17 Mar 2019

The prehistoric peoples of Australia and the Pacific, Africa and the Americas, the ancient Greeks, Romans and others in Europe, the tribes of the Middle East, and the great religions of Asia, all had their sacred sites where they felt particularly close to God. For our Jewish ancestors, the Temple in Jerusalem was the holiest place: there God’s shalom or divine presence dwelt, and the prayers and sacrifices of the cult were offered. Our First Reading today describes the consecration of that Temple and altar in the time of Nehemiah (Neh 8:2-10). Ezra the priest read and preached from early in the morning until well into the afternoon, till all were in tears, whether of compunction or exhaustion. There are many such solemn dedications in the Bible and it prescribes the dimensions, materials and rites for making temple, ark and altar, vestments to be worn, animals to be sacrificed, and incense to carry prayers up to God and, one suspects, to cover the smell of the animals…

But that was in ancient times: aren’t we different? Christ said His body was the new Temple (Jn 2:19-21) and St Paul that our bodies are to be chapels (1Cor 6:19-20) . In our epistle we are described as living stones of a building of which Jesus is the foundation stone (1Pet 2:4-9; cf. 1Cor 3:9-17). And in the Gospel, Jesus dismisses squabbles over whether the Jewish holy places or the Samaritan ones are best, saying true worshippers worship the Father anywhere “in spirit and in truth” (Jn 4:19-20). So haven’t we Christians outgrown the primitive need for sacred sites, sacrificial rocks and ritual offerings? Why do we still take church buildings so seriously?

Well, one reason might be because Jesus took them so seriously. Crucial moments in Jesus’ life took place against the backdrop of the Temple: His Presentation as a baby, His Finding as an adolescent, His praying, preaching, debating and healing as an adult. He cleansed the Temple of bankers in Holy Week, offered His Last Supper to coincide with the Paschal sacrifice in the Temple, and though innocent was tried and convicted by the Sanhedrin in the Temple precinct. Jesus, as His apostles observed, was on fire for this place, like incense on a brazier (Jn 2:17), determined it should be His Father’s house.

What is it makes a church the Father’s house? Is it strange furnishings, hierarchical layout, spooky atmosphere? The mood of portentous theatricality created by sheer bigness, the heaven-reaching spires and earth enveloping domes, the statues and stained glass, marble, brass and the rest? No: important though aesthetics are, what makes a church a holy place is the liturgical act of dedication and the ritual acts that happen thereafter or, in this rather unusual case, for 130 years already before, as well as for many years after.

So a church is not so much a building as a space, withdrawn from ordinary work and play and dedicated to God. When Jesus drove the money-changers out of the Temple, He was not making a statement against capitalism, banking or making a living. Rather, He was saying this place is not for that use.

So today, after a rather long catechumenate of 130 years, we’ll witness a pagan girl, named Ecclesia, completing her initiation as a Christian. At the start of Mass I baptised her, as it were, sprinkling the walls and altar with baptismal water in recollection of Cardinal Moran blessing the first section all those years ago. Now, she is instructed through a ‘mystagogia’ of readings and preaching: are you listening altar, paying attention walls?

Next we profess our faith with our stony catechumen and pray for her, invoking the saints as we do for catechumens on Easter night. Then comes her Confirmation, as it were, as we call down the fiery Spirit and anoint her with Chrism. The beautiful prayer recalls our family history and expresses our hopes for her future. After she receives the Chrism she will be clothed in Easter white and given candles to symbolise her enlightenment. Only after all these rites of initiation have been completed will I give our altar the Kiss of Peace, for only then will she be my sister and yours. And then she will be fit to celebrate the Eucharist…

A space is dedicated today, an altar consecrated, for a sacred purpose. Church-altar-Christian, all are remade in Christ. He is our true church and altar, and so this place speaks of Him. Stone and fire, oil and incense recall ancient sacrifices that foreshadowed Christ. But today we initiate our church and altar with water and sacred chrism as only Christians are initiated; we trace crosses in the middle and all four corners of the altar to recall the crucifixion by which all ancient rites are superseded.

