Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP,
7 Nov 2017

St Mary's Cathedral Hall, Sydney

THEME: "The Mighty One has done great things for me and Holy is His name" (Lk 1:49)
Responding to the inspiration of Mary as modern day missionary disciples

A very warm welcome to our forum for the student leaders in the systemic and congregational schools. I thank Dr Dan White, Mr Anthony Cleary, other education leaders and staff for this initiative. I especially welcome our student leaders for the year ahead, since you represent the 90,000 students in Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Sydney and, I hope, many of you will in due course also represent our Church in the wider society.

Mary Did You Know? is a modern Christmas carol, born around the same time most of you were (1991). The lyrics by Mark Lowry and music by Buddy Greene have been recorded by at least 40 different artists during your life-time. It's a sentimental song - as when it asks "Mary, did you know that when you kiss your little Baby you kiss the face of God?" - and R.E. students of Sydney Catholic Schools may cringe at its theological unsophistication. But we are carried along by its series of questions about how much Mary really understood at the first Christmas.

It's interesting that the song engages with the story of Christmas through a series of questions to Mary. For a musical conversation frames the Gospel report of the first Christmas too. Luke's Infancy narrative is in five scenes. In the first one is in town. The Angel Gabe says a rather grand g'day to a small-town girl named: "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee" and then has an extended dialogue with her, revealing God's will for her bit by bit. After all the Q&A she accepts his reminder that "Nothing is impossible for God" and so gives her big YES. (Lk 1:26-38) Christmas happens within a conversation, and we get the Angelus as our take-away from Scene One.

In the next scene is in the hills. Mary's arrived for a cappuccino with her cousin Lizzy and we get another grand greeting - "Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb" - followed by questions, this time from Elizabeth to Mary, and answers from Mary. (Lk 1:39-56) Once again, Q&A structures our Christmas story - and some song and dance, including the first ever performance of the Magnificat.

By Scene Three (in the fields) you can guess the score: again we get the salutations - this time it's a band called The Angels greeting an audience of shepherds - and there are a series of interchanges that tells us "unto us a Child is born… Christ the Lord… lying in a manger". (Lk 2:1-21) And amidst the dialogue we hear the Gloria, the first great Christmas carol: "Gloria to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will".

Scene Four is set in the Temple. The parents are greeted by a priest and a prophetess. Again, there is conversation about the who and how and why of this Child and the implications for Mary. (Lk 2:22-38) She's warned there's trouble ahead for them both, but Simeon sings the Nunc Dimmitis, with its promise of light in the darkness and salvation for all.

Finally, in the Fifth scene of Baby Jesus the Musical, we're back in the Temple, and Jesus is on the verge of manhood. He makes his first splash on the religious stage by teaching the teachers (Lk 2:39-52). Once again, there's Q&A - several days of interrogation and debate - between the student and the teachers and also between the boy and his parents. The whole story ends with us being told that through this extended conversation over his early years, the boy Jesus "grew in wisdom and understanding, and in favour both with God and people".

It's right in the middle of that musical, then, that we get the Church's favourite sunset song, The Magnificat (Lk 1:46-55), composed by Mary herself, a victory song on behalf of all the puny: "The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is His name… He has scattered the proud-hearted and brought down the mighty from their thrones. He has raised up the lowly and filled the hungry with good things." As Pope Francis has said, Mary's song of hope is 'the song of the People of God walking through history'.1 Her words speak for each of us who has been given the opportunity to say yes to God especially to His project of defending the little ones, the poor and powerless.

As young Christian leaders you should strive to radiate that Christian hope for the future and that Christian joy in the present. Christians, Pope Francis keeps reminding us, are not merely maintenance-men but "missionary disciples".2 "Every Christian," he says, "is challenged, here and now, to be actively engaged in evangelization", that is, sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with the world around us. And that means we must be ready, like Gabriel and Mary, like Mary and Elizabeth, like the Angels and the Shepherds, like the Prophets and the Parents, like the Teachers and the Student, to engage in genuine conversation.

Words. We instinctively understand that they matter a lot. Words can anger or appease, comfort or criticise, excite or bore. It's through words that we can describe a scene or event, communicate a feeling or idea, reveal a truth or persuade with an argument, make each other laugh or cry. And still the possibilities of language are not exhausted. In How To Do Things With Words the English philosopher John Austin noted that words don't just describe things, they do things, they change the nature of reality, as when God says "Let there be light", or Mary says "Amen - let it be done", or we say "I do" in a marriage ceremony. When we make a promise, or a judge gives a sentence, or a company makes a contract, or a government makes a law, words do big things to us and our world.

