29 Aug 2022

Our Lady of the Rosary Church, Fairfield, 26 August 2022

Like most groups of teenage boys, the Wild Boars Soccer Team were a boisterous and adventurous bunch. They enjoyed each other’s company on and off the field, and regularly explored together the cave system near their local village in northern Thailand. Whether it was scrawling their names on the walls or initiating new members into the team, the caves became their own gargantuan clubhouse. During a routine visit to the Tham Lunag cave after soccer practice on the evening of 10 July 2018, however, the twelve boys and their 25-year-old assistant coach had their lives turned upside down.

An immense downpour of rain flooded the entry to the cave and the group found themselves perched on an elevated rock four kilometres deep inside the cave with their only exit route now submerged under rising muddied waters.[1] Their situation was grim to say the least: trapped, cold, starving, cut off from the outside world and facing the very real possibility of further flooding and drowning. The world was gripped by their plight and soon one of the most legendary rescue efforts ever assembled was underway. It would take eighteen days, a massive team of 10,000 local and international volunteers, including a medical doctor diver and his vet mate from Australia,[2] improved weather, and no shortage of prayers to get them all out alive. Two of the divers died in the heroic rescue operation but, almost miraculously, the boys were all brought to safety.

Such stories of rescue and survival mesmerise us. There was similar world-wide attention and jubilation in 2010 when 33 miners trapped 800m below in a Chilean copper mine were liberated after 69 days underground; and closer to home, in 2006, when Brent Webb and Todd Russell were saved after spending two weeks trapped more than a kilometre beneath the surface in a collapsed mine in Beaconsfield Tasmania.

Such episodes highlight much of what’s best in us: the tenacity of the human spirit to survive; the generosity of loved ones and strangers to assist in emergencies; the selflessness that means these rescuers risk and even lose their lives in the process; the way the entire human race are brought together not just as morbid spectators but in hope and prayer and practical support; the ability of all concerned to maintain hope and to overcome, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Perhaps the reason rescue stories speak to us so loudly is because we ourselves are part of one grand cosmic rescue operation, hatched in eternity, carried out in history more than two-thousand years ago, and continuing to this day.

Our spiritual entrapment was occasioned by sin and its disastrous effects. Knowing that our survival hinged upon divine assistance, God didn’t take any chances: to rescue us He joined us in our perilous state, becoming one of us. (Jn 1:14; 3:16). Like the brave cave-divers who entered dangerous floodwaters and navigated narrow crevasses to reach the trapped boys in Tham Lunag, God entered the darkness of human vulnerability, entanglement and mortality. His rescue mission would cost Him His all: only by sacrificing His life could He liberate us from our greatest enemies: sin, suffering and Death (1Cor 15:24-26,55; 2Tim 1:10; Rev 20:14; cf. Isa 25:8; Hos 13:14).

This divine rescue mission, as John the seer of Patmos recounts in our second reading today (Rev 21:1-5), is ultimately about the total remaking of creation, so there will be no more grieving, no more tears, no more death. John’s vision is striking in that expresses this as something that “will come true” in the future but that is “already being done” in the here and now. Our Old Testament reading speaks to this paradox also (Wis 3:1-9). To the eyes of the unwise, death seems annihilation and disaster: what rescue could there possibly be? But as we hear, the souls of the virtuous are in God’s hands, the faithful are living with Him in grace, mercy and peace.

When Jesus beatifies or declares “happy” the powerless, grieving, persecuted and needy (Mt 5:1-12), He is not being ironic; He knows from personal experience what they will suffer. Yet He is convinced that, not just “in the end” but already now among us, theirs are the earth and the heavens, theirs are comfort and fulfilment, theirs are membership of God’s kingdom and family.

To be sure, mortality still hangs over all of us in this age and must be confronted: there is no inheriting that which has been prepared for the little ones and those who help them, since the formation of the world (Mt 25:34), no entry for us into the communion of saints in eternity, except through the tomb. As the Psalmist reminded us, we are not exempt from walking through the valley of darkness (Ps 23); but we can do so confident that “my head you have anointed with oil” in Baptism, Confirmation, Ordination and the Anointing of the Sick, that “my cup is overflowing” in Holy Communion to ready us for the heavenly banquet. When life becomes a Tham Lunag, the Good Shepherd will lead us to more restful waters; when our spirit droops He will revive it; when we are exhausted He will give us repose; when we are lost He will steer us with His crook. Wisdom, the Psalm, the Apocalypse and the Gospel all speak to what it means to live as the rescued: it means inheriting the promises, living with Him in love, in the Lord’s own house and forever, in the new Jerusalem where God lives among men, being chosen for grace and mercy, for blessedness and infinite happiness.

Fr Benjamin Bezzina was a Maltese-Australian, who studied in an Irish seminary for an American diocese and served in England and Australia. Here in Sydney he assisted in various places, including this parish of Fairfield, and was in demand as a spiritual director and counsellor, including during his time at Rosary Village. Strange and winding was his own path to God. He finally left us on the Solemnity of the Assumption of his beloved Mother and ours, the day when the Church celebrates Mary’s entry into the Resurrection as the trajectory for all her faithful children. As a priest, Fr Ben dedicated his life to the service of others, preaching God’s liberating message and seeking out the trapped to bring them the divine rescuer. “Those who trust in God will understand the truth, those who are faithful will live with him in love: for grace and mercy await those he has chosen.” Rejoice, then, and be glad Fr Ben, “for your reward will be great in heaven”.   

[1] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-44791998

[2] https://www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/worldtoday/against-all-odds-aussie-thai-cave-rescue-heroes-tell-their-story/11825384

Our Lady of the Rosary Church, Fairfield, 26 August2022

Welcome to the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary, Fairfield for the Pontifical Mass of Christian Burial for Fr Benjamin Bezzina (1942-2022), a Priest of the Archdiocese of Sydney.

Fr Ben’s story is an exotic one but in some ways representative of modern Australia. He was born in Għargħur Malta in 1942 and emigrated to Australia with his family at the age of 12, as part of the great Maltese emigration to Australia in the 1950s and 60s. He entered the seminary, not St Columba’s Springwood or St Patrick’s Manly, but St John’s in Waterford, Ireland. He was ordained to the priesthood at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Waterford City by Bishop Michael Russell in 1977, not for the Waterford Diocese but for the Diocese of Gallup, New Mexico, a diocese of native Americans and hispanics. So where would this Maltese-Australian-Irish-American serve, but in the Archdiocese of Westminster in England of course?!

Eventually Fr Ben returned to Sydney in 1989, where he assisted in several parishes including Miranda, Concord, Brighton Le Sands, and here in Fairfield. He was finally incardinated into the Archdiocese of Sydney in 2001. His final appointment was as chaplain of Rosary Village from 2013 to 2015, before he retired to Gilroy Village in Merrylands.

Concelebrating with me today are Bishop Terry Brady, Bishop Danny Meagher, Vicar for Clergy Fr Kelvin Lovegrove, Parish Priest Fr Bob Bossini and brother priests.

I acknowledge in attendance Fr Ben’s brother Tony and sisters Mary and Theresa with husband Fred. Also with us are Fr Ben’s many nieces and nephews. I also acknowledge and thank Mary Puskas who was Fr Ben’s dear friend and long-time carer. We now commend this faithful priest of Christ Jesus to that Lord he served so well.