After all this is done, it will be obvious our church is no mere museum for sacred objects, our altar no mere table for a special meal. No: this is the place to praise, bless and preach; to sacrifice, intercede and thank; to hymn, bow and genuflect; to honour, consecrate and commune; to christen, absolve and commission. Here the most extraordinary things occur: babies are changed into children of God; bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood; couples into spouses; singles into priests and religious; sinners into saints. Such exceptional events deserve an exceptional place.

Of course, the People of God are more truly the Church than are the chapels they build; the community of Kogarah far more than the building. God built his Church on Jesus, and Jesus on Peter, not on a concrete slab. St. Patrick, this church’s patron, travelled ceaselessly around the emerald isle preaching the Gospel so that by 461AD he had completed, almost single-handedly, the conversion of a nation. The Irish, in turn, sent missionaries to the world for centuries to come, so that eventually there’d be a St Patrick’s as far away as in Kogarah Australia. As I complete my visitation of this parish I notice that there is much good happening here, including leadership and teaching, worship and devotions, ministries and groups, that would make Cardinal Moran proud. But we are also aware that only about 1 in 8 Catholics is at Mass here on a Sunday. The Church today needs new St. Patricks and Patricias for our time, bringing the Gospel to this new Ireland of Kogarah and district. And it needs us all to think how we, as living stones of the Church of Christ, welcome and support each other as Christians and open our arms wide to the world.

As you witness today’s consecration let yourselves be reconsecrated too. Hear the words and soak up the ritual. Let Ecclesia’s Baptism, Confirmation and Communion Day be yours too. As you are immersed in these rites of initiation, recommit to your own. As you witness natural materials made into a supernatural church, let God renew you as a temple of the Holy Spirit. May these sacred rites instruct our minds and hearts and senses, for we too are dedicated for divine service, that our very lives may be liturgies too!


St. Patrick’s Church, Kogarah, Second Sunday of Lent

Welcome to St Patrick’s for this Solemn Mass. While the Second Sunday of Lent has shifted St Patrick’s Day to tomorrow in this year’s liturgical calendar, we will consecrate this 130 year old church on the real St Patrick’s Day. In 1887 my predecessor, Patrick Cardinal Moran laid the foundation stone at a ceremony attended by several hundred people. Where his English predecessors had dedicated churches around Sydney to St Mary the Virgin, St Benedict, the Venerable Bede, St Augustine of Canterbury and St Thomas a’Becket, this first Irish prelate preferred dedications such as St Fiacre, St Columba, St Columbkille, St Brigid, St Finbar and, of course, St Patrick, the Apostle of Ireland, to whom he dedicated the church in Kogarah. The first stage having been completed in less than a year, he returned in 1888, with the St Mary’s Cathedral Choir in tow, to bless and open it. The second half of the church had to wait until the end of World War One to be finished, and the bell tower until after the Great Depression. There’ve been further improvements as recently as this past year, renewing the building, beautifying and making permanent the altar and ambo, introducing the sound and video system, and the rest. Because this church took 130 years to build and pay off, each stage was blessed but the whole never consecrated – until today, that is.

This week I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many involved in leadership and ministry in the parish or served by them. I’ve been treated to several Masses, visits to church, school and nursing home, and met many of you as apart of my canonical visitation of the Parish. In due course I’ll send your report card! But let me thank Monsignor Henryk and all of you for the warm welcome I’ve received and commend you on all the good you are doing.

With us today I acknowledge my brother priests, Monsignor Henryk your parish priest, Fr Gabriel his Assistant, Fr Tadeus from Carlton, Redemptorist fathers

Other special guests include:

We gather conscious of darkness around our church and our world at this time. We pray today for all victims of child sexual abuse, for truth and justice in the matter of Cardinal Pell, for the victims of the terrorist attacks in Christchurch New Zealand, and for our grieving Muslim neighbours. 

But the consecration of our church is a tribute to our commitment to be here for God and our community over the long haul. The ceremony is one of the most ancient and beautiful of the Catholic Church – one few Catholics ever get to see. Like the stages of initiation of a new Christian, you’ll witness the ‘Baptism’ of the church and altar with holy water, being preached to from the new ambo, ‘Confirmation’ with sacred Chrism, the altar being dressed in white and given a fiery candle, and the celebration of its ‘First Holy Communion’. So it is a chance for each of us to reflect on our own journey of faith as a Christian.

Conscious of our failures to live the life of the altar of God, we repent of our sins…