Catholic in Yanchep

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21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C | The Divine Comedy takes me to New Norcia


Dante’s Divine Comedy performed by the monks and friends of New Norcia

Last weekend, I had the opportunity of visiting New Norcia, Australia’s only monastic town, for the Benedictine Community’s presentation of Dante’s Divine Comedy (I picked up the 100th of 100 tickets, after a cancellation, so I took it as a sign that God had intended me to be there!

After the previous week’s shenanigans, I was in sympathy with Dante, who was exiled from his beloved Florence during the turbulent political battles between the white and black Guelphs in the period immediately following the Guelph-Ghibelline conflict of the late 13th century.  One can see him reassessing his situation in the opening lines of the Divina Commedia.

In the midway of this our mortal life, I found me in a gloomy wood, astray

It’s interesting how God works in our lives, because if Dante had not been exiled from Florence, he might never have written this work which is arguably the pinnacle of Italian literature, not only during the Medieval period, but of all time.  Dante’s gift was to create in poetic form a kind of applied Thomistic universe – Dante takes us on a tour of the spiritual cosmos so that we can see the effects of our choices played out in our destination after departing this earthly life.  James Hitchcock in History of the Catholic Church, describes Dante’s contribution like this:

Scholasticism, a comprehensive system that sought to understand every aspect of reality in relation to the whole, expressed the idea of Christendom itself, the organization of the entire universe according to an overriding spiritual principle. 

This sense of unity was carried to its highest point by Dante, whose Divine Comedy, written in the early fourteenth century, was the most vivid expression of that ideal, bringing together abstract doctrine and concrete humanity in a great imaginative unity, an epic drama that revealed the divine plan and the way in which divine justice governed the universe. 

In the Comedy, Dante, lost and spiritually imperilled by his illicit and unrequited love for the memory of a deceased married woman named Beatrice, received from God – at Beatrice’s entreaty – the guidance of the Roman poet Virgil, who took him on a tour of Hell and Purgatory to show him the reality of sin … 

Dante’s tour of Hell revealed that punishment for sin was not an arbitrary divine decree but rather the patterns of human behaviour carried into eternity, with the sinner suffering in ways that were the natural and inevitable results of his earthly behaviour: the lustful blown helplessly about like dry leaves, because they allowed their passions to dominate them; the gluttonous force-fed to the point of continuously regurgitating their food; the hypocrites weighed down by heavy-leaden robes that appeared beautiful on the outside.  The men and women in Hell were shown to be not so much damned by God as having damned themselves, by refusing to repent of their choices and accept the grace that would have enabled them to overcome their vices either during their lives on earth or in Purgatory. 

Dante delineated a hierarchy of sins that, as a Thomist, he based on human reason.  Thus the worst sins were lying, deceit, and treachery – the use of the intellect to subvert the truth rather than to disclose it.  Those guilty of such sins, especially Judas, were trapped in ice in the lowest depths of Hell, because of their calculating and unloving acts of betrayal. 

An equivalent array of sinners were in Purgatory, where, however, they had the joy of the certainty of eventual salvation, their crucial difference from the souls in Hell being the fact that they had repented and accepted divine mercy.  The sufferings of Purgatory were not so much punitive as therapeutic, purifying the soul and making it worthy of Paradise. 

Virgil could show Dante the nature of evil because, as a good pagan, the Roman poet understood the natural law.  But also as a pagan, he could not enter Heaven, at whose gates Beatrice herself became Dante’s guide, since by her prayers Dante’s disordered human love had been transformed into an understanding of divine love. 

Beatrice guided Dante through the levels of Paradise on an upward spiritual journey that was the reverse of his journeys through Hell and Purgatory.  The experience of Paradise was overwhelmingly that of a light so bright that it obscured much of what Dante encountered, of which he was not as yet worthy.  In his spiritual ascent, he encountered the great saints, who by their words and deeds illustrated the hierarchy of virtues.  His final guide in Paradise was St Bernard (Dante as author giving him the honour of that role because Bernard had reached the heights of contemplation and because of his deep devotion to the Virgin Mary).  Dante was finally drawn upward to the ultimate union of love with truth: “Like a wheel that as a whole rotates, my yearning and my will were borne along by the love that moves the Sun and all the stars.” 

Dante revealed the ordered unity of the cosmos itself, the linkage between Heaven and earth.  But his great poetic synthesis was created at the very point when Christendom was on the verge of unravelling.

How appropriate then, that the Gospel for the 21st Sunday is on the subject of “last things”(Luke 13:22-30).

Through towns and villages Jesus went teaching, making his way to Jerusalem. Someone said to him, ‘Sir, will there be only a few saved?’ He said to them, ‘Try your best to enter by the narrow door, because, I tell you, many will try to enter and will not succeed.

