Issue 8 - 24 Nov

A silver Lining by Richard Leonard SJ

Entwined for Eternity

I am not sure whether the Advent wreath has made a debut or a comeback. It was never a feature in the Advent liturgies of my childhood. I was an altar boy and I would remember seeing it or lighting the candles. I was always looking for something to do, for it made Mass go more quickly. In fact, the Advent wreath has a very complex history.

Wreaths go back to the Etruscans, the ancient Greeks and Romans, and symbolized all sorts of things from one’s office or status in society, a success or an achievement (the forerunner of the ribbon, medal, or plaque) to a fashion statement.

By medieval times, wreaths had come to be used in three ways: as symbols of the harvest; as the completion of the circle of life at funerals; and as an anticipation of Christ’s coming during Advent. As best as we can make out, in Europe, during dark December, green branches were found and woven together as a promise that spring was on the way, and candles were lit as a metaphor for Christ’s birth, piercing through the darkness of our sin. It may well have had an echo of the ancient relationship between Advent and Lent in that the wreath can also symbolize Jesus’ as yet un-thorned crown.

This largely German ritual was confined to people’s homes. In this regard, the ritual lighting of the candles is also a nice quotation of the ancient Jewish custom of the kindling of the Sabbath candle or, better still, the lighting of the Menorah candles during the Feast of Dedication, Hanukkah, which, and not by accident, often coincides with our Advent.

The Puritans did not like the pagan origins of the Advent wreath so opposed it, but it persisted and as German Catholics and Lutherans migrated all over the world they took this domestic ritual with them as well. It caught on, and though it is not an official part of the Catholic advent liturgy, it has come to be a legitimate custom. It is a rare cathedral or church that does not now light the Advent wreath.

It’s striking that while harvest rituals and their accompanying wreaths have largely gone, the funeral and advent wreaths remain as strong as ever. During Advent, the wreath entwines both ideas: the completion of our life-long journey; along with the final unveiling, or the apocalypse, of Christ.

Without doubt, the most nagging question confronting Christians, as they contemplate the end of their lives and the end of the world, is what will the next world be like? Let me speculate on what may lie beyond the veil.

Some time ago, Pope Benedict XVI surprised a few people when he suggested that heaven, hell, and purgatory may not be places where we do time, but could be experiences through which we arrive or pass. I think he is right, not only because time and space are elements of this imperfect world, and not the next world, but also because this opens up interesting ideas about what these experiences might be like, and how rich the Catholic tradition is in this regard.

When I think of what the hereafter might be like, I turn by way of analogy to the magnificent parable of God’s mercy in Luke 15:11-24, the Prodigal Son. Here is a Jewish boy who commits two of the worst sins he could commit: he squanders his patriarch’s inheritance and is so down on his luck and would have gladly eaten what the pigs are eating. Then he decides to go home and make up with his Dad. I think that is what death is like for all of us, the final journey. This image is poignantly evoked in the final Holy Communion given to our dying, which is called “viaticum,” which literally means “food for the journey.”

Meanwhile, in the story, the Father watches and waits on the road all day, every day, for any sign of the son’s return. It is worth noting that the father did not go and club the son over the head and haul him home. The son had to put himself on the road home, which is similar to what happens when we die. We begin the final journey home. And when this extraordinary Father sees him, he rushes out, kisses him, and calls for a party, even before the kid has had a chance to finish his well-rehearsed apology. That has to be heaven. For some of us who do our best, though we also fail, we get the basics right and God, who knows our heart and has accompanied us as we have labored under the difficulties with which we have lived, does not even want the apology. We are welcomed home.

For some of us, however, the meeting with God may be personally painful because God takes our free choices very seriously. So when the extraordinary Father sees some of us, he rushes out to meet us, but when we are face to face with love itself, we are aware of the many free and knowing times we have been destructive toward ourselves, others, and our world. At that point, we will be allowed to start and finish the well-rehearsed apology, asking, indeed, in some cases begging, for forgiveness. It will cost us dearly to own what we have done, because it will be so stark, and it will cost God to forgive us. But because the Father is full of mercy and compassion, we will be cleansed, or purged in love. Echoes of this approach are found in Pope Benedict’s words when he met in 2008 with the priests and deacons of Rome during Lent: “Today we are used to thinking: What is sin? God is great, he understands us, so sin does not count, in the end God will be good toward all…. It’s a nice hope. But there is justice, and there is real blame. Those who have destroyed man (sic) and the earth cannot sit immediately at the table of God, together with their victims.”

Finally, for a very few of us, when will make the journey home, the Father will rush out to meet us, but when we are face to face with love itself, we will do what we have freely and knowingly chosen to do all our lives – we will reject God’s love and walk away, the ultimate sin, which no doubt reflects how our lives on earth were spent. That has to be hell—the abyss—to see the face of God; of love itself, and walk away from it because we always have. And the Father painfully respects our choice, even this one to reject him. As the Pope says, “… it is precisely the last judgment of God that guarantees justice…. We must speak specifically of sin as the possibility of destroying oneself, and thus also other parts of the earth.” But like the Pope, I do not think this final group is large. “Perhaps there are not so many who have destroyed themselves so completely, who are irreparable forever, who no longer have any element upon which the love of God can rest, who no longer have the slightest capacity to love within themselves. This would be hell.”

As painful as death and grief are, and the end of time may be, the Advent wreath symbolizes both the completion of the cycle of life and our hope in Christ’s reign beyond time and space, where we hope and pray that our parting from those we have loved in this world is not a definitive “goodbye,” but more a " see you later. "


Rev Dr Richard Leonard SJ is the author of What are we waiting for?

Reflections for Advent and Christmas.

