16 Oct 2016


Susan (not her real name), a young African woman in her early 30s, enjoyed her life as a housekeeper to an Australian family living in East Africa. When they offered to take her back with them to Sydney, she was naturally excited and accepted the offer.

As soon as she arrived in Australia, however, things began to change. Her employer treated her as if she were nobody, locking her in the house whenever she left, forcing her to work 18-hour days without pay, and giving her nothing but rice to eat. She slept under a dining room table with the three dogs, and her alarm clock was her employer’s children kicking her in the morning and telling her to get up. When she tried to escape, she was recaptured by a neighbour and returned to her captors.1

Though Susan was eventually able to contact the police and be liberated from servitude, she is sadly one of many people effectively enslaved in our world. According to the Global Slavery Index 2016, Australia has one of the lowest rates of human trafficking on earth. But that is no cause to be smug: there are an estimated 4,300 victims of human trafficking in Australia today, smuggled in for forced labour, involuntary marriages, sexual exploitation, even organ trafficking.2

The Second Vatican Council said certain sins were especially “infamous” on three counts: “they poison human society, they are damage the perpetrators even more than the victims, and they supremely dishonour the Creator”.3 This special class of infamies included direct attacks on human life, such as murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and suicide; direct attacks upon human integrity, such as mutilation, torture and coercion; and direct attacks upon human dignity, such as arbitrary imprisonment or deportation, slavery and prostitution, trafficking in women and children, and otherwise treating human beings as mere objects or tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons.

Though in the optimistic 1960s most people imagined that slavery was a thing of the past, the Vatican Council rather presciently listed it amongst the worst things yet to be effectively abolished from human society and the willingness to enslave others amongst the worst things yet to be eradicated from the human heart. Slavery, the Council recognised, is amongst the most egregious sins because by instrumentalizing human beings it desecrates the image of God in them. More recently, the scourge of human trafficking has been described by Pope Francis as an “open wound on the body of contemporary society”. The Church is playing an ever-growing role in the international effort to stamp out the slave trade, but as individuals we must consider what we too might do.

In today’s first reading, the Amalekites attack the Israelites, planning to enslave any survivors. Only when Moses ascends the hilltop with arms outstretched are the attacks repelled. Like a bishop assisted by two deacons, they sit the exhausted Moses down on a stone cathedra and Aaron and Hur help him hold up his arms until sunset (Ex 17:8-13). I have come to appreciate that text rather more during my recent debility! However, Moses is here a premonition, not principally of fatigued prelates but of Christ on the Cross, whom prelates and priests echo when we stretch out our arms in the holy Eucharist. (You might have noticed I observe the ancient Dominican practice of stretching out my arms in cruciform fashion immediately after the consecration.) The meaning of Moses’ gesture and the priests’ is straightforward: like Christ, we must give ourselves in self-sacrifice for others if good is to triumph over evil.

Christ’s was the ultimate sacrifice for us, laying down His life so that we might have new life. But our lives, too, must be Eucharists, freely given in service for others; our lives, too, must be Diaconate, holding up those who are weighed down by their troubles. What makes such service worthy, redemptive, life-giving is that it is freely given: Christ might have been treated like a slave, but what He gave, He gave freely. Love and the service of love can only be given freely.

The campaign in modernity to stamp out slavery has largely been associated with people of Christian faith. We might think of St Josephine Bakhita, the Sudanese woman whose life became a parable against modern day slavery.4 Or of the English poet, John Newton (1725-1807), author of the popular Christian hymn, Amazing Grace (1779), whose personal experience of salvation led him to renounce his life as a slave trader and ultimately become an Anglican minister and anti-slavery campaigner. In 1788, the year Australia was settled by the British, Newton publishing his blazing tract, Thoughts upon the Slave Trade, which described the horrific conditions on the slave ships. “It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me,” he said, “that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.” The pamphlet was distributed to all MPs and helped the campaign of another Christian, William Wilberforce, to outlaw slavery in the British Empire; Wilberforce was in fact being spiritually guided and encouraged in his campaign by Newton. Newton lived to see Wilberforce’s bill become law in 1807, a few weeks before Newton died.

But what, we might ask, might any of us do today? Well, as with so many issues, we must first search our own hearts to see if there is violence, lust for control over others, disrespect for human life or dignity or freedom, to be found deep within: if so, we must with God’s help root it out. Next, we should seek to learn more the issue and reflect upon what faith and reason have to say about it, so that our passion is not just for a fashionable cause or hobby ideology. We might talk with our friends and family and work colleagues about the issue, not obsessively like a fanatic, but with facts and charm and persuasion. We might let our political leaders know we care about this issue and ensure that our newfound sensitivity influences our own purchasing and other decisions. We will keep our eyes open for examples of forced marriage or forced labour in our own neighbourhood. I’ve discovered many ideas at the Australian Catholic Religious Against Human Trafficking website (acrath.org.au).

Even if we can’t personally intervene to assist all the 4,300 Susans who are victims of human trafficking in Australia today, let alone the hundreds of thousands around our world, we can certainly pray for them. In our Gospel today Jesus tells us a parable “about the need to pray continually and never lose heart” (Lk 18:1-8). As Pope Francis has said, prayer is the source of our energy as Christians, the means through which we become the salt of the earth and the light of the world.5 This is what makes us more than simply secular do-gooders: prayer helps restore our faith in God and man, in the face of evils like slavery that can seem so intractable in our world; prayer allows us to persevere in actions of love that preach more powerfully than words against human oppression and exploitation; and prayer strengthens our hope for the coming of a kingdom of justice, freedom and peace, and inspires us to advance that kingdom under the power of amazing grace.


Welcome to St. Mary’s Cathedral for this morning’s Solemn Mass. During today’s Mass we will be celebrating the Investiture of the Knights and Dames of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. The order is charged by the Church with providing for the needs of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and for many of the works of the Church in the holy land. It contributes to the financing of 68 parishes, 40 primary schools, 33 secondary schools, and several hospitals, dispensaries and welfare centres.

We also welcome the directors and members of the Castlereagh Club today celebrating their annual Mass.

To everyone present, especially the Members of the Order and their families, a very warm welcome!