 ‘Once the master of the house has got up and locked the door, you may find yourself knocking on the door, saying, “Lord, open to us” but he will answer, “I do not know where you come from.”  Then you will find yourself saying, “We once ate and drank in your company; you taught in our streets” but he will reply, “I do not know where you come from. Away from me, all you wicked men!”

  ‘Then there will be weeping and grinding of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and yourselves turned outside. And men from east and west, from north and south, will come to take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God.

  ‘Yes, there are those now last who will be first, and those now first who will be last.’

This is an extremely difficult message for many Christians, because we don’t want to believe that anyone will end up in hell.  I have even heard many priests say that Judas might not be in hell.  But then it would make nonsense of these words of Jesus, “but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” (Mark 14:21)

So, if you’re disturbed by the idea of hell, pray harder, pray and fast for your friends and relations, for those you love, and for those you find it hard to love.

In my next post, I will feature some photos from New Norcia.

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18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C | The Spiritual Equivalent of the Rich Man


Christ Blessing Children (detail), Pacecco de Rosa, 1600-1654, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

“I will say to my soul: ‘My soul, you have plenty of good things laid by for many years to come; take things easy, eat, drink and have a good time.” (Luke 12:19)

If we are not particularly well off, it might be easy for us NOT to identify with the man in the parable in today’s readings.  Or if we are, say, a priest, we might feel that we’re immune from being compared with the rich man in the parable.  But I think Jesus wants us all to have a good hard look at how attached we are to worldly comfort, rather than storing up treasure for ourselves in heaven.

For instance, would it be right for a priest to say, “I offer Mass every day, and I pray the Divine Office,  meditating on every word, so now I can relax and enjoy the other worldly comforts of my life”?  In fact, it is easy for Priests to be somewhat removed from the realities which confront their ordinary parishioners.  No matter how poorly a priest might carry out his job, he receives a guaranteed income from the Archdiocese.  His parishioners who might be running businesses or working for the public or private sector, understand that they only hold their jobs if the business is profitable, or if they are meeting key performance review criteria.  And a business will only be profitable with the dedicated hard work of the employees.  Employers who sit back and cream off the profits created by the efforts of their workforce, breed resentment and will not grow their enterprise with integrity.  When the workers know that the employer doesn’t have any interest in hearing their input, attending to their concerns or being, so to speak, a shepherd to them, they will have little loyalty to the company and will readily seek for employment elsewhere.

So it is, that in our parish life, there are several things that pastors are supposed to be doing to store up their treasure in heaven and to build parish life.  If a pastor says he only has time to say Mass and pray the Divine Office, he has seriously misunderstood his role and responsibilities.  I would ask such a pastor to meditate and reflect on Canon 528 and 529 about the duties of pastors.  It is important for pastors to be aware that parishioners will vote with their feet by walking away to a different parish (or if their faith is wavering, even leaving the Church altogether) if they feel that the pastor is inward-looking, not outward-looking, defensive when questioned, prone to report parishioners who have genuine concerns to the vicar general  for correction, instead of dealing with their concerns courageously and honestly, and with a genuine spirit of humility and self-examination.

When God makes a demand for our souls, will we truly be able to say that we have stored up treasure in heaven and addressed the duties outlined below in our pastoral area?  What example are we setting in the wider community?  Do people see us as a clique turned in on itself, or as people filled with the light of Christ who bring a message of hope, help and outreach to Yanchep, Guilderton and Lancelin?

Here are some excerpts from the duties of pastors according to Canon Law:


Can. 528 §1  … He is to make every effort, even with the collaboration of the Christian faithful, so that the message of the gospel comes also to those who have ceased the practice of their religion or do not profess the true faith.

Can. 528 §2 … The pastor … is bound to watch over [the parish] so that no abuses creep in.

Can. 529 §1.  In order to fulfil his office diligently, a pastor is to strive to know the faithful entrusted to his care.  Therefore he is to visit families, sharing especially in the cares, anxieties and griefs of the faithful, strengthening them in the Lord.  With generous love, he is to help the sick, particularly those close to death, by refreshing them solicitously with the sacraments and commending their souls to God; with particular diligence he is to seek out the poor, the afflicted, the lonely … and similarly those weighed down by special difficulties.  He is to work so that spouses and parents are supported in fulfilling their proper duties and is to foster growth of Christian life in the family.

Can 529 §2 . A pastor is to recognize and promote the proper part which the lay members of the Christian faithful have in the mission of the Church, by fostering their associations for the purpose of religion.

Let’s all pray for our Pastoral Area, that it will be able to carry out its mission with greater faithfulness and zeal for the people of our area to encounter the love of God.

Today’s readings:

Word format: Year C 18th Sunday 2016

Pfd format: Year C 18th Sunday 2016