Issue 7 - 17 Nov


A Silver Lining by Richard Leonard SJ - Tues 17 Nov

Christ the King
Recently, I saw the digitally re-worked film of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. This was British ritual at its most brilliant. The sense of flow, dignity and beauty was quite overwhelming. I was struck by how this Rite mirrored the Ordination of a Bishop. It has a call, oaths, the reception of the Scriptures, the Liturgy of the Word, recitation of the Creed, an anointing, the presentation of the symbols of office leading up to the crowning, the acclamation by the people, an enthroning, the homage of the subjects, Holy Communion, the Te Deum and then the Recessional. It was made explicitly clear that Christ was anointing Elizabeth Alexandra Mary “to govern the Peoples of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Union of South Africa, Pakistan, and Ceylon, and of your Possessions and the other Territories …”
The camera then panned around Westminster Abbey - dukes and duchesses, earls and countesses, anyone who anyone was here. As I watched, however, I became increasingly uncomfortable. While everything was said to be done in Christ’s name, I could only think that Christ would prefer to be anywhere but here. For millennia, in ceremonies like this all around the world, Christ’s Kingship is often called upon to confirm that God approves of not only this particular monarch or that particular president, but also of the entire social, economic and religious hierarchy that seems to go with the institution of the State.
Following on from Jesus saying he was a king, “but not of this world”, Christians celebrated his reign as that of the Messiah, or the Christ, literally, “the anointed one,” the Redeemer King who would defend the rights of the poor, and establish an everlasting reign of justice and peace. The notion of Jesus as an earthly king and an anointer of earthly kingdoms came with the conversion of Emperor Constantine in 313. Bishops started to wear the magenta robes of the senators. Churches took on the shape of Roman basilicas, while the government of the Church came to mirror that of the Empire. The Christian liturgy imported all sorts of practices popular in the Roman temples and in civic rituals. Within a century, Christian art began to depict Jesus dressed in royal robes, with a crown, a sceptre and an orb. Mary is often presented in similar dress, and starts to be called the Queen of Heaven; by the high medieval period she is often cloaked in blue, the prerogative of kings at the time.
We cannot change history, but we do not have to be trapped by it either. In the very scriptures given into our monarch’s hands we discover Christ our king is not found amongst earthly wealth and splendor, but in desperate poverty, in homelessness, in seeking out and saving the lost, in getting down and getting dirty in the service of those who live on the margins of society. I am not convinced such groups would be welcome or at home in the lavish coronation ceremonies conducted in Christ the King’s name in the Westminster Abbies of our world.
If we take Christ’s kingship seriously, we cannot delude ourselves into understanding it in terms of worldly status. Jesus said, if any of us want to be first, we have to be least, and the servant of all. I admire the lifetime of privileged service our Queen has rendered and her obvious and sincere Christian faith, but Christ does not anoint any social or ecclesiastical system of privilege and wealth that is extravagant or disordered in its social relationships.
The most moving moment when Jesus speaks of his kingship is from the cross, when the good thief simply asks Jesus: “Remember me.” Jesus replies to him that being remembered by God is paradise. The power of Christ the King is seen in his memory, in holding every person in this world close; in calling each one of us by name and challenging us to live lives of sacrificial love. It is seen where simplicity is valued, and where there is a right relationship with the earth. It is seen where the poor are recognised as special points of God’s revelation to the world.
The test of those who live out the reign of Christ is not whether we are monied or titled, whether we are successful, or have made it to Who's Who. Christ our king calls us to follow him in remembering all people, regardless of who they are, and being prepared to pay the price in fighting for the dignity of each person. And what’s our reward for bringing Christ’s reign to bear in our world? That Christ will remember us when we come into his Kingdom.

 Richard Leonard SJ is the author of What does it all mean? A guide to being more faithful, hopeful and loving (Paulist Press).

Issue 6 - 10 Nov

A Silver Lining by Richard Leonard SJ

November 11 is Remembrance Day upon which Commonwealth countries mark the moment when hostilities ceased in World War I - at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month 1918. After four years and three months of fighting, 20 million were dead, including 9.7 million soldiers. 40 million people were wounded. Australia lost 61,720 military personnel in ‘the war to end all wars,’ double the number who died in World War II. There is a Mother’s Memorial in every tin-pot place in this country because by 1918 everywhere was scarred by grief and death. There were to be more unmarried Australian women per capita from 1918 – 1930 than at any other time in our white history.
In 1914 the recruitment literature said the reason Australia was heeding the call of the ‘mother country’ to come to its aid on the other side of the world was For God, King and Country. 106 years later we don’t know what to do with a religious belief so it’s almost universally said that our soldiers went to war For King and Country. God is edited out. We have such short and selective memories.
Christians, of course, have mixed feelings about every war. Wars are a failure within the human community to deal with our conflicts in a more civilised, constructive and non-violent way. Catholic moral theology, of course, says there is such a thing as a just war. Developed over centuries, particular through the thoughts of Saints Augustine, Albert the Great, Bonaventure, and Thomas Aquinas, we hold that military conflict may be permissible if six things are in place: 
1. There must be a just cause - that a real and certain danger can only be confronted by war.
2. That a competent government, preferably a democratically one, has authorised the use of force.
3. That the publicly stated reasons for the war are the actual reasons for military action?
4. That all peaceful alternatives have been fully pursued before war is undertaken.
5. That the prospect of a successful outcome justifies the inevitable human and other costs.
6. That there is some reasonable proportionality between the good trying to be achieved and the evils involved in war – death, destruction and destabilisation.
Furthermore, the Church teaches that if we are to engage in war then there are four moral norms to be observed within it:

  • That terrorism, murder of civilians, chemical, nuclear and biological war are always immoral.
  • That the original objectives of war must never be exceeded.
  • That every effort must be made to avoid civilian casualties.
  • And that prisoners of war must be treated with human dignity.

