Chester Hill – 26 February, 2012
Isaiah 66:1-2; John 10:11-18
“This is the day the Lord has made let us rejoice and be glad.”
This is indeed a day of rejoicing for the Church in Sydney and the Neo-Catechumenal Way, rich in promise for the future not only here, but across Australia and Oceania and perhaps even wider. Under the good God’s providence and with His blessing, we do not know what wonders might be produced in the decades to come by the faith, hope and loving service of the priest graduates of this seminary.
The Second Vatican Council re-emphasised the baptismal dignity of every Catholic against a backdrop of those tempted to clericalism. For a variety of reasons this baptismal emphasis is not only scripturally based and theologically correct, but sociologically necessary because of the hostile pressures our technological society brings into our homes.
But there can be no Catholic communities without priests. And that the ministerial priesthood is revered is one of the signs that the Neocatechumenal Way is heading in the correct direction. This respect and love are shown by the number of priestly vocations which come from the children of families in mission. I am sure this will happen in Australia also in the future. The faith and leadership of lay people and the official teaching, sacramental and leadership role of the ministerial priesthood are not alternatives but complementary, working together in creative dialogue and cooperation.
This building is one of 86 Neocatechumenal Missionary seminaries throughout the world and complements the Good Shepherd Seminary already existing in Sydney to serve the churches of New South Wales. They are like two lungs, different, complementary and necessary. By any standards it is an impressive building, certainly one of the finest in this suburb of Villawood or Chester Hill.
But as the reading from Isaiah reminds us God is the creator of all the wonders of the universe; heaven is his throne and the earth his footstool. In a certain sense He does not need this building, which is such a tribute to the pioneer families in mission, priests and seminarians, led by Toto and Rita Piccolo who came to Australia almost exactly thirty-five years ago. And although God graciously accepts the generosity of the donors, the hard work of the volunteers, friends and supporters who constructed this palace, God’s eyes are drawn more towards those who will teach and work here, those who will be formed here, provided they are persons of “humbled and contrite spirit”.
In other words this Redemptoris Mater Seminary will be judged, as every seminary is judged, by the quality of the shepherds and fishermen who graduate here.
Our Lord Jesus Christ was of course a Jew who was born in Bethlehem, probably sometime between 3 and 6 B.C. Joseph his foster father was a carpenter and Jesus also worked as a carpenter before he started his public life as a teacher about the age of thirty. He never worked as a shepherd and therefore the title of “Good Shepherd” is only one of the symbols he used to explain to his people what he was doing and what he was like.
We don’t have shepherds in Australia, because farms have immense flocks of sheep generally in fenced paddocks. In Jesus’ time the flocks were small and taken to graze in common land outside the towns, protected by a shepherd. Shepherds had a bad name, because they had so much time on their hands to get into trouble, perhaps by robbing passers-by. They were very different from the classical Greco-Roman statues of the Good Shepherd in antiquity, where we see a handsome young man, beautifully dressed with an elegant young lamb, clean and cropped, around his shoulders.
The Jews then were unlike us on this point, however, because they understood shepherds, who were part of their folklore. In fact their earliest ancestors, the patriarchs, Abraham, Moses and David were shepherds at different times and the Jews during the Exodus from Egypt under Moses were a nomadic people heading for the Promised Land.
The Jews therefore readily understood the difference between a bad or selfish shepherd, who would flee at the first hint of trouble and not put himself in danger to protect his sheep, and the good shepherd who would work hard to protect his flock, which he would know individually, perhaps even by name. Shepherds still continue to exist in some countries and once on a back track in the Transylvanian mountains of Romania nearly twenty years ago I saw a young shepherd walking with his small flock carrying a lamb in his arms. He was a good shepherd.
We find parallel references to the good shepherd in the gospels of both Luke (15:1-10) and Matthew (18:10-14), where the good shepherd leaves his 99 sheep who are safe and goes to search for the one that was lost. I remember hearing the story of a country bishop here in Australia who incautiously asked a young farming lad what his father would do in a similar situation. The lad replied emphatically that his father would let the so-and-so sheep go!
