Crowds pack St Mary’s Cathedral for Christmas Masses

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The Choir was stupendous, but even that didn’t stop some of the younger member of the audience falling asleep in the arms of parents or family members at St Mary’s Cathedral at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve long after normal bed time.

Neither that, nor the thought of Christmas presents waiting under a Christmas tree in the loungeroom the next morning were enough, in the end, to keep sleep from young eyes.

But still, the choir was stupendous. At both Midnight Mass and on Christmas morning, St Mary’s Cathedral Choir soared in a way that moved participants at crowded Christmas masses and caused plenty of positive comment afterwards.

Whether it was with soaring renditions of traditional Christmas carols such as ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’, an offertory motet by Johann Sebastian Bach or Gregorian chant first written down a millennium ago, the Choir gave Christmas congregations this year the finest in liturgical choral praise and worship.

Standing room only congregations

And despite the fact that the Catholic Church in Australia finds itself contending with serious challenges ranging from threats to religious freedom to the fallout of scandals to do with abuse, standing-room-only congregations packed Christmas masses at St Mary’s Cathedral this year.

Those who might have expected one of the worst years in the history of the Catholic Church in this country to deter the faithful from celebrating the Nativity of Christ would have been mistaken.

Those who might have expected one of the worst years in the history of the Catholic Church in this country to deter the faithful from celebrating the Nativity of Christ would have been mistaken.

Instead, congregations covering all age ranges but especially strongly made up of younger adults turned out to celebrate the birth of Jesus in obscurity two thousand years ago.

Interestingly, it was the young, often seemingly from migrant backgrounds, who seemed to make up a significant part of Christmas congregations.

And those who couldn’t find seats simply sat themselves on the floor against the walls inside the historic and magnificent building now celebrating its 150th year, or parked themselves against soaring columns or in doorways and even on steps outside the building.

As the Choir sang, some simply leant back and stared reflectively up into the Cathedral arches.

Whether it was Midnight Mass or Mass the following morning, many simply knelt on the hard and unforgiving marble cathedral floor when the critical moments of liturgies occurred such as the sacrifice of the Mass, homilies or the distribution of Communion.

The mad love of Christmas

This year, something about Christmas seemed to overcome everything else going on in the lives of people everywhere.

As Archbishop Anthony Fisher told the congregation in his homily, this was no ordinary occasion.

Quoting one of the great and beloved saints of the Church, St Catherine of Siena, only a God as madly infatuated and drunk with love for His children “would do something as nuts as Christmas: the infinite, all-powerful, impassible God becoming a limited, helpless, vulnerable baby in a backwater town at ‘the arse-end of the world’ – as Prime Minister Keating’s famously described Australia, but the ancient Romans thought of Judaea,” he said.

This meant that Christmas Day was the beginning of the greatest love story ever told.

Threats to religious freedom in Australia

Meanwhile, religious believers in Australia today now face serious challenges to their freedom to believe and to their rights of conscience, he warned.

“… discrimination against people of faith has become more acceptable in some quarters. There have been moves to undermine the Sacrament of Confession, to defund Catholic schools, to charge an Archbishop with discrimination for teaching about marriage, to deny faith-based institutions the right to choose what kind of community they will be,” he told congregations at Midnight Mass and on Sunday morning.

“Today, as we join the angels in our carols, both glorifying God and pacifying people, some are demanding we choose between the two. Some want us to put the Christ-child away with the Christmas decorations, so He has no claim on the year ahead.”

Threats to faith

However, he added, God had taken a gamble on his creation, throwing the dice and becoming a vulnerable child knowing that human beings could reverence him – or kill him.

But a divine love mad enough to love us this way could only be reciprocated by an equally mad love, mad enough to love a Child who is God – and all humanity, he said.

At the close of Mass Archbishop Fisher welcomed those attending from other parishes, other denominations or faiths and those from other parts of the word visiting Sydney as tourists,.

He prayed also for the victims of the latest tsunami to hit Indonesia, their families and the rebuilding of their communities.

At the end of Mass, the Choir seemed to respond one last time. As the crowds filed out of the cathedral into the warm summer morning and the hum of the city, the soaring choruses of ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ seemed to usher them into the new day and, perhaps, a new life.