09 May 2021

St. Mary’s Basilica, Sydney, 9 May 2021

They were practical men. The Apostle Peter, hero of our first reading (Acts 10:25-48), insisted he was “only a man”, a simple man, a fisherman (Mk 1:16); though Christ made him a fisher of men (Mk 1:17), he reverted to his old craft from time to time (Mt 17:27; Jn 21:3-19; cf. Mt 14:22-32). His more sophisticated mate Paul, continued his earlier trade a tent-maker (Acts 18:1-3; 20:33-5; 2Thess 3:8; 1Cor ch. 9) even as he embraced his God-given task of making people into living tabernacles (cf. 1Cor 3:16-17; 6:19; 2Cor 6:16 etc.). While Jesus often used agricultural imagery for Himself and His work,[1] we know He was a τέκτον –  a carpenter, builder or artisan like His father (Mt 13:55; Mk 6:3).

Many priests have likewise been physical builders, farmers and tabernacle-makers as much as spiritual ones. Australia’s first clergy had to be. Their unenviable task was to lead and serve a Catholic community whose members lacked wealth, education and prospects, and had as yet established no church infrastructure. Captains of passing French and Portuguese vessels expressed surprise that in the 32 years they had awaited clergy, the Catholic community had still not erected a single chapel.

But when Frs Philip Conolly and John Joseph Therry arrived on 3 May 1820, as the first chaplains appointed by Rome and London, they got straight to work, gathering the Catholics of Sydney and beyond for prayer, sacraments, catechesis, planning and fundraising. They also visited on foot, horseback or ship the colonies of Parramatta, Norfolk Island and Van Diemen’s Land, and wherever there were settlers. They petitioned the Governor for a site for a Catholic chapel, and were given the garbage dump near the convict barracks and the Hyde Park vege patch. No-one then imagined what a prime site St Mary’s would turn out to be!

After a year Fr Conolly moved to Tasmania where he laboured 14 years among ‘a wicked and perverse generation’.[2] He was admired as a man ‘of no small ability and attainments, witty and full of dry humour’, ‘of exemplary religious and moral habits’. :Meanwhile Fr Therry proved to be a ‘popular’, ‘energetic’, ‘restless’ and ‘articulate’ man, a ‘flamboyant public figure’ and ‘a far-seeing pastor’.[3] Never a team player, always in debt, and usually in contest with authority, he had the blarney to charm support from poor Catholics and establishment Protestants for his many projects, including St Mary’s.[4] Therry was a hero of Australian Catholicism by the end of what he described as 44 years of “incessant labour very often accompanied by painful anxiety”.[5] That labour – as builder, farmer, tabernacle-maker and entrepreneur – and the labours of those who followed after him, yielded spiritual fruit aplenty, fruit that would last (Jn 15:1-17)!

:From the humble beginnings of Terry’s first chapel on this site, the mother church of Australia evolved into one of the great cathedrals of the world, and from this first parish were spawned 1300 more around Australia, providing pastoral care to millions.

:From equally unpretentious beginnings in Therry’s first school in Parramatta, grew a Catholic education system that now teaches around 770,000 primary and secondary school students, in more than 1750 schools; 200,000 state school children through special religious education provided by 6,000 catechists; tens of thousands of pre-schoolers in Church-sponsored early learning centres; and around 50,000 post-schoolers enrolled in our Catholic universities and tertiary colleges.

:From equally humble beginnings in Parramatta in 1838 and the first St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney in 1857, Catholic healthcare in Australia has grown to providing 10,000 hospital beds and 20,000 aged care places. Meanwhile our religious congregations, parishes and agencies like CatholicCare, Caritas and St Vincent de Paul engage in countless acts of charity and pastoral care every day.

