12 Jan 2020

St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, Feast of the Baptism of the Lord

Fire and water – which along with earth and air are the four classical elements – have always been both gifts and challenges for humanity. Water is the source of life, critical to hydration and growth, cleansing for bodies, clothes and land, and beautiful to view in lakes and seas. Yet it can also come in floods and tsunamis, or fail to come in times of drought and fire, and without the right amount of water in the right places there can be terrible hardship. Water’s opposite – fire – is likewise critical to our survival, as it provides warmth and light, allows cooking and industry. Yet as we are all too keenly aware at this time, fire has in a few short months burnt more than ten million hectares of bush, forest and farm land, razed more than 6,000 buildings, killed 27 of our fellows, and affected the lives of many forever.

Today is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. In the Sacrament of Baptism the elements of water and fire are central, as water is poured in the names of the Holy Trinity over the head of the initiate and a burning candle presented as a sign of enlightenment by Christ. These two sacramental signs tell of the promise of the newborn and reborn Christian: that being Christened they might, in the Prophet Isaiah’s words today, be endowed with God’s spirit, champions of justice, servants of goodness, bringers of light (Is 42:1-7). As this week we buried Sydney Catholic and volunteer firefighter Andrew O’Dwyer from Our Lady of Victories parish in Horsley Park, photos of his 18-month-old daughter at his coffin in a white fireman’s helmet struck a chord across Australia. Fire Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons spoke for us all when he said he hopes Andrew’s widow Mel and tiny Charlotte are sustained by knowing he was “a selfless man” and “an extraordinary hero”.

If baptismal waters call us to higher ideals, they also purify us for living those ideals. Fire, too, can test our mettle, even refine what is there, making us even better than before (Isa 43:2; Dan ch 3; Mal 3:2; Mk 9:49; 1Cor 3:13; 1Pet 1:7). And so we talk of a baptism of fire (Mt 3:11; Lk 3:16; cf. Acts 2:3): a difficult initiation into a new life that can bring out the best in us. As our nation passed through an inferno these past weeks, the spirit of our people was not consumed. Rather, their hardiness and goodness were on display; hope and love were expressed through prayer and fire-fighting and practical support; baptismal balm was poured on burnt hands and hearts, lands and anxieties. Thus, even after being forced to evacuate his own home, St Vincent de Paul member Bill Baragry spent his days supporting locals at the Tuncurry Bowling Club and Forster Vinnies Shop; further north in Walcha, the local Vinnies shop sprang into action even as bushfires threatened the area, providing locals who had left their homes at short notice with food, clothing and grocery vouchers.

The Sacrament of Baptism initiates and purifies: it also unifies. Baptism brings together diverse peoples into a single family, the children of God. Likewise the recent fires have brought us together, aware that however safe we are in Sydney, our brothers and sisters have lost much or are at risk. The fires have bonded firefighters, servicemen and other responders, from around Australia and even overseas, united in self-sacrifice, for some even unto death. They have brought together those who’ve lost lives or livelihoods, homes and hopes, with the rest of us who are safer but anxious for them and determined to assist. They have combined civic leaders and community groups, charities and benefactors in directing and serving. When the mostly Aboriginal community of Cabbage Tree Island near Ballina had to be evacuated, they called upon the St Vincent de Paul Society for support, and local members quickly arrived at the evacuation centre with food, nappies and baby formula. By working together in such ways many lives, buildings and properties have been saved; many assisted with food and friendship; and through donations pouring in from businesses, organisations, celebrities and ordinary people, they are promised that support will last.

What more should we be doing as a Church? The bishops have called for a national campaign of prayer. Key Church agencies in welfare, health and education, are working with local parishes, CatholicCare services and St Vincent de Paul conferences to ensure a co-ordinated and effective response. A national network is being established to connect those affected by the fires with those who can help with meal preparation, clearing properties and rebuilding communities, as well as pastoral and counselling support. While many individual faithful and Catholic organisations – along with people of all faiths and none – have already been providing financial and other practical assistance, the Church in Australia will direct collections on the Australia Day weekend to the St Vincent de Paul Bushfire Appeal, so that we can maintain this momentum and long continue to demonstrate human and Christian solidarity.