So while war is ugly the vast majority of the people who fight them are good. Whether a professional soldier or volunteer, these women and men deserve to know that they may be laying down their lives for a just cause and a higher goal. That’s the only reason to mark Remembrance Day– good people paid the ultimate price in a cause worth dying for: freedom; justice; and the peace God wants to see for everyone everywhere. They deserve our prayers and our respect.
A creative way to observe Remembrance Day this year may be to watch or re-watch Peter Weir’s 1981 film Gallipoli. I’ve seen it 86 times. I had to. It was a chapter in my doctoral dissertation which I wrote on Peter Weir’s work. I’ve been moved by it 86 times too.   
The reason I think people of faith might find fruit in watching it again this year is because while Gallipoli can be read as a period film on mateship or an adventure/war genre film, it is also a profoundly mystical text, primarily interested in heroic death.
This mysticism of this film works on two levels: personal and mythical. On the personal level, it comes out of a lack Peter Weir perceives in himself and western society where all mystery has been stripped away. In his films, there is fluidity in the boundaries between religious/mythical, real/unreal, temporal/spatial, knowledge/emotion. These polarities are the most distinctive and unsettling elements in many of his films, including this one.
On a mythical level the importance of Carl Jung to Peter Weir cannot be underestimated. Jung’s influence is clearest in the way in which the individual enters his or her depths or unconscious through mythology, nature, dreams, ancient ways of being and knowing, a world of archetypes, the collective or familial unconscious, and of a relationship to nature. Weir’s mysticism is about constructing a new language for western epistemology, identity, transcendence, fragmentation, and mortality.
How does all this apply to Gallipoli? Think about Archy’s death at the end of the film. Almost all of Peter Weir films focus on, end in, or explore, death. Michael Ventura observed in 1983 that Weir’s films all involve “a disappearing into, being surrounded by, or a surrendering to, the new, the alien, the unseen… In Gallipoli a boy disappears into history - into, specifically Western history, which is experienced as the distant (military) command determining a mass event (a slaughter) in which there are victims but no participants, because to participate is to invoke choices and no one in this story acts as if there is such a choice.  The boy, in other words, disappears into Calvinism, which is a slightly more precise word for the assumptions with which the West defines its mission and its history.” (Ventura: 1983:39)
Archy’s life begins and ends in the desert. By doing so Weir flags his mystical intentions from the start. The desert for Australia is a “the motif(s) of descent, decline and degeneration…Our greatest national figures and legends, Voss, Richard Mahony, Burke and Wills, Leichhardt; our greatest iconographic national sites, Uluru, Hanging Rock, Gallipoli, the Outback, are all places or figures of loss, sacrifice and ruin.” (Tacey:1995:199)
Going to a deserted place is an ancient practice in many mystical traditions. In almost every mystical tradition any journey to the physical or personal desert is abundant with revelation, transformation and recreation. (Chryssavgis:1990:99) These are, of course, echoes of and direct use of the iconography from Moses’ death in the desert which opens up the Promised Land, Jesus’ sacrificial death in the ‘deserted place’ and the mixture of innocence and blood which marks the biblical story generally. 
Archie is the slaughter of the innocents - of truth, youth and hope. It is the death knell of colonialism and arguments in support of war.
The allusions to death are everywhere in Gallipoli. Archie tells us that the pyramids were “Man’s first attempt to cheat death.” Snow is encouraged to enter the Cairo brothel because, “ a month’s time we could be dead.” Frank’s mystical fog bound landing at Gallipoli is an explicit illusion to the crossing of the River Styx. (Peake:1981:11). The Peninsula battlefield strewn with the corpses of young men is, literary, a ‘field of death’. On the eve of the assault, Zurga and Nadir in their love duet, “In the depths of the temple” pledge their love unto death. Moments before the assault, one soldier recites the 23rd Psalm, “Though I walk in the valley of death, I shall not fear.”

But it’s not just any death Weir is interested in, it’s not just Archie’s death either. It is the sacrificial death of all the Archies. Those pure, naïve men whose consummation of life comes in the heroic nature of their death. The immortal Archie, forever framed by his act of sacrificial love lives on in the memories of Frank and his mates who continue to keep his memory alive.  
In the famous, final, frame of the film, as Archie rises up to run across a desert to be gunned down by Johnny Turk, he opens his arms in a cruciform pose explicitly linking his death to that of Jesus who was raised up on a cross on a mound of another desert land: Calvary.
Gallipoli does what modern Australia cannot do: it puts God back into the mix with King and Country.  Lest We Forget.

Rev Dr. Richard Leonard SJ is the author of The Mystical Gaze of the Cinema: The Films of Peter Weir. University of Melbourne Press, 2009. 


Issue 5 - 03 Nov

A Silver Lining by Fr Richard Leonard 

Commending those we love into the loving hands of God

Because the feast days of All Saints and All Souls kick off November, for centuries in the Church this month has been dedicated to praying for, and more recently also the celebrating the memory of, those we have loved who have gone before us: the saints and the sinners. It enables us to confront our own mortality in a healthy way too: “none of us is getting out of life alive.”

The first funeral I ever did was a week after arriving as a deacon at St Canice’s, Kings Cross, the red light district of Sydney. I was asked to do a ‘pauper’s funeral’, an appalling Dickensian name for a state-funded cremation.

Karl was an alcoholic and homeless man who had died on the street. The two saintly religious sisters who had cared for him for years organized his funeral.

The nuns thought it was unlikely that anyone else would turn up. On the day there were three more mourners in attendance. After the readings and prayers, and because I had never met Karl, I invited the congregation to share their memories of their deceased friend. Towards the back of the chapel, the sisters shook their heads. It was too late. A short stout woman was on her feet and was next to the coffin. “Thank you very much Father”, she said deferentially, and then she let loose. “Karl,” she yelled, pointing at the coffin, “you were a bastard. You were a bastard in the morning, a bastard in the evening and a bastard at night time.” And this theme, and that word, went on and on. The sisters started crying with laughter and gave me a look that said: ‘You got yourself into this; get yourself out of it.’

