Homily for the Pontifical Mass of Christian Burial for Mons. William Mullins

06 Dec 2023

St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 5 December 2023

The aphorism “Ipsa scientia potestas est”—knowledge itself is power—was coined by the English statesman and pioneer of the scientific method, Sir Francis Bacon in his Meditationes Sacrae (1597). It was simplified a half-century later in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan as ‘knowledge is power.’

Yet the idea goes back much further than the Enlightenment. Solomon declared that “wise warriors are mightier than strong ones, and those who have knowledge than those who have strength” (Prov 24:4-5). Ali ibn Abi Talib ibn Abd al-Muttalib, the cousin, son-in-law and, according to the Shiites, successor of Mohammed, also declared that “Knowledge is power and commands obedience… Knowledge is a ruler and wealth its subject.”[1]

Indeed, in the Book of Proverbs we read that earthly knowledge and divine wisdom are ultimately God’s gifts to protect people, inform their choices and fulfil their souls (Prov 2:6-10 etc.). Aristotle likewise taught that “all men by nature desire knowledge”. And the Gospels are peppered with thoughts on where true knowledge comes from and why it’s important.[2] So, too, so much of the Catholic tradition.

Yet in our time knowledge is a much-contested idea. People speak of rival ‘knowledges’, of disinformation, alternate facts, fake news, my-truth-your-truth and things being truthish. Many post-moderns reject the very concept of objective truth and see knowledge as a power game. Many today opt instead for sentimentality, tribalism, conformity, or simple ignorance.

Yet to give up on knowledge is to shrink our world in all its richness, to plunge ourselves into darkness, and to devalue our human dignity: for to say we are “made in the image of God” is to say that we are made as loving and free beings like God, but also as rational beings, ones who participate in the logos or intellect of God. In our first reading today from the Book of Wisdom, we are told that those who trust in God will understand the truth (Wis 3:1-9). And so, in our Christian tradition, faith and reason are coupled to deliver what we need to know; genuine knowledge is a dimension of what it is to be fully alive as human persons.

This belief ran like a watermark through the life of Bill Mullins. He dedicated his natural gifts to the pursuit of knowledge, to its transmission through education, and to enabling the institutions that support it. He understood the potential of the human mind, and the importance of education for human flourishing. Truth is not something to be hoarded or exploited but to be treasured and shared. As God reveals Himself through creation and revelation, we too must share what we know through preaching, teaching, conversation and writing. That was the Monsignor’s life story.

Passion for learning saw Br Bill graduate with a BA from the University of Melbourne, MA from the University of Sydney, a second Masters and finally a PhD in International Education from the Catholic University of America. At CUA’s suggestion he was appointed to serve in the Church’s “peak body” in education, the Congregation for Catholic Education. He had two stints in Rome, from 1969 to 1973 and again from 1979 to 1989. During the second stint, which makes up the bulk of Bill’s published memoir,[3] he manned the Anglophone desk for Seminaries and Universities. He played an important role in the implementation of Pope John Paul’s constitutions for the Catholic universities, Sapentia Christiana and Ex Corde Ecclesiae, and was party to early discussions about establishing the two Catholic universities in Australia.

Yet Bill knew education has its limits: as useful as empirical and deductive learning are, as helpful as Socratic and other pedagogies are, there is a knowing that comes only through encounter with the unseen God, seen at last in the Babe of Bethlehem. Knowing Him is different to knowing things about Him, important as that is also. Divine wisdom is a kind of knowing that is pure gift from above, something transformative, capable not only of reorienting the mind but the heart and soul also, a learning only perfected by encounter with the Risen Lord.

And so, in 1973, Bill left the Lasallians and the Vatican (with permission, of course) to respond to God’s call to the priesthood. Rather than an abandonment of his previous vocation as an educator, this gave it a new horizon. As a priest, he would be able to make God’s Word known, not now principally through textbooks, lesson plans and curricula, but by breaking open Christ’s Word in the Scriptures, and breaking the Bread of His Body in the Eucharist—here at the Cathedral, in Polding House, and elsewhere. So, too, would he baptise the faithful into Our Lord’s Life, Death and Resurrection, absolve contrite hearts in the sacrament of Mercy, join loving spouses in Holy Matrimony, tend the needy and sick, anoint the dying and bury the dead, and assist in running the Church that offers these things. Thus Bill could bring his passion for the classroom to the sanctuary and confessional.

As a priest we experienced his pastoral care in the Chancery as he went from desk to desk asking people how they were. He didn’t always hear our replies and sometimes there were two conversations going at once! But his question was not just a courtesy: he was deeply interested in people, not just their physical health but their happiness, what was going on in their lives. A gentle, kind man, a man of deep courtesy and compassion, he was greatly loved by those who experienced his care.

In our epistle today, St Paul speaks bluntly about the types of knowledge we should pursue. “Nothing can happen that will outweigh the supreme advantage of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord… All I want is to know Christ and the power of his resurrection…to share his sufferings… [that I might] take my place in the resurrection of the dead.” (Phil 3:8-14) None of which is to say that knowledge of languages, music, arts and sciences and all that Bill taught or enabled to be taught is useless; only that we must prioritise that which best guides and most certainly fulfils our lives: God Himself and the things of God.

