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HOMILY FOR THE PONTIFICAL MASS OF CHRISTIAN BURIAL FOR REV. MICHAEL MC CARTHY

20 Apr 2021

Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, Randwick

Euthanasia is back on the agenda in New South Wales with the independents tightening the screws on the Premier to allow a Bill to be debated soon. We must be prepared. The word euthanasia comes from the Greek εὐ θάνατος meaning good death. According to the ancient Roman historian Suetonius, “on hearing that anyone had died swiftly and painlessly, Caesar Augustus would pray that he and his might have a similar ‘euthanasia’ – for that was the term he was wont to use.”[1] Augustus did indeed have that sort of death, for after a short illness and aged 75, he died of natural causes in his wife Livia’s arms.

It was the 17th century philosopher-statesman, Francis Bacon, who popularised the word in English. He said that the physician’s task is, as far as reasonable, to alleviate physical suffering and so ensure their patient’s ‘outward euthanasia’ or easy death, and that the priest’s task is to alleviate spiritual suffering and so ensure their penitent’s ‘inward euthanasia’ or calm dying.[2] For the subsequent two centuries the term denoted natural dying with the best of medical and spiritual assistance to make the dying person comfortable – what people today would call palliative care – but never with any thought of hastening or deliberately engineering death. But in the lead up to World War II some came to use it as a euphemism for senicide (= killing the elderly), asthenicide (killing the sick), cryp/thanasia (covert killing of patients) and eugenics-inspired slaying of ‘degenerates’ and ‘useless eaters’. Because of this rather sinister baggage, the word euthanasia has been dropped by advocates in recent times in favour of a new euphemism, ‘Voluntary Assisted Dying’.

Well, Christians have always prayed for a good death, by which they mean more than the contemporary obsessions with being pain-free and in control. Being kept comfortable certainly matters – and so we want everyone to have access to good palliative care. So does dying in familiar surroundings, with family and friends around us, to share memories, demonstrate we are still valued, buoy us up. But the best preparation for dying well is living well, preparing the kind of character that faces death with confidence and readiness for the next stage. For Christians dying well is giving witness to faith and hope, life and love to the end. Cultivating virtues like patience and perseverance, engaging in spiritual reading, prayer and contemplation, above all receiving ‘the Last Rites’ of the Church, all help ready the soul for its ultimate adventure. These are the surest ways to that calm, sweet death of which Bacon spoke.

So there’s a world of difference between a Christian ‘good death’ and a secular euthanasia. We Christians know that a good death, like a good life, is not necessarily an easy one, for the dying person or those around them; that death is our last enemy and cannot be tamed. In the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, as in the Catholic litany and devotions to St Joseph, Christians have long prayed “From dying suddenly and unprepared, good Lord, deliver us”. It’s a far cry from the Emperor Augustus’ prayer for a swift and painless death! Christian wisdom is that it’s better to have the chance to get our affairs in order, tie up some loose ends, saying forgive me’s and I forgive you’s, goodbyes and I love you’s. The art of dying well is not the mock heroics of grand opera, but a gradually letting go and letting God, with calm resignation and gentle courage, reconciling with God, our neighbours, even death, with faithful trust and loving hope.

Ultimately our model for a good death has never been the ‘quick and painless’ death Augustus wanted and the modern euthanasia movement advocated, but the death of his contemporary Jesus of Nazareth.  In our Gospel today, we heard that Jesus carried His cross out of the city to Golgotha (Jn 19:17-18,25-30). In Mel Gibson’s 2004 masterpiece, The Passion of the Christ, as Jesus walked that Via Dolorsa, He fell a third time, right in front of his Mother Mary.[3] There’s a flash-back to His childhood when, playing in the dusty streets of Nazareth, the boy falls and Mary runs to gather Him up and comfort Him. Her instinct this time is the same and she reaches out to touch the face of her wounded Son, saying “I’m here.” Taking some poetic licence, Gibson puts on the lips of the dying Christ, “See, Mother, how I make all things new!”