After two minutes I stood up and moved towards the eulogist, she took the cue and said, “So, in conclusion, I’d like to say, Karl, you were a spherical bastard, because anyway we looked at you, you were a bastard.” And with that, turned to me and said sweetly, as though she had just delivered a loving tribute, “Thank you so much Father,” and sat down. The sisters were in hysterics.

Esme had been Karl’s wife. They had both been lawyers. I knew by her sophisticated use of the word ‘spherical,’ that she was an educated woman, but they had both been co-dependent alcoholics and they blamed each other for the way their marriage and their adult lives fell apart.

This was quite a way to start my ministry to all souls. I wondered if all my funerals were going to be this action-packed. Luckily since then, I have mainly buried spherical saints.

Encouraged by the author of 2 Maccabees, All Souls Day has its roots in the 6th Century Benedictine tradition of praying to the dead. It was a way of recognising that human bonds go beyond death. By the 10th Century this feast was about praying for the dead, that they might know the merciful love of God. St. Odilo of Cluny fixed this feast on November 2 at his abbey at Cluny in 998. Rome adopted and mandated it in the fourteenth century and ever since we have been praying that our dead would be a better place. Until recently they needed all the help they could get.

These days there is a major change in the way we conduct funerals. The ritual hasn’t changed, but our language has. Catholic funerals were occasions for praying for our deceased relatives and friends that they might not be in hell or have long in purgatory. If it was the first option, there was not much any of us could do about it. Mind you we have never had to believe any human being is in hell. Most of our prayers at funerals asked that they soon be “released” from purgatory and admitted to heaven. Things changed after Vatican II. Where we once spoke of “commending our sister or brother to the mercy of God,” or, “praying for the departed’s immortal soul,” we now sound much more confident about where our sister or brother is.

I was struck by this theology during the homily delivered at Pope John Paul II’s Requiem Mass in St Peter’s Square on the 8th April 2005. Some people there were chanting ‘santo subito’ – ‘sainthood now’, and indeed he was canonized, along with John XXIII, by Pope Francis on April 27 2014, but the eminent theologian Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, who two weeks later became Pope Benedict XVI, said in his homily that Pope John Paul II was already enjoying heaven. “We can be sure that our beloved Pope is standing today at the window of the Father’s house, that he sees us and blesses us.” But that means he was already in heaven, which is what canonization says. I didn’t disagree with him in regard to Pope John Paul, but at no stage did he say that we “commended him to the mercy of God,” or, that we had to “pray for his immortal soul”. Cardinal Ratzinger was perfectly in line with the recent change of emphasis at our funerals.

After Vatican II we re-discovered a new-found confidence in God’s compassion toward the dead. In the best sense if we really believe in the power of Easter then God’s love at work in the world is greater than our sinfulness and our human limitations. As Christians because we know that love took human form in Jesus Christ, we have a God who not only entered into our life, but also was subjected to and embraced the alienation of death. We are the only world religion to believe that. Johannes B. Metz in Poverty of Spirit summarised it perfectly: “Jesus did not cling to his divinity. He did not simply dip into our existence, wave the magic wand of divine life over us, and then hurriedly retreat to his eternal home. He did not leave us with a tattered dream, letting us brood over the mystery of our existence. Instead, Jesus subjected himself to our plight. He immersed himself in our misery and followed man’s (sic.) road to the end. He did not escape from the torment of our life, nobly repudiating man. With the full weight of his divinity he descended into the abyss of human existence, penetrating its darkest depths. He was not spared from the dark mystery of our poverty as human beings” (1998, New York: Paulist Press, p.12).

In our increasingly secular society it’s interesting to note that the word “soul” persists in ordinary conversation. Many non-religious people use this most religious of terms to describe another person. We often hear how others are lonely, distressed, or lost souls. It can be said that someone has a “beautiful soul” or that a piece of music, a painting or other work of art “stirred my soul.” We describe mellow jazz as “soulful” and still alert others to distress by an SOS, “save our souls.” These uses of the word reinforce St Thomas Aquinas’ teaching that the soul makes us human, and set us apart from other animals.

Nearly all the great religions of the world believe in a soul, or its equivalent - something that survives the annihilation of the body in death. I have come to the opinion that whatever else might characterize the soul, memory is an integral part of it. For example the funerals of Alzheimer sufferers are rarely sad occasions because the family invariably says that they “lost” their loved one months or years before because he or she couldn’t remember anyone or anything.

Memory as a constitutive element in my soul means that when I meet God face to face, I will remember who I am and how I lived, and God will remember me. It’s also a comfort for us to think that we will be reunited with those we have loved who have died before us, because we will remember each other.

And what’s best about a “remembering soul” is that it is purified. If we think of purgatory as a stage rather than a place, then it’s possible to reclaim it as a moment where our memory is purified so we can be at peace with God for eternity.

So as we remember our ‘departed souls’ lets never forget God’s saving love, live lives worthy of it here and now, and become the person who, at our funeral, might be termed a spherical saint.

Richard Leonard is an Australian Jesuit and author of Hatch, Match & Dispatch: A Catholic Guide to Sacraments (Paulist Press).

A film that has stood the test of time in regard to death and grief:
Ordinary People. Starring Mary Tyler Moore. Donald Sutherland and Timothy Hutton. Directed by Robert Redford. 1980. Rated R 124 mins.

The Jarrett family is in crisis. Last year Beth and Calvin Jarrett lost their son, Buck, in a boating accident. Their second child Conrad survived the accident and although he was not responsible for it, blames himself for his older brother’s death. Conrad’s depression has seen him admitted to a psychiatric hospital following an attempt on his own life. He is not long of out of the hospital and feeling ill at ease at home, and at school. He believes that his mother Beth always preferred his older brother Buck and that she blames him for surviving the accident. Conrad starts therapy with Dr Berger and as he inches toward a recovery, his parent’s marriage falls apart.

