17 Feb 2019


St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica, Sydney

“You’re a mongrel dog!” – a friend said to me once, surprised to learn I had ancestors and relatives from all continents. Only in Australia could that be said affectionately!

You see, my great-grandma Lisa was born in Romania, in Eastern Europe and married Giovanni, an Italian, in Alexandria, Egypt, in North Africa. There my maternal grandma, Ida, was born. She met Jose, a Basque from Spain in Western Europe, and they married in Shanghai, China. Their daughter Gloria is my mother and she and her sister grew up in Shanghai and Manilla, Philippines, before the family moved to Australia while awaiting visas for the United States of America. But by the time those visas came through and my grandparents left for America, my mother and her sister had both found then-typical Anglo-Celtic-Aussie husbands, I was born in Sydney, Australia in the Pacific Islands, and the rest is… multicultural Australia.

So I have ancestors and relatives from Eastern Europe and Western Europe, Africa and the Middle East, Asia, America and Australia. I’m a summary of our planet and of modern Australia. When I give my ancestry to the census collectors every few years I probably cause their computers a headache, but I’m one of the 49% of Aussies born overseas or with a parent born overseas.

I’m a ‘bitsa’, a ‘mogrel’, and I dare say I’m related to you all!

Of course, you already knew you were related to me: for we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, members of the one family, the household of God. To be Catholic is to be part of something much bigger and more diverse than our nuclear and extended families. Our word ‘Catholic’ means universal and that is not just a description – a statement of fact that we are everywhere – but also a prescription: we are sent to all nations, bring Christ to the world and the world to Him.

Our Church is universal, not just because it happens to be everywhere, but because it is for all humanity. We are less than the Church we are called to be if any part of our world is absent. Indeed the Church in heaven, glimpsed by John in chapter 7 of Revelations is: “Behold, I saw a great multitude beyond counting, from every nation, tribe, people and tongue, standing before the throne [of God] and before the Lamb, all clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands” (Rev 7:9).

Our Church is essentially multicultural, as Jesus was. The kings of foreign lands attended His birth, before He and His family fled as refugees into Egypt (Mt 2). When a Jew asked who his neighbour is, Jesus pointed to a Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37). When asked who God’s favourites are, He suggested a Sidonian widow and a Syrian leper (Lk 4:25-27). When asked if we should pay taxes to the heathen Romans, He said Yes (Mt 12:13-17; 22:15-22). He helped Romans, Samaritans, Jews and Gentiles, anyone willing to embrace Him. And He sent the Church out to the whole world (Mk 16:15; Mt 24:14)!

Australia is the most multicultural of nations. From 60,000 years ago, the ancestors of today’s Aboriginal peoples started their great migration to Australia. The British penal colony planted here in 1788 marked the beginning of a second great wave of migrants to this land. After the Second World War there was a third, with more than 7 million coming in that wave. Now more than 250 languages are spoken in Sydney. We are a truly catholic or universal people, and remarkably united in our diversity. Though we acknowledge periods and incidents of colonialism, dispossession and racism in our history, we all call Australia ‘home’, and recognize how enriched we are by our diversity. Modern Australians, at least, are inclined to celebrate their cultural and ethnic identities, rather than denying or attempting to homogenise them.

The intercultural challenge is the challenge to look beyond the surface differences to the unifying commonality beneath. In the earliest chapters of the story of our Genesis, we are taught that every human being is made in the image of God and thus whatever our genealogies and particularities, we are one human family. Yet as Adam and Eve sought to make themselves God by eating of the forbidden fruit, they turned on each other, the man blaming his wife; soon their son was killing his brother, and on and on it went. By chapter 11 of that same chronicle, humanity seeks yet again to make itself God, this time by building a tower in Babel from which to storm heaven; once again, they end up turning against each other, tribe against tribe, no longer understanding each other’s languages. Yet God did not leave us in that fallen, disunited state. As St. Paul tells us in our epistle (1 Cor 15:12-20), Christ died and rose to redeem us from our disobedience to God and restore us to His friendship, and so to His image and likeness. And as St Luke records in his Book of Acts, the Spirit came at Pentecost to redeem us from our disunity and enable us, despite our diverse languages, to understand each other once more in the Body of Christ, the Church.

We rightly celebrate today our intercultural achievements as a Church and community. We recognize the many ways we are enriched by our diverse histories and cultures. Yet for all our pride, we know our country frequently hardens its heart to outsiders who would like to share our great land. On his way to World Youth Day in Panama recently, Pope Francis told reporters that fear of migrants and refugees today is distorting the judgment of leaders and citizens, indeed “making us crazy”. On his arrival, amidst the flags of every nation held proudly by the young pilgrims, the Holy Father told the young people that “we come from different cultures and peoples, we speak different languages and we wear different clothes. Each of our peoples has had a different history and has lived through different situations… But these many differences do not stop us meeting up together, having a good time together, celebrating together, professing Jesus Christ together.” He challenged the young people to be “builders of a culture of encounter” by which love conquers differences, talk sowing division is defused, effort to exclude those who are ‘not like us’ is discredited. “The Father of Lies, the Devil” the Pope warned them, “always prefers that people be divided and quarrelling.” But the young pilgrims at World Youth Day demonstrated that “true love does not eliminate legitimate differences, but harmonizes them in a superior unity”.

The Holy Father went on to challenge our young people – and those of us who are a little older – to keep being bridge builders rather than wall builders. “We have many differences,” like the multicoloured parrots of Latin America, “but we have a dream in common, a dream that has a place for everyone.” And during the Stations of the Cross he told the young people of the world that they must learn from Mary “how to welcome and take in those abandoned, or forced to leave their homeland, roots, families and work”. He prayed that we might be a community “that does not stigmatize the immigrant or condemn the refugee as a threat”, but rather one “welcomes, protects, promotes and integrates”. Bravo, I say! Amen.


St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica, Sydney

Bine ati venit (Romanian). Benvenuti (Italian). Ahlan wa sahlan (Egyptian). Ongi etorri (Basque). Hueugnin (Shanghaiese). Maligayang pagdating (Tagalog). Fáilte (Gaelic). Welcome (English).In the languages of my ancestors: welcome. And Bujari gamarruwa, Gidday, in the language of the traditional custodians of this place we now call Sydney. Welcome all to St Mary’s Cathedral for our Mass celebrating the unity in diversity that is multicultural Australia. A special welcome to those here today who have come to our land from distant shores, or whose parents have done so.

I recognise concelebrating with me today Most Rev. Georges Casmoussa, Apostolic visitor of the Syrian Catholics in Australia; Very Rev. Isidore Anan/tharaj EV, Episcopal Vicar for Migration (with his staff); migrant chaplains, other clergy and religious; and representatives of our ethnic communities.

From civil society I acknowledge Hon. David Coleman MP, Federal Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs; Mary Karras, CEO of the Ethnic Communities Council of NSW; several members of the diplomatic and consular corps; Dr Patricia Jenkins, President of the United Nations Association of Australia and New Zealand; and other special guests.

To everyone else present, including visitors and more regulars, a very warm welcome!