28 Oct 2020

It arrived in Australia in the dying days of the First World War.[1]Ultimately the Spanish Flu would infect a third of the world’s population and kill at least 50 million people.[2] All those docking in Sydney were isolated at North Head, next door to St Patrick’s Seminary. The Church had been granted land there on the basis that Catholic seminarians were “so thick-skinned they would not take smallpox” and were a useful barrier between the diseased and healthy of Sydney.[3] Now they were expected to be human shields against the Spanish Flu.

The troopship Medic

When the troopship Medic arrived, with 1000 mostly Australian soldiers aboard, a third of them with the Flu, the Q-station was overwhelmed and an appeal went out for extra nurses…

Annie Egan was one of nine children from a devout Catholic family of Gunnedah wheat-farmers. Schooled by the Sisters of Mercy, three of her sisters entered the convent. But Annie went up to Sydney to pursue nursing at St Vincent’s. Her photo is of a dark-eyed young woman, smiling warmly in her uniform, a cowlick of dark hair curling under a white veil.

Nurse Annie Egan

Having passed the nursing examination in June 1918, Annie was asked to nurse returning soldiers at the Q-station. Large numbers were weak and wracked with pharyngitis, fever, headache, back pain and insomnia. Many developed pneumonia, and plum-coloured shadows crept along their bodies. Some lost their hearing, sight, teeth or hair. Some bled from nose and mouth. Eventually they drowned in their own fluids.

There were no antibiotics, no antivirals, no steroids. Nurse Egan and companions did what they could, bathing fevered bodies, operating inhalation chambers, dispensing painkillers. Despite a mask, she was soon infected. As her condition worsened, she pleaded for Confession and Extreme Unction. The local priest was willing but the authorities would admit no priest. As she lay dying, she was allowed a brief phone call with the padre, who promised to say Mass for her. She died that afternoon (3 December).

A Catholic nurse conducted the obsequies, and Annie was buried on site with full military honours, a bugler playing the Last Post and the troops for whom she had given her life firing a salute and laying wreaths of wildflowers. When the story of her being denied the sacraments made the press, the Catholic community were outraged and many non-Catholics sympathised. Arch-bishop Michael Kelly announced a Requiem Mass would be held for her in this cathedral, with her family, nursing friends, clergy and numerous politicians in attendance.

During the Mass Kelly “emphatically protested against the refusal of the authorities to allow a priest to attend” the dying Nurse Egan with “the holy oils”, declaring “Never was there so impious a refusal. God grant that it be the last!” He wired his protest to Prime Minister Billy Hughes, who was in London for the post-war peace talks, and to the acting PM in Melbourne. When he got no reply, Kelly took horse and carriage and two burley monsignors to the Q-station, demanding admission so they could minister to the sick. He was told he’d be arrested if he tried. But sympathetic reporters had been tipped off and the government caved: from now on Romish priests could bring their oils to the Q-station if they must. And to my pride, young priests readily volunteered for training and to be available for that service, were it required, during the present pandemic.

Of course, Christians had seen this sort of thing before. In the plagues of the second and third centuries AD, when others fled the Christians stayed to feed, nurse and care pastorally for the sick. The death rates in their towns were half those in the rest of the Roman empire and this inspired many conversions.[4] So, too, in the Justinian Plague of the sixth century and beyond, the Black Death of the fourteenth and after, Christian populations were decimated and monasteries and polities destroyed, but Christians shone in providing care. Miraculous images were carried through the streets, suffrages offered for the living and the dead, hospitals built and staffed, and those sacraments craved by Annie Egan offered by the Church’s pastors.

In every pandemic from the earliest to the present, Christians have arrived with their emollients. Oil was, of course, essential for cooking and lighting in the ancient world. Anointing was a sign of welcome and respect. In ancient sport oil was used to massage and strengthen, in ancient hygiene to purge and cleanse, in ancient medicine to cure and comfort.

