Homily given by Very Rev Peter G Williams for the 30th Anniversary Mass of the Diocese of Parramatta, Wednesday 25 May 2016, Central Coast
Vignerons and aficionados of red wine will debate endlessly about the conditions of what makes a good vintage grape. 1986 was regarded as a quality year for Australian red wine. Of those in the Shiraz stable the most notable was the South Australian Henschke ‘Hill of Grace’ which is described as a powerful structured, thickly textured wine. Maybe those who deliberated on the advantages that would be derived from dividing the Archdiocese of Sydney into three by creating two new suffragan dioceses had judged wisely that the Catholic clergy and people of Western Sydney and the Mountains were themselves “powerful structured and thickly textured” in their faith and life.
On 8 April in 1986 Pope St John Paul II erected the Diocese of Parramatta and on 19 May in the same year Bishop Bede Heather took possession of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Parramatta and the Diocese was launched. There are some present at this Eucharist who were present at that first Mass in the newly established Cathedral 30 years ago. One priest remembers that Bishop Bede said in his homily that he wanted the new Diocese to be “the face of Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd” as it embarked on its mission.
Much has changed in the Diocese, and in the society in which we live in these past thirty years, but there is clear evidence around us that the faith is alive and well, and flourishing in the lives of Catholic people who constitute the Particular Church of Parramatta. Having said that, it does not imply that we can sit back and rest on our laurels as we face the next decade and beyond.
The scripture readings assigned for this day speak to us in a very real way as they did to those who first heard them just short of 2000 years ago. The Apostle Peter is writing to second generation Christians, who have come to realize that the life of faith will have considerable challenges despite the euphoria of faith in Jesus Christ. Some New Testament scholars have suggested that the first two chapters of the first letter of St Peter is in fact a homily addressed to those who have been recently baptized – if you like part of a mystagogical catechesis. Regardless of its provenance, these words still have relevance to us as we assemble as the incoming bishop and clergy of this Diocese and seek to look ahead, “…let your love for each other be real and from the heart – your new birth was not from any mortal seed but from the everlasting word of the living and eternal God.”
Peter rightly goes on to ask the question: What is that word? It is the Good News that has been brought to you.” None of us are under the illusion that our mission to bring the Good News to the community around us is becoming increasingly complex as the pace of modern life does not provide much space for the exploration of matters spiritual. There are those who would say that organized religion of the mainline churches is in serious decline and there is sufficient statistical data to support that view. In fact, our task has become more challenging as other voices are not averse to critiquing any form of religious belief, and in particular the Catholic Church has loomed as a big target in recent years. We should not be surprised. The revelations of criminal, immoral and gross behaviour by clergy and religious that has emerged from the Royal Commission has severely damaged what moral authority the Church in this country thought it still had, and the anti-Catholic polemic has become fashionable again in large measure led by the new atheists and the secular liberal elite, aided and abetted by a compliant media across all platforms. We have in recent times been substantially wounded.
There is little doubt in my mind that we will see further assaults on what has been the privileged place we have had in Australian society as our legislators accede to the voices that champion a secular society free of what is perceived as religious interference in the public space. That a serious “hermeneutic of suspicion” of the Catholic Church in Australia is prevalent at this time is I think unquestionable. This will present for us moving forward significant challenges politically, legally, economically and structurally and in terms of ongoing adherence. We should not delude ourselves that because the vast number of our people have come from a multicultural mix where their Catholic ethos and identity was formed in other countries and cultures, that we will remain immune from external forces and prevailing fashions as they their children and grandchildren integrate into Australian society.
A snapshot of our Diocese clearly shows that were it not for the extensive migration of the past forty years, the Diocese would be facing a crisis in terms of active membership. We have lost at least two generations of those of Anglo-Celtic heritage, the majority of whom in the 1950’s and 1960’s were the backbone of Catholicism in this country. Many have simply stopped practicing the faith. We could spend time pondering the question why, but if you are interested in exploring that topic I would refer you to a research project that I was involved in some years ago with Bob Dixon from the National Pastoral Planning Office when he published “Catholics who have stopped attending Mass?”
It seems to me that we have credibility problem at two levels. The first I have already identified arising from the Royal Commission, but actually is simply the corollary of a trend that began a few decades earlier. The Christian churches from colonial times in Australia had for a host of reasons been highly influential on determining public policy, particularly social policy that related to the ethical and moral questions. The result was that state and federal legislatures would consistently frame laws and codes based on a Judeo-Christian world view, and whether citizens were religious or not they would be subject to these laws. Whilst this nation has never been overtly religious (when compared to the United States of America) that influence was probably disproportionate to the actual numbers of active and committed religious adherents, and after the somnolent 1950’s when large sections of the populace began to question the authority of institutions in the 1960’s, the voice of the Christian churches and the Catholic Church in particular began to wane. That is largely however at the ‘macro’ level.