The first priests and religious, lay collaborators and benefactors, and their successors down the decades, established these ministries and the physical infrastructure underpinning them: churches, halls, presbyteries, convents and schools in most Aussie towns and suburbs, as well as orphanages, missions, hospitals, aged-care, social housing and more. It has meant a great deal for individual lives and for the progress of God’s kingdom. It has also been a very significant contribution to nation-building. So much of this country’s ‘social capital’, in institutions and practices, ideals and customs, is patrimony from our forebears. But for them, this country would not be what it is today.

We sometimes hear the slogan “people over buildings”, meaning the maintenance and staffing of plant can be burdensome and distract from the mission. It sure can! But as St Mary MacKillop appreciated, you won’t raise poor Aboriginal, rural or city kids out of poverty, ignorance or sickness on the street: they need a school or clinic. What’s more they need a church: as COVID has highlighted, we Christians are ἐκκλησία, a gathering people, and that means we need spaces for assembly and ministry. Our first pastors knew the importance of building up the People of God and so of putting in place structures to support and foster their faith, worship and service. They knew that without a vineyard or orchard and the support there provided, we will not ‘bear fruit’ as Christ exhorted us.[6]

As every farmer knows, the planting, pruning, nourishing and harvesting of trees and vines, and the enlargement and improvement of the orchard, is never finished. The forthcoming fifth Plenary Council of Australia is a chance for the Church in Australia to examine the challenges and opportunities, invoke the Divine Assistance, and apply the natural and spiritual gifts of its people: to renewing and resourcing parishes and ministries with evangelical creativity; to re-evangelising our culture, institutions and individuals; to transmitting the faith, supporting family life, and reaching out to the marginal; to worshipping God in ways both worthy and welcoming, and to ensuring access to the sacraments; and thus to promoting, forming and supporting good vocations. No motto better sums up our goal than that given us by the Lord today: To love as He has loved us, not just as deeply and comprehensively, but as actively and fruitfully.

Bureaucracies and buildings cannot love you; only God and people can love you,[7] and so these must come first if love is to come first. Our founding fathers recognised clearly that buildings and systems must serve the mission, not vice versa.

Whatever challenges we faced in the past, face now, or will in future, the work of our first priests and their successors offers our response: that rather than acquiescing to the spirit of the age or our own negative emotions, we must redouble our efforts to be faithful to the commandment to love and breathe the Holy Spirit of quiet and humble confidence. There’s a story of St. John the Divine, by then an old man, long retired from care of the Blessed Virgin and from his writings. St Jerome recounts that this last surviving apostle kept murmuring, again and again: “Dear children, love one another”.[8] Some feared this indicated dotage, but when one of his disciples asked why he kept saying this, John replied: “Because it is the Lord’s commandment: if you keep this one, it will suffice.”[9]

[1]     Mt 9:17; 13:1-8,24-38,47; 10:16; 18:12; 21:33-41; 25:32; 26:31; Jn chs 10 & 15; cf. Mt 2:6; 9:36 etc. He also describes Himself as a physician, teacher, king anfd servant.

[2]     Linda Monks, ‘Conolly, Philip (1796-1839),’ Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 1 (MUP, 1966), http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/conolly-philip-1915; W.T. Southerwood, ‘A character study of Australia’s first permanently appointed priests, P. Conolly and J.J. Therry,’ Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society 17 (1996), 7-28.

[3]     John Eddy, ‘Therry, John Joseph,’ Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 2 (MUP, 1967), http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/therry-john-joseph-2722; John McSweeney, A Meddling Priest: John Joseph Therry (Sydney: St Paul’s, 2000);

[4]     McSweeney, A Meddling Priest,  p. 34

[5]     John Ayers, Father Therry: 100 Years (Australian Catholic Truth Society, 1964); Edmund Campion, ‘John Joseph Therry’ in Margaret Press and Neil Brown (eds), Faith and Culture: A Pastoral Perspective (Sydney: CIS, 1984); John Eddy, ‘John Joseph Therry – pioneer priest,’ Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society 1(3) (1964), 1-14; McSweeney, A Meddling Priest; Eris O’Brien, Life and Letters of Archpriest John Joseph Therry: The Foundation of Catholicism in Australia, 2 vols (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1922); Patrick O’Farrell, The Catholic Church and Community in Australia (Melbourne: Nelson, 1977); Percival Serle, ‘Therry, John Joseph,’ Dictionary of Australian Biography (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1949); Southerwood, ‘A character study’; James Waldersee, Catholic Society in NSW 1788-1860 (Sydney University Press, 1974).

