Thursday, July 31, 2008

Leaving the Great South Land

This will be my last post from Australia as I am getting the plane to Sydney this afternoon and then an evening flight to London via Dubai. It's been a great trip and in some ways I'm sorry to go although, at the same time, I'm very much looking forward to getting back to the parish and to carrying on where World Youth Day ended.
Today is the feast of St Ignatius of Loyola and the Office of Readings this morning struck me as particularly appropriate for those who left this Great South Land with a sense of vocation. I guess that, while it is easy to discern the call in the fervour of the WYD exerience, our feet hit the ground when we get home and any sense of vocation can easily be squeezed out by the concerns of daily life. St Ignatius, we are told, like to read stories of herioc bravery but when he was in hosptial had to make do with the "Imitation of Christ" and one or two other spiritual works. In time he noticed a difference between the two sorts of reading, in that the secular stories gave him an immediate thrill whereas the religious works led him to a more lasting sense of tranquillity and joy. This led him to his famous "discernment of spirits".
It may be that you went back home enthusiastic to do God's will and with a desire to respond generously to hiss call but that now you are already distracted by the TV, socialising and everything else that crowds in on your everyday life. Like St Ignatius, ask yourself what gives you a greater sense of purpose and meaning: Playstation or Praystation? Perhaps the next step should be a discernment retreat...

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Learning to Pray

During the WYD trip I had a conversation with a girl who had been taught that there is no need to set aside time to pray because "life is a prayer". It is one of those phrases that trips so easily off the tongue and yet has no meaning. Prayer can be defined as conversation with God. If you've ever had to try to make small talk with a disinterested teenager you will know how difficult it is to have a conversation with someone whose mind is elsewhere. So prayer is also defined as the lifting up of the mind and heart to God.

It is simply a deception to say that life is a prayer. Instead we should say that in prayer we take hold of the life we live and present it to God in thanksgiving, praise, petition and also in sorrow for our faults and failings. Prayer is a vital part of our living as a 'priestly people'. In prayer we exercise our universal (as opposed to ministerial) priesthood.
In his homily during the WYD Mass the Holy Father encouraged the young people to pray:

"The grace of the Spirit, is not something we can merit or achieve, but only receive as pure gift. God’s love can only unleash its power when it is allowed to change us from within. We have to let it break through the hard crust of our indifference, our spiritual weariness, our blind conformity to the spirit of this age. Only then can we let it ignite our imagination and shape our deepest desires. That is why prayer is so important: daily prayer, private prayer in the quiet of our hearts and before the Blessed Sacrament, and liturgical prayer in the heart of the Church. Prayer is pure receptivity to God’s grace, love in action, communion with the Spirit who dwells within us, leading us, through Jesus, in the Church, to our heavenly Father. In the power of his Spirit, Jesus is always present in our hearts, quietly waiting for us to be still with him, to hear his voice, to abide in his love, and to receive “power from on high”, enabling us to be salt and light for our world".

To be men and women of prayer we need first to identify a time each day for our conversation with God. A time when we can be quiet and listen to the "still, small voice of God". Ideally, a time in the early morning before the day's activity begins and then perhaps another time in the evening when we can look back on what has happened. Sometimes this may require us to get up earlier or to disentangle ourselves from our afternoon or evening activities. That can be a good mortification: someone once said that the hardest button to press on the TV remote control is the 'Off' button!