Christos Paedogogus, Christ the Teacher; Christus Sacerdos, Christ the Priest: Monsignor Bill Mullins was conformed to both dimensions of Our Lord. He sought to lead others to Christ that they might live and love in Him. He did this faithfully to his last breath. And so we pray with confidence that Bill be admitted to that room prepared for Him in the Father’s house by the One he worshipped as the Way, the Truth and the Life (Jn 14:1-6).

[1] https://www.al-islam.org/what-true-success-excerpts-peak-eloquence-nahjul-balagha/4-obtain-true-knowledge.

[2] e.g. Mt 7:11,16; 9:6,30; 10:26; 13:11; 16:3; 22:29; 24:33,36; Lk 1:4,18,77; 2:15-17; 5:24; 8:10,17; 10:22; 11:13,52; 12:2,56; 18:20; Jn 1:18,33,48; 3:2,8,11; 4:22,25,32,42; 6:42,69; 7:17,28-29; 8:14,32,55; 9:20-31; 10:14-15,38; 12:35; 13:3,7,12,17-18,35; 14:4-10,17,20; 15:15; 17:3,6-8,23-26; 19:35.

[3] William Mullins, From Brotherhood to Priesthood (Modotti Press, 2013).

Introduction to the Pontifical Mass of Christian Burial for Mons. William Mullins – St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 5 December 2023

Please be seated. Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney for the Pontifical Mass of Christian Burial for Monsignor William Mullins, a priest of the Archdiocese of Sydney. Working tirelessly even in advanced age, Mons. Mullins was the senior priest of the Archdiocese, a much-loved figure in the chancery, and dear friend to many in the various communities he ministered to.

Bill was born in Marrickville, Sydney, in 1924, the second of six children to Dorothy and Alan, a veteran of the Great War. His grandfather was a benefactor of this very cathedral in which there would be many baptisms and weddings for his descendants and where William himself would serve. Bill attended Domremy Five Dock and De La Salle Ashfield, where he made such an impression in Latin and singing that, after only one year of high school, he was dragooned into entering the Juniorate of the De La Salle brothers at Oakhill, aged 13 (1938).

First professed in 1941, Brother Frederick, as he was then known, spent two years in the Scholasticate before being assigned to teach at De la Salle Haberfield (1943-44), Cootamundra (1945-46), and Malvern (1947-57), with stints back at Oakhill assisting in the formation of other brothers (1949, 1957-64, 1969). He served in the Congregation for Catholic Education in Rome from 1969 to 1973 and again from 1979 to 1989. In between he was fast-tracked through St Paul’s Seminary in Kensington, ordained in 1975 for the Archdiocese of Adelaide by Archbishop James Gleeson and served briefly in the parishes of Hectorville (1976) and Mount Gambier (1977), and in Adelaide’s St Francis Xavier Seminary (1978).

Back in Rome he heard, from his office, shots ring out on that fateful day in 1981 when an attempt was made on Pope John Paul’s life. But the Pope survived and Bill was to assist with the papal visit to Australia in 1986. That same year he was made a Prelate of Honour of His Holiness. After creditable service in the Vatican, he was invited by Cardinal Clancy to return to his hometown of Sydney and assist the Chancellor of the Archdiocese. He assisted Monsignor (later Bishop) Peter Ingham, then Fr Brian Lucas, and finally Monsignor John Usher. He also served on the Boards of the Catholic Weekly and Sancta Sophia College in the University of Sydney. Along the way he was incardinated into Sydney archdiocese.

Though officially retired to lesser duties, Monsignor Mullins agreed to be chaplain to the burgeoning pool of staff and volunteers in the lead-up to World Youth Day in 2008. Thereafter he was chaplain to all the staff in the Polding Centre, and a notary and process instructor. I reappointed him to the latter role for five years as recently as 2018. He said at the time that he thought it would be his last appointment; I said we’d see when he was 99. Sadly, I didn’t get to reappoint him! But I did get to pray with him shortly before he died at St Vincent’s Care Bronte.

I acknowledge concelebrating with me Bishops Richard Umbers, Danny Meagher and Terry Brady, Vicar General Gerry Gleeson, Fathers Brian Lucas and John Usher with whom he worked, and many brother priests of the Archdiocese. A warm welcome to Bill’s family, including his sister-in-law Fay and many nieces and nephews, grand nieces and nephews, and great-grands, together with their families. His sister Joan is joining us by earthly livestream and his parents Dorothy and Alan, siblings Ernie, Allan, Mark and John, their spouses, and his niece and nephew Mary and Rohan are joining by heavenly livestream. Welcome also to any De La Salle brothers and Chancery staff.

Monsignor Mullins was a selfless servant of the Church he loved so dearly—for 85 years from the time he entered the novitiate to the time he entered eternal life. With great confidence we now commend him to Almighty God.