[6]    Jn 15:1-17; cf. Mt 3:8-10; 7:15-20; 12:33; 21:43; et par.; Jn 4:36; 12:24; Gal 5:22-23; Eph 5:9; Col 1:6,10; 2Thes 2:13; Jas 3:17.

[7]    Pope Benedict, Deus Caritas Est: Encyclical on Christian Love (2005).

[8]    Jn 13:34; 15:12,17; 1Jn 3:11,14,23; 4:11-12; 2Jn 1:5.

[9]     St. Jerome, Commentary on Gal., 3, 6, 10.

Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral for the Solemn Mass of the 6th Sunday of Easter. On 3 May 1820 Governor Lachlan Macquarie noted in his diary:

This forenoon anchored in Sydney Cove the Ship Janus,[i]Transport, Commanded by Capt. Thos. Jas. Mowatt, with 104 Female Convicts from England and Ireland, from which last Country She sailed on the 3d. of Decr. 1819, touching at Rio de Janeiro.

— The Prisoners & other Passengers have arrived in good Health; but the Surgeon Supdt. Doctor Creagh – of the Royal Navy, died when the Ship had arrived off Van Diemen’s Land.

— The Revd. Mr. Philip Connelly [sic: actually Conolly][ii]  and The Revd. Mr. Josiah Terry [sic: actually John Joseph Therry],[iii] Roman Catholic Priests, have come out Passengers in the Janus, with the Permission of Government, for the Ministry in this Colony.[iv]

By that stage Catholics had been waiting for a priest for 32 years! Sure, a convict priest (Fr James Dixon) had been permitted to celebrate Mass for ten months in 1803;[v] a renegade priest (Fr Jeremiah O’Flynn) conducted a semi-public ministry for six months in 1818;[vi] and occasionally convict priests or passing ships’ chaplains engaged in clandestine ministry. But it was only with the arrival of these two as official chaplains, that Australian Catholics were guaranteed sacraments and pastoral leadership going forward.[vii]

So today we mark the end of the 200th anniversary year of the beginnings of the Catholic priesthood in Australia. The Bishops of Australia have written to the priests to congratulate, thank and encourage them. We also offer this Mass for them and their predecessors these two centuries past, who’ve given their lives to Christ and the Australian people.

Concelebrating with me today are: Archbishop Christopher Prowse of Canberra & Goulburn; Eparch Antoine-Charbel Tarabay of the Maronites of Australia, New Zealand and Oceania; Eparch Robert Rabat of the Melkite Eparchy of Australia and New Zealand; Bishops Michael McKenna of Bathurst, Bill Wright of Maitland-Newcastle, Michael Kennedy of Armidale, Bob McGuckin of Toowoomba, Columba Macbeth-Green of Wilcannia-Forbes, Vincent Long OFMConv of Parramatta, Anthony Randazzo of Broken Bay, Brian Mascord of Wollongong, and Mark Edwards of Wagga Wagga; Monsignor Carl Reid, Ordinary of Our Lady of the Southern Cross; Most Rev. Terry Brady and Most Rev. Richard Umbers, Auxiliary Bishops of Sydney; and Most Rev. Peter Ingham, Bishop Emeritus of Wollongong, and Geoffrey Jarrett, Bishop Emeritus of Armidale.