Based on Judith Guest’s novel, Ordinary People was a huge and surprising hit in 1980. Surprising only because the material is so dark, the drama so intense. But that’s what gives this film its power. In 1981 it won Oscars for Best Actor for Timothy Hutton in his debut feature film role, Best Director for Robert Redford in his directorial debut, Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium for Alvin Sargent, and Best Picture.

It opens with Conrad singing with his school choir. “O Lord we contemplate your peace”. The text is sung to Pachelbel’s Canon. This c.1690 instrumental music has now become so synonymous with this film that it is sometimes popularly called “Ordinary People music”. The words chosen for this music are instructive. The entire film is about three people who are searching for peace. Conrad externalises the trauma of the family’s grief. He is the most publicly fragile, but we soon discover that all three are emotionally brittle.

The title of the film is of course ironic. In a sense, the Jarretts are not ordinary people. They are wealthy, educated and socially connected. Conrad goes to an exclusive private school. Beth Jarrett, especially, is conscious of keeping up appearances and pretending that what problems they are having can be dealt with inside the family unit. She wants business as usual. A tagline for the film runs, “Everything is in its proper place... Except the past.”

But grief is no respecter of class or privilege. The Jarretts are ordinary in the tragedy that has struck them, and in their inability to cope with it. Conrad wants to opt out, either in suicide - his cry for help - or by living in his own inaccessibly painful world. Emotionally he wears a “Keep Out” sign around his neck. His father Calvin is well practised in keeping the peace, or at least negotiating the icy, delicate truce between his wife and son. And then there is Beth. Only Katherine Hepburn could have beaten Mary Tyler Moore for the Oscar in 1981, and even then I think it was a misjudgement. Ordinary People sets us up to dislike Beth and to blame her for the family’s pain. Beth was the one who fussed over what tie Calvin should wear to Buck’s funeral. Beth immediately scrubbed the bathroom floor clean to get the blood off the tiles after Conrad’s suicide attempt. She is the one who on seeing that Conrad has broken a plate holds the pieces together and declares, “Oh, I think it can be saved.” Cold and aloof, in a lesser actress’ hands, Beth would have been the villain. Tyler Moore’s performance is of such depth, however, that we come to empathise with all three principal players, including Beth.

“Calvin Jarrett: He just wants to know that you don’t hate him. Beth Jarrett: Hate him! How could I hate him? Mothers don’t hate their sons! Is that what he told you? You see how you believe everything he tells you? And you can’t do the same for me, you can’t! God, I don’t know what anyone wants from me anymore. Ward: Beth, we don’t want anything from you; Audrey, Cal, Connie and Me, we just want you to be happy. Beth Jarrett: Happy! Ward, you tell me the meaning of happy. But first you better make sure your kids are good and safe, that they haven’t fallen of a horse, been hit by a car, or drown in that swimming pool you’re so proud of! …. Then, you come and tell me how to be happy!”

The truth teller in Ordinary People is Dr Berger. “Dr. Berger: A little advice about feelings kiddo; don’t expect it always to tickle.” It’s hard to imagine now that expressing one’s feelings was once considered indulgent or at least impolite. The English have carved out a national identity partly built on the “stiff upper lip”. Modern psychology, however, has shown us the down side of emotional repression. Feelings don’t go away, just because we will or wish them to, but that they come out to play in other, often much more destructive ways. Repressed feelings lead to role playing and us using work, busy-ness, social success, recreation, drugs, alcohol and endless other addictions as narcotics to ward off the pain of our feelings. “Calvin: I don’t know who you are (Beth). I don’t know what we have been playing at.”

This film was part a of a turning point in western consciousness when we recognised the importance of expressing our loving and darker feelings, dealing with grief, anger and resentment and choosing life in all its forms. “Dr Berger: What was the one wrong thing you did? Conrad: I hung on. I stayed with the boat. I lived.”

In the Christian tradition one of the Christian virtues is self-care. With all the things we now know about the complexity of the human personality, we understand that a healthy exploration of our feelings is an essential ingredient in caring for ourselves. The thing Christians need to be alert to is that this form of self-care does not trip over into self-absorption – where the world revolves about my feelings, my needs, my wants. Then, it is can be part of the problem, not part of the solution.

And what’s our tradition’s anecdote to that happening? Have as ordinary life as possible in touch with ordinary people with ordinary hopes, joys and anxieties. That usually puts our feelings and issues into perspective, makes them more manageable, and means we have other ordinary people with whom we can share the burden.

Richard Leonard SJ is the author of Movies That Matter: Reading Film Through the Lens of Faith. Chicago: Loyola Press. 2006. Pauline Books & Media, 150 Castlereagh Street, Sydney, (02) 9264 8630. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Moving films on death and grief you may have missed – but worth the effort.

The Road Home. Starring Zhang Ziyi, Sun Honyei. Directed by Zhang Yinou. 90 mins. Rated G. 1999.

In the middle of a fierce winter, Luo Yusheng’s father dies and he returns to his village for the funeral. He is now a successful businessman in the city. His mother, Zhao Di, and his father, Luo Changyu, have lived simply in rural villages all their lives. Zhao Di insists that her husband be buried back in the village where they met, and where Luo Changyu was the teacher for forty years. The procession from the city morgue to the village means a full day trudging through the snow. Luo Yusheng tries to explain to his mother that the family is not wealthy enough to pay the pallbearers for such a long procession, but Zhao Di will take nothing less. “Luo Yusheng: The funeral procession is all that matters to her now.” Luo reflects on the loving marriage his parents have enjoyed, how they met, and his father’s life of service. Throughout the valley the word goes out that Luo Changyu’s body is to be brought home for burial. Former students volunteer their services for the procession. When the day comes there is a blinding snowstorm, but everyone turns up as expected. Moved with devotion the son fulfils his father’s last wish – Luo becomes a teacher, if only for a day, in the same schoolroom where his father taught those who have just borne him home.