Oil features in the Old Testament as a sign of divine blessing in agriculture and a product of human manufacture, trade and wealth.[5] It was used as fuel for lamps,[6] in preparing food such as Passover bread,[7] as a healing balm[8] and cosmetic unguent.[9] Oil was offered in the cult,[10] used for ritual cleansing[11] and for dedicating tabernacle and altar, and for anointing priests, prophets and kings, thereafter known as ‘the Lord’s anointed’.[12]

In the New Testament Jesus is the Anointed One, the Christ,[13] and is repeatedly seen in an olive grove outside Jerusalem.[14] Oil is a fuel in His parable of the wise and foolish virgins,[15] and a measure of debt in His story of the dishonest steward.[16] It’s an ingredient of the bread for the Eucharist,[17] and used for anointing self,[18] guests,[19] the sick[20] and the dead.[21] Oil also has metaphorical uses in the Scriptures, as in speech “smoother than oil”, “anointed with the Spirit” and “the oil of gladness”.[22

The oils we consecrate today are heirs to this rich symbolism. They are signs of divine blessing, enrichment, enlightenment; of respect, welcome and nourishment; of worship, consecration, ordination; of cleansing, comforting and healing. Above all, they symbolise Christification, being made like Christ the Anointed One. And today’s Gospel makes clear that we are anointed not just as, but for; for bringing good news to sad hearts, for liberating people from their constraints, for offering sight and insight, for proclaiming the Lord’s favour (Lk 4:16-21).

Our Christian life begins with Baptism, when the Oil of Catechumens calls babies and adults into the Communion of Saints on earth. It ends with Extreme Unction, when the Oil of the Sick comforts and heals, then eases those at the last into the Communion of Saints in heaven. Both are ‘oils of gladness’, for it is with easy joy that priests join people to God at their beginning and with a harder but profounder joy that we consign them to Him at their end. So two glad unctions frame the whole Christian life and the particular mission of the priest.

But our gladdest oil of all is the Sacred Chrism. With this we dedicate churches and altars, setting them aside for God’s use as sacred places and for sacred purposes. With this oil we dedicate human souls also, crowning them after Baptism and sealing them in Confirmation, setting them aside for God’s use as living temples. With this oil, too, we dedicate priests, setting them aside for God’s use as conduits between the human and divine. The one Oil of Gladness that ordered Jesus to bring Good news to the poor, ordains priests, too, to bring Gospel freedom and divine joy to human hearts. As Christ was anointed with perfumed oil before He went to His Cross, so each priest is chrismed as another Christ, to bring the fragrance of hope to such as those who’ve experienced isolation and desolation in the recent pandemic.

My brothers, as I said when I ordained our four newest members last month, God now wants a spiritual pandemic and we must all be its vectors. We must bring about an epidemic of hope and courage, love and mercy, beauty and goodness, faith and reason for our times. Recommit yourselves, then, to bringing the Oil of Gladness to a world as much in need of such care in this pandemic as it was during the last, when thick-skinned seminarians blockaded the dying and a thick-set archbishop insisted on the rights of religion! I now invite the priests present or live-streaming to stand to renew their priestly promises.

Word of Thanks after the Chrism Mass

St Mary’s Basilica, Sydney, 28 October 2020

My thanks to our bishops and priests who renewed their priestly vows today and daily renew that commitment by their service to God and His people. The oils we consecrated today highlight your daily work and, on behalf of the Church of Sydney, I thank you for that service, especially in these strange times. I’m only sorry I can’t offer you all a meal in Cathedral House after this Mass, as has been our custom. I pray we can do next year.

My thanks to our MC, deacons, seminarians, servers and choir. I am grateful also to the people of Sydney who join with their priests in celebrating this Mass but also in celebrating the sacraments all year round. May God bless you, Fathers, and your people in the new liturgical year ahead.

[1]    Michael Adams, “How one woman’s death from Spanish flu caused outrage in Australia,” Daily Telegraph 3 December 2018 https://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/real-life/true-stories/how-one-womans-death-from-spanish-flu-caused-outrage-in-australia/news-story/b4a1d450652bc6a8b1a40b396b2ecdcf

[2]    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ‘1918 Influenza Pandemic’, https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-pandemic-h1n1.html#:~:text=It%20is%20estimated%20that%20about,occurring%20in%20the%20United%20States.

