Fr Frank’s Homily – 3 May 2020

By Fr Frank Brennan SJ, 4 May 2020
Jesus as the Good Shepherd from the early Christian Domitilla Catacombs. Image: Wikimedia Commons.


Homily for Fourth Sunday of Easter Year A 2020

Readings: John 10: 1-10

3 May 2020


In today’s gospel, Jesus proclaims that he is the gate of the sheepfold and that he has come so what we may have life and have it to the full.  The one who enters under light of day through the gate is given admittance by the gatekeeper.  He is the shepherd.  The sheep follow him because they know his voice.  The one who enters by night and who sneaks in under or over the fence and not through the gate is a thief.

You don’t have to be a person of faith to understand the difference between the shepherd and the thief.  You don’t have to be a master detective to pick the difference.  Jesus is good news for us.  We follow him.  We trust him.  He shows us the way to the Father.

This past week, we have marked the 250th anniversary of the arrival of Captain James Cook at Botany Bay.  On Thursday we marked the 250th anniversary to the day when the first Englishman stepped ashore onto this land.  Shepherd or thief?  Did he enter via the gate? Or did he enter under the fence?  Did he enter with the approval of the gatekeeper?  Or did he force his way in?


250 years later we are still wrestling with the ambiguity of it all, and we are still carrying the ill effects as well as the great benefits which have come from such a meeting of diverse peoples and cultures. There’s been very little said about it all, this past week.  It might not just be the virus which has caused the silence.  The anniversary deserves some reflection at our Sunday Eucharist when we contemplate Jesus who says to us in John’s gospel:

  1. “I am the bread of life” – John 6:35, 41
  2. “I am the light of the world” – John 8:12, 9:5
  3. “I am the gate of the sheepfold” – John 10:7, 9
  4. “I am the good shepherd” – John 10:11, 14
  5. “I am the resurrection and the life” – John 11:25
  6. “I am the way, the truth and the life” – John 14:6
  7. “I am the true vine” – John 15:1, 5

Declaring himself to be the gate, Jesus says, ‘Anyone who enters through me will be safe: he will go freely in and out and be sure of finding pasture’.

In his journal for Sunday 29 April 1770, James Cook, having anchored in Botany Bay, records:

‘Saw, as we came in, on both points of the bay, several of the Natives and a few hutts; Men, Women, and Children on the South Shore abreast of the Ship, to which place I went in the Boats in hopes of speaking with them, accompanied by Mr. Banks, Dr. Solander, and Tupia. As we approached the Shore they all made off, except 2 Men, who seem’d resolved to oppose our landing. As soon as I saw this I order’d the boats to lay upon their Oars, in order to speak to them; but this was to little purpose, for neither us nor Tupia could understand one word they said. We then threw them some nails, beads, etc., a shore, which they took up, and seem’d not ill pleased with, in so much that I thought that they beckon’d to us to come ashore; but in this we were mistaken, for as soon as we put the boat in they again came to oppose us, upon which I fir’d a musquet between the 2, which had no other effect than to make them retire back, where bundles of their darts lay, and one of them took up a stone and threw at us, which caused my firing a Second Musquet, load with small Shott; and altho’ some of the shott struck the man, yet it had no other effect than making him lay hold on a Target. Immediately after this we landed, which we had no sooner done than they throw’d 2 darts at us; this obliged me to fire a third shott, soon after which they both made off’.

He later journaled: ‘After breakfast we sent some Empty Casks a shore and a party of Men to cut wood, and I went myself in the Pinnace to sound and explore the Bay, in the doing of which I saw some of the Natives; but they all fled at my Approach. I landed in 2 places, one of which the people had but just left, as there were small fires and fresh Muscles broiling upon them; here likewise lay vast heaps of the largest Oyster Shells I ever saw.’

What did those described as natives make of this?  What was in the minds of those two men who took up the beads, shouted some words, threw a stone, and ultimately threw their spears?

Dr Shayne Williams, an Aboriginal language and culture consultant at the New South Wales Aboriginal Education Consultative Group, says: ‘Certainly, our Gweagal peoples would not have seen a phenomenon such as Cook and his party before. It is not possible to know with any degree of accuracy exactly what our Gweagal people thought of Cook. But it is possible to conclude that they would have sought spiritual understanding of it, undoubtedly through ceremony with other clans in the area….I doubt that anyone on Cook’s Endeavour looked upon our peoples and thought ‘these people are my equal’. Being cast as ‘natives’, without any understanding of the complex workings of our spiritual knowledge systems, enabled the British, who were desperate to resolve a growing prisoner population crisis, to conclude that our lands were fundamentally under-used, under-populated and therefore free for the taking.’

Ken Wyatt our first Aboriginal Minister for Indigenous Australians, observed, ‘The Endeavour’s arrival marked the first true understanding from the Western World on the world’s longest living Indigenous culture, and revealed the different ways in which science was used to help guide exploration and discovery.’

