01 Feb 2021

Mater Dei Catholic Church, Blakehurst

Some years ago I heard Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta – now Cardinal Gregory of Washington DC – give a World Youth Day catechesis on the subject of Christian joy. He observed that we Christians have every reason to be happy: we have been given life in a world full of beauty and opportunity; we have been redeemed by a God who so loved the world He gave His only Son; we have the confidence that that God is far greater than any evil and that good will ultimately triumph; in the meantime we know He shares spiritual gifts with us, one of the fruits of which is Christian joy; we also have the Word and sacraments and other supports of the Church; and we have been promised an eternity of happiness in heaven. “Christians,” he insisted, ‘Have every reason to be happy: would someone please tell their faces!”

Cardinal Gregory’s point was that the Christian religion is not a dour one and its adherents should not be sour-faced: we have every reason to demonstrate a deep abiding joy, even in challenging situations, and this should mark our demeanour, words and actions. Fr Isidore was an excellent advertisement for Christian joy – one of the most excellent, dare I say. Even when suffering recurrent bouts of cancer and treatment, with all the associated suffering, he was always smiling. Indeed, his smile could fill a room, a church, a parish. It was infectious.

Some here may remember the 1988 pop song Don’t Worry, Be Happy. It echoed St Paul’s words to the Philippians: “I want you to be happy, always happy in the Lord; I repeat, what I want is your happiness… There is no need to worry” (Phil 4:4,6). I don’t know if Bobby McFerrin knew he was quoting St Paul but he may well have been influenced by a Christian culture. Which does not mean Christians look at the world through rose-tinted glasses. Our God was tortured, beaten, humiliated, killed. He was stripped of everything: His divinity, human dignity, comfort and success; stripped of His clothes, friends, life, even (so He felt) His God and Father. Isidore knew this as a matter of faith, but he also experienced a share in the sufferings of Christ in recent years. Courage, according to St Thomas Aquinas, is a real strength of soul, allowing people to hold tight to the true and good despite the waiting, danger or pain. Instead of a facile cheeriness, Christian joy is a gift of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:22-23), that allows us to experience suffering and yet transcend it. Thus with St Paul Isidore could say “I am joyful amidst infirmities, reproaches, needs, persecution or distress, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2Cor 12:10)

Isidore was born in Madras, South India, a place we all know for cricket and curry: but it is also the place where the Apostle Thomas proved his faith was greater than his doubts by going further than all the others to tell the Good News. He was doubtless trying to get to Australia but only got as far as Chennai before being martyred. It was to Fr Isidore and a whole generation of Indian priests that St Thomas passed on his aspiration to go to the end of the earth – to Australia – to proclaim the Gospel. So young Isidore attended seminary in Chennai and was ordained in 1979 as a rather mature-aged priest of 28. He priested in Madras for 14 years and then in the ‘paradise’ of the Seychelle Islands for 11. At the invitation of Cardinal Pell, he came to Sydney in 2005 and worked at the Cathedral, Cronulla and Sutherland parishes. In the year of the Sydney World Youth Day (2008) he was incardinated into the Archdiocese of Sydney and appointed Parish Priest of Mater Dei Blakehurst and St Raphael Hurstville South where he was destined to serve out the rest of his priesthood. It was a young auxiliary Bishop Anthony who installed him on Trinity Sunday. Thereafter Fr Isidore managed to wheedle his way into my diary with an effectiveness that is the envy even of my mother!

Isidore served on the Council of Priests, Council of Deans and College of Consultors and, from 2015, as Episcopal Vicar for Immigration. In that role he led our Archdiocesan Catholic Immigration Office and chaired the Committee for Catholic Immigration. Building upon his own experience as a missionary priest and migrant, he facilitated welcome, enculturation and accompaniment of our migrant chaplains and fellowship between them. He provided an important channel of communication between the Archbishop and Chancery and the migrant chaplains and their communities. He liaised with federal and state government officials and the Australian Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office. He conducted canonical visitation of migrant chaplaincies on behalf of the Archbishop and organised an annual Archdiocesan celebration of migrants at the cathedral. He addressed the complexities that sometimes arise in migrant chaplaincies and communities with patience, wisdom and tact.

