‘Standing room only’ at special Mass
By Marilyn Rodrigues
Our society is well rid of the hatred and bitterness that existed in the colony of New South Wales 200 years ago, says the Archbishop of Sydney, Dr George Pell.
“The Catholic community is no longer a small, poor, almost persecuted minority,” he said, “but an active, energetic participant in the mainstream of Australian life; chastened by recent scandals, facing many challenges internally and externally, but basically confident, at ease and above all at home here in Australia.
“We thank God for this.”
Archbishop Pell was delivering his homily in a grand Mass at St Mary’s Cathedral on Sunday, May 11, to celebrate 200 years of the Catholic Church in Australia.
And what a difference two centuries makes.
This Mass, in a magnificent Gothic cathedral, with huge congregation and full Gregorian choir, was a world away from the first official Mass in this country.
That first Mass was offered in the Rocks on May 15, 1803, by an Irish convict priest, Fr James Dixon, for a ragged bunch of convicts and free people - with the express permission of Governor Philip Gidley King.
The anniversary Mass in the cathedral was attended by almost all of Australia’s Catholic Church leaders, plus thousands of lay faithful and religious who prayed for the Church and gave thanks for the opportunity to practise their faith freely.
The clergy were joined by seminarians from the Good Shepherd and Redemptoris Mater seminaries in a large solemn procession to the cathedral sanctuary.
It was a moving sight for a day that was also Good Shepherd Sunday, when the Church prays for vocations to the priestly and religious life.
There was standing room only by the start of Mass.
“I was not a bit surprised by the turnout today,” Archbishop Pell said. “The Catholic community in Australia is still a very strong one.”
Archbishop Pell presided at the anniversary Mass, using a crucifix and candlesticks used in the first Mass and a chalice from early colonial days.
The former Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal Edward Clancy, other bishops and archbishops, plus many priests, as well as the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Francesco Canalini, joined him in celebrating Mass.
Bishop David Cremin, auxiliary bishop of Sydney, was in County Wexford, Ireland, representing the Church in Australia at celebrations in
Fr James Dixon’s hometown.
Another important link with the first Catholics was the presence of descendants of the Dempsey family, Denis Dempsey, Eileen Dempsey and Anne Richards, who made up the offertory procession. James Dempsey’s home was the venue for many of the earliest Masses.
In his homily Archbishop Pell painted a picture of the first Catholics in Sydney, who numbered at the time about one third of the population of several thousand.
He summarised the story of Fr Dixon and the first Masses.
Fr Dixon’s story is not one “of heroism played out in a grand setting”, he said.
In fact, he was described as a “kind and inoffensive man, rather wanting in energy and decision”.
Despite being accused of helping in the 1798 Irish rebellion, he was not the stuff of rebels. He was “friendly with the local Protestant gentry and clergy”, he said.
“The first good shepherd to care for his flock in Australia was himself a convict supported by a small minority of ordinary folk, convicts, ex-convicts, freemen and women,” he said.
“From this trickle a mighty stream of living water has nourished Australian life.”
The archbishop said that Australian society has been good to the Catholic community, and Catholics in turn have responded with a tradition of public service that has “expanded and flourished with the years”.
He said that at a time when relations between Christian Churches and interfaith relations in Australia are positive, “we find it difficult to understand the depth of hatred and bitterness between Catholics and Protestants, English and Irish, between convicts and jailers in those days”.
“Times have changed for the better since 1803,” he said.
But “not everything has changed”. The Mass and the Eucharist are still the centre of Catholic life.
Dr Pell paid particular tribute to “all those priests who have served God and their people during 200 years in Australia” and, in honour of Mother’s Day, “the wives and mothers who passed on the faith in their families”.
The Governor of NSW, Prof Marie Bashir, unveiled a commemorative plaque to be installed in the cathedral.
The crucifix, candles and chalice used in the anniversary Mass are on display in the crypt with other artefacts from the early Masses, as part of the exhibition, The First Australian Catholics.