From civil society I salute Governor Macquarie’s successor, Her Excellency Hon. Margaret Beazley AC QC, 39th Governor of New South Wales;

Mr Owen Feeney, Consul-General of Ireland, the country from which so many of our early clergy, religious and laity hailed;

From the Commonwealth Parliament: Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, chair of the Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Delegated Legislation; Senator Tony Sheldon, Chair of the Select Committee on Job Security; and Hon. Tony Burke MP, Manager of Opposition Business;

From the State Parliament: Mr Mark Coure MP, member for Oatley and Assistant Speaker; Hon. Gabrielle Upton MP, member for Vaucluse, Parliamentary Secretary to the Premier, and Chair of the Joint Select Committee on Religious Freedom; and Ms Julia Finn MP, member for Granville and Shadow Minister for Consumer Protection and for Carers;

From our religious congregations I acknowledge the Archdiocesan Vicar for Religious (Sr Elizabeth Delaney SGS), and leaders or representatives of the Brigidine Sisters (Sr Kathleen Butler CSB); Divine Word Missionaries (Fr Asaeli Rass SVD); Good Samaritan Sisters; Josephites (Srs Monica Cavanagh RSJ and Maria Casey RSJ); Little Sisters of the Poor (Srs Angela Marie de Jesus and Mary Teresa); Lovers of the Holy Cross (Sr Kathy Hai Thi); Maronite Sisters (Sr Elham Geagea); and the Sisters of Charity (Sr Margaret Fitzgerald RSC and Sr Anthea Groves RSC);

I also recognise representatives of various Church agencies and community organisations, including the Apostleship of the Sea (Sr Mary Leahy RSJ), the Australian Catholic University (Vice-President Fr Anthony Casamento CSMA and Deputy Vice-Chancellor Prof. Hayden Ramsay) and the University of Notre Dame Australia (Vice-Chancellor, Professor Francis Campbell).

This time last year we could not celebrate the beginning of this bicentenary year of the priesthood in Australia because COVID had forced the closure of all churches. Happily, a year later, I can welcome you all back to Mass. But our truce with the bug is fragile and this weekend congregants are back to masking and miming the hymns. We pray for those suffering more gravely from COVID, especially our brothers and sisters in India, and for an end to the pandemic. And because today is Mothers’ Day in the civil calendar, I welcome mothers and grandmothers in particular, and promise you our prayers in this Mass.

[i]      It was a 308 ton ship, launched in New York in 1810. It sailed from Southampton on 23rd October 1819 and from the cove of Cork on 18 December 1819, arriving at Rio de Janeiro on 7 February 1820 and at Port Jackson on 3 May 1820. After delivering these prisoners Janus began a new life as a whaling ship, beginning with chasing a pod of whales that had ventured into Sydney harbour.

[ii]      Linda Monks, “Conolly, Philip (1786-1839),” Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 1 (Melbourne University Press, 1966) https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/conolly-philip-1915.

[iii]     John Eddy, “Therry, John Joseph (1790-1864),” Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 2 (Melbourne University Press, 1967) https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/therry-john-joseph-2722; Eris O’Brien, Life and Letters of Archpriest John Joseph Therry, 2 vols (Sydney, 1922); John McSweeney, A Meddling Priest: John Joseph Therry (Sydney: St Pauls Publications, 2000/2020).

[iv]   Records of Convict Johanna Lynch https://www.femaleconvicts.org.au/docs/convicts/JohannaLynch.pdf

[v]     Vivienne Parsons, “Dixon, James (1758-1840),” Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 1 (Melbourne University Press, 1966) https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dixon-james-1980.

[vi]     Vivienne Parsons, “O’Flynn, Jeremiah Francis (1988-1831),” Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 2(Melbourne University Press, 1967) https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/oflynn-jeremiah-francis-2521.

[vii]    On the early history of the Catholic Church in Australia see: Cardinal Patrick Moran, History of the Catholic Church in Australasia (Sydney: Frank, Coffee & Co, 1895); Eris O’Brien, The Dawn of Catholicism in Australia, 2 vols (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1928); John Murtagh, Australia: The Catholic Chapter (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1959); Patrick O’Farrell, The Catholic Church and Community: An Australian History (University of NSW Press, 1977/1985/1992); John Molony, The Roman Mould of the Australian Catholic Church (Melbourne University Press, 1969).