24 Apr 2021

St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney

Myth. We often use the term to mean some supposed ‘fact’ or version of events that is untrue but commonly believed. We might think of the ‘urban myths’ that using a mobile phone near a petrol pump risks blowing up the petrol station,[i] or using one on a plane will interfere with the navigation instruments.[ii] Even if they’ve seen it comprehensively refuted on Mythbusters, many people will continue to swear by it. This kind of myth has sticking power.

But we use the word myth in another important way, to denote legendary tales told of gods and men, fantastical creatures and great events. We think of the clashes of the titans, the epics of Helen of Troy and the men around her, or the ‘history’ of King Arthur and his circle. Here we use the word myth not to describe a falsehood but a different kind of truth, beyond ordinary demonstration, a different kind of explanation to that offered by science or history, one often associated with identity and ritual.[iii]

Thus anthropologists, psychologists and educationalists tell us that, though often based upon real persons and events, myths serve as archetypes of unconscious forces,[iv] or as patterns by which we structure reality (good and bad, compassionate or callous),[v]or as a form of ‘depoliticized’ speech, pure and innocent,[vi] or as a more sophisticated ‘dream and vision’ for the community.[vii] Myths commonly establish or reflect a people’s self-concept and values, or explain to them the genesis of their land and people, institutions and customs.[viii]

Charles Dixon, The Landing at Anzac (1915), Archives New Zealand

When people talk of ‘the ANZAC myth’ they often mean myth in the sense of misconception. The Australian forces, the debunkers say, far from representing an emerging new nation, were loyal members of a British imperial force and treated by the British (and other Entente powers) as cannon fodder in an ill-conceived campaign; they were ill-disciplined, over-confident and poorly supplied; Gallipoli proved a disastrous diversion, with many men dying pointlessly within minutes of landing; most by far of the soldiers fighting and dying on ‘our side’ were not ANZACs at all at Gallipoli (28,000 Australian and 7,500 New Zealand casualties) but British troops (120,000) and even French (27,000); after eight months’ fighting and a quarter-million casualties on each side, there was a stale-mate and the invasion force withdrew, having never been close to taking the Dardanelles.[ix]

Yet as the story was told at the time and the legend evolved, the ANZACs came to be seen as nameless young heroes, keen to prove themselves as representatives of a fledgling nation, who performed heroically and are to be revered as national icons.[x] The ANZAC offensive had a lasting effect on the Australian psyche, which historian Henry Reynolds has described as “so powerful and so pervasive that it is rarely questioned”.[xi] In fact the ANZACs were by far the most influential historical figures in relation to Australian identity.[xii] Politicians of all hues lean on the ANZAC story for various purposes.[xiii] Books on the ANZACs take up whole sections of bookshops. Thousands make the ‘pilgrimage’ to Anzac Cove each year, at least when there’s no COVID.

PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

ANZAC Day is a feast day of Church and state and a public holiday to boot – though we seem to be sold short in years when it falls on a Sunday! It is marked by dawn services, street marches and other solemn commemorations and celebrations. Through retelling the stories and enacting the rituals – marching, wreath-laying, recitation and bugling – we identify and validate quintessential Australian virtues, such as courage, larrikinism, humour, ingenuity, mateship, egalitarianism, and so on.[xiv]

We might wonder at the endurance of the ANZAC story, despite repeated assaults. The reason, I think, lies in our word ‘myth’. Indeed, when the critics speak of ‘the ANZAC myth’ so as to dismiss it as fable and falsehood, they speak more truly than they realise: for as we’ve seen, there’s a more favourable sense of myth. In this sense the ANZAC story is not about blood and glory in a distant age. It’s about us, our ideals, our sense of who we are. It’s about values that go beyond individual preferences and interests. It’s about the distinction Jesus draws in our Gospel tonight between the ‘hired man’, who flees at the first hint of danger, and the true shepherd, who stands, defends and cares (Jn 10:11-18).

Myths reveal – but they also conceal. One particular danger of the Anzac myth is beautifully captured by a line from the classic Australian song, Only 19: that “the ANZAC legends didn’t mention mud, and blood, and tears”. One problem with mythic heroes is that they are thought to be indestructible, or if they die or are wounded this is romanticized. But as the forthcoming Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicides will expose in harrowing detail, war does its damage, and continues to hurt people long after it is over. PTSD, depression and the rest, we now appreciate, are very real.

