For those who know the Mother Church of Melbourne, St Patrick’s Cathedral, her real beauty is internal. The great windows that stretch out the length of the nave and bring light to the transepts, are not stained glass. Rather, they are composed of thousands of small diamond-shaped panes - each an individual shade of golden amber.
As light shines through them, an incredibly soft glow infuses the whole of the Cathedral. What, from the outside, seems a heavy and imposing structure of stone, becomes, on the inside, a golden stream illuminating the interior via the natural and unique differences in the very glass itself.
These windows, whilst drawing on a Gothic style of Quarry windows, were designed with the locality of Melbourne in mind. William Wardell – the renowned colonial architect - wanted to infuse the building with the colours of the Australian sunlight, while at the same time protecting those worshipping from the harsh environment of our sun-burnt land. Our beautiful Cathedral is not a European replica, but something created with the heart of Melbourne at its core.
In December 2019, over 1,000 young Catholic Melburnians made a pilgrimage across the country to Perth for the Australian Catholic Youth Festival. Made up of local parish and school groups, they went with a sense of adventure, to be with their fellow young people from across the country.
Like any group of young people, they were not always sure as to why they were going, but they were certainly seeking more. Dreaming of possibilities and hunting for greater horizons, they were eager to see what the Holy Spirit might do in them.
A couple of weeks before setting out, we celebrated a commissioning Mass for our young pilgrims at St Patrick’s. At the commissioning each pilgrim received a small lapel pin in the shape of four interlocking diamonds. The pin symbolised the tiny diamond-shaped panes of golden glass that together form the great nave windows of the Cathedral. Our young pilgrims carried with them this symbol of light: a legacy of home and a sign of new horizons.
The light that streamed onto them that Sunday afternoon in the Cathedral was quite beautiful, and our young pilgrims were something like those shards of golden light: each one of them unique in their different ways; each individually crafted. Yet, each shining, each contributing something of the light that all might see by. Together, they revealed a prism of God’s light. They glowed with the light of Christ.
This light was carried by our young people as they set out for Perth, there to discover how Christ was illumining their lives and the lives of other young disciples. When they returned to Melbourne, they did so aglow, filled with Christ’s light. What had they learnt? That Jesus Christ is always gloriously young, and His Body, the Church, is meant to be young. This is the Church our young people went to discover, and many found; not a Church for the young, but a young Church, alive and alight in Christ.
Of course, within a few short months, the light which shone through them was obscured by the all-enveloping storm of COVID. A sense of isolation and shadow settled quickly and unnervingly on us all. We closed our doors; our horizons shrunk. Along with the anxieties and concerns of the pandemic there also flowed weariness and diminishment. It has been hard to see a shining light through these past two years as our gazes turned inward.
This day last year, on the cusp of the Delta storm, I shared with you a thought: that we live at a time, and in a place, of exile – not on foreign soil, but in situ. I continue to hold this thought. Without pessimism, and acknowledging the many localised lights that continue to shine among us, is it not the case that we find ourselves in a singular reality that is more like nightfall? The colours of daytime have leached from the world as dusk falls, and a Church that once expected to be the centre of light into our city, is now located (or even relegated) with her people towards the peripheries.
Well before COVID hit, our present time is one where faith – and with it, hope and love – is being lost to us – not just Catholic faith, but a shared belief in God and a purposeful life. We are exiled from recognising that there is something greater than ourselves, to be discovered, not manufactured, as the project of our lives. We have let, and even encouraged at times, our young people and children be burdened with the task of self-creation, rather than a sense of discovery of themselves. I am informed that a generation of the ‘unforgiven’ is emerging among us, young people especially, who are exiled from the experience of forgiveness and hope by a culture that sorts them by swiping left or being un-friended or simply cancelled.
The experience and culture of our day is one of alienation from a common human destiny. While Christian identity – at least by name – remains a common practice, a Christian way of life has become an unknown or unchosen experience to many – perhaps most – people. And I see nothing that would suggest this will change anytime soon.
We are continually being told to take up the elements of identity that will allow us a sense of belonging, while a truly common human membership never comes. We live with an economy where personal comforts, rather than shared goods, are pursued. We fortify ourselves in enclaves of the like-minded. Immediate satisfaction, rather than immortal longings rule. As the Psalmist laments, “O how could we sing the song of the Lord on foreign soil?” (Psalm 137)
There is a danger, however, of turning this exiled reality into a chosen lifestyle. One way in which we do this is by further disengaging from the communities within which we live. We see this in the rise of groups of allies, often congregating on social media, who pursue personal authorisation down ‘rabbit holes’ of un-reason or social ideology. Another way is evident in the pining for a return to what once was, as if everything will be ok again. These are the roads of the aimless wanderer, a nomad without roots, rather than the way of the intentional pilgrim. They reveal a forgetfulness of our God-given purpose, and a dislocation from our shared humanity.