This film is worth seeing if only for Zhang Yinou’s unaffected direction, Hou Yong’s stunning cinematography, and Bao San’s masterful musical score. All the performances are deeply moving, especially Zhang Ziyi as the young Zhao Di.

On a deeper level, however, if ever there was film on the fifth commandment, The Road Home is it. Given China’s communist rule and official atheism, it may not be intentionally so, but it proves again the universality of the truth. This gentle and warm film opens up all the reasons why most children honour their parents, and not just in death. Luo Yusheng wants to honour his father, but he is also practical. He knows the limits of what they can do. His mother, however, knows the veneration with which her husband was held by his students in the valley. She gives them an opportunity to be generous in return.

The Road Home captures the respect with which teachers are held in China. Teaching is among one of the most revered professions there, and in many other Asian countries as well. This respect for teachers in Asia has a spiritual basis in Confucius. He taught his disciples that they should, “educate all without discrimination, and teach according to the abilities of one’s students.” Well before the value of it was widely recognised, Confucius saw the need for the education of the whole person. He devised a syllabus of religion, music, archery, chariot driving, reading and writing, and mathematics. This persisting value in Asia is something we have lost in many parts of the West. In certain circles, and with good cause, education is now seen as a commodity rather than a service, and so teachers at every level are accorded less respect. They are seen to be doing their job – delivering value for the educational dollar. Luckily for us, there are still dedicated teachers who inspire their students and help them see the priceless gift of being educated.

What Luo Yusheng fails to appreciate is that Luo Changyu’s students share the affection and respect he holds for his father. It is remarkable that of all the commandments in the Old Testament, over time they were distilled down to ten. Indeed there are 613 Commandments in the Old Testament. 365 of them refer to things that the Israelites cannot do, and 248 refer to things they should do. The Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, is the Readers Digest version of the Jewish law. It’s brevity makes it memorable and it provides a framework for daily living. The Fifth Commandment is the first one to move beyond our duty toward God. It is also in the positive form, it is something we should do, or more hopefully something we want to do. This commandment was not unique to Israel. A similar requirement can be found in nearly every law code of other ancient civilisations. In these times parents died at much earlier ages than now. This obligation enshrined the importance of families, memory and social cohesion.

Some people find it hard to honour their father or mother today. Some have good reasons for not doing so. We cannot cloak in sentiment criminal neglect or harm done to some children by their parents. These children do not need an order to honour their parents. They need assistance so to deal with the scars of their childhood, and to try and love more peacefully as adults, and be good parents.

The word honor in Hebrew means, “to give glory”. It is a verb, something we do, a gift we keep giving to our parents. It is not just a given. Our parents receive it from us because they earn it. In modern parlance, then, the Fifth Commandment is about mutual obligation. Zhao Di knows that many of the villagers loved her husband like a father, so even though her request is outrageous, she knows they will want to bestow this glory on Luo Changyu.

The Road Home shows the importance of farewell rituals. Many of the symbols and ritual actions used in the film are easily identified within the way we farewell our own dead. In this film they bind up the coffin in a special cloth. We place a pall over the coffin to recall the white robe of baptism. They hold symbols of Luo Changyu’s life dear, and these evoke stories about him and their relationships with him. We equally value mementoes of the signs of the deceased which often trigger memories and eulogies. They have a procession for the mourners. So do we. Meals play a central role in remembering Luo. We have the Eucharist, Holy Communion or a Wake at which we remember both the life of Christ, as well as the one from whom we are taking our leave.

Apart from the theme of travel - walking, running and processing - which is central to the story, the colour red dominates throughout – in a piece of cloth, a scarf and a jacket. Through the Legend of Nian, red in Chinese mythology represents the warding off of evil, and the fertility of spring. In the Christian tradition red symbolises the flame of the Holy Spirit and the blood of the martyrs. It is not by accident that feast of Pentecost took the place of a pagan spring festival. We hold that Spirit brings fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Fruits we see so clearly lived out and celebrated in The Road Home. Luo Yusheng comes to realise why the procession back to the schoolmaster’s village was so important to his mother. “Luo Yusheng: The road is part of their love story.” May our love of the road be part of our Christian love story too.

Richard Leonard SJ

As it is in Heaven (Så som i himmelen). Directed by Kay Pollak. Moderate coarse language, moderate themes, a sex scene, moderate violence. 127 minutes.

A drama about exorcising demons and discovering love. Daniel Darius an internationally recognized Conductor, drops out of international celebrity after a heart attack and steps back into his childhood village in far north Sweden. A film all about obedience- attuning the ear to listen – from which comes harmony and balance. Keep your eye out for the angels in this film. They are everywhere.

Richard Leonard SJ
The Last Days. (1998). Documentary film directed by James Moll. 88 minutes. Adult themes.
One of the most moving documentaries I have ever seen. It is not just about five Hungarian Jews who were children when they were deported to the death camps. It is like a biblical narrative: the story of scapegoat theology, purification of memory, handing on the story, “They are not going to take my soul…. I am not going to ashes”, “Where is God? God is in your strength”, “God did not create the Holocaust…God gave us free will. I blame men not God.”

Richard Leonard SJ
Departures (Okuribito). Starring Tsutomu Yamazaki, Kimiko Yo, Ryoko Hirosue, Masahiro Motoki. Directed by Yojiro Takita. Rated M (mature themes). 101mins.

A fine, often beautiful, film that can be recommended. It won the 2008 Best Foreign Film Oscar over Waltz with Bashir and The Class, strong competition.

However, you might be wondering during the first ten minutes. It begins slowly and solemnly with ceremonial and ritual for the dead. The, without warning, it becomes quite farcical and you wonder where you are. This is pre-credits. And immediately after the credits there is an orchestra playing Beethoven's Ode to Joy with a full choir. What is this film? What are the departures?