Our armed services have, of course, long offered psychological care as part of their Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy.[xv]  But evidently it’s not been enough. The tragic suicides of people who have served our country is a blight on our armed services, on government, but also on our whole community. How easy have we made it for returned service personnel to reintegrate? Have we been welcoming and supportive? Or has the ANZAC myth blinded us to what they have suffered and what they need from us? The fact is: ANZACs past or present are not invincible.

In our first reading today, Peter tells the story of a young man who was both a victim of war and a survivor. Jesus’ war was with Satan, sin and suffering. Peter uses the image from the psalms of “the stone rejected by the builders” (Ps 117; Acts 4:8-12) to describe Jesus’ being cast out, traumatized, left to die. But Easter says that “the stone the builders rejected has become the corner stone”. The war was not the end of the line for Jesus, and need not be for us.

When Jesus compares Himself with a Good Shepherd rather than a hired hand in our Gospel tonight, He is making a comparison between a committed soldier and a mercenary. It is not a difference of skill or experience, but of motivation and character. The sheep don’t ‘belong’ to the hireling or he to them; whereas the shepherd knows the sheep so intimately that they respond to his voice. When danger comes, the mercenary flees the scene while the Good Shepherd willingly risks His life to protect His own. We might say Jesus is engaging in some mythologizing Himself in romanticizing what sheep farmers do. Here in Australia, at least, few would trouble themselves with distinguishing one sheep from another or put their lives on the line for the sake of a single sheep. But our armed service personnel do indeed risk life and limb – and psychological health – in order to defend life, and liberty, and country. “No one takes my life from me,” they can say with our Lord, “I lay it down of my own accord.” The faithful soldier emulates or echoes Jesus the Good Shepherd.

ANZACs have been celebrated for all sorts of reasons down the years, and not always the best reasons. But in accord with the anthropologists’ understanding of myth, the ANZACs have bequeathed us patterns by which to understand good and evil, compassion and callousness; a rather innocent, depoliticized way to speak of our land and people; a story of national origins, character and values; an explanation of our peculiar customs and rituals. The ‘dreamy vision’ of a thirst for peace and freedom, of fidelity to God and country, of love for family and mates, is a worthy one. In celebrating the ANZACs we can celebrate what is best in our history, country, selves. We commit to seeking to be worthy of their lives and deaths. But we can also honour their legacy by helping those who are still hurting. Above all, we offer the survivors, those who did not survive, and those who grieve them, the hope of Easter. In God’s book of eternal life “Their name liveth for evermore.”


St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney

Welcome to this Vigil Mass for ANZAC Day on the 4th Sunday of Easter. Having been so restricted last year due to the COVID pandemic, it’s great to be back together.

I acknowledge Her Excellency Hon. Margaret Beazley AC QC, Governor of NSW, and Mr Dennis Wilson; with Colonel Michael Miller, Official Secretary to the Governor, and Mrs Miller.

From the Royal Australian Navy I salute: Captain Dave Tietzel, Commander Australian Maritime Task Group, representing Rear Admiral Mark Hammond, Commander of the Australian Fleet; Captain Brian Schlegel, Director Maritime Warfare Analysis & Development, representing Vice Admiral Stuart Mayer AO CSC, Deputy Commander United Nations Command; Commodore Michael Harris OAM, Commodore Flotillas; Captain Matthew Shand, commanding officer, HMAS Kuttabul; Commander Simon Kelly, Director Maritime Support Centre; Commander Andrew Dale; and Lieutenant Daniel Tynan;

From the Australian Army I acknowledge: Major General Matthew Pearse AM, Commander Forces Command; Colonel Warwick Young OAM, Commander of NSW Army Cadets and Member of the Veterans Review Board; Lieutenant-Colonel Angus Johnson, Infrastructure, Department of Defence; and Major Douglas James;

From the Royal Australian Air Force I recognise: Wing Commander Paul Hughes, Lead Project Officer, Australian Air Force Cadets; Wing Commander Merridy Thompson, Officer Commanding 3 Wing Australian Air Force Cadets; Squadron Leader Col Gilbertson, Vice-President of the Defence Reserves Association; Squadron Leaders Frank Di Stefano, Chris Gibson and Gordon Johnstone; and Sergeant Robert Vanzino;

Along with Rear Admiral Justice Michael Slattery AM, Judge Advocate General of the Australian Defence Force; officers commanding Her Majesty’s ships, establishments, bases and barracks; Mr Ray James, President of the Returned Services League of New South Wales, with other representatives of the RSL and of Legacy; many other past or present members of our Defence Forces and Defence Reserves; and spouses and partners of defence force personnel.