Being in exile is not – and should not be – a comforting way of seeing ourselves. It involves separation and loss and diminution.
Yet, our faith tells us that there is also hope in a time of exile. There is the possibility of re-creation and renewal; it opens pathways to (re)discover the deeper roots of identity and heritage. Exile need not be a wasteland, for it opens us to discover how God does not abandon us, but accompanies us and provides for what we need. In the shadowlands of exile, points of light and grace become more discernible.
The Prophet Jeremiah knew this, when he encouraged the People of Israel, as they fell into exile, to “[b]uild houses, settle down; plant gardens and eat their produce; marry and have sons and daughters…; you must increase there and not decrease.” (Jer 29.4-7)
I am struck by the domesticity of God’s hopes and encouragement for his exiled people, who knew that their true darkness had come upon them before their captivity. Exile was not to be their end, but their beginning. It would involve a (re)turn to their households and to their families, where faith could be nurtured and passed on from old to young, generationally. Growth in exile was not to be measured by rebuilding monuments in public settings, but by attending to the personal in household settings. Here, the seeds of faith could be planted, and the leaven of discipleship might do its work. Among families and in households could the encouragement of a fresh heart be received. (cf. Acts 14.22)
We stand now on the threshold of such an exilic beginning. Neither a sentimental restoration of what once was, nor a reckless pursuit of un-anchored progress, will cut it. These are not illuminating stances, even if they might sparkle for a short while.
We might be keen for things to ‘get back to normal’ after the pandemic, but in our more thoughtful moments I’m sure we realise this cannot be the way ahead. We are at a liminal place – a threshold of transition. If we believe that it is by faith that we can seek healing, find our purpose, and live out our destiny, then we need to find the context of a life of faith in the domestic and among the generations. We need to embrace the transformative grace offered us at this threshold moment. But how?
Jesus did not – at any stage during his mission – build an institution or establish a social cause. He witnessed to the communion of his own ‘family’ (Father, Son, Spirit), and he spent his time among people in their households and neighbourhood communities. He barely spoke of the big events of his time; his teachings and stories were couched in family and community contexts; his healings were in homes or among small communities; he ate and drank a lot at friends’ places. Even as Jesus “set his face towards Jerusalem,” (Lk 9.51) he remained focused on the personal and the familial. And from the cross he formed the Church as a family: ‘Here is your son; here is your mother.’ (Jn 19.26-27)
Our ancestors in faith, the family of the early Church, took up the proclamation of Christ in this vein. There are many stories of the apostles going to households and neighbourhood communities to invite families into a common life in Christ. There is virtually no evidence throughout the New Testament of the Church engaging in the politics of the day or seeking to plant the works of the Church in public structures. The focus was personal and familial and communal.
Even the public proclamation of the kerygma, which Paul engaged in, was focused on the personal and familial, an invitation to live by faith, in hope, and through love among people. The early Church was a Church that assembled and passed on the faith in family homes. (1Cor 16.19) Might not this also be our calling at this time and place?
Pope St John Paul II said as much in a homily on a hot Perth afternoon in November 1986.
[T]he home is the Church in miniature. The Church is the sacrament of God’s love. She is a communion of faith and life. She is a mother and teacher. She is at the service of the whole human family as it goes forward towards its ultimate destiny… The future of the world and of the Church, therefore, passes through the family.” (Homily, Perth, 30 November 1986)
This was a bold declaration, for it sought to locate the flourishing of humanity squarely in the domestic and the personal, and not in economic or political or cultural settings, nor in education or labour or enterprise. “The future of the world and of the Church,” he said, “passes by way of the family.”
For better or worse, in good times and bad, whether whole or broken, strong or vulnerable, we each come to be from a family, and we each live out the project of our lives within a family. No-one is an island; and any social theory that attempts to reconstruct human flourishing separated from its family roots is devoid of goodness.
I would like you to note in particular the three elements that do the work in forming this household, domestic horizon of life and faith: growing in communion; mothering and teaching; serving others. Or put more simply: communion; formation; mission. We might describe these vocational tasks by way of three active verbs: to pray, to learn, to love.
Here we have a set of tasks that will bring life to the way of the Gospel in familial form, and where each of us has a role. In your own homes and family settings, think of the extent to which these three elements operate. Is there time for fostering prayer and a devotional life? How is the learning of faith and discipleship being attended to? Is love nurtured in the family, and extended to other families and to all around you?