The words are, of course, from that first reading read to us by Michael today (Rev 21:1-7), when John hears an angelic voice proclaim “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there will be no more death, no more mourning or sadness.” And then he hears Jesus Emmanuel, God-with-us, thunder from His heavenly throne: “Behold, I am making all things new… I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give water from the spring of life eternal to the thirsty soul… I will be his God and he a son to me.” (Rev 21:1-7) But before all things are made new, Christ must be nailed, and thirst, and die a terrible death. We seek to imitate that death, not in its physical form – thank goodness – but its spiritual: with His dying care for the thieves and persecutors, for His mother and the Church, and the reciprocal care of His mother and friend and even of the soldiers who gave him vinegar to dull His thirst and pain; with His perfectly fulfilling the Scriptures and  rendering all to His Father-God with “It is accomplished!” Now that’s a truly good death.

“The life and death of each of us has its influence on others,” Leanne read to us from Paul (Rom 14:7-12) and Fr Michael McCarthy’s certainly had its influence. Bishop Brady’s Mum described him as “a likeable rogue with a golden tongue”; others as “a character” and “a wheeler and dealer for Jesus”. By the time I got to know him, he was retired, escaping his carers on his mobility scooter, but still a man of strong views offered freely. A passionate man, with a deep well of compassion for the needy, he ‘adopted’ a family of Vietnamese refugees and helped many others. A natural teacher and orator, he influenced many to live and die in faith and love. At his hands babies were made children of God in Holy Baptism, sinners made saints in Holy Penance, bread and wine made the Body and Blood of Christ in the Holy Eucharist, lovers made spouses in Holy Matrimony, the sick made healthy or ready for life eternal in Holy Anointing. Through Him Christ made all things new.

We now entrust Fr Michael Maurice McCarthy to the mercy of the Mayor of the Eternal City, to Jesus Emmanuel, God-with-us, who promised the spring of eternal life to Michael his son. We pray that his sins be forgiven, for his soul, too, must be made new. But we do so with hope, that when called to give an account of himself as St Paul says he must, Michael’s life of good deeds and faithful death will speak for themselves. Vale Fr McCarthy.

INTRODUCTION TO THE PONTIFICAL MASS OF CHRISTIAN BURIAL FOR Rev. Michael McCarthy

Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, Randwick

Welcome to the Church of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart for the Pontifical Mass of Christian Burial Mass for Fr Michael Maurice McCarthy, a Priest of the Archdiocese of Sydney.

Fr Michael was baptised in this church in 1932 and schooled at OLSH Primary and Marcellin College here in Randwick, as well as St Joseph’s College Hunters Hill. After some years as a librarian and member of Young Labor, he joined the seminaries of Springwood and Manly and was ordained 57 years ago (18 July 1964) by Cardinal Gilroy, at the late age of 32. He celebrated his First Mass back in this beautiful shrine.

He went on to serve as Assistant Priest at Belfield, Central Bankstown, then Woy Woy, and back to Bankstown proper, where he formed a longstanding friendship with the family of that most famous Bankstown boy, Prime Minister Paul Keating. He was next stationed to Golden Grove as Administrator, and finally to Oatley in 1982 as Parish Priest, where he remained for over 20 years. Along the way he also headed up the Catholic Immigration Office, was a member of the Council of Priests, and was Dean of the St George Deanery.

Concelebrating with me today are: Most Rev. Terry Brady, Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney, whose priestly vocation was influenced by Fr Michael; Most Rev. Peter Ingham, Bishop Emeritus of Wollongong, who was in Fr Michael’s year in the seminary; Fr John Hill from the same year; his executor, Very Rev. Kelvin Lovegrove; and several priests of the Archdiocese of Sydney and beyond. I thank the MSC community for their hospitality, and salute Fr John Doherty and parishioners from Oatley who still treasure the memory of his time as their pastor.

I welcome in particular Fr Michael’s “adopted family” the Nguyens, refugees from Vietnam, including Peter (who will offer some words of remembrance), Danh and Khan along with their own families, to whom we extend our condolences.

I also acknowledge the presence of Hon. Paul Keating, former Prime Minister of Australia, whose family had a long association with Fr Michael.

We now commend this faithful priest of Christ Jesus to that Lord he served so well.


[1] Seutonius Tranquillus, “The Life of Augustus”, ch. 99, v. 2, from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/e/roman/texts/suetonius/ 12caesars/augustus*.html

[2] Brian Vickers (ed), The Major Works of Francis Bacon, p. 630.

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-oagv9-fWpM