP, Annual SRE Mass, Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, St Patrick’s Church, Blacktown, Friday 9 September 2011
Does being a Christian make any difference to the way we live? After all, don’t many non-Christians, even non-believers, live just as good lives as many Christians? If something is good, it is surely good for every human being, not just Christians or anyone particular group.
Yet when St Paul talks today of his experience of conversion (1 Tim 1:1-2,12-14), it is clear that for him it meant the complete upside-downing, inside-outing of his worldview and values. “I used to be a blasphemer and a persecutor of Christians,” he says, “but the grace of Our Lord filled me with faith and love”; having been shown mercy I now preach and teach that mercy myself. For St Paul, one of the first Christian catechists, the Damascus experience was so radical he would spend the rest of his years talking about leaving behind the old man and putting on the new; being liberated from oldway of life and embracing the new one; being grafted onto Christ, imitating Christ, living through Christ and with Christ and in Christ; being, if needs be, a fool for Christ by this world’s standards. For Paul this meant confronting law-abiding Jews and philosophically-minded pagans, as well as young Christians with the radically good and radically new Good News.
Yet if we Christians do have something different to offer, we need not deny the wisdom in other religious traditions or in the natural morality of human beings, some of which we can draw upon ourselves and much of which is the common ground upon which we live and work with people of all sorts. Once the foundation of Christian faith was laid, St Paul himself did not hesitate to build up human norms and virtues in his new Christians. Though he thought Jesus’ Way was something very new, he readily assimilated whatever was true from the heritage of the peoples he taught.
Of course, in some ways his task was easier than ours. At least the surrounding cultures were essentially religious ones. Everyone believed in God, perhaps too many gods, in the afterlife, in the requirement to pray and live a good life. In our contemporary culture, on the other hand, God is marginalized and much of what is offered instead for our valuing is unhelpful, even harmful. The messages coming from our industries, polities, academies and media can be corrupt; the reigning ideologies of consumerism, individualism and relativism wrong-headed; the practices of the age hard-hearted or soft-headed, such as credit beyond our means, consumption beyond our credit, sex and drugs as recreations, inappropriate incarceration of some troublemakers and detention of some strangers. And so Christians today are increasingly counter-cultural, contra mundum, as this world goes.
Yet we are never really against the culture or against the world,because we adore the Maker of our world and Lord of our history, and we appreciate all He has given us, including our natural environment and human achievements, the great philosophies and institutions, technologies and traditions, the family and workplace and community. If Christians greet the world with a critical mind and the eyes of faith, it is so they can live well in the world, not escape from it, and purify that world and bring it to God.
True Christianmorality, we know, has a profound and persuasive echo in heart of every person, believer and non-believer alike, because it marvellously fulfils our heart’s desires while infinitely surpassing them. Even in the midst of difficulties and uncertainties, every person sincerely open to the truth can, by the light of reason and the hidden action of grace, come to recognize what is right. And so however much some people differ from us and sometimes persecute us, Christians in the end have no enemies, except Sin and Death. Other people, however misguided, are still the image of God for us, still intended by God to be our neighbours, friends, brothers and sisters, fellow saints. There are, dare I say, only two religions – Catholics and still-to-be-Catholics – and the still-to-be’s are like catechumens with their foot already in the door, already joined to us, as long as they are seeking the truth with a sincere heart and living as good a life as their lights reveal to them.
So why bother with evangelisation and catechesis and SRE and the rest? Aren’t all beliefs equally worthy and all morals equally sincere? If those without Catholic faith can be saved, isn’t ignorance bliss? Shouldn’t we just leave them to their own devices, to follow their own lights and find a path for themselves?
To which Paul might answer this morning: how could you know the grace and peace and mercy of God the Father, how could you experience the faith and hope and love of Christ Jesus His Son, and not want to share them with others? Can ignorance of God and His ways, of His plan for humanity and His providential care, of His Incarnate Son and His redeeming friendship, of His Holy Spirit and His spiritual gifts, of His Holy Church and her Word and Sacraments: can ignorance of such things be bliss? Surely such ignorance is a deprivation, a terrible loss? And so, says Paul this morning, God chooses people, sometimes the most unexpected people, and calls them into His service, and gives them the faith and hope and love they need to pass on the Faith.
At World Youth Day in Madrid, which I was privileged to attend with nearly 300 young people from the Parramatta diocese, the Pope confronted thepost-modern question: Do we really need foundations for our lives? He observed that “There are many who... believe they need no roots or foundations other than themselves. They take it upon themselves to decide what is true or not, what is good and evil, what is just and unjust; who should live and who can be sacrificed in the interests of other preferences; leaving each step to chance, with no clear path, letting themselves be led by the whim of each moment.”
Christians, the Holy Father argued, have an alternative approach to life. We know “that we have been created free, in the image of God, precisely so that we might be in the forefront of the search for truth and goodness, responsible for our actions; not mere blind executives, but creative co-workers in the task of cultivating and beautifying the work of creation.”
“God is looking for a responsible interlocutor, someone who can dialogue with Him and love Him,” the Pope continued. “Through Christ we can truly succeed and, established in Him, we give wings to our freedom. Is this not the great reason for our joy? Isn’t this the firm ground upon which to build the civilization of love and life, capable of humanizing all of us?”
This is the task of the CCD and its SRE teachers: bringing responsible interlocutors to God, young people with big questions, searching minds and open hearts, laying foundations for their lives and giving wings to their freedom, so they might build with Christ a civilization of life and love for Western Sydney. What an exciting project is yours! Thanks be to God for your contribution to that adventure.