As it always does, the traffic whooshed past St Mary’s Cathedral on Sunday afternoon – an overcast warm late-spring portent of summer’s heat yet to come.
Tourists strolled through Hyde Park’s leafy grounds alongside couples, hand-in-hand, while others lay on the grass. Families, early Christmas shoppers and tourists taking snaps in front of Sydney’s iconic landmarks. Another typical CBD afternoon.
But not quite.
Kneeling on concrete
Just metres away, about 6000 Sydney Catholics from every background and every age knelt in silent prayer on the hard concrete of St Mary’s Cathedral forecourt for several minutes at a time. Above them, standing high on the cathedral steps, Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP held a monstrance aloft and solemnly blessed them with the Risen Lord present in the Blessed Sacrament in the ancient Catholic practice called Benediction.
It was the moment they had been waiting for.
As he did, thousands of invisible prayers seemed to ascend heavenwards. Thousands of hearts and minds appeared to be united, focused in silent adoration and intense prayer on the tiny white disc in the centre of the monstrance that was barely visible from further back in the forecourt.
They had come from all over Sydney to be here with their Lord.
The Benediction pronounced by Archbishop Fisher was the culmination of Sydney’s Walk With Christ, the Eucharistic procession through the streets of Sydney’s CBD marking the feast of Christ the King – Sunday’s liturgical feast day.
Once a common feature of Australian Catholic life, Eucharistic processions faded out of a post-Conciliar Australian setting, often regarded as too old-fashioned, too triumphalist. Sydney’s annual event was effectively resurrected by Cardinal George Pell in the early 2000s and has since become a popular and major fixture in the Archdiocese of Sydney’s year.
Earlier, Catholics had gathered with Archbishop Fisher and auxiliary bishops of Sydney Richard Umbers and Terry Brady along with about 30 clergy at the intersection of Pitt Street and Martin Place.
Escorted by police, the procession then headed up Hunter Street as thousands prayed the Litany of Saints.
Six dudes wearing baseball caps sideways, skateboards in hand, got an unexpected surprise at Chifley Street, unable to cross the intersection as a massive praying crowd passed by in front of them for several minutes. Unaccustomed to being halted by anything, what they made of it all will probably never be known.
From the moment it began, passers-by stopped to take videos or photographs on their smartphones. In some, the procession seemed to evoke distant memories of childhood, for others it was clearly the first time they had ever seen such a thing.
Leading the procession, Archbishop Fisher halted in front of Parliament House and turned to face the state legislature holding the Blessed Sacrament aloft. For several minutes silence reigned as smoke from the incense thurifers wafted up and over the parliament buildings on a gentle breeze.
In a year that has seen the Parliament legalise the killing of unborn children over intense opposition from Catholics and other Christians, it seemed a symbolic movement to say the least.
With the spreading boughs of the plane trees swaying gently in the breeze above them, the procession wound its way down Macquarie Street to Hyde Park and then on to St Mary’s for Benediction and adoration.
Sixty years ago, Sunday’s Walk With Christ would have been an overwhelmingly Irish Catholic affair with smaller numbers of others such as Italians and other post-war migrants fleeing the desolation of post-war Europe and its numerous imprisoned homelands.
Sunday’s event showed just how much that picture has changed for the Church in Australia.
The 5000-plus crowd milling through the leafy streets was a veritable United Nations of Catholics, with large numbers of Asians, Indians and Pacific islanders – to name just a few – as well as national Catholic associations from throughout Oceania and as members of ordinary parishes across Sydney.
Several Chinese Catholic associations were well-represented. The Western Sydney Chinese Catholic Association was one group. Others were separated by language, mainly between Cantonese and Mandarin speakers whose Sunday liturgies are conducted in either of these languages.
Even then, huge numbers of Chinese Catholics from ordinary parishes were present as well.
In a time when the Church is portrayed as ever more irrelevant to Australian society and culture, Sydney’s Walk With Christ was a confident assertion to the contrary, showing that the Church and its distinctive faith in the Eucharist is of the highest importance to thousands and thousands of ordinary Australians.
Yet while everything has changed, nothing has changed. Regardless of culture and background all were united by one thing: they wanted to walk through the streets of Sydney with their Lord, Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. They wanted to pray to him. They wanted Him to hear their prayers for the hopes and the sorrows of their lives. They wanted to pray for their city and their country.
In his Benediction homily Archbishop Fisher told them that Christ in the Blessed Sacrament – fully present in his body and soul, humanity and divinity – is the raison d’etre for the Church. To the tourists, the curious and the onlookers, that would have explained everything. But those walking in His footsteps on Sunday afternoon already knew that.
They had come to find Him. But, carried in the hands of Archbishop Fisher, He had come to them.