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Homily for the Opening Mass of the Synod – 1st May 2003

Fr Ken Howell commented recently after listening to another of my homilies “You know you really should change your Episcopal Motto from ‘Lex Crucis’ – the Law of the Cross, to “Regnum Dei” – the Kingdom of God, considering the number of times you talk about the Kingdom. His comment was true and reminded me of my neglect of “Lex Crucis”, more out of carelessness, than any lack of affection for the term, the full meaning of which, inscribed on a plaque in my office, confronts me each day of my life. Borrowed from the Canadian Jesuit Theologian, Bernard Lonergan, “Lex Crucis” – the Law of the Cross is a brilliant insight into the nature of all reality. It proclaims that evil cannot be overcome by power, as the world still seems to believe, but only by love, as Christ preached and proved. For a variety of reasons its wisdom is not greeted with instant approval in a culture that values immediacy above all else. “Lex Crucis” pre-supposes that minds and hearts will not normally be changed quickly, but only after much effort, and usually over an extended period of time. After all even Christ with his remarkable charisma and powers of persuasion could not change the minds and hearts of the religious leaders of his time, nor, before his resurrection, the conversion even of his own Apostles. Nevertheless the Law of the Cross that is built into the very fabric of our existence is the only realistic way to proceed, because it is the only true way. People will only be converted through love. Nevertheless, brilliant as Lonergan’s insight is, the Law of the Cross, is merely part, even though an important part, of a much grander, eagerly awaited divine design preached by Christ as good news, and manifest in the arrival of the Kingdom or Reign of God in Himself. Because of its comprehensive nature, the Kingdom of God is a key concept which opens up the Christian vision to all who have eyes to see. It provides an overarching framework within which everything else can fit, including the Synod. It is the most comprehensively exciting reality in today’s theology and has a power to deepen our Christian understanding and ultimately our belief, if only we will allow the Holy Spirit to lead our minds and hearts into its mystery.

Father Ken’s comment about a possible change in my motto started me thinking about change in general, and how it happens to all of us even in matters of faith. When I was first ordained in 1961 the pride of my life was a pale blue Holden car whose high clearance made it an excellent choice for the then black-mud roads of Goondiwindi. If I was to be ordained today I might still buy a Holden, but hardly a blue one. In more recent years the vibrancy of reds and yellows appeals to me much more than the tranquillity of blue. Other similar shifts in trivia have developed over the years; from Beethoven to Brahms, from Buddy Holly to Enja, from head to heart, from intellection to emotion, from steak and eggs to lasagna. The mystery of those changes, small as they are, can’t be explained much less the larger ones of faith. Nevertheless in faith we experience a similar pattern of change with perhaps its reasons just a little clearer. Early faith for myself, and probably for a host of other Catholics, was very much focussed on getting to heaven rather than addressing the needs of the world, which to a certain extent was viewed with suspicion. It was an individual faith rather than community based, focussed centrally on Roman Catholics rather than other Christians or non-Christians, saw the presence of Christ in the Church rather than in the world, and found little difference between the Kingdom of God and The Church. Marx’s description of Christianity as being “pie in the sky when you die” was not too wide of the mark for many of us. Today in our health-conscious culture many of us might not find heavenly “pie” terribly attractive, but most of us would still anticipate some special reward after death, but would hardly expect it to happen in the sky, or restrict it merely to the existence we experience after death. Today we are more than ever aware of the continuity between earth and heaven, between this life and the next.

Instead the faith that we embrace today is very much a Kingdom-based faith that reaches well beyond the Church to engage the world, while being evenly focussed between heaven and earth. Moreover Christ, the centre of our faith, has long lost some of his “gentle Jesus meek and mild” demeanour to become a more robust and attractive figure who surely, if he was present with us today, as he was present with the apostles 2000 years ago, would challenge us much too strongly either for our own comfort or well being. Nevertheless for me, this newly discovered Christ, the prophet of the Kingdom, is enormously attractive both as a person and in his vision. As we begin this Synod tonight it is precisely that question of Christ and his vision that must engage us if we are to find a framework for the strategies that will flow from the Synod for the well being of our Archdiocese.

