Home-made bread. Who’d have thought that would be a thing in 2020? At the height of our hard lockdown, home-made bread made a come-back; and sourdough became a thing. Households across Melbourne started creating a culture, or they borrowed it from a neighbour. A bit of flour, some water, and time was all that was needed to crank up the fermenting process to create our own starters, delightfully called ‘Mother’. From a single Mother culture – appropriately fed and nurtured – came an endless gift of offspring.

But why this, in the midst of our locked-down lives? In our exile from one another, this simplest of things became a way of re-claiming our humanity and of cultivating life – a leaven for our lives.

During the ‘great exile’ of these past 12 months, our family households became the primary ways by which COVID-19 could be contained. Under the debilitating restrictions that entered every facet of our lives, we learnt – sometimes well, sometimes with hard work – to negotiate living arrangements; to accommodate personality traits; to live, work, play and pray from the same rooms. Our homes were the only places where you were not required to wear a mask; you could reveal your face quite literally – and by extension, your life – to others. Households became the ground on which to stand with any sense of safety and security, as our lives were pounded by the forces of the pandemic.

On this Patrick Oration, two years ago (which feels like another lifetime, doesn’t it?), I spoke to you about a different ground we needed to stand on, a new land to cultivate. I spoke of the need to re-plant the Gospel into our local neighbourhoods of grace – our homes and communities, our movements and organisations, our parishes and schools. And I called for current-day St Patricks who would be the seed-planters of our time.

As we now move tentatively out of exile – still in a state of ebb and flow, still uncertain of the future – we should not miss that COVID has shifted and sifted us. Where now is the ground on which we need to plant the gospel; and how do we step out towards it? How might we become the leaven needed for a more human way of living in this new world still emerging? Perhaps we can learn from our faith ancestors, in finding our identity by way of our households.

It was by way of households that the Israelites came out of their Babylonian exile, with the scribe Nehemiah drawing up lists of the identity of the people by way of families, so that no one would be left behind. Everyone was to be personally recognised, every household accounted for in the re-gathering of God’s people.

And when you read through the four gospels, it’s striking how much time Jesus spent in family homes. They were the familiar and life-giving households along the pilgrim way of his mission. There, he ate and slept; rested and played; taught and healed; laughed, cried, sang, and prayed. From them Jesus set out on the road ahead.

Perhaps not surprisingly, then, family households became the ordinary locations in which the Church gathered in the early years. Families of believers would meet regularly in the domesticity of someone’s home, rather than in some dedicated building. Household churches were the locations where the community of believers would gather for fellowship, for the Breaking of the Bread, for the teaching of the Apostles, and for the care of those in need. (Acts 2.42-47)

Over these last twelve months we have suffered through the experience of our place of worship being locked to the visitor, and the person in need. And yet, in our homes we rediscovered the living bread of God’s love for each person, and the call to serve one another.

For people of faith, the family home is where God’s household gathers. It is the Church in domestic form, in which all her members are called to exercise a domestic priestly life. Each is anointed to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ:

  • to offer words of healing and reconciliation, and gestures of blessing;
  • to teach the faith and grow disciples;
  • to feed the body and the soul.

The households of God’s people are indeed a leaven, indeed a ‘mother,’ from which comes the bread of life.

St Paul described one such household, that of the missionary couple Aquila and Priscilla, as “the Church that meets in their house.” (1Cor 16.19) It is the earliest definition we have of a parish, where God’s people gather as a household of households, a neighbourhood of Christian families assembling in faith and life. ‘The Church that meets…’ I like that definition. As two different popes have said: a parish is “the Church living in the midst of the homes of her sons and daughters.” (EG.28; cf. CL.26)

It is worth noting that these images of a parish do not draw on a territorial framing. Rather, the language is incarnational – it is flesh and blood. A parish is essentially a body with a distinctive face, and not a building in a certain location. It is to this image of a parish that our own local Church in Melbourne will need to look if we are to build family and neighbourhood communities of grace and of gospel energy, that go out beyond territorial boundaries.

Pope Francis has been bold enough to pose four key questions we might ask of our local parish:

  • Is it “in contact with the homes and the lives of its people?”
  • Is it “an environment for hearing God’s word, for growth in the Christian life, for dialogue, proclamation, charitable outreach, worship and celebration?”
  • Does it “encourage and train its members to be evangelisers?”
  • And is it “a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey, and a centre of constant missionary outreach?” (EG.28)

(Wouldn’t it be interesting if these were the only agenda items for every Parish Council meeting, or Plenary Council assembly for that matter!)

But is this even possible? I heard recently of the Diocese of Miao, located in the mountainous north-east of India, on the border with China. Because of its location and the political sensitivities of the region, this has been a diocese in lockdown for more than forty years. The total extent of the resources available to the bishop when he first arrived was himself and a lay missionary. There was no parish Church, no house to live in, and no existing Christian community. Today, 40 years later, the Diocese has over 90,000 baptised Catholics, which is 20% of the total population.

