In a recent interview, the Australian musician Nick Cave spoke of what transpired in the Garden of Gethsemane as the truly compelling image he carries of Jesus. The garden was a place of beauty, on the eastern edge of Jerusalem, frequently visited by Jesus and his disciples. But on the night before his death, it was the place where the Son would physically experience, in a bloodied sweat, the existential silence of his Father.

Cave talks of how Christ, in the garden, is tethered to the earth, yet reaching beyond. For in the midst of the loss that came from that shattering silence, Jesus yearns. It is a yearning that leads to his most creative deed: his surrendering to death on a cross. It is done; it is accomplished. Life found a way.

Nick Cave is a man who has, from his childhood, experienced a closeness to Jesus, without having found an ecclesial landing. He has lived a life of faith, perhaps unexpectedly, through a musical career often influenced by drugs and alcohol. In recent years, marked by the tragic deaths of two of his sons, Cave has opened up on his faith journey, musically and in writing. Some of you may recall his book Faith, Hope and Carnage, which came out in 2022.

In the interview, Cave speaks of the question of faith in terms of the deeply human condition of loss that marks all of us. Loss—note, not ‘lost’—loss is the common, binding thread of our human condition. It is what is needed so as to yearn for what is beyond it. The Garden of Gethsemane is his go-to image in this regard—the utterly human faith of Christ, searching for the Divine that was already his.

And appropriately so. The Word had become flesh, after all; the divine image of God had embraced our created humanity. As St Paul put it, though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself (Philippians 2.6–7). Exactly like us, Jesus lived his humanity in all its frail, limited, insufficient and vulnerable reality. His body would come to be broken down on a cross. There is loss at the centre of Christ’s life. There could be no resurrection otherwise.

This is the mystery of our faith. To look on the crucified Christ is to see inside to our transfigured glory. We might say of Jesus, I became your flesh, to give you my flesh. In emptying himself, we are filled. Through his wounds, we are healed (cf. 1 Peter 2.24). Is this not what we yearn for, in our need?

By emptying himself to the limits of his humanity, Jesus gave of himself the gift of God. Take it, all of you, he said; take my limited and impoverished flesh. This is my body, he said; it is the only thing I have to give to you. To quote again St Paul, although he was rich, he became poor for your sake, so that you should become rich through his poverty (2 Corinthians 8.9). By means of his limited and broken body, we receive his real and abiding presence.

Each Thursday evening in St Patrick’s Cathedral, this transfiguring reality is shown to the assembled people who have come from the dispersed regions of our city. On any given Thursday, around a hundred, mostly young people, come through the doors of St Patrick’s to gaze on Christ. The Six30 Holy Hour is the sacramental presence of Christ, displayed in a form for anyone to see.

There is something both unnerving and beautiful about this weekly gathering. It’s a continuation of the moment of loss on the cross that led to our gain. We call it ‘exposition’ of the Blessed Sacrament. It is the exposing of the broken Body of Christ, in the form of the broken Bread of Life. The word itself implies a vulnerability and nakedness. We instinctively want to cover up things that are exposed. But Jesus says, be with me, and let me be seen. That is indeed unnerving.

But that same broken Body, revealed in the broken Bread, is also remarkable to behold. We are not left alone when we come before the Blessed Sacrament but are invited to see the One who gave himself for us, and to know we are loved by him. It is, like Gethsemane and Golgotha, a transfiguration before us. To borrow the imagery of another poet-musician, There is a crack, a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in (Leonard Cohen).

There is a lot of silence going on during Holy Hour. Silence speaks. It is not in the noise that fills our lives that we will hear God, nor through the noise—both aural and visual—that we can yearn for him. There is a good deal of yearning going on among those gathered for that quiet time with the Lord. To yearn for something is too long for the filling of a need. That need might come from a place of loss, or grief, or sin, or hurt. In that hour, it might especially be a yearning for atonement, for ‘at-one-ment’. It is the crack in our lives, in search of light.

