Saturday, January 17, 2009

"An Ordinary Person as Hero"

Homily for the Annual Mass of Thanksgiving for the Staff and Volunteers of the Matt Talbot Homeless Services

and for the launch of One Man’s Serenity: The Venerable Matthew Talbot,
St Mary’s Cathedral Crypt

By Most Rev. Anthony Fisher OP
Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney


Ours is an age of addictions: to substances such as alcohol and other drugs or junk food, to gambling, pornography and the internet, to night-clubs, entertainments and experiences, to work and professional advancement, to sex, money, power. In some ways, you might say, these are the ancient enemies, even if the e-technologies and the e-drugs provide new faces for them and a new drawing and holding power. When the first Christians sought to express what was distinctive about their faith and life, they focused especially on their new-found freedom from sex, money and power - the possessions that like demons take can possession of our souls. Some early Christians took the dramatic step of consecrating themselves to the so-called ‘evangelical counsels' of poverty, chastity and obedience. But even those Christians who were not called to such drastic renunciation were nonetheless expected to live free of such controlling forces. Nothing must get in the way of our true humanity and our freedom to give ourselves to the kingdom of God. Not even good things like family, friendship, conviviality, intimacy, food and drink, security, comfort…

The world has always needed examples of such ascetical renunciation, of people who can say No, not just to bad things (which we all should do), but even to some good things, because they know they are not good for them or that they must offer prophetic witness to the world around them. We probably need examples of radical poverty, chastity and obedience more than ever in our consumerist, sex-crazed, individualist age, and sadly there are too few priests and consecrated religious giving such witness today. Which casts the duty back on the laity.

Matthew Talbot, whom we celebrate tonight, demonstrates that ordinary people can do such extraordinary things. He illustrates that people can renounce even very desirable things such as alcohol, even if they suffer an almost-overwhelming physiological, or psychological, or social, or moral, or spiritual magnetism to such things. People can, by God’s grace and their own self-acceptance, say No. And in the meantime our community must never lose hope for them, must always care for them.

People need such heroes. Not heroes in the sense of comic book or movie superheroes with superhuman powers. Not sports stars or pop stars, all art and pizzazz but often little moral substance. No, ordinary people who against extraordinary odds do the right thing. Like saying no to an addiction or compulsion. Like helping those who are trying and maybe failing. Or like housing those fleeing demons of other kinds, such as domestic violence.

As a boy I knew that my grandfather had, while a senior public servant here in Sydney, often spent his lunchtimes or other spare time working as a volunteer at the old Matt Talbot hostel hostel. My parents, too, have devoted much of their supposed retirement to the works of the St Vincent de Paul Society. Both generations, like Matt Talbot's immediately before them, have by their example spoken to me about human possibilities under grace, of the great things that are possible even for ordinary people. Matt Talbot's life and inspiration, and the movements, institutions and individuals that honour him, point us forward to recovery and hope for those who will accept their weakness and need. Such people stand like beacons in our world, as the consecrated virgins of the first millennium or the habited religious of the second. Beacons of the abiding truth that we can give some things up in order to achieve some greater things.

Such people are beacons, also, of the fundamental religious truth that there is more to the human person and the world, more to life and all reality, than meets the eye. Our readings for this Sunday tell us that all that we see around us in this beautiful but broken world will one day come to an end. In the apocalyptic language of natural disaster and unnatural violence, the consummation of the world, the Dies Iræ, is predicted (Luke 21:5-19). In the meantime we are called to fortitude, forbearance, patience, especially in the face of external persecutions and internal weaknesses. That hard kind of endurance is a defining characteristic of the whole Christian life. And it is testified to in the lives of those like Matthew Talbot who deny themselves alcohol or some other comfort or intimacy or self-will for the sake of their own good or that of others. They point to another – a better – world, where all self-destructive or other-destructive drives will come to an end, where people will live in harmony of body, mind and spirit, in harmony too with each other, with creation and with God.

Our Gospel lesson tonight is clear enough: we all need to cultivate the habit and persevere in the act of unfailing watchfulness: standing ready, rejecting evil, vigilant through constant prayer and the practice of patience. Despite the dire predictions, this is not ultimately for the Christian a matter of living in fear and trembling – though a certain holy awe is always in order. Above all it is a matter of living with a quiet confidence: for Jesus teaches that we should look forward to his coming to us, or our coming to him.

Nor is this waiting a merely passive guard-duty: our watching and waiting, our praying and persevering, actually hastens the coming of God’s kingdom, in us and around us. That is why Paul counsels us to get to and do our bit, to get on with it (2 Thess 3:7-12). He is not just criticizing laziness and busy-bodiness, but also that kind of complacency or hopelessness that awaits Christ’s return in stupefying idleness or paralysing anxiety. No, he says, we apostles worked night and day for building up the kingdom of God and so should you.

The St Vincent de Paul Society – and the great work of all of you attached to the Matt Talbot Hostel in Woolloomooloo and your 37 homeless services and women’s refuges in NSW-ACT operating under the banner of Matt Talbot Homeless Services – could never be accused of just sitting back and waiting for things to happen. We thank God and you for your generous service. In following the inspiration of St Vincent de Paul, Blessed Frederick Ozanam and Venerable Matt Talbot you tell the world that there is more to life than “sex and drugs and rock’n’roll”; that there is hope for every broken heart; and that by God’s love and yours God’s kingdom comes – into our hearts, our homes, our world.

That is a sight ultimately more persuasive than earthquakes, plagues and any other ‘heavenly’ signs. We Christians live the future even in the here and now. We accept our responsibility with regard to our times and invest each moment with its full weight of eternity. We know the importance of our rôle in rousing our slumbering world which is in danger of losing its soul through addiction to consumerism, violence, ideology, self-indulgence. So it is we who are called to be the signs of the end-times, to work hard to change what we can and to entrust what we can’t to God: serenely to let God’s kingdom come, now on earth as it is in heaven.