On a later voyage, four years later when he had landed at the Vanuata island of Tanna, Captain Cook journaled: ‘thus we found these people Civil and good natured when not prompted by jealousy to a contrary conduct, a conduct one cannot blame them for when one considers the light in which they must look upon us in, its impossible for them to know our real design, we enter their Ports without their daring to make opposition, we attempt to land in a peaceable manner, if this succeeds, its well, if not we land nevertheless and mentain the footing we thus got by the Superiority of our fire arms, in what other light can they than at first look upon us as invaders of their Country; time and some acquaintance with us can only convince them of their mistake.’[1]

James Cook was not a coloniser.  By the standards of the time, he was not a violent man.  He was a great navigator and a superb ship captain.  He realised the chasm of misunderstanding that existed when he sailed into bays which had never known a sailing ship before, and when he and his interlocutors shared no common language.  In recent times, statues of Cook have been despoiled by graffiti while people have debated his actions along the scale of moral turpitude from innocent benign discovery to malicious deceitful invasion.  250 years on, it’s time that we had statues not of Cook standing alone, but of three people standing equally tall – the explorer Cook with his musket and the two protectors of their land and people holding their spears.  It’s time that we all found a way to ensure that the effects of this first meeting will be a mutual exchange of equals seeking life and having it to the full.

Marie Williams is a Sister of Mercy who recently published a book of poems entitled Songs from My Soul.  Her poems are lines in the sand, vignettes of deep admiration and simple learning across cultures and traditions shared in the desert of the East Kimberley.  Marie’s lifetime as teacher and church minister finds its distilled expression in her seven years spent in community with the Walmajarri people of Mulan and in co-operation with the church leaders of the Kutjunka Catholic parish.  A Kartiya (white) woman she came to the desert after a lifetime as a teacher helping and guiding others.  For seven years, she drank from the well of others’ wisdom.

A church leader she came to put people right when there was a need, especially when other church leaders fell short.  Ready to condemn two church leaders who misbehaved badly, she, the resident Sister of Mercy, learnt mercy from them.  This is her poem Church Leader:




One quiet Saturday afternoon

You two smashed your way

Into my donger-home

“Having a domestic”

So it’s called

And you two chose to have it

At my place


My door was first in line for the smashing

And then a few trinkets

I was cowering in a corner of fear

But soon the black bile rose in me

And in a voice which belonged

To a handler of whips

I brought the domestic

To a shattering close




Next morning shamefaced and subdued

You two stood before my shattered door

A hundred dollar note proffered as mediation

I took the note with no respect for manners

My anger still at righteous pitch


In a day or two

There came my chance

To mete out justice


A Church Leader Meeting

Where I could be

At my counter-cultural best

In a voice edged

With a whip -h andler’s wrath

I addressed the circle

Of Church Leaders

“These two are Church Leaders!

It’s much too easy

This buying back of respectability

I propose that they be

Locked out of our circle

For three months.”


Not a word in reply

Not an eye lifted

From the ground


A most uncomfortable silence

Reigned supreme

Then he who had such innate dignity

Rose from his chair

Bare-footed as were most of his peers

Eyes downcast

Head bowed

Not quite the fashion-plate


But oh so wise


“Good-morning” he begins

“Last week I had a fight with my neighbour”

And he continues elaborating a little

Filling us in with details

And finishes with

“I should not be

Church leader. Wali!”


My bile begins to recede

Silence returns

Not the slightest shuffling of a foot

Or the clearing of a throat

Then one of the women stands

One of the tiny ones with great composure

Eyes half-closed

Voice calm and low

“Good -morning! Two weeks ago”

Begins her narrative of

Her misdeeds in some detail

And finishes as did her confrere

“I should not be

Church Leader. Wali!”


And so it went on

Choreographed to perfection

Alternating with silence

Each rising like in a Nun’s

Chapter of Faults

Until I too find my feet

And find a gentler voice

And a meeker heart

And minus the bile

I begin

“I could not forgive those two

So I too should not be

Church Leader. Wali! ”




A lesson learnt

My mentors seamlessly

Without guile

And unaware of the morality play

Just now revealed

Before our eyes


Forgiveness will forever

Equate for me with

The image of one small honourable man

Rising to his feet

And finding words

Like pearls of wisdom

And I who heard him

Am still in awe

And marvel at his understanding.


Sister Marie and the two church leaders, Captain James and the two protectors of land and community provide us this Sunday with trinities of meaning.  Let’s recommit ourselves to learning from each other across the cultural divides as we contemplate that first meeting at Botany Bay 250 years ago.  We Australians are blessed to live in the land where we Christians who see our Lord as shepherd can proclaim, ‘Surely goodness and kindness shall follow us all the days of our lives.  In the Lord’s own house shall we dwell for ever and ever.’  Let’s do our part to have the kingdom of justice and peace break in here and now for all who belong in this land 250 years after that first meeting in Botany Bay.

[1] J C Beaglehole, The Life of Captain James Cook, Stanford University Press, 1974, p. 407.  This was the journal entry for 14 August 1774.

Fr Frank Brennan SJ is the Rector of Newman College, Melbourne and the former CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA).


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