Sometimes people say they don't know what to talk about when they set aside time for prayer. Often it's good to take a text like the Pope's homily perhaps reading a paragraph at a time and seeing what sort of conversation that leads to. For example, during his homily the Holy Father asked the young people a question that would lead to a very fruitful consideration in prayer:

"Dear young people, let me now ask you a question. What will you leave to the next generation? Are you building your lives on firm foundations, building something that will endure? Are you living your lives in a way that opens up space for the Spirit in the midst of a world that wants to forget God, or even rejects him in the name of a falsely-conceived freedom? How are you using the gifts you have been given, the “power” which the Holy Spirit is even now prepared to release within you? What legacy will you leave to young people yet to come? What difference will you make?"
It reminds me of one of the questions in "The Way", the book of spiritual considerations by St Josemaria which has helped millions of people learn how to pray:

"Don't let your life be barren. Be useful. Make yourself felt. Shine forth with the torch of your faith and your love. With your apostolic life, wipe out the trail of filth and slime left by the corrupt sowers of hatred. And set aflame all the ways of the earth with the fire of Christ that you bear in your heart".

Pope Benedict himself goes on to speak to the young people as protagonists in the task of building a nw world and again his words merit our prayerful consideration:

"Empowered by the Spirit, and drawing upon faith’s rich vision, a new generation of Christians is being called to help build a world in which God’s gift of life is welcomed, respected and cherished – not rejected, feared as a threat and destroyed. A new age in which love is not greedy or self-seeking, but pure, faithful and genuinely free, open to others, respectful of their dignity, seeking their good, radiating joy and beauty. A new age in which hope liberates us from the shallowness, apathy and self-absorption which deaden our souls and poison our relationships. Dear young friends, the Lord is asking you to be prophets of this new age, messengers of his love, drawing people to the Father and building a future of hope for all humanity."

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The attack of the killer spiders...

These last few days I've been staying with his brother and his family here in Australia. They decided that, like the Holy Father, I needed some complete rest after World Youth Day so they took me up to a wonderful villa overlooking the sea just outside the Town of 1770 - where Lieutenant (!) Cook landed. The villa was set in scrubland and had its own private beach. The idea of running through scrub with all sorts of venemous Ozzie creatures wasn't particularly appealing - particularly when the boys came back with tales of an "enormous spider". Nevertheless, my nephew kept reassuring me that - despite the "Beware of stingers & stone-fish" signs, there was nothing to worry about. Although it was great to walk along the sand and watch the waves, the prospect of sitting through yet another episode with my young Dr Who-obsessed nephews suddenly became quite appealing!
I was rather amused therefore as we left for home yesterday to find him screaming in the back of the car. A huntsman spider had decided to hitch a ride with us and perch itself next to him. After I had dispatched it with the aid of a long handled umbrella, he decided I needed to be reassured again: "It really is quite harmless Uncle Stephen. You didn't have to kill it. If it bites it hurts like crazy, but the worst it could do is make you vomit". Nice! I was glad not to meet any Timelords and killer wasps when we got home!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Bishop Paul's Diary

Amongst his other activities - including giving three catecheses - Bishop Paul found time to keep both a written and audio diary of our World Youth Day trip. It can be found via a link on the diocesan website or you can access it directly by clicking here. It includes a full account of the trip and some great photographs (including the bishop playing a didgeridoo!). There are also very useful links to the Holy Father's speeches as well as official WYD videos. It's well worth a look.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Mgr Marini

I mentioned before WYD that I had been attending an in-service training course for priests in Spain. Spain is always a good source of authoritative information about the Church. While there I heard that the next WYD would be in Madrid and even made a provisional booking of a hundred places for 2011!
Another interesting piece of news was about a get-together between priests and seminarians and Mgr Marini, the Papal MC. Answering questions the monsignor said a number of things of note. Among them that the Holy Father isn't planning to impose anything. For Papal Masses the MCs have been given a free hand to draw upon the Church's rich inheritance of treasures in order to counteract the widespread impression that things of liturgical merit or worth have been abolished in the 'modern' liturgy. This is part of the Holy Father's concern to promote the 'hermeneutic of continuity': to show that there is no rupture between the pre-conciliar and post-conciliar Church. Another interesting comment was that in the 'medium term', although he may not live to see it, there will be a new missal for the one Roman Rite - drawing, one presumes, on the best of both current forms of the Rite.
Obviously I wasn't present at the get-together so I can't vouch for what precisely was said. It does seem to suggest, however, that what the Holy Father desires is that we have priests who have a correct and complete understanding of the theology of the Mass as well as the necessary formation to celebrate it - in whatever form - with dignity and reverence. Given the response of the people when I celebrated a Sunday Mass in the diocese of Maitland-Newcastle here in Australia recently, I would say that a Mass celebrated with devotion can have a great impact on ordinary parish congregations where a hermeneutic of discontinuity has previously had a confusing and disheartening effect.