The lost sheep in these parables is of course the sinner and some commentators have argued that the story demonstrates that Jesus loves the sinner more than those who are doing the right thing, or at least regularly striving to do so. Even if we leave aside the unlikely detail that ninety-nine people out of one hundred are on the right track, it is quite mistaken to conclude that Jesus loves big sinners more than his loyal if imperfect followers.
The point is that Christ loves everyone immeasurably, in a way and with an intensity we cannot understand.
We do not have two categories of people; those whom God loves and those whom He does not love. God loves everyone, even those who are most unlovable; killers and drug runners etc; and He loves them even before they repent. God does not abandon us, when we reject Him, although He might be entitled to do so.
The parable of the Good Shepherd means that God will always come after us, whether we are “ready, willing or not” as the searcher used to say in the days of my youth as he set off to find the hidden person in a game of hide and seek.
As in the days of Christ and the pagan Roman Empire the image of the shepherd needs to be completed by that of the fisherman. The New Evangelization is not directed simply towards the lapsed, but towards the increasing number of people who do not know Christ and his message in any way at all.
Recently I heard a cleric ranging over the two thousand years of Church history, highlighting the succession of different forms of Church life, where the Spirit blew with unusual intensity. He correctly listed the early hermits in Egypt, then the monasteries of Eastern and Western Europe. After the split between Catholics and Orthodox in 1054 he mentioned the Dominican and Franciscan friars of the Middle Ages, the Counter Reformation and the Jesuits in particular and the large number of religious orders founded in nineteenth century France after the terrible times of successive revolutions and Napoleonic wars. However he wasn’t sure where the Spirit was blowing today in any special way!
This is an unusual confession of ignorance. We are all grateful for the strengths of the Catholic Church in Australia. We recognize with gratitude the breath of the Spirit moving through many of our parishes and some religious orders.
But the most wonderful development since Vatican II has been the growth of the new forms of common life, mainly lay people, which I might mischievously call “the new ecclesial movements”. A significant difficulty is found in this title, because the three main examples of this spiritual renewal, the Neo-Catechumenal Way, Opus Dei, and the charismatic renewal all object to being described as “movements”. Therefore we shall have to settle for “new ecclesial realities”, which is a bit of a mouthful and not a completely helpful descriptor.
In any event these realities acknowledge that the Church is comprised mainly of lay people (called “the People of God”), each of whom participates in the universal call to holiness.
The Neocatechumenal Way was founded in the shanty towns of Madrid during the Second Vatican Council, as an example of the New Evangelization. They live out their faith in small communities, celebrating the Word, the sacraments and community building. Their two different catechumenates are geared to the unbaptised and the baptised who have lapsed.
Large families, which are common, are the source of every type of vitality. Most of those who are children of members continue to practise their faith, becoming in turn the first evangelizers. While being completely Christo-centric and Catholic, we find more than a whiff of the Old Testament in the Way, which is a wonderful example of unplanned spiritual renewal from below.
We shall never achieve a situation where all Catholics worship each Sunday, any more than we shall find all Catholics in the Neocatechumenal Way.
But in every age the Church needs a creative minority, a critical mass, which might be described in scriptural terms as the yeast or leaven in the loaf.
St Benedict fled to the Italian countryside in the early sixth century because Rome was so corrupt; and so today family, friends and some real forms of regular community support are needed to withstand the pagan inroads from books, magazines, newspapers; from the radio and T.V. and now from the Internet. Not all of this is bad, but the overall direction is hostile to marriage, sexual discipline, and the regular practice of the faith. The Neocatechumenal communities are one effective way of preserving and transmitting the faith to young people and helping and healing the adult members. As I have said publicly on other occasions I believe the hand of God is guiding the Neocatechumenal communities.
I would like to conclude by mixing my metaphors. A bishop’s task is to encourage as many different ships as possible so that their sails will catch the breath of the Spirit. To move in another direction, we might think of the Way as a mighty set of waves rolling towards the shore, which we strive to catch and ride. God gives the increase.
Let us than all join in prayer that for generations to come streams of living water will come from this seminary and the Neocatechumenal communities. May that water never become sour or too sweet and may these living waters never cease to flow.
And we make this prayer through Christ Our Lord. Amen.
George Cardinal Pell
Archbishop of Sydney