29 Mar 2020

Live-streamed from St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney

This is not the first time that the public celebration of Mass has been impossible in Australia. In fact it’s the fifth time.

For the Aborigines of the East coast of Australia, ‘first contact’ with Christianity was the arrival of James Cook’s expedition exactly 250 years ago next month. Some years later colonists arrived, most of them Christians, some Catholic, whether convict or free, but no priest. On assuming office Governor Philip swore, among other things, that there was “no transubstantiation in the sacrament of the Holy Table”. The Mass was outlawed in the colony for the next 15 years.

It fell to the laity to maintain their faith and devotion. Once priests arrived amongst the political prisoners from the 1798 Irish uprising, there may have been some secret Masses. But by 1803 there were over 2,000 Catholics in the colony and Governor King was authorised to appoint the convict priest Fr James Dixon to offer Mass publicly on successive Sundays in Sydney, Parramatta and Windsor. But when Irish Catholics conducted a second rebellion, this time at Rouse Hill in Sydney, the Mass was again prohibited. Though the chaplain of a passing French or Portuguese ship might occasionally offer Mass, it was again up to lay Catholics to pray as best they could and transmit the faith to their children.

Then in 1817 Fr Jeremiah O’Flynn arrived, declaring that he was the official Catholic chaplain. He proceeded to say Mass unimpeded for several months for the now-6,000 faithful. But when no official papers arrived for him, Governor Macquarie had him shipped out. O’Flynn famously left a consecrated host behind which became the centre of Catholic devotion in Sydney. But the Mass itself was effectively excluded – for the third time.

Australia’s first official Catholic chaplains, Frs Therry and Connolly, arrived 200 years ago this May. A decade and a half later John Bede Polding was appointed as the first bishop. So regular Mass was secured, and churches, priests and faithful multiplied thereafter. The practicing rate of Catholics gradually rose from around 1 in 10 to 1 in 3 and, practicing or not, Catholics were pleased Mass was available.[1] But in 1919 the Spanish flu infected 40% of the population and took 15,000 Australian lives, many of them young adults. Churches were closed. Mass was held outdoors until all public gatherings were stopped. People prayed at home while the clergy cared for sufferers. Archbishop Kelly got into a stoush with the government over whether priests could visit the dying in the North Head Quarantine Station. But the public celebration of the Mass was forbidden for the fourth time in our history, if only for a few months. After the virus had passed, the number of churches and those practicing rose steadily until by the 1950s two-thirds of Catholics were at Mass on Sunday.

The fifth time that public Mass was forbidden in Australia was this week past, when the COVID19 pandemic led to similar public health measures to those applied a century ago. Every time we’ve faced this before, the lay faithful have maintained their faith and devotion. Every time the Church has bounced back after the crisis stronger than before, more hungry for the Eucharist and with higher rates of Mass attendance. How will we respond this time and what will it mean for the future of the Church after we have passed through this ‘vale of tears’?

The history of Israel is of a people who knew they were God’s favourites, yet all too often strayed away from Him, and suffered the physical, emotional or spiritual consequences. But today through Ezekiel God promises “I am going to open your graves and raise you from death, my people… and put my spirit in you so you shall live” (Ezek 37:12-14). We see this playing out in the story of Lazarus (Jn 11:1-45). First we’re told that he is sick. Then he’s dead and buried. Then, in the words of the King James Bible, “he stinketh”. But at the Lord command Lazarus is liberated from the grave. If Jesus is God’s final Word and He is “the Resurrection and the Life”, then life not death is God’s last word for us.

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This pattern of birth, death and rebirth is what Christians expect for God’s favourites like Israel, for Jesus’ friends like Lazarus, and for the Church herself. She’s been through this many times. Each of us, also, goes through various beginnings, ends and revivals, various conversions, diversions and reversions. Jesus tells us that Lazarus’ story and ours “will not end in death but in God’s glory”. So we are not trapped in some eternal cosmic circle with no progress or some temporary cosmic recycling with no hope. Jesus’ promise of resurrection is not just a dim, distant hope, as Mary of Bethany thought, but an already present reality.

What next for our Church and each of us as we pass through this pandemic and, God willing, emerge on the other side? Will our bodily health have been adversely affected or our character? Will our economy experience depression or our hearts? Will our religious faith and practice be shattered?

Or will we have demonstrated the nobler side of our natures under grace: courage and compassion, prayer and practical care , a willingness to share and endure? Will our Church have shone in this darkness – through our intercession for the world, our healthcare for the sick, our funerals for the dead, our welfare for the unemployed, our support for the isolated, our hope for the despairing, our pastoral care for all? Today Christ promises that after this hard Lent we can join His Easter; that the Church dead and bound with ‘stuff’ will be unbound and refreshed as so often in the past; and that each of us, having endured with patience and love, will be plucked from the jaws of death and let go free!


Because our current circumstances impede attendance at Mass and reception of Holy Communion: I invite you now to ask God that by spiritual communion you might receive the graces you would have received in sacramental communion. Offer this Holy Eucharist and your hunger for it, for the safety of your loved ones, yourselves and our world at this time. God is not limited by our separation. Behold Him, the Lamb of God…


Live-streamed from St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney

Welcome to the Solemn Mass for the Fifth Sunday of Lent at St Mary’s Cathedral Sydney, live-streamed in response to the COVID19 pandemic and church closures. Please be assured that your priests, even if they cannot celebrate Mass with you, are celebrating Mass for you – and not just today but every day. You can join them through TV or internet and through your prayers. We must be especially careful at this time that ‘social distancing’ does not mean distancing ourselves socially or spiritually from each other: indeed, as we separate physically we must find new ways of maintaining contact and strengthening communion. Amidst the panic-buying and hoarding, we must also remember to “store up treasure in heaven” more than toilet paper on earth!

The Church asks us to pray and fast at this time: for those who have died, are sick or at risk from this virus; for health professionals caring for them and researchers seeking a cure; for the financially insecure or socially isolated; and for those leading us through this crisis. In our Gospel today we encounter Christ as ‘the Resurrection and the Life’ for those who are physically, emotionally or spiritually dead. So let us turn to Him now as the source of new life, repenting of those deaths that are our sins…

[1] Mark Zaunbrecher, Religious Attitudes in Australian Literature of the 1890s, M.A. thesis for the University of Wollongong 1979.