Actually, the central character of the film, the young Daigo, a cello player whose orchestra is shut down, wonders about this same question when he applies for a job on returning to his home town. He thinks he will work for a travel agent or be a tour guide. The Japanese title of the film is said to mean, 'the one who sees persons off...'. But, he is to be a 'coffinator', an embalmer of the dead who performs his duties with religious atmosphere, reverent ceremonial and a decorum that enables the grieving family and mourners to pay their respects to the dead and experience the solemnity of the final rite of passage. Death is seen, in Buddhist and eastern religion terms, not as the end but as the gateway to the next stage of existence.

We are fascinated with the repetition of this ceremony, the ritual meticulously the same, but the response of the mourners so different – and we realise that the manager and Daigo are contributing to a sense of human dignity and an acknowledgement of the life of the dead person as well as the survivors.

That all sounds very, very serious, and so it is. However, the film is interspersed with a great deal of humour, especially in Daigo's personal journey from being very sick at his first case to a final ritual which brings the whole drama, the embalming, his marriage, his family and the absence of his father, to a very satisfying conclusion.

Masahiro Matoko gives a finely nuanced performance, just the right seriousness and comedy, an acute sense of timing and facial expressions indicating the depths of the character. Tustomu Yamizaki brings a blend of the offhand and the dedicated to his role as the manager.

Beautiful to look at (which is sometimes rather challenging through our tears), it is a wonderful combination of the realistically mundane, the sadness of life and its uncertainties, yet the funny side of human foibles, the emotion of music and an opportunity (without being preached at) for the audience to really respond emotionally to and intellectually think about the deeper aspects of life and death.

Departures won the SIGNIS Prize (the World Association of Catholic Communicators) at the Washington DC Film Festival in 2009.

Peter Malone MSC and is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.


