Homily for WYD08 opening Mass at Barangaroo

Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 23. Gal. 5:16-17, 22-25;Lk. 8:4-15

We all know that Christ Our Lord is often described as theGood Shepherd of today’s responsorial psalm. We are told that he leads us nearrestful waters, revives our flagging spirits, enables us to rest peacefully.

In developing this image on one occasion, Jesus explainedthat such a shepherd was prepared to leave the ninety-nine sheep to search outthe one who was lost.

Few countries today have a shepherd who cares for only 20 or30 sheep, and in Australia with large farms and huge flocks Our Lord’s adviceis not very practical. If the lost sheep was valuable and probably healthy, itmight make sense to take the time to search for it. More usually it would beleft behind or its absence not even noticed.

Jesus was saying that both He and His Father are not likethis, because He knows each one of His sheep and like a good father he goessearching for the lost one he loves, particularly if he is sick, or in trouble,or unable to help himself.

Earlier in this Mass I welcomed you all to this World YouthDay week and I repeat that welcome now. But I do not begin with the ninety-ninehealthy sheep, those of you already open to the Spirit, perhaps already steadywitnesses to faith and love. I begin by welcoming and encouraging anyone,anywhere who regards himself or herself as lost, in deep distress, with hopediminished or even exhausted.

Young or old, woman or man, Christ is still calling thosewho are suffering to come to him for healing, as he has for two thousand years.The causes of the wounds are quite secondary, whether they be drugs or alcohol,family breakups, the lusts of the flesh, loneliness or a death. Perhaps eventhe emptiness of success.

Christ’s call is to all who are suffering, not just toCatholics or other Christians, but especially to those without religion. Christis calling you home; to love, healing and community.

Our first reading today was from Ezekiel, with Isaiah andJeremiah one of the three greatest Jewish prophets. Many parts of Australia arestill in drought, so all Australians understand a valley of dry bones andfleshless skeletons. But this grim vision is offered first of all to any andall of you who are even tempted to say “our hope is gone, we are as good asdead”.

This is never true while we can still choose. While there islife there is always the option of hope and with Christian hope come faith andlove. Until the end we are always able to choose and act.

This vision of the valley of the dry bones, the mostspectacular in the whole of the Bible, was given when the hand of God came uponEzekiel while the Jews were in captivity in Babylon, probably earlier ratherthan later in the sixth century B.C. For about 150 years the political fortunesof the Jewish people had been in decline, first of all at the hands of theAssyrians. Later in 587 B.C. came the final catastrophic defeat and theirtransportation into exile. The Jewish people were in despair, powerless tochange their situation.

This is the historical background to Ezekiel’s dramaticvision where the dead were well dead, whitened skeletons as the birds of preyhad long finished their ghastly business of stripping off the flesh. It was animmense battlefield of the unburied.

A hesitant and reluctant Ezekiel was urged by God toprophesy to these bones and as he did so the bones rushed together noisily,accompanied by an earthquake. Sinews knitted them together, flesh and then skinclothed the corpses.

Another stage was needed and the breath, or Spirit, camefrom the four corners of the earth as the bodies came “to life again and stoodup on their feet, a great and immense army”.

While we now see this vision as a pre-figuration of theresurrection of the dead, the Jews of Ezekiel’s time did not believe in such aconception of the afterlife. For them the immense resurrected army representedall the Jewish people, those from the northern kingdom taken off to Assyria,those at home and those in Babylon. They were to be reconstituted as a peoplein their own land and they would know that the one true God alone had donethis. And all this came to pass.

Over the centuries we Christians have used this passageliturgically at Easter, especially for the baptism of catechumens on HolySaturday night and it is, of course, a powerful image of the one true God’sregenerative power for this life and eternity.

Secular wisdom claims that leopards do not change theirspots, but we Christians believe in the power of the Spirit to convert andchange persons away from evil to good; from fear and uncertainty to faith andhope.

Believers are heartened by Ezekiel’s vision, because we knowthe power of God’s forgiveness, the capacity of Christ and the Catholictradition to cause new life to flourish even in unlikely circumstances.

That same power glimpsed in Ezekiel’s vision is offered tous today, to all of us without exception. You young pilgrims can look ahead tothe future stretching out before you, so rich in promise. The Gospel parable ofthe sower and the seen reminds you of the great opportunity you have to embraceyour vocation and produce an abundant harvest, a hundredfold crop.

Matthew, Mark and Luke all place this story of the sower atthe beginning of their collection of Jesus’ parables. It explains somefundamental truths about the challenges of Christian discipleship and lists thealternatives to a fruitful Christian life. Fidelity is not automatic orinevitable.

One detail makes the parable more plausible, because itseems the Jews in Our Lord’s time threw the seed on the ground before theyploughed it, so explaining a little better the seed being in unlikely placesrather than just in the furrows.

Are we amongst those whose faith has already been snatchedaway by the devil, as Our Lord explained the image of the birds of the skygobbling up the seed? No one at this Mass would be in that category. Some mightbe like the seed on rocky ground which could not put down roots. Those here inthis second category are likely to be striving to start again in the spirituallife, or at least examining the possibility of doing so. But most of us are inthe third and fourth categories, where the seed has fallen on good soil and isgrowing and flourishing; or we are in danger of being choked off by the worriesof life. All of us, including those who are no longer young, have to pray forwisdom and perseverance.

