From the Chaplain

A few years ago during school holidays, I spent some time on our Jesuit vineyard in Sevenhill, South Australia making an annual retreat , with some time on the Riesling trail in the Clare Valley. I have always heard this parable of the vinedresser as a tough, 'shape up or ship out' message. I imagined God as the vinedresser who had a field day in lopping and cutting dead branches, trimming unproductive stems, and uprooting all the dead rot that delayed fruitfulness. It seems a violent activity for the vine, but what we see is not what we get.

It is indeed a pleasant surprise to actually see the vinedresser in action. He or she carefully inspects the branches, delicately cutting only the smallest amount so that the vine will be healthier and more productive. Every cut is measured and aimed to prune back only the diseased branch so as to bring about greater growth for the whole vine and bigger yield for the vineyard. The vinedresser is not violent with the vine, but extremely tender.

This parable has a profound insight into the Christian life. We can claim to belong to the Christian family all we like. We can come to Mass every Sunday, but if the fruit we produce is bitter and poisonous, if we are unforgiving, unjust, and uncaring, we cannot claim to be on the vine of Christ's love. And if that's the case we are in desperate need of the gentle hand of the vinedresser, who only wants to see us bring forth the yield he knows we are capable of achieving.

The Reverend Billy Graham once said, "Being a member of a Church no more makes you a Christian than living in a garage makes you a car." That's the point of today's Gospel - God will not judge us by what we say or the public face of goodness we can turn on; we will be judged by our acts of love in and through our kindness and compassion.

Why is Religion is good for you? In recent studies religious people tend to be happier and more fulfilled in their lives than non-believers. Mark Vernon, a writer in faith and ethics, in the recent 'The Tablet' has this to say. "Fundamentalism, fanaticism, fights. These headlines often cast religion in a bad light. In fact, all in all, the practices of faith tend to have positive effects on people's lives. The impact has been assessed across a number of metrics. For example, the likelihood that an individual will drink excessively or take drugs decreases significantly if they go to church, temple or mosque".

In some countries, like the USA, Canada where religiosity has been extensively studied being actively religious means you are less likely to commit crime, get divorced, commit suicide or suffer from depression. You will probably also be healthier and live longer.

Ignatius Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises nurtures several attitudes that modern science has demonstrated are essential for wellbeing. Ignatius urged his readers to praise God, that is, to learn to be grateful. He believed that humankind was made to serve God, which had the effect of dissolving egoism by drawing attention away for yourself. Ignatius argues that salvation involves being indifferent to what happens to you, so while everyone has times of desolation it is also the case that such experiences tend to pass. This too can help, by building resilience.

This same attitude is embedded in the spiritual traditions, Julian of Norwich lived through the Black Death, one of the most devastating plagues in history, and yet she was still able to write, "All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well". Alain de Botton in his latest book,' Religion for Atheists', agrees that religious practices provide useful techniques for everything from building humane communities to tending attitudes of kindness.

Today we are faced with a tough love, that we see within our community who have committed terrible crimes and betrayed our trust, the Gospel calls us to hold on to them until it's clear that no matter what intervention we make they are dying on Christ's vine already. Good will and wellbeing may follow through their pain. They also may not. If they do they are the by-products of our main task, which is not having a successful life, it is coming to know God through a journey within. Without this vertical striving our religious virtues come to feel empty. We do not become religious in order to be happy and if you tried to do so the strategy would fail you.

Let us remember and pray for Bishop William Morris and the Church of Toowoomba diocese in Queensland this day - a year since the bishop was removed. And still the people await a credible explanation and a new bishop.

In the face of the world's 'shape up or ship out' principle today's Gospel challenges us to hang in there with each other, in season and out of season because as the old Christian hymn says 'they will know we are Christians by our love, by our love they will know we are Christians by our love'.

Fr Gaetan Pereira
College Chaplain