04 Nov 2020

Mary Mother of God Chapel, Rookwood Cemetery

200 years ago Fathers John Joseph Therry and Philip Conolly arrived in Sydney as the first official Catholic chaplains to the colony. By then Catholics in Australia had been waiting more than four decades for a priest and were very excited at last to have this guarantee that the Word of God would be preached, the Catholic faith taught, the Mass celebrated, leadership given, sacraments and other pastoral care dispensed. From then onwards, Catholic bishops, clergy and religious would be ordinary parts of Australian life, and with them would erupt an extraordinary network of dioceses, parishes, institutions and ministries…

After a year’s duty in Sydney, Conolly moved to Hobart Town where he laboured heroically for 14 years among ‘a wicked and perverse generation’. Therry remained in Sydney for some years, proving to be ‘popular, energetic and restless’, ‘articulate and thorough’, ‘a flamboyant public figure’ and ‘far-seeing pastor’. In St Paul’s terms today (Rom 12:3-13) he tirelessly exercised gifts of preaching, teaching and almsgiving. But he was not so gifted in governance and administration and so was always in debt and usually at odds with the authorities. He later described his 44 year-long ministry in Australia as “one of incessant labour very often accompanied by painful anxiety”. Yet he achieved so much in building our first cathedral, churches, schools and convents, travelling incessantly around the country, visiting prisons, hospitals and farms, catechising and providing pastoral care, accompanying convicts and Aborigines, living on the smell of an oily rag, and giving his last penny to poor.

Therry was not perfect. He had his foibles. He was a one-man-band. Yet he’s a hero amongst Australia’s pastors and set a standard of dedication to the flock by which to measure clergy and religious to this day.

Today’s saint, Charles Borromeo, is describedas the most accomplished Italian prelate of his age, famed for his passion for Christ and sheer hard work in service of the Church and the poor. The youngest child of six, he was destined for the Church from an early age and as an aristocrat marked for high office. While Charles was still a student in his early twenties, his uncle was elected Pope Pius IV and, though Charles was not a priest or even a seminarian, let alone a bishop, Pius appointed him Cardinal-Archbishop of Milan (the largest diocese in Europe), Secretary of State, Cardinal Protector of Portugal, papal legate to the Low Countries, Switzerland, the Franciscans, the Carmelites, and the Knights of Malta – you name it!

Whatever Uncle Pope had in mind, Charles had no interest in titles, dress-ups or power-trips. As St Paul counsels today, he did not exaggerate his own importance but acted soberly, preferring good to evil, working untiringly for the Lord, and enduring trials prayerfully. He proved himself an extra-ordinary worker and, perhaps more than any other, drove Church reforms at Trent and thereafter. In the middle of that Council, his older brother died, leaving Charles heir to the family titles and fortune. Most assumed he would return to world, find an aristocratic wife and make more heirs – he wasn’t a cleric after all, but just a very able young man with too many ecclesiastical jobs. But against public expectations, Charles immediately renounced his secular titles and had himself ordained priest and bishop!

That meant, of course, that he now had to take his role as Archbishop seriously. Now was his time to demonstrate gifts of leadership, admin and preaching. As the first Archbishop of Milan in nearly a century to take up residence there, he set about reforming the corrupt clergy and ignorant religious in his own court before looking outside. His reforms won the admiration of the people and of history, but led to the Dominican nuns trashing his name, the cathedral canons having troops fire on him, and the Brothers of Humility sending a friar to assassinate him at Vespers! Charles clearly knew the price of fidelity, and kept a portrait of the English bishop-martyr John Fisher in his room. (I like to think that St John Fisher is my great great great grand uncle.)