Friday, July 25, 2008


After the World Youth Day Mass on Sunday Cardinal Pell asked the Holy Father to pray for rain in Australia which has been suffering from a severe drought. The Holy Father, well briefed as to the issues of concern down-under, nodded and smiled. Since then we have had four days of rain.
Yesterday we drove up through torrential downpours from Noosa to Agnes Water and the Town of 1770. Since I am on holiday I am somewhat selfishly pleased to wake up this morning to a fairly clear sky over the sea!
One of the things about WYD that I haven't yet mentioned is the welcoming speech from Kevin Rudd, the Prime Minister. In England we all remember the famous remark that a certain politician "doesn't do religion". So what could we expect from a former Catholic (he now practises with his wife at an Anglican church) who has received a lot of criticism from the secularists over WYD? Platitudes? A hollow welcome and a suggestion that WYD represents peace and tolerance just like his own political party? Not at all!
I was sitting among the concelbrating priests and we looked at each other in amazement to hear Rudd's forceful defence of Christianity: "Some say there is no place for Christianity in the 21st century; I say they are wrong. Some say faith is the enemy of reason; and I also say they are wrong". He went on to say that modern Australia is a multicultural society but that it couldn't lose sight of the fact that it is first of all a Christian culture. And he singled out the Catholic Church for particular praise: the Church had founded Australia's first hospitals, its first schools and its first orphanages.

Linda Morris writing in the Sydney Morning Herald commented: "Cardinal Pell always intended that this was one day when secular Sydney would be shaken to is core. God, not Mammon, was the centrepiece of a public display of Christian devotion rarely seen. The faithful sang prayers, bowed their heads and lifted their hearts in collective prayer...".

Meanwhile, here are some comments from John Huxley, also in an article for the Sydney Morning Herald:
"Young and old, black andwhite, austere and flamboyant, they defied easy stereotyping. As 16-year old Canadian Sami Dib, whose ears are pierced with diamond studs and fingers stained with cigarettes, said, 'We're the future of the Church'. Sydney, regarded by some as a hedonistic if not downright sinful city, has not seen anything like it before. No footbal match. No Olympic final. No previous religious leader's visit is believed to have attracted quite so many people. [...] Such a huge, noisy, enthusiastic turnout will surprise some, alarm others. But, Catholic or non-Catholic, believer or non-believer, being there was an undeniably uplifting experience for most, such was the feel-good spirit generated by the Mass and the masses".

Why am I still publishing extracts from the papers? Because, like the Prime Minister's welcome, they should encourage us to take heart. It is possible to defend the faith in an avowedly secularist context. What is required is a little bit of courage. An experience such as WYD breaks down barriers of hostiliy, prejudice and indifference. People who presumed the Church was finished are surprised not just to see her vigour - but also because they quite like what they see!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

And when it gets things wrong?

What happens if the Australian media issues some false information about World Youth Day? It sends out a correction.
It was reported in England that several WYD pilgrims walked out of a house when they discovered their host was homosexual. The origin was a call to an ABC chat show to create a sense of outrage at the fundamentalist bigotry of the pilgrims. The chat show decided to check the story with the WYD organisers and found that the caller didn't appear on the database of WYD hosts. They then contacted him again to be told that he hadn't registered through WYD but through his local parish. A call to the the parish revealed that wasn't true either.
So what did this local ABC radio station do, even as the world's media were broadcasting the story all over the world? Pass over the revelation in silence? Continue the deception? No. They issued a clarification to say that they followed up the story and found it impossible to substantiate "just so that our listeners who heard the caller aren't left hanging".

