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An important place on the map

· Courage and heroism in the history of the Church in Australia ·

When I go to my office every day in the Vatican, I pass by a large world map just outside the entrance to what is now the Secretariat of State. The map was frescoed at the end of the 16th century and depicts the world as it was known to Europeans at the time. Unfortunately, there is a major omission, namely Australia, which was then unknown. However, I am pleased to confirm that since then, Australia has well and truly found its place on the map!

We are here today to celebrate today centenary of the Apostolic Delegation and the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations. However, the history of the Catholic Church in this country is much older. It is an inspiring story of heroic sacrifice and courageous endeavour, in the face of hardship and difficulties of all kinds. Since the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, the Catholic Church has been present in a stable way in Australia. That same year, when the French explorer Jean-François de la Pérouse entered Botany Bay, the first Mass was celebrated on Australian soil. The first resident Catholics were mostly Irish convicts, together with a few marines. It was not until 1800 that the first priests arrived in Australia, as convicts. Three years later, one of these, Fr James Dixon, who had been involved in the 1798 rising in Ireland, was given permission to say Mass for the Catholics of Sydney, Liverpool and Parramatta, a practice that continued until the Castle Hill rebellion of the following year, which so alarmed Governor King that he withdrew Fr Dixon’s privileges. With the arrival in 1820 of Frs John Joseph Therry and Philip Connolly, chaplains appointed by the London Government, the Catholic Church in Australia could be regarded as formally established. Fr Therry, who came from Cork in Ireland, was responsible for initiating the building of St Mary’s Chapel in Sydney, which would later become the magnificent Cathedral that we know today.

In the early years, there was no bishop in Australia and the spiritual needs of the Catholic population were met by priests. In 1834, the Benedictine priest John Bede Polding was appointed Vicar Apostolic of New Holland and in 1842 he became Australia’s first Archbishop, when Sydney was erected as a Metropolitan See. During the course of the 19th century, the Catholic population grew, the hierarchy was established, priests and religious men and women came mainly from Ireland and other European countries to minister to the faithful and develop schools and other social services.

In this regard, among the many heroic people who could be mentioned, I would like to recall the contribution of two extraordinary women: Catherine Chisholm and Mary MacKillop. Catherine Chisholm, from Northampton in England, worked tirelessly to help thousands of migrants, especially homeless girls and poor families, during Australia’s formative years. In doing so, she had to overcome sectarian suspicion and the lack of material resources. Her human qualities and unconquerable faith helped her to achieve much during the thirty years she devoted to assisting migrants, thus earning her the undying gratitude of the Australian people.

The story of St Mary of the Cross MacKillop, founder of the Sisters of St Joseph and Australia’s first saint, is well known to all of you. She was beatified here in Sydney by Pope John Paul ii in 1995 and canonised by Pope Benedict xvi in Rome in 2010. Her example of zeal, perseverance and prayer will undoubtedly continue to guide and inspire those who dedicate themselves to the noble task of educating the young and assisting the most disadvantaged members of society. On reading her story, I was particularly impressed by her ability to forgive those who sought to place obstacles in her way. At one point she was even excommunicated, when she refused to agree to radical changes to the structure of her religious congregation which would have betrayed its original spirit and inspiration. However, though she suffered as a result of this unjust decision, she was still able to forgive. We can learn much from her example of unbounded charity and readiness to forgive.

During the 20th century, particularly after the Second World War, more than a million Catholics from various European nations, such as Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, Germany, Croatia and Hungary, arrived in Australia. Later, many more arrived from Asian countries, including the Philippines, Vietnam and India, and from the Pacific region. These have brought with them their distinctive ways of living and celebrating their faith, thus joining the indigenous population and the descendents of the first Europeans to make the Church in Australia the vibrant, dynamic and varied reality that it is today.

Turning to relations between Australia and the Holy See, this year marks the Centenary of the Apostolic Delegation to Australasia. On 15 April 1914, Pope Pius X established the Apostolic Delegation, with responsibility for Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand, and appointed the future Cardinal Bonaventura Cerretti as the first Apostolic Delegate. In this way, the Holy Father wished to express his closeness to the Australian people and strengthen the bonds which unite the Catholic faithful to the See of Peter.

In time the presence of the Delegation led to the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between Australia and the Holy See. An important contribution which resulted in this welcome development was the short pastoral visit which Pope Paul VI made to Sydney in 1970. This visit, the first of a Pope to Australia, signalled the beginning of a new phase of closer relations. 

Dominique Mamberti




St. Peter’s Square

Sept. 21, 2019