Baptism calls, purifies, unites: but it also revitalises. Fire, we know, is part of the ordinary rhythm of life, death and rebirth in this land. Danger and devastation seem to be the dreadful price we must pay to live alongside the beauty of the Australian bush. Yet one thing the bush says through fire and ashes, that perfectly accords with the Christian Gospel, is that after destruction, by God’s grace, comes regeneration. We know that eucalypts and many other Australian native trees rely on the heat of bushfires and the resultant clearing and new soils for their renaissance; just a few days after fire has destroyed our forests, they are already sprouting fresh green shoots. So, too, the human side of bushfires: we pray that these fires will occasion a renewal of our community and its highest ideals, so that as in days of old, we may hear God speaking out of the fire (Ex 3:2; Lev 9:24; Dt chs 4 & 5), offering us not only immediate relief but new purpose to carry us forward.

Our mettle as a community is being tested by fire. Sometimes amidst grief or anxiety we are tempted to look for someone to blame; out of dashed hopes and present exhaustion, to lose confidence. Will we, as Isaiah challenges us today, ‘neither waver nor be crushed’, refusing to be cowed and resolving to rebuild? Will we show ourselves to be not strangers but friends to those in need, giving generously and not just once, but again and again? As our nation passes through this baptism of fire, it can emerge stronger and greater than before. Together let us pray for a great outpouring of water from the heavens to cleanse our land of destruction and revivify both the bush and our hearts. Together let us stand with all those suffering the destruction of drought and fire, and all those assisting them. Together let us demonstrate a solidarity and care that announces like the Father from heaven today(Mt 3:13-17): you are my beloved sons and daughters, my favour rests on you!


St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, Feast of the Baptism of the Lord

Thank you all for your participation in this Mass in Time of Fire. I ask you please to continue to pray and fast:

  • for eternal rest for the victims of these bushfires
  • for healing to the injured, displaced and exhausted
  • for generous rains for our dry and burning land
  • in thanksgiving for our firefighters and other responders
  • for security for them and all those in our fire-prone areas and
  • for the continued generosity of our whole community.

The archdiocesan website, as well as the Australian Catholic Bishops’ site, have prayer resources to assist. Please continue to demonstrate your solidarity with and generosity towards those affected by these fires in practical ways.


St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, Feast of the Baptism of the Lord

Wildfires burning across Australia on Jan. 3, 2020.

Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. We gather in the shadow of a drought that has now lasted for three years and a bushfire season already the most intense in our country’s history. So far more than 10 million hectares have been burned, 6,000 buildings razed, hundreds of thousands of people evacuated, and 27 fellow Australians lost, along with millions of livestock and native animals. Behind such frightening figures are many individual stories of tragedy and courage. Constant smoke and media coverage underline our interconnection with those who are hurting.

I welcome this morning representatives of government, the services, affected families, parishes and Church agencies. I acknowledge Trina Schmidt, representing the NSW Rural Fire Service; and Police Commissioner Mick Fuller with his wife Andrea: our fire, ambulance, police and military personnel have been truly inspiring in their response. The Order of Malta Australia, who are directing their National Disaster Fund to the relief of affected areas, are represented by Hospitaller Stephen Quain and others. The St Vincent de Paul Society, who are providing food, clothing and household items to evacuees and survivors, and will be there for the long haul as people rebuild, are represented today by NSW President Peter McNamara and Sydney Archdiocesan President Tony Cranney. CatholicCare Sydney, which is providing counselling services for fire victims, is represented by Chief Executive Officer Mark Phillips with senior staff. We have apologies from Her Excellency the Governor, Hon. Margaret Beazley AO QC, Fire Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons and others. The Holy Father, Pope Francis, has also expressed his closeness to the people of Australia at this time.

Today with Christ and His people I offer the Sacrifice of the Mass with four intentions in mind:

First, as a Requiem for those who have died in the fires, asking God to grant eternal life to them, including the several heroic firefighters who have died in the course of duty.

Secondly, we ask for healing for the thousands injured, displaced and exhausted by the inferno, and courage for the rebuilding of lives and communities ahead.

Third, we intercede for generous rains for our dry and burning land, for safety for firefighters and other responders, and for security of all those living in fire-prone areas. Several Sydney priests are now amidst the South Coast fires either assisting family and communities or called up as army reservists.

And finally, we give thanks for the efforts of our civic leaders, firefighters, ambulance officers, police, defence personnel and other responders, of our charities and community groups providing food, clothing, accommodation and other assistance, and of our wider community that has been so financially generous. We pray for perseverance in such leadership and service in the months ahead and the long period of rebuilding thereafter.