I have no problem in believing that Our Lord spelt out themeaning of this parable to his closest followers and that he would have beenasked by them regularly to do so. But the disciples’ enquiries provoked adisconcerting response, when Our Lord divides his listeners into two groups;those to whom the mysteries of the Kingdom are revealed and the rest for whomthe parables remain only parables. This second group is described in words fromthe prophet Isaiah as those who “may see but not perceive, listen but notunderstand”. Probably the background to this is the amazement of Our Lord’sdisciples at the large number who did not accept his teaching.

Why is this still so? What must we do to be among those forwhom the mysteries of the Kingdom are revealed?

The call of the one true God remains mysterious, especiallytoday when many good people find it hard to believe. Even in the time of theprophets many of their hearers remained spiritually deaf and blind, while anynumber over the ages have admired the beauty of Jesus’ teaching, but never beenmoved to answer his call.

Our task is to be open to the power of the Spirit, to allowthe God of surprises to act through us. Human motivation is complex andmysterious, because sometimes very strong Catholics, and other strongChristians, can be prayerful and regularly good, but also very determined notto take even one further step. On the other hand, some followers of Christ canbe much less zealous and faithful, but open to development, to change for thebetter because they realize their unworthiness and their ignorance. Where doyou stand?

Whatever our situation we must pray for an openness ofheart, for a willingness to take the next step, even if we are fearful ofventuring too much further. If we take God’s hand, He will do the rest. Trustis the key. God will not fail us.

How can we work to avoid slipping from the last and bestcategory of the fruit bearers into those “who are choked by the worries andriches and pleasures of life” and so do not produce much fruit at all?

The second reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatianspoints us in the correct direction, reminding us all that each person mustdeclare himself in the age-old struggle between good and evil, between whatPaul calls the flesh and the Spirit. It is not good enough to be only apassenger, to try to live in “no-mans land” between the warring parties. Lifeforces us to choose, eventually destroys any possibility of neutrality.

We will bring forth good fruit by learning the language ofthe Cross and inscribing it on our hearts. The language of the Cross brings usthe fruits of the Spirit which Paul lists, enables us to experience peace andjoy, to be regularly kind and generous to others. Following Christ is not costfree, not always easy, because it requires struggling against what St. Paulcalls “the flesh”, our fat relentless egos, old fashioned selfishness. It isalways a battle, even for old people like me!

Don’t spend your life sitting on the fence, keeping youroptions open, because only commitments bring fulfilment. Happiness comes frommeeting our obligations, doing our duty, especially in small matters andregularly, so we can rise to meet the harder challenges. Many have found theirlife’s calling at World Youth Days.

To be a disciple of Jesus requires discipline, especiallyself discipline; what Paul calls self control. The practice of self controlwon’t make you perfect (it hasn’t with me), but self control is necessary todevelop and protect the love in our hearts and prevent others, especially ourfamily and friends, from being hurt by our lapses into nastiness or laziness.

I pray that through the power of the Spirit all of you willjoin that immense army of saints, healed and reborn, which was revealed toEzekiel, which has enriched human history for countless generations and whichis rewarded in the after-life of heaven.

Let me conclude by adapting one of the most powerful sermonsof St. Augustine, the finest theologian of the first millennium and a bishop inthe small North African town of Hippo around 1600 years ago.

I expect that in the next five days of prayer andcelebration that your spirits will rise, as mine always does, in the excitementof this World Youth Day. Please God we shall all be glad that we participated,despite the cost, hassles and distances travelled. During this week we haveevery right to rejoice and celebrate the liberation of our repentance, therejuvenation of our faith. We are called to open our hearts to the power of theSpirit. And to the young ones I give a gentle reminder that in your enthusiasmand excitement you do not forget to listen and pray!

Many of you have travelled such a long way that you maybelieve that you have arrived, indeed, at the ends of earth! If so, that’sgood, for Our Lord told his first apostles that they would be his witnesses inJerusalem and to the ends of the earth. That prophesy has been fulfilled in thewitness of many missionaries to this vast southern continent, and it isfulfilled yet again in your presence here.

But these days will pass too quickly and next week we shallreturn to earth. For a time some of you will find the real world of home andparish, work or study, flat and disappointing.

Soon, too soon, you will all be going away. Briefly we arenow here in Sydney at the centre of the Catholic world, but next week the HolyFather will return to Rome, we Sydneysiders will return to our parishes, whileyou, now visiting pilgrims, will go back to your homes in places near and far.

In other words during next week we shall be parting from oneanother. But when we part after these happy days, let us never part from ourloving God and his Son Jesus Christ. And may Mary, Mother of God, whom weinvoke in this World Youth Day as Our Lady of the Southern Cross, strengthen usin this resolution.

And so I pray. Come, come O Breath of God, from the fourwinds, from all the nations and peoples of the earth and bless our Great SouthLand of the Holy Spirit.

Empower us also to be another great and immense army ofhumble servants and faithful witnesses.

And we make this prayer to God our Father in the name ofChrist his Son. Amen. Amen.

George Cardinal Pell
Archbishop of Sydney