Thursday evening at St Patrick’s is a weekly moment of prayerful drama, noble in its simplicity, powerful in its humility. It is a drama of beauty that gives permission to be connected to a ‘communion’ (of saints) that leads to ‘communion’ (of sacrament) that demands ‘communion’ (in charity). It is Gethsemane, where love finds a way to meet silently with those assembled.

At Gethsemane, Jesus asked his disciples to stay awake and pray with him. At Six30 Holy Hour, this is what happens. Of course, there are any number of places throughout our Archdiocese where this occurs on a regular basis—in churches, chapels and other locations. In fact, it occurs anywhere that loss and need look to be transfigured by the embrace of love from the cross.

From time to time, I find myself passing by the Cathedral as people are gathering for the Holy Hour. It is a striking sight to see: individuals making their way through gates and down stairs; a huddle of two or three friends quietly heading towards the entrances. Each is making their way to a spiritual doorway onto the love of Christ present among them. They each carry a need in their lives; they each yearn for what will take them beyond.

I sometimes also reflect on those who continue to walk past St Pat’s or are on the 109 tram passing by. Do they see the people intentionally diverting from the streetscape into the Cathedral? What might they be thinking of those who divert? And do they know they are welcome to enter as well? To slightly amend a rather well-known movie phrase: show it, and they will come. It’s a good reminder that invitation is always the first move towards God’s kingdom: Come and see (John 1.39).

The ‘divert-ees’ are predominantly a young crowd, as I said, Millennials and Zoomers, Ys and Zs. That’s telling. Why them; why the young? The Australian social researcher Hugh Mackay made significant observations about the faith life of the Millennials in his book Beyond Belief. He pointed to a generational movement among them, spreading backwards into the Xs and Boomers, of a movement towards identifying as SBNR—‘spiritual but not religious’.

It speaks to the phenomenon that around two-thirds of Australians say they believe in God or some ‘higher power’, but fewer than one in ten are actively engaged in religious practice. Attachment to a traditional idea of God is waning, but the desire for a life of meaning remains, expressed in practices such as office meditation, gym yoga classes, social justice action, and pilgrimages. (More people undertook the Camino de Santiago last year than in any other year of its history.)

For their part, the Zoomers are different again. They are the first generation of the 21st century, who will very likely make it into the next century. (Let that sink in!) They are the most materially endowed, the most technologically savvy, the generation with the longest likely lifespan. They were born with screens in front of their faces but will still be living at home in their 30s and 40s (a key reminder of how important faith formation in families will be). Along with the emerging Gen A, they will be the AI generation.

The Zoomers are mostly two or three generations removed from any lived experience of religion or the Church, or even knowledge about God or Christ. The ‘S’ for ‘spiritual’ has all but disappeared from the Zoomers, because it has faded from us. This does not mean they will not look for something more, or yearn for what is beyond; rather, they will experience differently, and therefore yearn differently.

This is the reality we older generations need to understand and step into, for the place in which the Zs and As will come to faith is not in the world where we are presently living. They are not antagonistic to God or anti-Church, as is the disposition of many in their 40s and older. They simply do not know that there is God, or know that the building next to their school is a Church, or know the language that reveals Christ among them. (My grandnephew was recently walking around Wollongong with his Nanna. Upon seeing the white edifice of the Cathedral there, he asked, ‘Whose castle is that?’)

SBNR. We might think this is an encouraging acronym, an anchor for hope. We might think, at least people are hanging in there with a sense of something beyond themselves. I’m not sure that is the case. The generational movement of SBNR is not back towards the R, but further away from the S. It is a movement from ‘loss’, which leans forward purposefully to ‘lost’, which wanders around unknowingly. ‘Spirituality’ asks nothing of us and will eventually lead to nothing. It is religious faith that asks something of us, for it points the way ahead. As Nick Cave puts it in the podcast I mentioned earlier, religion is spirituality with rigour; it asks something of us.

God is not dead, much to the chagrin of Frederic Nietzsche, and despite the efforts of individuals, ideologies and societies to make it so ever since. God is not dead. However, God is not known by many today. Christ is still to be discovered, and religious faith is to be found and learnt.