[3]    Catholic Press, 6 September 1917, in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Patrick%27s_Seminary

[4]    Sean Everton & Robert Schroeder, ‘Plagues, pagans, and Christianity: differential survival, social networks, and the rise of Christianity’, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 58(4) (2019), 775-98; Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 81-86; Lyman Stone, ‘Christianity has been handling epidemics for 2000 years’, FP [Foreign Policy] 13 March 2020; Sarah Yeomans, ‘The Antonine Plague and the spread of Christianity’, Biblical Archaeology Review 43(2) (2017), 22-24 & 66.

[5]    Ex 25:6; 35:8,28; 37:29; Dt 7:13; 11:14; 32:13; 1Kings 5:11; 2Kings ch. 4; 18:32; 20:13; 1Chron 9:29; 12:40; 2Chron 2:10,15;  11:11; 31:5; Ezra 3:7; 6:9; 7:22; Neh 5:11;  Judith 10:5; Sir 39:26; Isa 39:2; Jer 31:12; 40:10; 41:8; Ezek 16:13; 27:17; 32:14; Hos 2:5,8,22; Joel 1:10; 2:19,24.

[6]    Ex 25:6; 27:20; 35:8,14,28; 39:37; Lev 24:2; Num 4:9,16; Dt 32:13; cf. Mt 25:1-18.

[7]    Ex 29:2; Lev 2:1-7; 8:26; Num 6:15; 11:8; 1Kings 17:12-16; Ezek 16:13;

[8]    Isa 1:6; 2Chron 28:15; Ezek 16:9.

[9]    2Sam 12:20; 14:2; Esther 2:12; Ps 104:15; Song 1:3; 4:10; Isa 57:9; Dan 13:17; Judith 10:3; 16:7; Ezek 16:9.

[10] Gen 28:18; 35:14; Ex 25:6; 29:23,40; 30:22-31; 31:11; 35:8,15,28; Lev 2:1-16; 6:15,21; 7:10-12; 9:4; 14:10-29; 23:13; 24:2; Num chs. 7,15 & 28; 29:9,14; Dt 12:17; 14:23; 18:4; 1Chron 23:39; Neh 10:37,39; 13:5,12; Tob 1:7; Judith 11:13; Sir 38:11; Ezek 16:18; 23:41; 45:14; 45:24-25; ch. 46; Mic 6:7; Hag 1:11;

[11] Lev 14:17-18,28-29

[12] Gen 31:13; Ex 25:6; 29:7,21,29; 30:22-5,31-3; 31:11; 35:8,28; 37:29; 39:27,29,38; 40:9,15; Lev 4:3,5,16; 6:15-22; 8:2,10-12,30-32; 10:7; 16:32; 21:10,12; Num 3:3; 4:16; 7:1,10,84,88; 35:25,35; 1Kings 1:34-9; 19:16; 2Kings 9:1-6; 1Chr 16:22; 1Sam 9:16; 10:1; 12:3,5; 15:17; 16:1,6,13;  24:6,10; 26:9,11,16; 26:23; 2Sam 1:14,16; 2:1,4,7; 3:39; 5:1,3,17; 12:7,20; 14:2; 19:10,21; 22:51; 23:1; 1Kings 1:39,45; 5:1; 2Kings 11:12; 23:30; 1Chron 11:1,3; 14:8; 16:22; 29:22; 2Chron 6:42; 22:7; 23:11; Pss 2:1,2; 18:50; 20:6; 23:5; 28:8; 89:20; 92:10; 104:15; 132:10,17; 133:2; Song 1:3; Sir 45:15; 46:13,19; 48:8; Isa 45:1; 61:1; Lam 4:20; Dan 9:25-26; Hab 3:13; Zech 4:14; 2Macc 1:10.

[13] 1Sam 2:10; 2:35; Ps 2:2; Dan 9:25-6; Isa 61:1; Lk 4:18; 7:38-46; Jn 1:32-3,41; Acts 4:27; 9:22; 10:28; 17:2-3; 18:4,28.

[14] Mt 26:30; Mk 11:1; 13:3; 14:26; Lk 16:6; 19:29,37; 21:37; 22:39; Jn 8:1.

[15] Mt 25:1-18.

[16] Lk 16:6.

[17] See endnote 8 re the Passover bread.

[18] Mt 6:17.

[19] Mk 14:8; Lk 7:46; Jn 11:2; 12:3.

[20] Mk 6:13; Lk 10:34; Jas 5:14.

