Lenten Pastoral Message 2007
Lent my dear People is a time of prayer and fasting. This Lenten practice is a well known spiritual formula that was once used universally at this time of the liturgical year, but has now sadly fallen into disuse. In fact I doubt whether the season has ever been less marked by prayer and fasting than it is at the moment. Influenced by the hyperactive culture that surrounds it the Church today might well be accused of too much action and not enough prayer. If this is true we need to challenge this development by returning once again to Jesus Christ in whose footsteps we seek to walk.
When we search the scriptures seeking direction from Jesus about prayer we find that Jesus had some very interesting things to say both in word and deed. The most startling perhaps is Luke 4:15 when Jesus cured a man sick with leprosy. After describing the miracle the scripture notes, “But so much the more the report went abroad concerning him; and great multitudes gathered to hear and be healed of their infirmities. But he withdrew to the wilderness and prayed.” We might well ask, “If Jesus had the power to cure sick and suffering people why would he leave them, to pray?” We can only guess at His reasons. Perhaps at that time in His ministry prayer was more important than healing the multitudes, or perhaps without prayer His mission might have become unbalanced, just as our mission often becomes unbalanced. It is the type of question whose mystery will only be revealed when we meet Jesus face to face. Nevertheless the action of Christ is an indication of the importance of prayer for Him, the very same importance prayer should have for each one of us. In seeking answers we must always focus on the knowledge we learn from the prayer-life of Jesus, manifest in the scriptures.
In the same gospel 10:38-42 when Christ visits Mary and Martha, Mary sits at his feet while her sister Martha is busy about the house. When Martha protests about this situation Christ indicates that Mary had chosen the better part and that it will not be taken from her. It is an interesting comment on what Jesus seems to see as a necessity for those who seek to know him better, namely spending time with Him. In chapter 11 of the same gospel when the apostles, impressed by Christ’s skill at prayer, ask him to teach them to pray, He responds with His magnificent prayer, the “Our Father”, - the prayer of the Kingdom, well summed up in its key petition “may your Kingdom come, may your will be done.” Although we can say the prayer by ourselves, of its very nature it demands to include others. We do not pray “My Father”, but “Our Father”, conscious that we are praying with others whether together or separated. The “Our Father” is always a communal prayer in which we acknowledge our membership in a world-wide community of faith whose spiritual power is immense. It is a prayer we should pray every day, precisely because it is the Lord’s prayer and therefore filled with a power that only the Holy Spirit can give. We pray this prayer always knowing that the Kingdom of God has already come in Christ but yearning for its completion in the future that can only happen through the power of God, and at a time known only to God. There is a certain logic to all prayer, and the Lord’s prayer is no exception. This logic suggests that if we succeed in praying individually for the healing of others as most of us do, usually with a certain amount of success, then how much more might we achieve if we pray with a larger group for the coming of God’s Kingdom. As St Ignatius of Antioch said in his ‘Letter to the Ephesians’, “If the prayer of one or two individuals has such efficacy, how much more powerful is that of the Bishop together with his whole Church.”
In 2006 I started a prayer campaign in this Archdiocese to call down the Holy Spirit upon the Archdiocese so that it might be renewed totally. I did so because the greatest scandal in the western world at the present time is lack of worship. How can so many people say “I believe in God but do not worship?” The statement seems a contradiction in terms. Surely if we truly believe in a God of love who loved us into existence and loves us every moment of our existence, then we need to love God in return, first of all by worship and then by action. But unless we help people understand who God is and what belief in God means then the drift away from the mainstream Churches will undoubtedly continue. People need to return to worship for their own sake, for the sake of the Church, and for the sake of God’s Kingdom. In his recent book ‘On the Way to Jesus Christ’ Pope Benedict wrote, “the primacy of worship is the fundamental prerequisite for the redemption of mankind”. He goes on to describe the destructive effects of the Enlightenment on religions today, and continues, “deprived of their best elements – (they) live on as subcultures and can harm people body and soul, as systems of superstition.” None of us ever wants to belong to a religion that might be described as a “system of superstition”, and this will most certainly not happen if we recognise worship as the very essence of our Christian religion. Worship needs to be the priority of all people who call themselves Catholic. The greatest challenge therefore for our Archdiocese today is the need to educate people about Jesus Christ and about the relationship of Jesus Christ to worship, because Jesus Christ and worship can never be separated.
Worship and Liturgy
Nevertheless although lack of understanding or lack of faith is the major reason why people don’t worship, there are certain other reasons that need to be considered. One would be the quality of friendship and hospitality at worship, another the quality of the liturgy itself. The liturgy of worship must always be aesthetically pleasing, and planned as skilfully as possible, if it is to attract people, especially young people. At the same time, even if liturgy does not display the life and vitality characteristic of Jesus Christ it is still an act of worship, and its lack of vitality should never be an excuse for refusing to worship. As Christ indicated, where two or three are gathered in His name He is present in their midst, and this is true every time we gather to celebrate Eucharist. At the same time a friendly, welcoming community and good quality liturgy must be the priority of every parish if it is serious about bringing people back to worship.
My greatest desire in my last five years as Archbishop of Brisbane, is to continue asking the Holy Spirit to renew our Archdiocese and lead people back to the Mass and to worship. This year our Archdiocese has developed an excellent study program called “Everyday with Jesus”, that focuses on Jesus Christ, and helps us to better understand His vision and our role in it. However, before all else, we need to know how to make contact with Jesus Christ in and through the Eucharist. The study program will certainly help us in this regard and I recommend it to each and every one of you. There is no doubt, as Pope Benedict said, that our faith is under pressure today, largely from the secular culture in which we live. Nevertheless the answers we seek are there if only people will reject the false gods that surround them and once again become people of God who worship. May God bless our future attempts to ‘return from exile’, and may Mary, the Mother of God, St Stephen patron of our Archdiocese, Blessed Mary MacKillop, and St Mary Magdalene assist us in the journey that lies ahead. I thank you for what you all do in this Archdiocese. It is deeply appreciated. I ask the support of your prayers in my role as Archbishop and pray that the season of Lent will bring you every possible grace and blessing.
Sincerely in Christ
Archbishop John Bathersby
ARCHBISHOP OF BRISBANE