In 2016 I celebrated the 60th anniversary of this church with Fr Isidore and parishioners. The Gospel that Sunday was the story of Zacchaeus (Lk 9:1-10), a short guy who had to climb a tree to see Jesus among the crowd. I said that like Zack we all need a sycamore that is the Church to hold us up so we might see Christ, but that some of us are more height-challenged than others! In 2018 he got me here for Confirmation, and later the same year, on the centenary of the Armistice, to South Hurstville to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the dedication of the church. On that occasion I commented on how well he looked after his series of health scares and hospital visits. But it was, in fact, the beginning of the end, and after a long struggle with cancer he died, aged only 69.

Isidore was a true man of God and God’s people and he wanted to spend himself completely in their service. He loved his flock here in Blakehurst and Hurstville South, as he had those in the Seychelles and India. He also loved his work with the Immigration Office and ethnic chaplaincies. Though he struggled with cancer for a good while, he always resisted when I suggested reducing his duties. Like Paul in our epistle, he was determined to run the race to the finish, to keep the faith and receive the crown of righteousness (2Tim 4:6-8).

Every time I saw Isidore in hospital, at parish celebrations or priests’ meetings, he brought his big smile, generous spirit and reassuring words. I will miss that infectious smile and all his support. Behind the smile was a supreme confidence that, in the words of Job today, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last He shall take His stand upon the earth; that after my flesh has been destroyed He will set me close to Him and in my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:25-27). So he would not let his heart be troubled; he trusted in God (Jn 14:1-12). We commend him now to Jesus who is the word, the reason, the song but also the smile of God. Until we meet again, dear brother, may you have experience endless joy with God, Thomas the Apostle and all the saints.


Mater Dei Catholic Church, Blakehurst

Today as we commend to God the soul of our beloved Father Isidore Anantharaj, public health restrictions mean many of his relatives, friends, brother priests and beloved parishioners are precluded from being present. Fortunately, they can join by live-streaming and so I welcome you all to this Mass.

Fr Isidore came to Sydney 15 years ago from India and the Seychelles, and made this his home – even if he never converted to supporting the Aussie cricket team against India. After serving in the Cathedral, Cronulla and Sutherland parishes, he was appointed Parish Priest of Mater Dei Blakehurst and St Raphael Hurstville South, where he served until his untimely death. Isidore also served on the Councils of Priests, Deans and Consultors and, from 2015, as Episcopal Vicar for Immigration. He was much loved in every place he served.

On Isidore’s death the Archdiocesan Facebook page, switchboard and mailbag were flooded with condolences and expressions of people’s affection and admiration for Fr Isidore. David Coleman MP, who worked with Fr Isidore as his local MP or when Minister for Multicultural Affairs, wrote to me to express his condolences to the family and the broader Catholic community. He said Isidore was a man of “wonderful spirit, great wisdom, and an infectious optimism” and that his loss will be very heavily felt in the community. To which I say a very parliamentary “hear, hear”.

I acknowledge concelebrating with me today Bishops Terry Brady and Richard Umbers, Vicar-General Gerry Gleeson, many clergy of the Archdiocese and beyond, as well as various ethnic chaplains. Fr Jan Chrzczonowicz attended him in his dying hours. Also present are his carer and adopted sister, Angelina Coelho, her daughter Samantha and son-in-law Ben and their children. Fr Sebastian will read a message from Isidore’s family.

Parishioners, members of our ethnic communities, migrant priests and people whom he assisted – all are represented here today. His friend and executor Robyn McCabe will read, as will his close work-colleague in the Catholic Immigration Office, Kylie Cullen, whom I thank for all the work supporting him and in preparing today’s liturgy. As a mark of Fr Isidore’s great work in the migrant apostolate, our intercessions will be in several languages.

To everyone present I offer a very warm welcome.