The measure to which these three elements of communion, formation and mission – of praying, learning and loving – are actively pursued in our family settings, is the extent to which our lives will be shaped by the plan God has for each of us. Reclaiming and fostering these elements in our families will strengthen us to go out as witnesses to others.
There is a sacramentality about this turn to the domestic – a making visible and tangible that which is invisible and grace. What is washed in the kitchen sink over a conversation about faith is baptismal. Words of mercy and tenderness spoken in the loungeroom is forgiving. Encouragement before stepping out the front door is confirmational. Family prayer and blessing is priestly. Tenderness and intimacy in the bedroom is matrimonial.
Dare I say it, even a RAT test, done with attentiveness and care for those we love, reveals a sacramental anointing. And all of this is open to being eucharistic – acts and words and gestures of domestic communion that are holy. “Do this, in memory of me.” (Lk 22.20)
No family is an isolated reality but intertwined with others. No family is an island. They offer an admirable place from which we might step out on our pilgrimage through life, because it is where faith can be planted, nurtured and lived. But praying, learning and loving in a family setting will only flourish by personal practice; they can’t be outsourced to others or to a program or to some agency. It requires training, an apprenticeship, in the whole Christian life.
We have a way of doing this in our Catholic tradition – it is called the catechumenal way. The catechumenate is the ancient practice of the Church that allows for faith to resound in the heart of every family member, gradually, organically and cumulatively.
Our parish communities might best flourish by learning to embrace a catechumenal way, in households – communities of families – that foster communion, formation and mission. The very word ‘parish’ reveals this as its purpose. It finds its roots in a Greek word – paroikia – which means to ‘sojourn’. To sojourn is to pause at a resting place along the pilgrim way. Think of the ‘refugia’, the hostels scattered along the routes of the Camino de Compostela. These places of hospitality are locations where pilgrims might stop and gather in the evenings – places of welcoming, resting, healing, nourishing, learning, sharing, preparing; and in the morning, they are the places from which pilgrims setting out again on the road ahead. Imagine that as a definition of a parish?
Pope Francis’ way of putting it is this: “[Parishes are] the Church living in the midst of the homes of her sons and daughters.” (Evangelii Gaudium, §28) We are meant to be the church in familial form, where devotion, formation and apostolic works are practiced, and where communion in the Lord and with one another is fostered. A parish that is ‘domestic’ in this sense will look to be a household of God’s families, taking on a catechumenal form.
To quote Pope Francis again, “[A parish] is a community of communities, a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey, and a centre of constant missionary outreach.” I cannot see how it would be right to think that such an invitation at this time would simply be about opening up church doors to return to what was. A parish is meant to draw near to God’s people, and not the other way around. It is a nearness of incarnational presence, and not a nearness of territorial location. Our newly opened doors should be an invitation outward as much as a welcoming in. The same applies in our great missions of care, education and works of mercy, to foster deeper connections with the faith and life of families. All are called to serve in the light of faith that shines beyond our front doors and into our suburbs and cities.
At Pentecost, when the Church was first young, the Holy Spirit drew near to the disciples, so as to draw them into communion, to form them in the faith, and to send them out in love. Enlightened and strengthened, they spoke to all who would listen of their life in the Crucified and Risen Jesus, and of how His life was the light by which they now lived. The Church that strode out of the upper room shone brightly and steadily, for all to see.
May this not be lost on us. For the light we carry is not ours; it comes from that higher, deeper Source, allowing us to shine. I do not need to carry Christ’s light all by myself; we do it together. (As the Blues Brothers would put it) I need you, and you need me; and together, we all need God to shine. We glow and bring His light to others “through Him, and with Him and in Him,” because Christ glows through us, and with us, and in us.
This year, on 25 June, we celebrate the 175th anniversary of the establishment of our local Church in Melbourne, a date we share with our Anglican brothers and sisters, and with the declaration of the City of Melbourne. For Melbourne Catholics, this year also marks the 125th anniversary of the dedication of our golden lit Cathedral of St Patrick. As we celebrate these moments through 2022, it will not be for buildings or programs or plans that we do this; but for the lives and faith of our pilgrim families who have been, and who are, the panes of glass through which the light of the Church in Melbourne shines.
From an ‘age of faith’ in a colonial city to an ‘age of unbelief’ in our cosmopolitan metropolis, now is our time and place. Like our young disciples who set out from St Patrick’s on pilgrimage in December 2019, our task is to rediscover a young church that goes out, enlightened by Christ.
The Patrick Oration was delivered by Most Rev Peter A Comensoli, the ninth Archbishop of Melbourne, on 17 March 2022 at the Catholic Leadership Centre, East Melbourne.