If Charles refused to hoard his privileges, it was also clear that he would not turn them to personal profit. Our word sinecure comes from the Latin sinecura or without care: it means enjoying the advantages of an office, such as the cure or care of souls, without assuming its responsibilities. But cure of souls was exactly what Charles was about. He adopted an ascetical life-style, gave his income to the poor, and through synods, visitations and conferences promoted an educated clergy, holy religious and well-catechized laity. All this made him popular with the faithful, but despised by corrupt officers of church or state. Yet even when they opposed him, he remained boundlessly charitable.

Charles burnt out by 46, but in this foreshortened life he proved himself a shepherd after the heart of the Good Shepherd (Jn 10:11-16). No hired hand, this, no privileged hierarch enjoying a sinecure, but a loving pastor ready to spend himself for his sheep. Charles the reformer started with the reform of his own soul and conduct, and so practiced what he preached and preached by his practice.

After Conolly and Therry, the many bishops, clergy and religious established much of our nation’s social and spiritual infrastructure. Building on that patrimony, the Catholic community now sponsors an enormous network of parishes, hospitals, aged care, schools, universities, pastoral and welfare activities, and of course cemeteries. The deceased religious and clergy we commemorate today laboured in these ministries and with their flocks grew the Church into an enormous, complex expression of faith and love.

Of course, some clergy and religious failed us, sometimes terribly. But in this bicentenary year we remember that most by far have, like Therry and Borromeo, been selflessly devoted to their people. Over these two centuries the Church in Australia has experienced distance, prohibition, natural disaster, sectarianism, war, depression, secularisation, the abuse crisis and pandemics with church-closures. Each time our priests and religious have demonstrated generosity, perseverance and pastoral creativity. And each time the Catholic people have signalled their need and love for them.

So today we commemorate two centuries of bishops, priests, deacons, nuns and brothers who worked so hard and gave so much for the Body of Christ in Australia and especially in Sydney. Some of them left us decades ago; others, more recently. Some felt their passing keenly. With hearts full of grateful reverence we pray theirs is a heavenly reward. And we have the deeply consoling knowledge that, as they cared for us in this life, so our care for them can stretch even into the grave, as we offer this Mass for their salvation.


Before Genuflecting Because current circumstances continue to impede attendance at Mass and reception of Holy Communion, I invite those who are joining us by live-streaming to ask God that by spiritual communion you might receive the graces of sacramental communion. Offer this Mass and your hunger for the Eucharist for the safety of your loved ones, of yourselves and of our world.


Mary Mother of God Chapel, Rookwood Cemetery

Welcome to our Mass for the Deceased Clergy and Religious of Sydney. Previously a Mass was celebrated each year for the priests buried in the Rookwood, Kemps Creek and Liverpool cemeteries. But from this year we will offer Mass for all the deceased bishops, priests and deacons, as well as consecrated religious women and men, who have laboured in our Archdiocese, wherever they’re buried. In the back of our booklet today are named 50 of them who have gone to God in the past year alone.

Today is the feast of that great bishop Charles Borromeo, this week marked the memory of All Souls, this month is the one in which we traditionally pray for our deceased loved ones, and this year has been a milestone for the priesthood in Australia. Two centuries ago Fathers John Joseph Therry and Philip Conolly arrived in Sydney (3 May 1820) as the first acknowledged Catholic chaplains to the colony. Soon after came the first bishop – John Bede Polding (1835) – and the first religious – the Benedictines (1832) and Charities (1838) . Thereafter we were blessed with many religious and priests from overseas as well as those raised up locally. Over these past two centuries Australia has been blessed with some 18,000 priests, whether diocesan or religious, and even more nuns and brothers. Many of them laboured at one time or another in Sydney. We give thanks for them to Almighty God, commending them to His mercy “in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life”.

I acknowledge the presence of the Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney Most Rev. Terry Brady, the Archdiocesan Vicar for Consecrated Life Sr Elizabeth Delaney SGS, the CEO of Catholic Cemeteries and Crematoria Mr Peter O’Meara, with my fellow clergy, religious and faithful. To everyone at this Mass, a very warm welcome!