Issue 4 - 27 Oct

A Silver Lining by Fr Richard Leonard


Women’s Leadership in the Church
You may never have heard of The Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network, or you may have heard it by its former name: The Apostleship of Prayer. Founded in 1844 in France as a movement within Ignatian spirituality, each month the Pope identifies a challenge facing humanity and the mission of the Church and asks this network to pray about it, reflect upon it and act where possible.
We’re hoping that The Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network (PWRN) will become an integral part of our Jesuit parish life. Recently, Sydneysiders John and Anne Gray became the first lay couple to become National Coordinators of PWRN. Fr David Brathwaite, who is member of our local Jesuit Community and assists with various parish liturgies, is the PWRN Coordinator for Asia and the Spiritual Advisor for Australia. In 2021 Anne & John and Fr David will be offering our parish, and beyond, a new retreat programme called ‘The Way of the Heart.’
For October, Pope Francis asks everyone to pray that women be given greater leadership roles in the Church. The Pope focuses our prayer, reflection and action this month like this: “No one has been baptised a priest or a bishop. We have all been baptised as lay people. Lay people are protagonists of the Church. Today, it is especially necessary to create broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church. And we must emphasise the feminine lay presence because women tend to be left aside. We must promote the integration of women, especially where important decisions are made. We pray that by the virtue of baptism, the laity, especially women, may participate more in areas of responsibility in the Church, without falling into forms of clericalism that diminish the lay charism.”
So let’s respond to the Pope’s challenge given that this vital issue also emerged as one of the top topics in the deliberations of the Plenary Council.
In speaking with young Catholic women especially, it’s rare that the issue of women’s leadership does not emerge strongly for many of them as a problem in their life of faith. They see that in nearly every other sphere of life women are, at least theoretically and now enshrined by law in most countries, able to hold any office of principal authority in any institution other than religious ones. Certainly, some women and men have walked away from a faith in a so-called male God, and some from the Catholic Church, in particular, because they see it as inherently discriminatory.
Though the status of women is vastly different throughout the world, and sometimes very tragic in some cultures, even within these differing social expectations, St Pope John Paul II said that women’s rights to dignity and human flourishing are given by God and should always be defended by the church. This even more true in nations where women’s basic human rights are criminally and tragically abused. Given the differing social expectations and even though the issues are larger than ordination, current debates, both inside and outside the church, often center on the Church stating that it cannot, has no authority to, ordain women to the priesthood.
The following is a brief summary, which hardly conveys all the arguments presented in the libraries of books written on both sides of this debate. There are six main reasons the Church says it has no power to ordain women: firstly, Jesus did not ordain any women—that the first apostles were all male; secondly, the all-male priesthood has been an unbroken tradition in the church’s history; thirdly, because in sacramental liturgies the priest acts in the name and person of Jesus — having a male priest establishes a clearer iconography or identification between Jesus and the priest; fourthly, while women and men are created equal by God, they have differing gender-specific roles, and to confuse these is to harm the balance of our human condition; fifthly, the priesthood should not be seen as an office of power to be obtained and used, but as an order of self-sacrificing service; finally, the Church has been a place where women are not oppressed but where their many and manifest gifts have flourished and been celebrated from Mary, the Mother of God, who is first among (all) the saints to St Mary Magdalene, who was the “apostle to the Apostles” to an array of mystics, saints, founders, martyrs, and scholars.
The critics of these arguments claim: firstly, that Jesus may have had twelve male apostles, but he had and commissioned many female disciples, some of whom were his most faithful followers. They also challenge that he “ordained” anyone in the way the Church now uses that term and understands that office. Set against the customs of his day, his attitudes and practices towards women and their leadership were radical; secondly, the argument of an unbroken tradition of an “all-male” liturgical leadership is not as watertight as some claim. There seems to be some evidence of women presiding over house churches, Mary Magdalene and Junia are called apostles, and women were deacons in the first centuries of Christianity; thirdly, at sacramental liturgies, the priest acts in the name and person of the Risen Christ in whom “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). While the Church has let go of Jesus’ culture and religion as prerequisites for Christian ordination, gender, apparently, remains the only non-negotiable; fourthly, given that we no longer read the Book of Genesis literally, the gender roles that emerge there should not be absolutised, but should rather be interpreted as a theological construction around social determinations; fifthly, there is nothing wrong in talking about access to governance when it combines the right and just use of power as well as modelling self-sacrificing service. Finally, for all the church’s rhetoric about the great gifts of women, and especially about motherhood, there has not been a corresponding and meaningful harnessing of their gifts for leadership at every level of the Church’s life.
While the judgment of a male cleric might be seen to be overly defensive of the Church’s position, I want to revisit the earlier distinction between ordination and leadership. When I think of some of the greatest women in the Christian story who inspire me: Joan of Arc, Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, Mary Ward, Madeline Sophie Barat, Catherine McAuley, Mary MacKillop, Nano Nagle and Mary Aitkenhead, just to name a few, none of them were ordained and they all had to put up with appalling discrimination from male Church officials of their day. The only historical comfort we can draw from what they suffered is that their detractors are now largely forgotten to history, but each of them is now or is in the process of being declared a Saint, and rightly so.
It is important to keep the distinction between ordination and leadership in perspective. While ordination gives a priest sacramental and structural power, it does not necessarily bestow upon him the gift of leadership, which is endorsed by a leader’s followers. There are some priests who may be ordained, but they lead no one anywhere. There are women who have never and will never be ordained, but their leadership is inspiring. If we look beyond sacramental leadership—and I concede that is a central reality of the Catholic Church’s life—and examine education, healthcare, welfare, pastoral care, spirituality, and indeed parish life, ours included, we find that in almost every western country in the world, women’s leadership is indispensable. In fact, if women stopped leading and working in all these ministries, the entire mission and daily ministry of the church would come to a halt. It might be a good thing if all the women in the church went on strike one week in order to remind the men who it is that are actually running this “show” in and through their sometimes heroic, self-sacrificing service.
Similarly, it is important that we recognize the equal dignity of women and men created in the image and likeness of God and their complementarity and mutuality, so that it translates into the active participation of women throughout all levels of decision-making in the Church, a re-examination of the nature of non-priestly ministry with the exploration of more inclusive roles for men and women, and a reform of practices that do not promote the equality of men and women.
This is not the first time Pope Francis has initiated a discussion on the role of women in the life of the Church. “Women must have a greater presence in the decision-making areas of the church… [they] cannot be limited to the fact of being an altar server or the president of Caritas, the catechist … No! ... We need to create still broader opportunities for a more inclusive female presence in the Church …. Demands that the legitimate rights of women be respected, based on the firm conviction that men and women are equal in dignity, present the Church with profound and challenging questions which cannot be lightly evaded.”
In fact Francis has gone further than any of his other predecessors in Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) of March 2016 when the Pope said, “I certainly value feminism, but one that does not demand uniformity or negate motherhood. For the grandeur of women includes all the rights derived from their inalienable human dignity but also from their feminine genius, which is essential to society… (#173) and “... I would like to stress the fact that, even though significant advances have been made in the recognition of women's rights and their participation in public life, in some countries much remains to be done to promote these rights....There are those who believe that many of today’s problems have arisen because of feminine emancipation. This argument, however, is not valid, it is false, untrue, a form of male chauvinism.” The equal dignity of men and women makes us rejoice to see old forms of discrimination disappear, and within families there is a growing reciprocity. If certain forms of feminism have arisen which we must consider inadequate, we must nonetheless see in the women's movement the working of the Spirit for a clearer recognition of the dignity and rights of women.”(#54)
Hopefully we will soon head in the direction outlined by Cardinal Martini and Bishop Wcela in calling for women to be ordained deacons. “Ordaining women as deacons who have the necessary personal, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral qualities would give their indispensable role in the life of the church a new degree of official recognition, both in their ministry and in their direct connection to their diocesan bishop for assignments and faculties. In addition to providing such women with the grace of the sacrament, ordination would enable them to exercise diaconal service in the teaching, sanctifying, and governing functions of the church; it would also make it possible for them to hold ecclesiastical offices now limited to those in sacred orders….”
Future discussion about women becoming cardinals is both theologically and theoretically possible. Most Catholics don’t know that the College of Cardinals, emerging as we know it around 1220, had, for most of its 800 year history, lay men (married and single) and clerics together doing the voting for the Bishop of Rome. If a layman got elected, he immediately had to be Ordained a deacon, priest and bishop. There were always electors there who could never be elected. Lay Cardinals include Francesco I de’Medici (father of four), Ferdinand of Austria (made a Cardinal aged 10) and Luis Antonio De Bourbon (created a Cardinal aged 8 and father of three). The last lay Cardinal was Teodolofo Mertel, a lay man and lawyer who was Secretary of State to Pius IX in 1858. He was later Ordained a Deacon, but was never Ordained a priest and was the last non-priest Cardinal when he died in 1899.
The 1917 Code of Canon Law decreed that only priests or bishops could be chosen as cardinals thus officially closing the historical period where lay men were also Cardinals. In 1962 John XXIII legislated that all cardinals are required to be consecrated as bishops, unless an explicit exception is granted by the Pope. Several Cardinals have been admitted to the College without be ordained a bishop.
All this is background to the simple fact that Pope Francis could go back to the more ancient and longer tradition in the College and welcome back lay men and, this time, welcome lay women as well. Married men and women could not be elected, but could do the electing. I say if we are serious about women’s leadership, then, ‘bring it on now!’
Regardless of this discussion, it is incontestable that women should participate more and more at every level of decision making: locally, nationally, and internationally. Rather than walk away from the church, young women especially, but not exclusively, will hopefully stay, name, and shame any discrimination they experience in God’s name, enabling all of us to create a more inclusive and empowering church for them and their daughters and sons.


Rev Dr Richard Leonard SJ is the author of What are we doing on earth for Christ’s sake? (Paulist Press, 2015) available at St Paul’s bookstore, (02) 9264 8630,

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