At the ‘micro’ level ie: the parishes and where the Church interfaces with ordinary people in their day to day lives there are other factors. Despite the reforms that emanated from the Second Vatican Council, the institutional face of the Church can still appear to be unwelcome, harsh and condemnatory in its dealings with ordinary folk. The nature of large organizations (no matter what type) is that they can appear to be bureaucratic and indifferent, concerned only with self-perpetuation and protection of the elite class that operates it.
It is here that we must turn to the Gospel of Mark where Jesus fundamentally addresses the question of what his disciples should reflect in their relationship to each other and those to whom they proclaim the Good News. At one level we are not surprised at the uncomfortableness of the disciples when Jesus predicts his own suffering and death. It is hardly a recipe for success in human terms! If those in the corporate world identified that the KPI’s of the Chief Executive Officer would involve “being condemned, handed over to pagans, who will mock him and spit at him and put him to death” there would be an immediate run on the Stock Exchange!
Jesus reminds us as he did the opportunistic James and John that the pathway to glory consists in the drinking of that cup that represents being plunged into the mystery of the dying and rising of Christ which is our common possession by reason of our baptism. In this present age brothers and sisters, we too share in that suffering and that is part of the mystery of our own lives in this time and place. Whilst we might in the privacy of our own hearts and minds long for the “glory days of the triumphant Church” when the practice rate of self-identified Catholics was a staggering 78% in 1954, it is not our present reality.
What to do? In the last part of the Gospel Jesus provides the template for those who would aspire to leadership and service in the Kingdom he came to inaugurate. “… Anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be slave to all.” All of us have been struck by the style that Pope Francis has adopted since assuming the Petrine ministry three years ago. Some of his critics would argue that this change to a simpler style avoiding the trappings of a monarchical papacy is a media ploy in order to “re-brand” the Catholic Church in a time of unprecedented trial. Others are dismayed at the demystification of the Papal Office. Those who know him well say that it is consistent with a man who underwent a real conversion from his days of being an authoritarian Jesuit Provincial in Argentina to his current role as “servant of the servants of God.”
This is a title he takes very seriously, and consistently he has challenged the bishops, priests and deacons in the Church to look at themselves and how authentic they are as Disciples of Christ before their own people. There is no suggestion here that he is calling for a laissez-faire approach to Church governance, nor an abandonment of Catholic teaching contained in the Deposit of Faith and the Magisterium. What he is calling us to do, is to walk with open eyes and hearts with the people to whom we are committed in humble service – not to be haughty, censorious and judgmental, not to intimidate or create unnecessary obstacles and place undue burdens – but rather as he has emphasized again and again in this Jubilee Year to show that Mercy has a face in the person of Jesus Christ and those who lead the Church today must reflect that merciful face.
Which happily takes us back to Bishop Bede’s first homily at St Patrick’s Cathedral. Being the “face of the Good Shepherd” is entirely consistent with the Pope’s Jubilee theme and thus positions us to face our future with enthusiasm and hope. We might say that there is nothing new – the central thrust of the Gospel message of life in and through Jesus Christ never changes. How remarkable too that the best red shiraz in 1986 was ‘Hill of Grace’ – for this Local Church of Parramatta in the last thirty years has been a vehicle where the grace that comes from God as a gift has thrived and flourished in the lives of bishops, clergy, religious and lay faithful.
I’m told that you can purchase a bottle of ‘Hill of Grace’ at Dan Murphy’s for $500. It would impossible to place a value on the first thirty years of the story of the Diocese of Parramatta, and frankly that is a preposterous exercise, but there is clear evidence that the Diocese has matured over these decades just like a good vintage. Our question is not one of value but one of priority in the years that lie before us. What sort of Church should we be? How should we as bishop and clergy of the Diocese best prosecute the cause of the Gospel? How can we best present the Church as a merciful and loving Mother to all? How do we ensure that our parishes and agencies remain robust, open to all and consistently reflect the merciful face of Christ the Good Shepherd? These are our questions and many others beside.
Let us seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit as we continue our mission – which is Christ’s mission and to which we have been given custody to oversee at this time. It is however right that we should give thanks to God for all that has been achieved in the life of this Local Church in the past thirty years – to thank God for the leadership of Bishop Bede, Bishop Kevin, Bishop Anthony, those priests and religious who have faithfully served alongside us, and the many women, men, young people and children who have and now constitute this Church. Now we must affirm our confidence and trust in Bishop Vincent who assumes the responsibility of shepherding the Church of Western Sydney and the Blue Mountains and who God willing will take us in the next twenty years to our Golden Jubilee in 2036!
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