Most Reverend Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv DD STL, Bishop of Parramatta
Homily for the Vigil Mass of the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time in Year A 2017 on the occasion of the launch of The Catholic Foundation at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Parramatta
4 November 2017
Some of you are familiar with the British comedy series Keeping Up Appearances which is one of my favourites. The central character, Mrs Bouquet or the Bucket woman to her local vicar and her neighbours, tries desperately to hide her common background. She pretends she is up there with people from the upper echelons of society. But she shuns and despises those who she thinks are beneath her. Yet, her attempt at social climbing always backfires badly.
The Gospel today also deals with those who’d like to keep up with appearances, but perhaps with less benign disposition than Mrs Bouquet. These are the scribes and Pharisees who clash with Jesus regularly. For them, religion has become synonymous with personal gain for their public profile and social status. It has to do with “attracting attention to themselves like wearing broader phylacteries and longer tassels or having people call them ‘Rabbi’”.
For Jesus, however, it is the travesty of true religion when religion is reduced to an external display and an arena for power. Therefore, he condemns this kind of shallow, self-serving and false holiness. He challenges his disciples to practice a holiness that has to do with integrity, love and service, the kind of holiness that touches the depth of who we are and connects us with the humanity of one another.
We may not be guilty of a kind of pharisaical display of pomp and circumstance. Well, sometimes I wonder if as a bishop, I am too readily adapted to pomp and circumstance. I have not tried the 12 metre cappa magna yet, but like Mrs Bucket, I am conscious of the kind of episcopal hat I should wear on a particular occasion. The Gospel today provides me and you with an opportunity to reflect on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.
As a bishop, I hear the Word of God today with fear and trepidation. It is a sobering message to those who are in leadership positions. The onus is on people like me to lead by good example and not to use our position for our own advantage.
Malachi, the prophet in the first reading calls the priests to task over what he considers double standard and deceit on their part. They are supposed to serve with integrity; yet these clerical elites act deceitfully. They are guided not by a sense of service and impartiality but instead profit and self-interest. We, the clergy of today, need to reflect on these prophetic words, in order to stay true to our vocation, especially in the wake of the Royal Commission.
We are living through a trying time in the Church. As church leaders, we bishops and priests have a particular duty in living the Gospel message with integrity; we have a particular duty in regaining a sense of trust and credibility through our authentic witness. Only by dying to power, domination, ostentation and rising to humility, simplicity, servant leadership can we be catalysts for renewal and agents of the Gospel. We can do well to meditate on the words of St Paul when he says “we do not impose ourselves as apostles and instead we give not only the Gospel but ourselves over to you.” I humbly ask your prayers and support for me, your clergy, that we truly become humble servant leaders in the example of Christ.
I wonder how many of you have ever heard of what is known as the Pact of the Catacombs. In November 1965, a few days before the end of the Second Vatican Council, about 40 bishops celebrated the Eucharist together in the Catacombs of Saint Domitilla in Rome. They asked for the grace “to be faithful to the spirit of Jesus,” to lead a life of poverty and humility and to be a poor servant church. “The Pact of the Catacombs” was born. Dom Helder Camara was the signatory to this pact and so were many of his Latin American colleagues. By signing, they made a commitment to live in poverty, to reject all symbols, titles and privileges of power, and to place the poor at the center of their pastoral ministry. I may not be the ‘Bishop of Bling’, however, that prophetic vision of Christlike poverty, simplicity and servant leadership is still challenging for me.
Later tonight, we officially launch The Catholic Foundation which is a means for parishioners to support the works of the Church in our Diocese. In the wake of the Royal Commission, we can despair and draw back in resignation. But let us remember that we can move forward with the spirit of Jesus.
In every crisis, there is an opportunity and the opportunity for us is here to be the sacrament of God’s compassion and care for the least and the last. The Church is first and foremost a presence, an oasis of hope and Good News. We must learn to be a soothing presence, a warmth of God’s care and a gentle reach of God’s hand, affirming, healing and uplifting.
As we gather, 600 asylum seekers’ lives are at risk after the closure of Manus facilities. As Christians, surely, we can advocate for a more conscionable solution and treat them with humanity. Concern for border security should not turn us into mean spirited people. Let us pray that as a community of disciples, we learn to be humble servants of one another and reach out to the oppressed. May the example of Christ who came not to be served but to serve guide us in our endeavour to give ourselves in service of all.