I HAVE recently had a number of conversations with different people from all walks of life; all those disparate individuals repeated the same refrain, almost word-for-word: “It’s hard for me to be a Christian in public these days”.
In the office, on the jobsite, at the dog park: they are surrounded, they tell me, by people who mock and belittle the Church at every available opportunity, who express incredulity when anyone confesses any degree of belief in Jesus Christ.
Admittedly I was not entirely taken aback by these statements, as I myself am no stranger to the phenomenon.
When working at the firm but a few short years ago I recall attending a “working lunch” during which the participants, safely ensconced within the walls of a corporate dining room, proceeded to mock the executive board of a certain well-known Brisbane hospital for beginning their meetings with a prayer.
To my eternal shame and regret, I said nothing, did nothing.
Swift subsequent recourse to the sacrament of penance helped assuage my sense of having committed a rather glaring sin of omission, but I have often thought that the intervening years have certainly not helped make it any easier for a person of faith – a Catholic in particular – to publically profess and defend our shared creed and live out our filial obligations as children of God.
Are we beginning to realise how the disciples must have felt?
On that stormy night on Lake Galilee – as recounted in the Gospel according to Matthew (14:22-33) – when they were frightened out of their wits, having set to sea at the behest of Jesus, only to find themselves in the middle of a raging tempest without Him.
When Jesus appeared, it was already the forth watch of the night, that is, between 3am and 6am.
The darkest point of the night, just before the dawn.
The disciples had already been battling the wind and rain for hours; all night essentially, before Jesus came walking across the water towards them.
Perhaps, in light of all that is happening in our society and world at this point in time we are ourselves beginning to have a heightened sense of the apprehension and fear that the disciples must have felt at the time.
And we might well be asking ourselves how we ought to respond to the situations that confront us; that confront our Church; that confront our faith.
How ought we to respond to our colleagues, relatives, friends who do not share our faith and yet at times feel free to condemn it.
On this point the Provincial gave a brilliant homily not long ago on that Gospel reading from Matthew, drawing memorable analogies with our own lives.
Given its rapturous reception, I thought I might – with your permission – share some of it with you.
Father Anthony opened by speaking of one of the most prestigious and most dangerous offshore yacht races in the world; the Fastnet, which takes a fleet of competitors out into the open Atlantic Ocean on a journey of more than 1000 kilometres.
Given the location and distance, the sailors invariably encounter some fierce storms.
But none so fierce as that which struck the fleet in 1979.
By sheer meteorological happenstance it was, truly, the perfect storm.
Each of the skippers and crew of the individual vessels had to decide how they were going to react to this unexpected and unprecedented weather event.
The various responses can be grouped into three categories.
The first group decided to haul down all their sail, batten down their hatches and retire to the cabin, hoping to simply ride out the fierce winds and surging seas.
The second group decided to leave up a small amount of sail, enabling the wind and current to carry the boat wherever they willed; it was hoped that, in so doing, they would be spared catastrophic damage.
The third and smallest group took an entirely different approach. Of the fleet of more than 300 ships, 26 decided that they were going to actively “heave-to”.
This is apparently a nautical term describing the activity of a crew who work actively with sail and rudder to tackle a storm.
Over the course of the tempest and attendant rescue efforts – which involved over 4000 people – the fleet was scattered and many ships were sunk, or turtled – they were completely rolled over by the wind and the waves.
Interestingly, all of those vessels that were crewed by sailors who had decided to actively heave to made it through the storm relatively unscathed.
And that is a fact that we ought to bear in mind when we hear that Gospel reading from Matthew that seems to speak to us so profoundly today.
We too find ourselves on the fourth watch of the night, the darkest point before the dawn, battling the storms which beset us on every side.
And, as a result, we are faced with various temptations.
We could be tempted, like some in the disastrous Fastnet race of 1979, to pull down the sails, batten down the hatches and lock ourselves in the cabin thinking we can create a safe space for ourselves within the hold.
In the words of Father Anthony Walsh, our Provincial, “We could try to ignore what is going on around us; we could retreat to a place of happy memories and seemingly secure future – we could disengage from the pernicious culture around us. Yet this would be untenable because it would mean going against Christ who, as God, became one of us and suffered for us the ignominy of death on a cross.”
It would also be a denial of Christ’s being with us, ‘”even to the end of the age”. (Matthew 28:20)
And if we took that course of action, we would surely sink in our damaged boat: damage that has been largely self-inflicted through abuse, cover-ups, and hypocrisy.
Alternatively, we could join the second group from the Fastnet race: we could try to go with the flow.
We could put up a little sail and let the wind and current take us where it will.
We could just give in to all the things in our society and culture that rage against us in our little ship.
We could give in to things like abortion on demand, contraception, euthanasia, gender ideology, same-sex marriage; to accept that religion is a “purely private affair”.
Yet this too would be to deny God; to deny the truth that Jesus has revealed about Himself and our own shared humanity.
Our lot, my brothers and sisters, is the lot of the disciples in Matthew’s Gospel – to set out into the rough seas in obedience to Christ’s word, in obedience to the Word of God.
Our lot, like that of those brave sailors in the Fastnet race of 1979, is to battle the storm, to heave to by working sail and rudder.
Our lot is to work at keeping the barque of Peter afloat – to remain faithful to the Truth and – throughout the storms and tempests that beset us – to continue loving those who reject us and hate us.
We are, after all, Christians: this ought to be nothing new for us.
To the nascent Christian community in Corinth St Paul wrote these beautiful words of encouragement: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair, persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9)
Adversity and acrimony are nothing new to us as a people of faith, as the mystical Body of Christ upon this earth.
However uncomfortable and difficult it might be, we must continue to stand up for our faith and our Church – to heave to against the storm.
‘”Easy for you to say”, could well be the response levelled against me.
After all, did I not admit at the outset of this column that I myself had once neglected to do the very thing I am now urging others to do?
Did I not once stay silent while prayer was mocked and the faith of the Church was maligned?
Yes, I did.
But the knowledge of having done so – guilt is a much-underrated emotion – forced me to reflect all the harder upon who I truly wanted to be; upon who I thought God had created and redeemed me to be.
I began to speak to my peers about faith.
At first these conversations only extended to a small group of friends and – initially – only after Friday night drinks was well underway.
Perhaps surprisingly, people were generally more receptive to what I had to say after a few pints of amber liquid.
This circle of intimates grew.
On the day I resigned I sent a firm-wide email expressing how much I had enjoyed working there.
I also told them where I was going.
Everyone from Melbourne to Ulaanbaatar knew that Sebastian Condon was leaving the firm to join the seminary.
You would be surprised at the emails I got back; all of them were resoundingly positive.
We can never lose sight of the fact that, no matter how aggressively critical people might be of the Church, of our faith, perhaps even of our lives in religion, Jesus Christ died for them too.
They have a right to hear the message of salvation, just as we all have a duty to preach it. (Romans 10:14)
The gift of faith is given to us to be passed on to others – even if, sometimes, we have to battle against the storm to do it.
The words of Charles Péguy are still the most beautiful that I have yet read on this point: “You must not save your soul as you save a treasure: you must save it as you lose a treasure, by squandering it. We must save ourselves together. We must arrive together before the good Lord. What would He say if we arrived before Him alone, if we came home to Him without the others?”
Heave to, my brothers and sisters, heave to.
By Br Sebastian Condon