Corpus Christi College Commencement Mass

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Corpus Christi College
Commencement Mass
Thursday 8 March 2012

One of the great contributors to expounding a truly Christian approach to the poor, and to the disabled in the last 50 years or so, has been the French Canadian, Jean Vanier. Vanier is the founder of the L’Arche movement which has a presence in many countries including here in Australia. The movement has founded a number of communities for the disabled, mostly in suburban homes. Through his writings and talks, Vanier has been able to under pin these initiatives with a good appreciation of the Christian approach to the poor. He has also written a number of books including one which is a beautiful reflection on the Gospel of St John.

On one occasion, he was asked to deliver the prestigious Massey Lectures at the University of Toronto. He drew on the gospel of St Luke and in particular on the famous story of the rich man and Lazarus which we have just heard as the gospel reading for today, Thursday of the Second week of Lent.

We have all heard the story before about the beggar called Lazarus who lived opposite the house of a rich man. Each day, the rich man would dine exquisitely, while giving nothing to Lazarus who begged at his door. Eventually life came to an end for both men and reference is made in the story to the huge gap which had come between them at that moment. It is often suggested that the gap developed only then, one which could not be crossed. Vanier makes the point however,  that Abraham might well have added: “Just as there had been an abyss between you and him during your life on earth.”

The parable is principally about justice for the poor and the  challenge for all of us to reach out to them. The gap to be crossed, is one that already exists in this life. It is the gap between the rich and the poor, between those of who have the good life and the poor of our world. Already now there is a chasm that blocks people from moving from one side to the other.

When seeking an answer to the question what makes the gap unbridgeable, from the view-point of the poor, the answer is clear. The rich  are, in many instances, a closed club. The reason why is, according to Jean Vanier, is neither of the two most obvious answers – it is not about greed, and nor is it about selfishness. The reason for the gap is one of fear. People sense a real fear in relating to the poor.

To enter into direct contact with the poor may make us vulnerable, and it could make demands on our time and resources which we are reluctant to meet. We sense a real danger in relating to the poor. Then there is the fear that very likely, we will not be able to make much of a difference anyway. Given the magnitude of the problem of injustice and poverty in our world, what could we do that makes a difference?

The information what is being circulated at the moment in support of Project Compassion shows us that it is possible to make a difference. Flabiana, the lady who features on this year’s poster, and the Project Compassion box, was forced to leave her home when the uprising occurred in the enclave of Oecussi, in East Timor in 1999. She lost her home, her land and her livelihood. But with the help of Caritas Australia, she was able to rebuild her house, and also she was able to begin some initiatives which have brought money into the family and security to all the members.

There is a story told of the time when Pope Gregory the Great sent missionaries to England in AD 597 to convert the Angles and the Saxons to the Christian faith. When Edwin, King of Northumbria, heard the Gospel message, he held a council of his nobles to discuss this new religion.  One of the noblemen contributed to the discussion by saying that at birth we emerge from who knows where, and for a short time we live here on earth with its light and comfort, but then we go back into the darkness. “We know nothing of what went before and what comes after. If this new teaching can lighten the darkness for us, let us follow it.”

Unlike the early Angles and Saxons, the rich man in the story had no interest in “what comes after” It was about “living for the moment” something that is very strongly ingrained in the way many people in our society live at the present moment. There is a strong emphasis on getting the most out of life.

We as priests are called to preach a different message – that we are destined to live a life that is without end, won for us through the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, and promised to us at the time of our baptism. Your time in formation and preparation for the Priesthood is a special opportunity to deepen your appreciation of who you are as a baptised son of God, the point of departure for any further amplification of your vocation to become a priest.


It is also the time to deepen your awareness that you will ordained for others, and not for yourselves, and in particular for those who are poor. Back in 1967, a prisoner made the following statement to the late Fr. John Brosnan, the widely know and much admired prison chaplain at Pentridge prison.

“Goodbye and thank you very much. Never forget, no matter how long you live, you were ordained for me.” These were not the words of a person who had long and constant associations with the Church and with priests, as we might first believe. To the contrary. They are,   the final words of Ronald Ryan, the last person to be hanged in Australia, spoken to Fr. John Brosnan on the morning of Ryan’s execution. Just a few days earlier, Ronald Ryan had finally made contact again with the Church into which he had been baptised, and it was Fr Brosnan who assisted him in his role as Chaplain at Pentridge prison.

Crossing the boundaries into the lives of other people who are outside our circle and experience is not easy, but it is important to make a start now, and then there will never be a gap that cannot be bridged now or in the future. Lent is an appropriate time for us to begin the journey.