From the Diplomatic and Consular corps I welcome: Ratu Orisi Raviso, Consul-General of Fiji; Mr Luciano Da Conceicao, Consul-General of Timor-Leste; Ms Adriene Hickey, Deputy Consul-General of Ireland.

From the Judiciary: Hon. Michael Slattery and Hon. François Kunc, Justices of the Supreme Court of NSW;

From Government: Hon. Damien Tudehope MLC, Minister for Finance and Small Business; and other members of the New South Wales Parliament; Rt Hon. Lord Mayor of Sydney, Cr Clover Moore, and other councillors and officers of the City of Sydney;

From the emergency services, Mr Andrew Scipione AO APM, former Commissioner of the NSW Police Force; Inspector Geoff Senior of NSW Ambulance; and representatives of the Police, Ambulance, Fire and Rescue, Rural Fire and State Emergency Services.

PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

Concelebrating with me tonight are: Most Rev. Terry Brady, Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney; Very Rev. Julian Wellspring Judicial Vicar; and Fr John Knight, and we honour past and present chaplains to the armed services. I also recognise representatives of the Chancery of the Archdiocese of Sydney, including the Chancellor Mr Chris Meney, the Vicar for Consecrated Life Sr Elizabeth Delaney, leaders or representatives of other Church agencies, religious congregations, and community organisations. You are all most welcome. Every year on the Vigil and the Day of ANZAC Day we gather to remember and pray for eternal life for those who have fallen in war, especially our own; to intercede, likewise, for those still suffering from injury or loss from their time in the armed services, about whom our nation is especially conscious at this time; to pray that the rest of us will never be tested as they were; and to recommit ourselves to their worthy ideals. This year our celebration occurs on the Vigil of the Fourth Sunday of Easter, and so we hear the consoling promise of St John that all who die in God’s grace will rise to new life and be like Him because they will see Him as He really is (1Jn 3:1-2). We pray that those who have died for our country are now enjoying the vision of God.

[i] https://mythbusters.fandom.com/wiki/Cell_Phone_Destroys_Gas_Station_(Myth); https://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2006/11/30/1799366.htm

[ii] [http://kwc.org/mythbusters/2006/04/episode_49_cellphones_on_plane.html; https://www.livescience.com/5947-real-reason-cell-phone-banned-airlines.html]

[iii] Bronisław Malinowski, Myth in Primitive Psychology (1926); Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality (Harper & Row, 1963).

[iv] Sigmund Freud, The Intepretation of Dreams (1900); Robert Segal (ed.), Jung on Mythology (Princeton UP, 1998).

[v] E.g. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Myth and Meaning (Schocken Books, 1978).

[vi] Roland Barthes, Mythologies (New York: Noonday Press, 1972), pp. 142-3.

[vii] Joseph Campbell, The Flight of the Wild Gander: Explorations in the Mythological Dimension (New World Library, 2002), p. 101

[viii] Eric Csapo, Theories of Mythology (Wiley, 2005).

[ix] D. Day (ed.), Australian Identities (Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 1998); M. Lake et al., What’s Wrong with Anzac? The Militarisation of Australian History (UNSW press, 2009).  Applying the idea of myth in both senses: Robert Manne, “The war myth that made us,” The Age 25 April 2007;

[x] Jed Donoghue & Bruce Tranter, “The Anzacs: Military influences on Australian identity,” Journal of Sociology 51(3) (2013) 449-63; Graham Seal, Inventing Anzac: The Digger and National Mythology (University of Queensland Press, 2004).

[xi] Henry Reynolds, “Are nations really made in war?”, in M. Lake and H. Reynolds (eds.), What’s Wrong with Anzac? The Militarisation of Australian History (Sydney, 2010).

[xii] E.g. Jed Donoghue & Bruce Tranter, “The Anzac myth and Australian national identity,” E-International Relations 8 May 2014;

[xiii] Cf. Jack Holland, Selling the War on Terror: Foreign Policy Discourses after 9/11, Critical Terrorism Studies (New York, 2013)

[xiv] Stephen Garton, “Demobilization and empire: Empire nationalism and soldier citizenship in Australia after the First World War – in Dominion Context,” Journal of Contemporary History 50(1) (2015), xxx at p. 126.

[xv] https://www.defence.gov.au/Health/_master/HealthUpdates/docs/Defence_Mental_Health_Wellbeing_Strategy_2018-2023.PDF