An interesting follow-up on the supposed desecration of a Cenotaph by WYD pilgrims. International media picked up the story that the war memorial had been defaced with the words "Ratzinger Rules". It's unusual for Catholics to refer to the Holy Father as "Ratzinger" and from the start there was something fishy about this insult to the Australian war-dead. It now turns out that other inscriptions included the phrase: "God bless you Diggers". There's also something odd here: "Digger" is the local slang for a soldier. The good news is that the police are reviewing CTV footage. Let's hope they catch whoever was responsible. No one over here believes it was a pilgrim, as the NSW Police Commissioner said, "this is enormously disrespectful, particularly to our returned servicemen, as well as to a visiting head of state, the Pope".

More from the papers on WYD

Ozzie papers that is... I'm staying on in Australia until the end of the month and won't have a chance to do much with my photos until I get home. Until then I'll keep publishing some snippets from newspaper articles, since there was an information blackout in England. What's most interesting about these articles is that they are positive despite the sometimes apparent ignorance of Catholicism on the part of the reporter.

"It was intensely joyful and thought-provoking; prayerful and vibrant, richly colourful and above all transcendent. In an outdoor cathedral, the likes of which the world has never seen, the spirituality in Sydney yesterday was palpable".
Tess Livingstone on the Opening Mass at Barangaroo.

"There is a major event underway in Sydney and, once again, the city is awash with innocents from abroad. [...] They are people of faith. After a full day on the railways, some still believe that a train may yet arrive. Unlike Sydneysiders, who carry with them the princely burden of pricey real-estate, these pilgrims are shiny, happy people. Each is coloured like a Tequila Sunrise, with an official jacket hat is a little bit red and a little bit orange. Each also has a hat (if Australian it comes with corks), a flaming backpack and a flag, worn like a cape, across the shoulders. If they are German, they also wear sandals with socks".
Caroline Overlington.

In fact, the WYD08 was so well organised that there was no traffic breakdown. As Imre Salusinsky reported: "Welcom to a Sydney motorist's paradise, aka World Youth Day"!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Sydney on a high and the joy is infectious - What the papers said bout WYD

Given the poor response of the British press, I thought you might be interested in some of the comments from the Ozzie media. You have to bear in mind that in the run up to WYD there was a certain amount of hostility from some quarters of the Australian media, and also that the people of Sydney approached it with some understandable trepidation. Once the young people arrived, however, they were won over and the media soon followed. Here are some of the comments after the opening Mass with Cardinal Pell.

"Under a brilliant winter sky, wild cheers erupted across Barangaroo when the biggest youth Mass in Australian history got underway in Sydney yesterday afternoon. More than 150,000 pilgrims, spirits soaring, had spent the day flooding into the venue in anticipation of the extraordinary celebration led by Cardinal George Pell which marked the official opening of World Youth Day. [...] Scores of young people from around the world, wearing their national dress, took communion at the altar. Later, flags were hoisted high and the audience sang along as the World Youth Day theme song was played to the by-then reverential crowd"
Michelle Cazzulino & Lauren Williams

"From every walk of life and corner of the world, this United Nations of Catholic pilgrims illustrated yesterday the faith and joy of the international visitors inundating Sydney" - Gemma Jones

"Barangaroo came alive with impromptu dancing, as pilgrims from around the world came together in a party-like atmosphere to mark the official opening of WYD08. National flags were draped around shoulders with pride, but they were all united in devotion to their Church. Across town in George St, the pulsing artery of Sydney was transformed into an impromptu parade that became the beating heart of the world's pilgrims". Kate Sikora et al.

