Last Wednesday, I farewelled one of the bus loads of young people who left to go to the Australian Catholic Youth Festival in Adelaide. The other bus left from Maitland with Bishop Bill on board. Today, Sunday, I welcomed them back at the Cathedral. There were many happy, but tired, faces and based on reports thus far, all went well. I believe it was a great experience and our two young festival leaders, Samantha Hill and Baden Ellis, are to be congratulated and thanked for all they did to take away the group of ninety, and have them all return home safely. They have been working on this for most of the year, and we are blessed to have these two young, committed, faith-filled people who gave so generously of their talents and time. Elizabeth Doyle, Bishop Bill’s secretary, supported and mentored Baden and Sam and she is also to be thanked for giving her time when she is already a very busy lady. I am looking forward to hearing more about the Festival at Pints with a Purpose. Evidently, there was a fun activity around posting selfies with a Bishop. I wonder how many selfies were uploaded of young people with our Bishop Bill!!
As well as this key event, I attended an interfaith meeting with people from the Anglican, Uniting Church and Muslim communities regarding the proposed mosque at Buchanan. It was a good meeting with a sincere depth of faith from all those who attended. We are hoping to form an Interfaith Network, which will have an impact across our mainstream Christian churches and Muslim community at the wider and local levels.
I have also been facilitating a Tenison Woods Education Centre unit on Sacraments and half of the group gave their individual presentations on Thursday evening. It was awesome to sit and to listen to the participants speak of the sacraments from a deep place of faith and to share this with those gathered. They were able to explore well the place of signs, symbols, sacraments and rituals within our church teachings and scripture, to break open the place of the sacred in the lives of people.
So the second reading for the weekend struck a significant chord with me, and I think sharing it with you as part of my message, might allow you to hear it with different ears. I am so blessed to have had such a week, and so the words of St Paul to the Philippians (1:3-6, 8-11) capture my prayer, joy and gratitude:
I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
Our readings for Advent are inviting us to be people of integrity, righteousness, honour, devotion and peace. John the Baptist asked the people to repent and prepare the way for the Lord. Toward the end of my message last week, I quoted from Usman Mahmood who wrote these words in the letters to the editor section of The Newcastle Herald on Monday 30 November:
There is a great need for the strong to treat the weak with dignity, respect and justice, and for the weak and poor to show gratitude and adopt the ways of truth and righteousness in utter humility and total sincerity.
This is the time of the year when we remember the Old Testament people waiting for the coming of the Messiah, and we also wait in anticipation for Jesus to be with us – in the words of one of our hymns at the Cathedral we sang:
Maranatha, we long for your peace,
Maranatha, we long for your mercy.
Maranatha, we long for your coming, O God
(Maranatha, Gerard Chiusano)
While doing the household chores over the weekend and thinking of this message, I wondered how we are preparing for Christmas, not just at home but in our parishes. It seems to me that the coming of Jesus brings to our churches, people who are not usually there at other times during the year. They still have a desire for faith and the story of Jesus in their lives. God coming to us as an infant, as a human, touches us with a deep sense of mystery. I think those who come are seeking, and we have an incredible responsibility to welcome them, to make them feel at home and to assist them with good liturgy. At last year’s Proclaim Conference, the music, the ministers and the message were identified as critical whenever we gather. I recall the presenters talking about the ministry of the carpark. How are people greeted when they arrive and try to park their cars? Are they welcomed and directed to those who then greet them at the door and find a space for them in what can be a very crowded church. Some of those who come along may never have been to this particular church or even to any church. Those of us who are part of the regular worshipping community need to be the special ministers at Christmas time. We are the ones to provide welcome to our parish churches.
While I was having my hair cut during the week, the hairdresser was asking me about midnight Mass. She was not a Catholic, but had heard that Catholics go to Mass at midnight for Christmas and spoke of how amazing that must be. Of course I invited her to come along and I hope she does. I don’t think she may be the only stranger who takes that leap of faith at Christmas. We need to be ready for all who come, and ‘shock’ them by our true wish to be ‘people of God’. Our music, message and ministers will make a difference.
I am convinced that those who come really want to connect with a community of believers, and feel the faith that unites us. And yes I realise that we might just get this one chance every year and we must honour them and our God who came as a baby in a manger. God became human and those of us who are graced to understand this and believe this must do all in our power to transform those who are in the early phases of journeying in their faith. I hope you are able to imagine the possibilities for the great feast of Christmas.
It seems like we are going to have a few hundred participants at the Opening of the Cathedral Door for the Year of Mercy on Sunday 13 December at 4pm. I am looking forward to having representatives present from right across our diocese. Please come and join us in the significance of our 150 years since Bishop James Murray took up residence in the Diocese of Maitland.
See you on Sunday at our diocesan celebrations. Today, 8 December, marks the official beginning of the Jubilee Year of Mercy with Pope Francis’ opening of the Holy Door in Rome. May our diocese receive many great graces.
Vice Chancellor Pastoral Ministries