Homily for the Mass of the Lord's Supper - St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney, Maundy Thursday

Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP,
29 Mar 2018

"Holy Week, Holy Eucharist, and Holy Orders"
Homily for the Mass of the Lord's Supper
St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney, Maundy Thursday

We've heard the Holy Week story so many times before. How do we connect with it, make the story ours? What does it mean to say Jesus' passion, death and resurrection saves, heals and elevates us?

This Holy Week I want to suggest that the crucial link is the sacraments. It's in the sacraments that Christ's Paschal mystery is remembered; in the sacraments that its fruits are applied to us here and now; and in the sacraments we sample the heavenly banquet it promises.1 We might think we are Christians, part of the Catholic thing, and yet give the sacraments a miss for long periods at a time. Or we might receive them regularly but routinely, distractedly, half-heartedly. Yet the sacraments are our contact points with Holy Week…

Your family, the nuns, or a catechist probably prepared you for first Holy Communion as a child. But how did God prepare the Church for her first Eucharist?2 Remotely, He was "pleased to accept the gifts of [His] servant Abel the just, the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, and the offering of [His] high priest Melchizedek, a holy sacrifice" of bread and wine.3 As we heard in our first reading (Ex 12:1-14; cf. Lev 23:5-8) God fed the children of Israel unleavened bread as journey food en route to freedom; later He fed them manna in the desert en route to the Promised Land (Ex 16:1-36; Dt 8:3). In the centuries that followed, He taught them a life of sacrifice and worship. Finally, in Jesus Christ, He multiplied loaves to feed a multitude and then preached about the Bread of Life, His flesh given for the life of the world (Jn ch 6).

Having prepared the Church for its first Holy Communion and knowing His hour had come, Jesus desired to celebrate His last supper and first Mass. Paul recounts that Jesus uttered portentous words, making the bread His Body and the wine His Blood (1Cor 11:23-26). And though His death the next day would be the all-sufficing sacrifice for all humanity, He commanded them to "Do this in memory of Me". Thus every generation might participate, not just notionally and from a distance, but personally, Body-to-body. All other events pass into history; but Christ's passion, death and resurrection abide even now through the Sacrament that draws all people to Him.4

Thus the Eucharist is 'the source and summit of the Christian life', that towards which all other rites and ministries point. Before this Mystery we fall on our knees in adoration, surrender and thanksgiving.5 And in directing His apostles to do this in His memory, Jesus constituted them priests of the New Covenant.6 The Church exists for such worship and service. Holy Eucharist and Holy Orders: neither could exist without the other. As the Church makes the Eucharist, so the Eucharist makes the Church. You cannot truly love Christ and refuse His Eucharistic kiss on the lips, His offer to make His substance yours. And you cannot truly love that Sacrament without loving the Priesthood Christ instituted to provide it. However underwhelming our celebration of Mass sometimes is, and however mediocre, unworthy, even shameful the ministers can be at times, we love the Eucharist and its priests because we love Christ.

In May this year we will mark the bi-centenary of the arrest of Fr Jeremiah O'Flynn. Born in County Kerry on Christmas Day of the year the Colony of New South Wales was founded, he was a Franciscan, a Trappist, ultimately a diocesan. After a sojourn to the West Indies, he got it into his head he should be chaplain to Sydney Town. He somehow managed to get a letter of encouragement from Rome, and sought confirmation from the Colonial Office. But Lord Bathurst refused, on the grounds of his ignorance of English language and Catholic theology! Undeterred, O'Flynn sailed for Sydney and on arrival at the end of 1817 told Governor Macquarie his credentials would follow soon after. He then conducted clandestine baptisms, confessions, marriages and Masses in Catholic homes.

One of those homes was that of William Davis at the top of Harrington Street, another that of James Dempsey in nearby Kent Street. Both had been transported from Ireland following 'the troubles' of 1798; both had been pardoned and made something of themselves. Davis made a substantial contribution to the construction of St Patrick's Church Hill; Dempsey to the construction of St Mary's Chapel, later Cathedral. When after six months no official papers for O'Flynn had arrived, Macquarie had him arrested and shipped back home.7

Whether by accident or design, O'Flynn left a consecrated host in a pyx at either the Davis or Dempsey home (or both): I don't pretend to referee that. But in a colonial Church with no priest or Mass that reserved Sacrament naturally became the focus of Catholic life. It fell to the laity to keep daily vigil before the Sacrament and to recite the Rosary, teach catechism and pray Sunday Vespers before it. (There is stained glass of this below the window of the Empty Tomb on the West wall of this cathedral.) These lay people knew that the most precious thing in the world is the Blessed Sacrament, the most precious activity the celebration of the Mass, the most precious encounter the reception of Holy Communion. They dreamed of the day when they would be free to have both priest and sacrament in this country. Some months later the chaplain of a visiting French naval ship consumed the Sacrament and celebrated Mass afresh for the locals. And some months after that Australia's first official Catholic chaplains arrived and the Mass was secured thereafter.

That Eucharist and that Priesthood, so beloved of the first Catholic Australians, were established by Christ on the night of His last supper.8 It's fashionable in some quarters to say they were later inventions, but there is clear evidence of them in the Acts of the Apostles, the Apostolic Fathers and subsequent tradition. Just as God prepared the Church for first Holy Communion, so He prepared the Church for Ordination also. Remotely, He gave the Israelites a priestly tribe, with rites of consecration and duties of leading worship. His apostles had the best of 'seminary' formation, as Jesus instructed them on all aspects of Christian faith and life, on Christian authority as service, Christian preaching as nourishment, Christian sanctifying as making saints for God's kingdom. Though Christ shared His priesthood with all believers through Baptism, He called and calls some to cultic priesthood through the laying on of hands by the apostles and their successors. So priests are indelibly configured to Christ for worship and service. It's only by this grace that they can act in the person of Christ and name of the Church.9

As Australian Catholics now prepare for a Plenary Council, the question of how best to promote vocations to the priesthood and to ensure the devout, welcoming and beautiful celebration of the Eucharist will rightly be on many people's minds - for on this depends the future of our Church. Only through the sacraments can Catholics truly participate in the passion, death and resurrection of Christ; only through worship and service can the Church live. May those first Catholics in Australia who so hungered for the Holy Eucharist and Holy Priests for this land, intercede for us now, two centuries later, that we remain free to practise our religion as they were not, and that we exercise that freedom gratefully, faithfully and piously.

1 CCC 1084-90, 1111.

2 CCC 1333-36.

3 The Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I); Gen 4:4; ch 9; 14:18; Heb 11:4.

4 CCC 1076, 1085; Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium 47.

5 CCC 1078; 1324; Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 11.

6 CCC 1337; Trent [DS 1740].

7 This was despite four hundred free Catholics and some leading Protestants petitioning for O'Flynn to be allowed to remain. "When he reached London in November he again appealed to Bathurst for permission to go to New South Wales, but was again refused. O'Flynn returned to Ireland and thence to the West Indies. He was banished from San Domingo and in 1822 arrived in Philadelphia, only to become embroiled in schism. He went to San Domingo in 1823, was again expelled and returned to Philadelphia, where in 1825 he was invited to minister to Irish Catholics in Susquehanna County. There he spent his last years and died on 8 February 1831." Vivienne Parsons, 'O'Flynn, Jeremiah Francis (1788-1831)', Australian Dictionary of Biography vol. 2 (1967).

8 cf. CCC 874-79, 1114-16, 1210, 1536; Trent and Vatican II.

9 CCC 1121, 1539-53, 1581-84.