[21] Mt 26:12; Mk 14:8; Lk 23:56.

[22]  Pss 45:7; 55:21; 92:10; Prov 5:3; Isa 61:3; 2Sam 14:2; Mt 6:17; Lk 4:18; Heb 1:9.

Welcome to St Mary’s Basilica in Sydney for this year’s Chrism Mass. In a year in which our places and activities of worship have been much curtailed, it is a sign of hope and a real consolation to be able to gather in numbers again, as priests and faithful, and to celebrate the long postponed Chrism Mass – better late than never!

On this Feast of the Holy Apostles Simon and Jude our shepherds will renew with me their priestly promises, as testimony to their communion with Christ. They will consecrate with me the oils for the sacraments, as witness to their communion with the people they serve. And they will celebrate with me the Holy Eucharist, as testament to their communion with their Bishop and each other.

I acknowledge the presence this morning of the auxiliary Bishops of Sydney Terry Brady and Richard Umbers, the Ordinary of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of the Southern Cross, Monsignor Carl Reid, the Vicar-General of Sydney Gerry Gleeson, the Vicar-General of the Ordinariate Stephen Hill, our several vicars and deans, my dear brother priests, deacons and seminarians. I also welcome some representatives of our parishes. We pray for those who could not be with us today due to sickness and frailty, or because of the continuing limits on numbers allowed in churches.

We pray also for the repose of the souls of our brother priests who have died since our last Chrism Mass: Fathers Barry Nobbs, William Hannon, Mark Spora, Michael O’Sullivan, Peter Morrissey, Pat McAuliffe, Ray Farrell and John Langtry. A number of religious clergy have died including Bishop Des Moore MSC and Fathers Paul Stenhouse MSC, John Flynn LC, John Thornhill SM and Noel Connolly SSC.

We welcome with joy the priests ordained since our last Chrism Mass: Fathers Miguel Perez Campos, William Chow, Ronnie Maree, Joseph Murphy, Moises Tapia Carrasco, John Pham, Noel Custodio, Roberto Keryakos and Jonathan Vala – as well as 36 clergy from religious orders or other dioceses who have come to work or retire in the archdiocese.[i] Our newly minted deacons are Alfredo Bouroncle, Cameron Smith MSC, Reginald Chua OP, Stephen Drum FMVD and Graham Swan.

We also celebrate with gratitude those priests with milestones this year: diamond jubilarians Bishop Geoff Robinson and Monsignor Kerry Bayada; our golden boys John Anderson, Thanh Nguyen and Colin Mason; those forty years ordained Brian Egan, Gerard Kelly, Brian Lucas, Menardo Mercene and Stephen Monaghan; our silver jubilarians Danny Meagher, Thu Nguyen, Maurice Thompson and Casey Hamilton; and any others I’ve missed. Add to their years of service the many the rest of you have rendered to God and His people, and the vineyard of Sydney is truly blessed in its labourers.

We continue to pray for safety for those at risk during the present pandemic and those who are caring for them, for our pastors and those steering us through this crisis. And we look forward to that day when all may return safely to church.

To everyone present, physically or virtually, a very warm welcome.

[i]     Fathers Challita Al Boustany,  Yohanes Berkhmans Boli CSsR, Fr Bob Bossini, William Brady MSC, Nestor Candado SSP, Kevin Dance CP, Nicholas De Groot SVD, Christopher de Sousa CRS, Davor Filko OFM, Andrew Fu, Stephan Gerdes SVD, William Goldman CSsR, Michael Hansen SJ, Gerard Healy SJ, Stephen Hill VG, Trevor Hird, Paul Jennings MSC, Benjamin Johnson OFMCap David King CP, Ita Koloamatangi, Peter L’Estrange SJ, James Littleton MSC, Andy Nguyen SJ, Francis Nguyen CSsR,  Joseph Nguyen OFM, Peter Huan Van Nguyen MSC, Thang Nguyen MSC, Ruwan Premaraja, Asaeli Rass SVD, Dominic Samamba CP, Dhanam Savarimuthu SSS, Anthoni Selvaraj OFM, Duc Quy Tran MSC, Mathew Velliyamkandathil CRS and Adrian Wee FSSP, and Deacon Majid Al Hanna.