Conversation changes things. The word comes from the Latin con-vertere, to turn around, transform or convert. So, at its heart conversation is not just sounds, fish-filler for the ears, verbal diarrhoea. No, words can and should make a difference, to us and to others. As theologians Michael Cowan and Bernard Lee wrote: "Talking happens a lot… Conversation is rarer by far… No one takes leave of a real conversation the same as when they entered into it. Our conversations create us. Conversation and risk and conversion belong together. Conversation is dangerous, therefore, to anyone unwilling to embrace or at least to accept transformation."3

Mary is a model of genuine conversation. For as St John Paul II pointed out, searching conversation is essential to Marian faithfulness.4 Amongst the characteristics of such conversation that we see in Mary, John Paul highlighted her questioning. Mary is curious, open-hearted, wants answers. So she asks questions of God, Jesus, Joseph, the angels and saints. She converses with relatives, kings and shepherds, weddings guests and disciples, all sorts. She has that conversation with God we call prayer and that conversation with each other we call dialogue; put them together and you get communion. True communion begins with two (or more) people searching together for the truth.

Of course, to converse with another person is to recognise that they are worthy of your time, energy, words, listening. It is a mark of respect. It accepts that they might know things you don't. It risks that they might say something confirming, enlightening, comfortable, or something upsetting, subversive, even transforming. To converse is to treat the other as our equal or better, a partner in the search for truth.

Once she's been given some explanation, Mary's response is "Let what you've said be done". Here we see another aspect of faithful conversation and conversing faith that St John Paul emphasized: reception. "This is the crucial moment, the moment in which a person perceives that he will never completely understand the 'how'; that there are in God's plan more areas of mystery than clarity."5 And so after and alongside all the interrogating of reality and of each other, we must like Mary have the humility to accept that we will not get it all, in this life at least; that our grasp of truth is always partial and so we must trust in something, in Someone, trustworthy.

Thereafter the conversation continues. Not as an endless stream of consciousness but as a series of conversations with the same and other people, examining and re-examining our own beliefs and ideals, extending our understanding and enlarging our hearts, seeking new and better ways of being and doing.

Whatever our views of the recent debate over same-sex 'marriage' and whatever our hopes for the long-term results, I would say it has not been our community's finest hour when it comes to having conversation. There have been high emotions, slogans, bullying. Many people said they were afraid to speak their minds in their workplaces, in the social media, at school or home, at least if their views were unfashionable. Wherever that particular issue goes, we are challenged to rebuild a culture of civil discourse, where we can debate serious questions with passion and candour, but also converse humbly and respectfully.

As leaders of schools today and of our community tomorrow, I pray that you will cultivate the art of genuine conversation. In doing so you will be cultivating character, certain habits of listening, pondering, speaking and acting, hopefully in service of God and others. That will set you up not just for a good 2018 but for the best life beyond. I hope some of you will be spouses and parents, some priests or religious, some teachers or politicians; but all of you people with a sense of purpose, of mission, of readiness to convertere, to transform the world; and that starts now. An abiding love of the holy Scriptures, holy Eucharist and Reconciliation, regular engagement in works of social justice and charity, even (perhaps especially) when you think you are too busy - these are opportunities for goodness and for conversation and conversion. They make your school a kind of gym for the soul.

"The Mighty One has done great things" for you: now you must do great things for Him and for others. "His name is Holy": now you must hallow His name by making the world a better place. Mary did you know, your baby Boy will save, give sight, calm storms, raise the dead? I'm not sure exactly what Mary knew. But to you young Christians, leaders in Catholic schools, I say: Jesus is your baby boy, too. And so with the song I ask you: "Did you know that your baby Boy is heaven's perfect Lamb? This sleeping child you're holding is the great I AM?"

1 Pope Francis, Homily for the Mass on the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 15 August 2013.

2 Pope Francis, in Evangelii Gaudium: Apostolic Exhortation on the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today's World (2013),119-121, and in many other addresses.

3 Michael Cowan and Bernard Lee, Conversation, Risk and Conversion: The Inner and Public Life of Small Christian Communities (Orbis Books, 1997), p. 1