The first scripture reading tonight exhorts us “to have the mind that was in Christ Jesus”, and that is precisely the challenge we need to face. What is that mind? and what are its implications? The letter to the Philippians does not comprehensively answer the question, but it does point a way forward when it indicates the absolute self-negation of Christ who did not come to do his own will but always the will of the father, who did not seek his own honour but only the honour of God, and who certainly did not seek power as the world seeks it, but was totally obedient to God even to “death on the cross”. The phrase “death on the cross” is too gentle a phrase if it is seen as indicating merely the physical death that Christ experienced. Horrific as that physical death must have been, it pales in comparison with the sheer ignominy of his death chosen out of love; death as a criminal, death rejected by his very own people, death so shameful it took place outside the walls of the city, death that had the appearance of failure, death abandoned by his Apostles and friends, and death seemingly abandoned even by God. So great was Christ’s love of and obedience to his father that he embraced even that death trusting in the father’s love, which we know was eventually vindicated by resurrection. Sadly Christ’s example of obedience to God even to death, and his embrace of nothingness is perhaps the most difficult lesson Christians ever have to learn. It was certainly not learnt well by the Church that Christ established. Down through history, particularly from the 4th century onwards, humility and service were honoured more in the breech than in the practice, while an identification with worldly power undermined the humble message Christ sought to proclaim. Perhaps in that inappropriate identification we can find at least one of the reasons for the modern world’s drift away from the Church and the partial engagement of people who still claim its membership. Nevertheless there are signs of hope. The recent wide-ranging rejection by Christians throughout the world of war as a viable option for solving the world’s problems, was encouraging. Likewise the readiness of Catholics and other Christians to follow the Pope’s leadership on ecological conversion has aroused the interest and admiration of many people both within and outside the Church, especially young people. As well there is the modern search for spirituality and meaning among so many. Please God these signs, small as they are, are an indication that the message of Christ is finally beginning to engage the attention of the world. Nevertheless there is still so much more to do if the Church is to become a convincing sign to the world of the Kingdom of God present in our midst.

Tonight’s Scripture, having first of all raised the question of the mind of Christ, then indicates both its reality and its reward. The gospel of John answers simply that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth will make the mind of Christ known to us. “The Holy Spirit will teach you all things”. Of course this will not happen unless we are open to the persuasion of the Holy Spirit, and opening ourselves in such a manner might well be the most dangerous but ultimately satisfying thing we will ever attempt, because we do not know where it will lead. Once we are overtaken by God, the “Hound of Heaven” as Francis Thompson graphically described God, we could easily be caught up in an adventure that will change our lives radically. The Apostles were captured by Christ and gave their lives totally to Him, the Saints likewise. Moreover the reward for attempting such openness is identified in the Gospel of John. It is the gift of peace, certainly peace in the world around us, but perhaps even more importantly, and certainly not unrelated, peace in our individual hearts and minds, peace, as the gospel reminds us, the world cannot give.

And so my dear people let us enter the Synod full of hope, doing precisely what the Scripture urges us to do. Let us put on the mind of Jesus Christ praying that the Holy Spirit will help us in that regard. Understanding the mind of Christ will make our selection of strategies during the course of the Synod much clearer and our voting much better informed. In the Eucharist we celebrate tonight, Christ has left us in word and symbol the very essence of his vision, available to us in a manner we can assimilate and engage. Christ has also left us in this Eucharist the wisdom to understand, and the power to follow Him. Let us therefore celebrate this Eucharist knowing that the most effective way to renew this Archdiocese is first and foremost to renew ourselves. If we can leave this Synod on Sunday evening convinced of our belief in Jesus Christ and his vision, and determined more than ever to share his good news with others, then the Synod will be successful beyond our wildest imagining, because the strategies selected will automatically flow from an integrated faith built on Jesus, Communion and Mission. Let us begin to follow that pathway of faith tonight as we listen deeply to the word of God, strengthen our communion by sharing the body and blood of Christ, and like Christ be prepared to offer ourselves to the father even until unto death. We can then go forward in mission full of hope for the success of the Synod, confident of the future of this Archdiocese, and knowing that we have participated in a significant moment in its history and like Mary, the mother of Jesus, prepared to ponder the Synod events in our hearts in the months and years that lie ahead.

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