Most Reverend Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv DD STL, Bishop of Parramatta
Homily for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time in Year A with the Rite of Installation of Rev Fernando Montano as Parish Priest of St Bernadette’s Parish, Castle Hill
20 August 2017
They say God works in mysterious and unexpected ways. Fr Fernando’s amazing journey to St Bernadette’s Castle Hill today is a proof of this. For starters, he is a Mexican, not one from south of the Murray but one from half the world away.
He came to Australia via Hong Kong where he spent many years as a missionary. This explains why he has been our Chinese chaplain. A Mexican who speaks Cantonese fluently could have carved out a movie career in Hong Kong, perhaps as a nemesis of Jackie Chan. Instead Fr Fernando has been chosen to be your pastor. He comes to St Bernadette’s at a crucial time as the local community undergoes enormous changes. The larger Church in Australia, too, is also at a crossroads. There is a sense that the Royal Commission has marked a watershed moment and the Church, as many are fond of saying, cannot go on as if it is business as usual. Like St Paul on the road to Damascus, we have been knocked off our high horses and the time has come for the Church to undergo some serious institutional repentance and conversion.
Amid the pain and chaos of diminishment, we are strengthengthed, however, by the belief that times of great crisis can be catalysts for renewal and transformation. Our God can draw life out of apparent loss and hopelessness. New beginnings do often emerge out of apparent decline and even destruction. God indeed uses suffering and even death to recreate and make the Church more wholesome, more authentic and more effective instrument of his loving presence.
Scripture today teaches us to be strong and constant in the face of chaos and upheaval. It alerts us to the unsuspecting ways through which God makes himself present to us and leads us to greater justice. In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah reminds the people in exile: “Have a care for justice, act with integrity and the Lord’s salvation will come”. He then goes on to spell out in concrete terms what it means to care for justice and to act with integrity. It means to embrace foreigners and others who are considered outsiders. “My house, Isaiah proclaims, shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” This proclamation is no small matter to the Jewish exiles. It amounts to a seismic shift in their understanding of who God is and what it means to be his people: a tribal deity gives way to a universal and all embracing God. A narrow definition of the chosen is replaced by a more inclusive vision.
I wonder how Christians who have heard these prophetic words over the centuries could justify or be complicit in slavery, segregation, apartheid, anti-Semitism, sexism, homophobia and other discriminatory attitudes and practices. If we allow God’s Word to probe more deeply, perhaps we will find traces of our own sense of entitlement and our claim to what is ours at the exclusion of others.
In the Gospel, Jesus also challenges such a mentality and shows that God is often found in the unlikely. Already in the preceding chapter, he disputes with the Pharisees in relation to the laws of ritual purity. He shows that God is more concerned about the inside of the person than the outside. Here, in the encounter with the Canaanite woman, Jesus again affirms that the heart is more important than physical, racial and gender boundaries. Against all odds, including the initial indifference of Jesus, the poor woman shows herself to be an intelligent, engaging and faith-filled person. She is like the centurion who is praised for the depth of faith beyond her social status, race and gender. This is a giant leap in boundary crossing because in Jewish minds, foreigners are expendable. After all, in the book of Deuteronomy, Joshua was given a command to utterly destroy all the Canaanites. In recognising the faith of a Gentile woman, Jesus makes a hero out of an anti-hero in conventional wisdom. This is his trademark.
He makes a hero of a Samaritan leper, a Samaritan woman, a tax collector Zacchaeus, a blind beggar Bartimaeus and other marginalised characters. He turns our sense of privilege and entitlement on its head. He shakes us out of our comfort zone. He challenges us to do a little bit of boundary crossing in order to appreciate what I’d call “the otherness” of God.
We need to be alert and open to God’s saving grace even in the most unlikely places and people. It is a fallacy and a delusion to think that we have the answer to every problem there is. Pope Francis says that the Church needs to know how to recognise the Lord’s action in the world, in culture and in people’s daily lives and experiences. It calls us to broaden our perspective to be mindful of the truth, goodness and shared values even among people who differ from or oppose us.
Today as we celebrate a new beginning or a new chapter in the life of this community. In the light of the Scripture today, we pledge to create an environment where fear of differences is replaced by encouraging all people to share their gifts. The world often pushes us to compete or conform, but God calls us to a different way: working together, needing each other, being the body of Christ. We commit ourselves to walk as pilgrims open to be formed and enriched by the journey. May we in all the upheaval and chaos around us learn to act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with the God of surprises.