Homily for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Readings: Isaiah 58:7-10; Psalm 111(112):4-9; 1 Corinthians 2:1-5; Matthew 5:13-16
5 February 2023
Jesus tells us today: ‘Your are the salt of the earth.’ ‘You are the light of the world.’ This week, Pope Francis went to South Sudan on a mission of peace accompanied by Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Iain Greenshields, the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. Meeting with Authorities, Civil Society and the Diplomatic Corps at the Presidential Palace in Juba, Pope Francis reflected on the many aspects of the River Nile which passes through so many African countries, including South Sudan. He said:
“To prevent a river from flooding, its bed has to be kept clean. Leaving behind the metaphor, the cleaning needed by the flow of life in society is represented by the battle against corruption. The inequitable distribution of funds, secret schemes to get rich, patronage deals, lack of transparency: all these pollute the riverbed of human society; they divert resources from the very things most needed.”
These were hard-hitting words from a visitor. He concluded:
“I realize that some of what I have had to say may appear blunt and direct, but please, know that this arises from the affection and concern with which I follow the life of your country, together with my brothers with whom I have come here as a pilgrim of peace. We wish to offer you our heartfelt prayers and our support, so that South Sudan can experience reconciliation and a change of direction. May its vital course no longer be overwhelmed by the flood of violence, mired in the swamps of corruption and blocked by the inundation of poverty. May the Lord of heaven, who loves this land, grant it a new season of peace and prosperity.”
All this from an 86-year-old pope arriving in a wheelchair. There is every risk that the well-intended intervention by three outsiders travelling from Europe will not bear fruit. But they have come in good faith responding to the call of Isaiah in today’s first reading, and urging the civic leaders of troubled South Sudan to do the same:
Share your bread with the hungry,
shelter the oppressed and the homeless;
clothe the naked when you see them,
and do not turn your back on your own.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed;
your vindication shall go before you,
and the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Meanwhile for us in the Australian church, it has been a week of stark contrasts. On Thursday, I attended the three hour funeral of Cardinal George Pell. It was a grand and solemn liturgy with a packed cathedral, worshippers pouring out into the cathedral forecourt, and protesters behind barriers in the nearby Hyde Park. There were 30 bishops and 220 of us priests concelebrating. Every aspect of the cardinal’s life was canvassed. On that, I have spoken enough elsewhere.
Next morning, I met with 100 staff of Vinnies to discuss the proposed Indigenous Voice to Parliament. They had travelled from all over New South Wales – Vinnies workers who are at the coalface – the salt of the earth, the light of the world. There’s a lot of complex politics to the Voice. There’s a lot of people wondering about the detail. But I had a sense that the Vinnies workers ‘get it’. As I said to them: “If Parliament was going to make a Vinnies law, like the Vinnies Do Good Act 2023, you’d hope to God Vinnies would be consulted. This is the basic principle of the Voice”. I left the session, knowing that we do not have all the answers, unsure about what might be the result of the referendum, but uplifted by the basic decency and commitment to justice and reconciliation of those working in such a church agency.
That afternoon, I then had the pleasure of facilitating a forum with 250 members of the Diocese of Parramatta being addressed by Sr Natalie Becquart, a French Xaviere sister who is now dubbed as ‘the most senior woman in the Vatican’. She is helping people around the world to participate in the process on the Synod on Synodality. The energy in the room was palpable. After the long, solemn, male-dominated liturgy of the previous day, I found myself refreshed and uplifted by the voice of a woman who was not afraid to proclaim Pope Francis’ message of synodality. I asked her about the elephant in the room. Given that Cardinal Pell’s last published remarks were critical of the whole synodal process, how could we usefully expect engagement from those convinced that the Church tradition is unchanging and church teaching irreformable? She was not critical of anyone. She spoke of the process of change. We are always changing. Institutions are always changing. Some people are afraid to change. Some are afraid of change. Others are afraid that the changes will be too incremental and symbolic, rather than substantive. Everyone has some fears about the process of change. But change we must if we are to be true to Jesus and attentive to the Spirit. She spoke from experience. She spoke of young people who had participated in the synodal process and found life for the first time in an authentic, relational church. She spoke of bishops who had undergone conversions of heart, realising that they did not have to do everything on their own, and that in fact, the sexual abuse crisis had taught them that it is better that they not try to do it all on their own. There’s nothing scriptural, authoritative or traditional in failing to respond to the signs of the times and to the needs of the people.
At the end of the forum, having been consoled by Sr Natalie’s French accent, I recalled when a university chaplain had accompanied a group of university students to New Caledonia. She asked a woman in the street: ‘Où est l’église?’ The local was bemused and asked rhetorically, ‘l’église?’, before responding, ‘Mais, nous sommes l’église’. Where is the Church? We are the Church. Yes, the Church was gathered in all its solemnity at the requiem mass for Cardinal Pell. The Church was gathered in all its practicality with the Vinnies workers. The Church was gathered in all its hope with the people in the Parramatta church hall. Together we are the salt of the earth. Together we are the light of the world. Let our light break forth like the dawn so that our wound shall quickly be healed; our vindication shall go before us, and the glory of the Lord shall be our rear guard.
Fr Frank Brennan SJ is the Rector of Newman College, Melbourne, and the former CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA). He was appointed a peritus at the Fifth Plenary Council of the Australian Catholic Church.
 See https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2023/february/documents/20230203-autorita-sudsudan.html
 My interview after the funeral can be viewed at https://spaces.hightail.com/receive/EMUbzcresb?fbclid=IwAR204KbswtjihlWw3l-oy42WxrdDKaxLTqHXCjYKiqPAMRqqIxl5zYlFk7s. My obituary of Cardinal Pell is available at https://www.theaustralian.com.au/inquirer/george-pell-truth-and-tradition-on-trial/news-story/2a75c6a620bec46c9a796d6472baf71d