My parents were immigrants from Holland and arrived in Australia in 1953 with five children and barely a penny to their name. My father worked various jobs, anything he was offered, and my mother kept house. Two more children came and then a third was adopted. We never missed Mass and we never missed the family Rosary after dinner.
When they were ready to build their own house my parents instructed the architect to provide for a small niche in the wall above the fireplace in which they would put their carved wooden statue of the Sacred Heart. They obviously wanted God ‘built-in’ to their home. Above their bed hung a beautiful crucifix.
Ours was a Catholic home; our parents lived a Catholic marriage and they did their best to make their family a Catholic family. Consequently our family life was a life lived in the presence of God.
Now let me tease this out a little just in case you miss my point. The catholicity of our family started from within the marriage of my parents - we children went to Mass because my parents went to Mass; we prayed as a family because my parents themselves prayed. The modern idea of sending the children off to Mass with grandma or aunty Mabel was entirely foreign and, I may say, repugnant to them. Nor was the idea that their Catholic duty as parents was finished because they sent their children to the Catholic school.
From time to time we children had the privilege of hearing our parents saying their night prayers - three Hail Marys for world peace, one Hail Mary for vocations, another for the Pope’s intentions, three for purity, one for the souls in Purgatory, one for mum’s mother, one Hail Mary for Anneke, one for Conny, one for John (that’s me), and so on through to Caroline, the youngest.
My parents lived their daily life in the presence of God and so brought their eight children to live their lives in the presence of God. And we still do; all eight of us are practising Catholics.
Believe me, that I am able to use my own parents as an example of real Catholic faith is a privilege not lost on me and one which I would never take for granted. My parents had the Faith.
Again, let me develop this a little more. My parents understood that the Faith was not about them and their hopes and wishes, nor was it about their ideas or opinions. My parents understood clearly, and they gave their children to clearly understand, that the Faith was about God’s truth, and his hopes and dreams for them. My parents did not have their faith, like so many who call themselves Catholic today, they had the Faith, and that is a vastly different thing - the faith of the Catholic Church - the faith which obliged them to a joyful obedience.
I well remember in my late teens asking my father, a former seminarian, if Pope Paul VI would allow for the use of the Pill. Without hesitation he said no! He told me ‘the Pope won’t change it because he can’t change it.’ Even at that stage my father knew that the prohibition against contraception was so deeply imbedded in authentic Catholic teaching that no Pope could change it. What a man!
I’m glad my parents were spared the worst of the clerical abuse scandal, it would have given them much suffering. They loved the Catholic Church and they loved being Catholic. And yet I can hear them saying, ‘It doesn’t matter! No matter how bad it gets, no matter how many bishops, or priests, or even Popes commit sin, the Catholic Church is still the Church Jesus founded and he will be with her till the end of time.’
Somehow my parents were graced with the wisdom to see the difference between the inviolable purity of the Church and the sinfulness of the frail human beings within her.
In the little time remaining let me say that living in the presence of God necessarily means living in the presence of others. Each one of our readings today urges us to that quality of faith which enables us to stand ready to meet the Lord but this readiness embraces also the way we relate to the needs of others.
Last week the Gospel presented us with a man who was wholly centred on himself. For him there was no God to thank for his huge, rich harvest and no other with whom to share it.
My parents, though they worked incredibly hard to make progress in life, always lived in the presence of others; their readiness to make room in their family for an adopted eighth child is beautiful testimony to this. One could multiply examples of this charming awareness of others but as a priest I am also now struck, post factum, by their faithfulness to giving to the Church each week.
It may seem to the casual reader that I have bypassed the readings this week or, at least, made only tenuous connections, so I’d better make a few more.
My parents knew ‘what kind of oaths they had put their trust in.’
‘It was by faith …’ that they lived every moment of their lives.
They deeply understood that ‘…when a man has had a great deal given him on trust, even more will be expected of him.’
I pray that we can all follow their example.