Nearly 5,000 students from schools in Western Australia connected with the Christian Brothers gathered today at the Perth Entertainment Centre for a magnificent liturgy to honour the Bicentenary of Blessed Edmund Rice and Christian Brothers' Schools.
This was an event I was determined not to miss. In my own half century plus lifetime there have perhaps been half a dozen landmark liturgies that I will remember until I breathe my last breath. The first of these that I vividly recall was the Centenary Mass for the Christian Brothers celebrated at St Mary's Cathedral in Perth on Thursday, 21st November 1968, a couple of years after I had completed school. It was the first Mass that I had ever attended where kettledrums and other orchestral instruments and musicians had contributed to the liturgy. Even to this day I can recall how I was moved to my bootstraps that humankind could put together a celebration like the one I experienced that day that gave me a glimpse of heaven and what all this "religion business" is ultimately all about.
A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since 1968 -- particularly for the Christian Brothers and particularly for their community in Western Australia.
The celebration today was held amidst the background of crisis that envelopes Christendom today right to the point where the news was announcing as I left to attend the celebration that the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem -- which surely is one of our central iconic symbols -- was under threat* of further gunfire.
I wondered as I journeyed into town how they could conduct this celebration for young people amidst so many signs of contradiction, disappointment, failure and even a sense of seeming hopeless that grips the Church to its highest levels today?
Fortunately for us Fr Paddy Meagher SJ is back in Perth at the moment. For those who do not know Fr Paddy, he is one of Australia's most brilliant teachers and preachers. Today his home base is as a lecturer in theology in Delhi, India but he regularly returns home to lecture at our Catholic universities and to those working in the Catholic Education and Health Care professions. Fr Paddy was the main celebrant today and assisted by six other priests who also were former students of the brothers or chaplains at their schools. Fr Paddy preached the homily. It was one of those masterly strokes of genius that perhaps few are capable of -- and particularly so when trying to retain the attention of 5,000 hormone charged adolescents some of whom were seated up in the darkness perhaps fifty or sixty metres away from the lectern.
Fr Paddy introduced his homily with a focus on three symbols. Firstly he held up a beautiful porcelain pot which he smashed with a hammer and pointed to the broken shards on the floor beneath him to make the point that we are all broken. He then held up a veiled portrait of the face of Christ to make the point of the unbrokeness of Christ. He then lifted a largish bowl of earth from the altar and scattered it on the ground in handfuls while making the point that we are called, like Edmund Rice, to be generous with the gifts that have been given to us.
The atmosphere in the Entertainment Centre was hushed particularly
in that the gestures were conveyed in close-up detail on two
jumbo television screens.
When communion time came I was drawn back to Fr Paddy's words as I watched the now aging Brothers making their way up to receive the Body of Christ which has sustained them throughout all the trials and tribulations of this 200 years we have been celebrating. Here were these men we had so feared, or been so in awe of, as youngsters. Today I know many of them on a man-to-man basis and I now see them in a totally different light. So much do I find them quite "ordinary" men just like you and me and not spared any of the suffering, physical disease and mental uncertainties that any of the rest of humanity have to shoulder. Many of them entered religious life in the first blush of idealism that still characterises the faces of those thousands of young boys and girls whom I stood and watched file past me on their way back to their buses after the celebration. The world has changed enormously in the intervening half century and today the Church would no longer countenance a person having the maturity to make a lifetime commitment and solemn promise at the age of 14 than would any parent. By and large though these men who remain in the brothers stuck to their commitment and to me it is remarkable tribute to the efforts of a whole bunch of "ordinary blokes" that they literally did play a major part in shaping not only the character of the education system we have in Australia today but, through the many leaders who emerged from their schools, they ended up actually helping forge in an extraordinary way the character and outlook of the Australian nation. In this sense they were "ordinary blokes" who achieved some extraordinary things.
Of all the things Fr Paddy said in his richly textured homily, one particular insight impacted on me in a way like never before. He began speaking of the vocation of "brother" and "sister". In the Church enormous energy has been devoted over centuries exploring the theological meaning of the expressions "father" and "mother". I have never before heard anyone utter the words "sister" and "brother" with the theological nuance that Fr Paddy gave them today. Most of us know what it is to try and be a brother or a sister to someone. It is a role we are born into and we do not think about it much. To voluntarily take on being a "brother" or "sister" to all is something different again and has a particular meaning that derives from our understanding of the relationship of the Mystery of God to each of us.
For all the pain the Church is having to endure today -- and in some respects the Christian Brothers ended up being cast in the role of our "canaries in the mine" as to what was to come -- I think the "brokeness" of these "ordinary blokes" who gave so much of themselves does need to be honoured. As Fr Paddy put it so graphically today: "we are all broken". The brothers who are still alive today carry a deep pain in their faces of the valley of tears they have had to collectively walk through in the past thirty years. In a sense it is that "innocent" pain that all of us perceive in the face of Christ. We too have all erred and if we have been lucky our "sins" have not thrust us into the limelight of public excoriation.
For all the tears and all the pain though the vision of Blessed Edmund Ignatius Rice of "finding God in the ordinary" owes much to the vision of St Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, and it was fitting that one of Australia's most self-effacing Jesuits should today have helped lift so many hearts so high. Thank you Fr Paddy and thank you to all those "brothers" who have contributed so much to building our community and our self-understanding of who we are.
*As I post this to the internet, the five week standoff at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem has ended without further violence.