SHOWING THE WAY TO GOD
I cut my teeth as a young priest running Corpus Christi Community, a home for 90 homeless, alcoholic men founded by Mother Teresa. The men did everything: the cooking, gardening, cleaning, answering the phone. Those who could got breakfast for those who were unable to manage. The whole place was run by those men supported by the Sisters of Mercy and volunteers. That experience remains my template.
I do tend to have long pauses in my homilies. My mother once loudly called from the congregation when I was first ordained: “Get on with it, Stephen.” Another time I was giving a homily, I must have been questioning the word “God” and Mum called out: “He doesn’t mean it!”
I’ve never been one for a curriculum vitae. If a person goes to Mass that’s enough for me.
It is said you can’t get sober on your own, so you can’t believe on your own. I can’t. Most of the time I thought I was running the parish, but there was this small, quiet voice inside me that sometimes I listened to that reminded me that there was someone else giving life to the parish, some other Spirit that was in the hearts of the people. I could feel it as I gave out communion, in their faces. It was such a relief to let go of this feeling of responsibility for the parish and go with the Spirit, to see with the eyes of faith.
I used to swim at Bondi in the morning and come back for Mass. One Sunday, early in my time, I came back and there was commotion in the church. People slept in the porch and this woman who was very powerful, her name was Crystal. She and Rob were having one hell of an argument. Crystal drew a knife. Rob ran through the church and slammed the sacristy door closed. And she was gouging that door with a knife.
I came in, late, and the congregation was in shock. I went into the sacristy and my sacristan Gerald, such a beautiful man, resigned on the spot (he later recanted), saying: “That’s enough. You’re doing nothing for these people, and it’s got out of control.”
And that’s true, it was out of control. And of course, people in the congregation were saying the same thing. So, I had a choice. What was I going to do?
I went to the lectern and said: “Look, that behaviour was unacceptable. Crystal and Rob will make an apology for that behaviour. But don’t think we’re any different. Don’t think we don’t stab one another in the back. Don’t think we don’t say things and do things to other people that take away their life in all sorts of different ways. The lives of Crystal and Rob are there for all to see, we live behind closed doors and use the gloved hand, at home and in business. We walk over one another, we are far more subtle, far more dangerous. And by the way, in half an hour, they’ll be in one another’s arms. Whereas we hold on to our anger, we hold on to our hurts and resentments. We are no different from them.”
This was a turning point for me. I got Crystal and Rob to write an apology and they sent me a letter and the envelope was addressed to the ‘prisoners’ of St Canice’s. They didn’t know how to spell ‘parishioners.’
Cardinal Ted Clancy was my bishop when I began at St Canice’s. He called me in one day and asked why I didn’t wear a collar. “It gives good witness,” he said. “I just want people to meet Steve,” I responded, “and the collar gets in the way of that.”
To my horror, the Finance Committee as a body resigned one time. Not because I was doing anything wrong but because I wasn’t doing anything. That did shake me a bit because they were upright parishioners, one and all. But like the Wilcannia Boomerangs, they came back, and I tried a little harder.
Originally published on the St Canice’s website.
Photos provided by St Canice’s Elizabeth Bay Parish.