"The sun was just rising. It was around 6am and bloody cold on Sunday morning at the top of a hill in a Suburban street in Berowra Hieghts. That's when I first saw it. [...] It was pure goodwill from two strangers with no apparent reason to be laughing at that time of the morning as they waited for their lift in the freezing cold. That was the first time I noticed the unprovoked, unrehearsed and utterly infectious happiness the pilgrims have brought to Sydney. [...] This is a natural high we haven't seen in this city since the 2000 Olympics, only, dare I say, even better. ... It is unadulterated joy and it was noticeable yesterday at every turn.
[...] As I was speaking to a cool young group of Sisters of Nazareth nuns in their funky sneakers and oversized sunglasses at Darling Harbour yesterday, Sr Marianna asked me to join their picnic... And I was holding my handbag tight in this crowd? There is nothing malicous about these gorgeous young people... Indeed, you don't have to be Catholic for this one, Sydney. Just walk through the wash of colourful flags and bright smiles and you will feel this city breathing again."
Fiona Connolly

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Is it the same WYD?

It's not always easy to get internet access so posting is necessarily irregular. The big talking point today is the British media's response to what will probably be the best WYD ever. We hear it's reported that a war memorial was defaced. It's true but there's no suggestion it was done by the youth who've come here. Much more likely to have been the small but vociferous opponents to the WYD celebrations. Cardinal Cormac is due to give a talk tomorrow but he's had to be warned that the British media are flying out a victim of abuse now living in Britain. Unbelievable as the locals are saying.
On the ground things are fantastic! We had a superb opening Mass yesterday with a particulalrly warm welcome from the PM who really nailed his colours to the mast in defence of Christianity and the Christian - especially the Catholic - heritage of Australia. Cardinal Pell gave a heartfelt homily that touched the thousands of people present. The Mass was reverent and very prayerful - even allowing for the joyful enthusiasm of the young people.
Sydney has been won over. Everywhere we go people wave and toot their horns, we are thanked for coming and welcomed warmly. The local response couldn't be better. So waht's the local media saying? Well they found a taxi driver who isn't getting any trade. His response? "That's fine. I just like watching them. They are soo good". And a woman sitting in 'Hungry Jacks' who is disturbed by a big group of young people and nuns - "They look so cute"!
Whatever the British media might say, WDY Sydney 2008 is a massive success story. And having spent the afternoon in the prayer room and hearing confessions, I have seen that God's grace is touching hearts, breaking through barriers, and winning converts: Big Time!!!
I can't upload photos but I will. Meanwhile keep us in your prayers!

Sunday, July 13, 2008


Yesterday we went into Newcastle and were able to spend time overlooking the spectacular waterway. As well as the pleasure crafts, there were enormous coal ships going up and down (hence the expression 'coals to Newcastle'). Newcastle is a major city but the place didn't have an industrial feel at all. There was a WYD event on an open green just under the old fort - the site of a former power station but now wonderfully reclaimed. The event brought together all the WYD pilgrims staying in the diocese of Maitland-Newcastle and the local bishop came down to meet us. It's quite warm here during the day with beautiful blue skies although at night it gets very cold. We had woken up to a surprise frost, so I felt sorry for a group I met from Canada who are camping in an open field. I am already beginning to meet old friends. Yesterday it was Br Jean Marie of the Community of St John who are soon to open a house in Brentwood. Br Jean Marie is a deacon and has led two retreats for young adults in my parish.

So far we have met pilgrims from Colombia, Canada, United Arab Emirates, France, USA, Holland, Ecuador, Mexico and Belgium. When we get to Sydney of course the rest of the world will be represented!

One of the unexpected things about our experience over here so far has been the 'aboriginal dimension'. I find it a bit awkward: yesterday the bishop thanked the aboriginal peoples for allowing us to use their land - but I couldn't help wondering what would be the response if they asked for it back! The previous night we missed most of an aboriginal fire lighting ceremony but since it wasn't conducted by aborigines I was quite glad. When I was a child we used to watch the 'Black and White Minstrel Show' on television but it's not shown any more: the idea of white men 'blacking up' doesn't fit with modern sensibilities. I can't help feeling that in the future the idea of white Christians performing aboriginal ceremonies will be deemed similarly inappropriate!