The Bishop identified three factors for this extraordinary growth in Christian life: the intentional transmission of faith within family homes; the regular gathering of neighbours in small communities of prayer, formation and fellowship; and the charitable and social outreach to those in need. Armed only with the grace of baptism and an apostolic confidence, they have simply done what was asked of a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Of course, north-east India is not south-east Australia; Miao is not Melbourne. Yet, as different as we might be in social, cultural and ecclesial histories, we do share the same gospel calling, and can ask the same questions of discipleship:

  • Have we responded to God’s word and are we walking in God’s presence?
  • Have we shared the company of our brothers and sisters and joined with them in prayer and fellowship?
  • Have we advanced in a life of love and service of others?

Why these three questions, you might ask? Well, for those of you who have been involved in RCIA and who have gone to the Rite of Election, you should recognise them. They are the questions asked of the sponsors to the catechumens who will soon receive the Easter Sacraments. These are, in other words, the questions that define a disciple of Jesus Christ.

We can tend to think the biggest questions in our Church are about a shortage of priests and religious, or a lack of lay governance, or not enough resources, or a weakening of Catholic schooling, or a disassociation of young people. If only we can solve these, we ask, then all will be well. But really, as a brother bishop has put it rather bluntly, the greatest challenge faced by the church today is a loss of confidence in Jesus Christ.

We need to face into this perhaps uncomfortable truth. As I read recently, “We are built for a church that no longer exists, and we have an infrastructure for a Church that no longer exists.” Again, Pope Francis has been quite explicit about this, calling on local Churches not to struggle to hold on to what it has left behind but to see itself as a mission church moving outward. (cf. EG.28; 33) This is going to require a renewal of the lay apostolic life.

At this time when the institutional Church is being pushed ever further to the margins of social discourse and life, this baptismal calling of the laity is to be a leaven in the world and it strikes me as deeply important sense, and in need of being reclaimed. The call to renewal of parish life is also a call to renewal in the social fabric of contemporary Victorian and Australian life. It is the laity who are the ones to be sent as instruments of apostolic grace, to work for the transformation of the world ‘from within’.

A Church lived outwardly will be lively with difference and even disagreement, but even more so it will be filled with a life of self-giving and remarkable acts of grace and charity. It is where we build friendships with people of other faiths and traditions, and where we reach across the social divides to find allies in our struggles, all done in a spirit of fraternity. The faith family shapes us, and in turn it shapes our dialogue and engagement with others.

Over the years, the local Church in Melbourne has been blessed with so many outstanding lay apostles. They stand with us as saints among the saints of our own local Church. I would like to mention four such women and men.

Mary Glowrey was one of the first women to study medicine at Melbourne University, and a founding leader of the Catholic Women’s Social Guild in 1916 – now known as the Catholic Women’s League, whose work sought to bring about change in world affairs through prayer and action. Her cause for sainthood is already underway.

B A Santamaria, or Bob Santamaria, was a young journalist and political activist when he co-founded The Catholic Worker newspaper in 1936. At its height, it sold 70,000 copies a week. Deeply influenced by the social teaching of the Catholic Church, Bob – a family man at heart – was a leading figure in economics, politics and social activism throughout his life.

Evelyn and John Billings – a married couple – were physicians and scientists who pioneered in the 1950s natural fertility treatments for couples that would allow for responsible family planning in harmony with Church teaching. Known as the Billings Ovulation Method, it was recognised by the World Health Organisation, and is now practiced across the world.

Mary, Bob, Evelyn and John were all members of our local Church. It was here, among our own families and in our own neighbourhoods, that they were formed in faith at home, gathered in hope with their neighbours, and went out in love to our own society.

But what of us, here now? Where are the Glowreys, Santamarias and Billings of our time? Well, with us this evening is a group of parishioners who have used the distressing closure of the Flemington towers last year to grow a mission to the struggling families in their neighbourhood. Also with us is a Catholic high school teacher who, with others, is developing a new educational framework in liberal arts, for piloting in 2022.

Among us is someone who leads an organisation that supports at-risk mothers and mothers-to-be to keep their children. There is someone here who, with a couple of friends, produces a weekly podcast discussing faith, science and life. And with us are some people who began a nightly rosary on Zoom during lockdown, gathering dozens of families in prayer every single evening.

But all of us here are making contributions to the lives and needs of those who live in Melbourne. Whilst I speak to you today from the heart of the Christian Gospels, each of us are called to live our lives for the good of each other – a life of holiness that witnesses to a more human way of living in our society. A domestic priestly life is yours to claim, by the grace of baptism, and yours to live as a leaven, a ‘Mother dough’ that brings life to others.

Let me finish, then, with some prophetic words of Pope Francis, naming the call of every household of faith in our extraordinary city, the saints of our own household churches, along with our patron saint, Patrick:

You have to go to the edges of existence if you want to see the world as it is… You have to make for the margins to find a new future. (Let us Dream, p11)

The Patrick Oration was delivered by Most Rev Peter A Comensoli, the ninth Archbishop of Melbourne, on 17 March 2021 at the Catholic Leadership Centre, East Melbourne.