Australia’s first church was built in 1793, at the corner of Hunter and Bligh Streets. The Anglicans who built it could never have dreamed that 230 years later more than ten thousand Catholics, drawn from every corner of the world, would stream uphill past that same spot behind their Lord in the Eucharist.
The monument to Australia’s first Christian service was laid on that same street corner in 1925, yet a century later it would be Sydney’s Catholics who keep its message, from Psalm 116, in their hearts:
“What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits toward me? … I will pay my vows to the Lord now in the presence of all his people.”
And they did come to render worship to the Lord on the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, in greater numbers again than last year, carrying banners, icons and flags from their parishes into the heart of Sydney to give their “yes” to Christ in the presence of the whole city. Pushing children in prams and family members in wheelchairs, carrying kids on shoulders and trundling along behind walking frames.
Catholics from every suburb of our city and from every continent, of every age, and from dozens of religious orders and congregations. They all came on a crisp, cloudless winter day, wearing scarves and smiles, to pack out Martin Place for the pre-procession festival.
The festivities began with music and preaching from St Patrick’s Sutherland parish priest Fr Daniel McCaughan. “We walk with Christ today because he is the way, he is the truth, he is the life, and he is the presence of God’s total, undivided, complete, and utter love for us and for the world,” Fr McCaughan told the crowds. “So Sydney, dear Catholics of our beautiful city here in 2023, let us walk joyfully with Christ, and let us scandalise our beautiful city with that joy!”
And if passersby asked what they were doing, Fr McCaughan told them to point to the Blessed Sacrament. “There is my God, there is my love, there is the one who I wait to see face-to-face in heaven but who comes to me now, any time I come to Mass,” he said.
To welcome the Eucharistic Lord, chants were sung by school choirs from Brigidine College Randwick, Trinity College Auburn and St Peter Chanel’s Regent Park, along with sisters of the Nashville Dominicans and members of the Australian Sacred Music Association, led by Ronan Reilly.
The choirs have been working with Mr Reilly and other members of his association to revitalise the practice of traditional Catholic hymnography and sang well-known Eucharistic chants, including St Thomas Aquinas’ hymns Tantum Ergo and O Salutaris Hostia.
And then the procession began with the ringing of bells and a flurry of volunteers, starting off down Pitt St, past early afternoon beer drinkers at the Angel Hotel and joggers in activewear threading their way along the footpath, wearing puzzled expressions.
A middle-aged couple on Hunter Street stood, mouths open, holding bags of fast food while they waited for the Eucharistic Christ and his followers to pass. At the top of Martin Place, as the procession hooked back down Macquarie St, a fashionable young lady exclaimed loudly that the whole thing was “absolutely ridiculous.” Yet at several points onlookers paused to pray, some with their pets, others with smiles and eyes closed. Some Catholic pedestrians stopped to join the procession in the recitation of the rosary.
Sydney Auxiliary Bishops Daniel Meagher, Richard Umbers and Terence Brady took turns bearing the monstrance along the 1.3km route to St Mary’s Cathedral. They were joined by dozens of clergy from Sydney and neighbouring dioceses, Knights of the Holy Sepulchre and Knights of Malta, seminarians and Catholic school students.
Notable among the crowd were large contingents of Catholics from the Samoan, Korean, Croatian, and Chinese communities, carrying banners. The crowd was so big that as Our Lord arrived in the forecourt of St Mary’s Cathedral, the end of the tightly-packed procession was still marching past the Mint and Hyde Park Barracks.
Once the procession had entered into the forecourt, Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP preached a fervorino on silence, song and proclamation—three responses Christians can give to God’s presence among us on Earth.
“Sometimes only words can communicate the message. Sometimes actions speak louder,” Archbishop Fisher said.
“The truth, goodness and beauty of the Gospel, are told in silent adoration or loud hymnody, but also in actions like our Eucharistic procession today—an emphatic statement of what we stand for.
“Do we still need such public proclamation today? A week ago a voracious ACT government, uncomfortable with Catholic works and ethics, initiated a hostile takeover of Canberra’s only Catholic hospital.
“It was an unprecedented grab of a church asset and ministry in a nation that purports to respect religious liberty—more the stuff of Henry VIII, Napoleon or Stalin than modern democratic Australia.
“Closer to home, in this very state, euthanasia laws will come into force in November that require church institutions, even nursing homes run by nuns, to provide or host voluntary killing of patients.
“This is another failure by a supposedly democratic state to make room for Christian conscience and activity.
“More than ever, Australia needs to hear the Gospel and see its expression in works of mercy as the great boon these are to our world.
“More than ever our parliaments, courts, hospitals and other institutions need the wisdom and graces that come from this Blessed Sacrament.”