Our group is getting on very well together and yesterday's event was a very useful introduction to the WYD spirit. Because we were in a fairly contained, safe, area we were able to let them wander off and explore in smaller groups. When we met again at 3.00pm I was pleased to see they were all displaying a fine array of lapel pins from different countries: they had already begun to make contact with people from all over the world and so discover what it means to be part of a 'catholic' Church.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

WYD Update

G'Day! We're all learning a new language out here. Yesterday we visited a local park and were treated to a spectacular view of a 'mob' of 'roos'. It was during a community service day which, for us, consisted of filling in potholes on the park's paths. The work began with a compulsory health and safety briefing made far more interesting by the final warning: "And don't go near the Roos - they'll rip your stomach out!". Some of our lads have been pleased to discover the existence of 'stubbies' in their host's fridge. We've even found out there's an Ozzie beer called 'Southwark'!

It's required a bit of an effort to ensure that we have been able to have Holy Mass each day. We're staying in Maitland and Newcastle Diocese and one of our host priests commented that in his diocese daily Mass wouldn't be an expectation. I'm sure it will be after World Youth Day!

Last night I preached at what was to be our own diocesan Mass but when news went round that Mass was going to be celebrated loads of local people and a group from Belgium joined us. I was down to preach and - as you would expect - preached on vocations. I spoke about how the experience of WYD could lead us to take seriously our baptismal call to holiness and how that would then lead us to ask what specific path God had in mind for each one of us. On the way I gave some tips about developing our prayer, benefitting from confession and participating fruitfully at Mass. It was well received. Afterwards I met a Belgian law student who spoke about how it moved him and how he was thinking of priesthood. I was the first person he had spoken to about it. I also met a young Spanish student who is entering seminary next year.

Our own seminarians are doing splendid work. They have been charged with getting to know all the lads in our group and talking to them about priesthood. They are sowing seeds. Let's pray that we will one day reap the harvest!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Sydney '08

Having returned from my priests' course last weekend the race was on to get everything ready for a trip to Sydney. I'm taking eight young men, all of them either seminarians or men seriously considering their vocation. We've joined up once again with Fr Dominic Allain - with whom we took a very successful group to Cologne three years ago. In turn we have joined up with the diocesan group.

I left home on Tuesday afternoon at 3.00pm and we landed in Sydney at 6.00am on Thursday, having made a stop-over in Dubai. Sydney airport was pretty well in meltdown with thousands of young people waiting to clear passport control and then quarantine. We were doubly lucky: our group was spotted by an official who got us to line up separately without the need to wait with everyone else before the sniffer dog arrived. The second stroke of luck was that just after we were given the all clear and were being led out, I spotted another group from Southwark who had become detached from their leader. If I hadn't seen them they wouldn't have had a clue where to go and we would have started our trip to Sydney with a veritable disaster!

This afternoon as we got our accreditation we were treated to some spectacular 'didgereedoo' playing . We then went on to meet our host families at a parish school and were able to celebrate Mass in the local Church. Everyone is tired but by now they have been dispatched to their host families for the 'days in the diocese'. Tomorrow we have a day of social dedication - I think our group is planting trees - followed by Holy Mass in the evening and then 'Bush Dance Social Evening'.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Unexpected Silence

An apology to those of you who have been following this Blog: I have been away from the parish attending a course for priests in Andalucia (more on that later). Unfortunately internet access was interrupted by work on a new 'urbanizacion' just next to the 'finca' where the course was taking place. Apparently a digger managed to yank out all the cables.
Today I head back to London and plan to post more about the course itself before heading off to Sydney on Tuesday. In the meantime, can I draw your attention to one of the comments requesting prayers for Fr David. Fr David is a recently ordained priest from Madrid. He is 27 years old and has been diagnosed with advanced cancer.