03 April 2016: 50th Anniversary of the establishment of the Parish of St Finbar’s Glenbrook, Father Peter G Williams at St Finbar’s Glenbrook
Sociologists tells us that for communities to survive in the long term they need to have a very clear sense of who they are, where they came from, and what enduring values underpin their existence, and also a means to transmit those values to succeeding generations. Part of that process involves the development of communal ritual which acts as a potent symbolic framework in which members of the community can find and understand themselves and thus provides a mechanism for social stability.
The story of the Christian Church certainly has these hallmarks when you study and reflect on the story that emerged following the mystery of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Here we are one week on from the celebration of the resurrection and our Easter alleluia’s still ring out in triumphal joy! It is a golden moment also to remember the canonical establishment of the Parish of Glenbrook some fifty years ago in 1965. But a cursory glance at the history of the Catholic community in the lower Blue Mountains tells us that this community had a strong identity and life long before 1965.
It might be truer to say that perhaps the year that should be marked as the foundation date is in reality 1912 when the regular celebration of the Eucharist commenced in the vicinity of where we gather for Mass this morning. The prevalence of a large contingent of Irish workers on the railway seemed to provide the motivation for this pastoral initiative, and clergy were in the beginning sourced from the parent parish of Penrith. Overtime, a Catholic community formed that for a number of years were served by visiting priests from the bottom of the hill, and also from the Seminary in Springwood.
What is clear is that this community and all its endeavours to build a church, provide a school and provide opportunities for people to gather both for worship and social engagement was led by the lay men and women of the area. Glenbrook as a parish is known throughout the Diocese as a being a place where the voices of the laity is strong and where the sense of community is binding.
Perhaps it might be because of the geographical restrictions of the lower mountain has curbed unbridled population growth that is evident on the western plains, and also the capacity of the people to work together to overcome adverse conditions, particularly the risk of bushfires. This tenacity to establish a Catholic presence and provide for families has been a great achievement for this community. The countless hours of service provided by so many over many decades is a testament to those who had a vision one hundred and four years ago even though at the beginning they could not have realised what the ultimate result would be.
When Fr Danny Fay was appointed as founding parish priest in 1965 it finally provided the community with a recognition that meant the harnessing of even more momentum to consolidate the parish by means of an endurable parish school and in time a suitable building for the celebration of the sacraments. As was the case in so many parishes in the history of the Catholic Church in Australia, the school came first and the church building second. Catholic families wanted to ensure that their children would have a unique Catholic education and the legions of religious men and women in the 19th century made that obtainable.
When this parish was formally erected it was a time of transition at the end of the Second Vatican Council and whilst religious women had played a pivotal role in the parochial school, the changing landscape of the Church following the Council very quickly saw the schools populated by a committed lay staff. The legacy of the Sisters remains, but happily has been built upon by the lay leadership of the parish school with a very active and supportive parent community. What has also been an impressive ministry in Glenbrook has been the strong team of catechists over many decades who undertook to provide religious instruction in the local state schools.
When the original church was deemed to be inadequate for the growing population of Catholics, the present parish hall was constructed to provide a worship space that would serve the community until a new and permanent parish church was constructed. Whilst Fr Danny had the prescience to purchase the sandstone blocks from the old Sydney hospital, the task of providing a permanent and lasting place of worship fell to the late Fr Brian Larkey. The story of the design and construction of this church, the acquisition of the pipe organ, the fabrication of the liturgical furnishings and artwork have provided what many think is the finest contemporary parish church building in the Diocese. But of course the church is not the building but simply the edifice in which the People of God who constitute the Church gathers to participate in the paschal mystery and then live that mystery in their everyday lives.
To that end Fr Peter Dowd, Fr John McSweeney, Fr Wim Hoekstra and now Fr Jolly Chacko together with brief interludes by some priests who acted as Administrators have overseen the pastoral care and initiatives of this Catholic parish over the past fifty years. This notion of gathering has been germane to the Church from the beginning. In our first reading from the Acts of Apostles we read:
“The faithful used to meet by common consent…”
Being together in the Lord was pivotal to their self-understanding. Gathering together to “break bread” in each other’s homes meant they could ground themselves in the Eucharist which provided their conduit to the Risen Christ and became the impetus to continue their mission of proclaiming Christ crucified and risen. If that was true for those early Christians, it remained true for those who in the early part of the 20th century desired that same faith should be proclaimed in the lower Blue Mountains. We stand in that apostolic tradition today.
The Revelation to St John the opening of which we hear today reminds us that also from beginning the followers of Jesus Christ did not have an easy run of it. Persecution for believing in Jesus Christ seems to have been a constant throughout a great deal of Christian history. But despite this St John as he receives his vision on the Lord’s Day also hears these reassuring words.
“Do not be afraid, it is I…”
The Church today also finds itself in midst of many difficulties in a rapidly changing world, some of those difficulties are of our own making and monumental failures that have caused some catastrophic damage. Other challenges reflect an age of aggressive secularisation and disregard for religious belief and practice which is dismissed as superstition and belonging to the past. There are those who call for dramatic change, and others who speak for a more measured approach. All of us are profoundly affected by recent history and the challenges we now face. Perhaps the way in which Pope Francis since his election has for many refocused the key message of the Church to reach out to the poor and marginalised and proclaim a message of the mercy has been a refreshing gift.
The test to live a life of resurrection faith is not a contemporary issue but has its genesis in our Gospel today centred on the person of Thomas. He is often labelled as ‘doubting’ Thomas by commentators and whilst it is true that his profession of faith after encountering the Risen Christ contains that remarkable affirmation “My Lord and my God” – there is another element to his story often overlooked. It is in fact also a question of the credibility of the other disciples. We are told that when they told Thomas they had seen the Lord on that first Easter evening, he did not believe them.
It seems to me that they could not have been very convincing in their testimony. Perhaps the problem was more with them than Thomas. Perhaps their testimony to the Risen Christ lacked conviction and authenticity and that is why he refused to believe? As the clergy and people of St Finbar’s Glenbrook begin another fifty years of their journey of faith perhaps that is a relevant question for this community.
The tendency for many established Catholic parishes is for them to become complacent and comfortable. We have our church, school and established ways of doing things and being together, we are a harmonious and coherent group.
But what about those who live around this community who are neither Catholic nor Christian and yet make up a significant proportion of the population? Pope Francis is forever telling us that we should move out of our comfort zones and become engaged with those on the edge. Are we credible witnesses to the truth of Christ Risen in our lives and our encounters with others? Can we really say “My Lord and my God” with the same conviction as St Thomas?
Fifty years or one hundred and four if you prefer is a relatively short span in the entire Christian story, but yet significant for this community of believers who have coalesced around this place and found meaning, purpose and sustenance to maintain faith in God and transmit that to others. There has been no shortage of willing participants in the past.
The tasks for the future will be different and require different strategies and skills, but the basis tenant of faith in Christ crucified and risen remains the bedrock for all our endeavours. It is right and good that we should look back today and given thanks for the labours and commitment of past generations of Catholic lay men and women in this community, the priests who have faithfully served them over this time, from the clergy of Penrith, the Seminary faculty at Springwood, and in more recent times those who have served as Parish Priests and Administrators. But this thankfully is not the end of the story.
May this parish continue to focus on its principal goal which is to bring others to a knowledge of the love and mercy we know and experience in Jesus Christ who God sent in the fullness of time to be our saviour and redeemer.
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