So, I say: SBNR is not the entirety of today’s story, nor is it tomorrow’s triumph. We have not reached the end of history. All is not lost. There are the ‘divert-ees’, remember; those who buck the trend. And it is not solely the yearning young who venture into St Pat’s on a Thursday evening, or to Mass on Sunday mornings. There are also a significant number who are ethnically and culturally diverse, who come from a family heritage where the ritual of faith and the words of the Bible are still known and experienced as meaningful, and where a spiritual life, a life lived face-to-face with God, is yearned for.

For them, and for some very many others, St Patrick’s has been the house, the home, for the local Church in Melbourne since its foundation stone was laid in 1850. Located on Eastern Hill, at the edge of the city grid (sitting like Gethsemane on the eastern edge of Jerusalem), the Cathedral is the Mother Church of our Archdiocese. A mother gathers and protects; a mother sacrifices and teaches; a mother heals and binds together.

Those who come to her each year are remarkably various. Any given Sunday, around 1,300 Mass-goers pass through her doors. At times, such as the Paschal Triduum and at Christmas, upwards of 10,000 people seek the shared communion of worship and prayer. There are the rich migrant communities who gather within her walls on an annual basis. Many school communities have their opening or graduation Mass there. Any number of small faith groups and Catholic organisations make it an annual place of pilgrimage. Long lines of penitents stretch along the pews for Reconciliation, prayerfully awaiting mercy.

St Pat’s is wedding central, at a time when the bottom has fallen out of Church weddings. Baptism numbers are also high. It is where the major archdiocesan liturgies occur: the Chrism Mass, the Rite of Election, the Mass for marriage anniversaries, World Youth Day commissioning, the annual St Patrick’s Day schools Mass, ordinations, state funerals. She is a symbol of the beauty of God, and a location for witnessing to the beauty in faith, as we saw in the recent ‘Great Women of Faith’ exhibition, and heard in the performance of Mary Finsterer’s Stabat Mater.

Then there are those who simply wander off the streets seeking a moment of sanctuary within her walls; the poor and vulnerable who come looking for safety and solace. And among all those faith seekers are the loads of tourists who daily spill out of buses into her glowing light, wide-eyed and in awe at where they have found themselves.

St Patrick’s Cathedral has always been the non-utilitarian gateway into the city from the east (from the resurrection), and an undoubted icon of Melbourne. She arose, in her French Neo-Gothic form, on the financial back of the ordinary and often poor faithful of the time. Consecrated 127 years ago, she has been an anchor of faith as Melbourne has grown and changed.

However, no major works have been done on the Cathedral and its environs for more than a quarter of a century. St Patrick’s needs some structural love and care after all these years. She is not a fixed edifice but a living environment, not a static building but a dynamic precinct of faith, and it is time to explore seriously the ways that she may live and flourish as a true light into the city for the generations to come.

St Patrick’s is the ‘seat’ of the local Church (quite literally), and an icon for the city. But she should also be a destination of pilgrimage, and a sanctuary for the people. She is called to be a school of charity and a place of learning; a location for dialogue with the surrounding culture, and a model of community life. She is to live and breathe the paschal mystery and embrace the inherent dignity and sacredness of life. She ought to work for the common good of family, community and society, and meet the needs of the poor and disadvantaged. For that is what a light—Christ’s light—into the city needs to be: a place of transfiguration in a world that yearns for more.

In this year of the 150th anniversary of when the local Church in Melbourne was designated an Archdiocese, the time has come to undertake a major renewal of St Patrick’s Cathedral. As our mother church, she yearns to be transfigured. There are key works that will begin soon to ensure this icon maintains its structural integrity, and in coming months you will see scaffolding and construction equipment on site. But as we undertake these necessary works, we will also look to the faith needs of our people and city into the future.

There are questions to be asked. How does St Patrick’s offer answers to those yearning for more? What are her pathways that people seek and divert towards? Where might people look, so as to find God? How is she a place both tethered to the earth and yet reaching beyond? We have to look at what kind of light St Patrick’s needs to be.

These are the questions we need to ask also of ourselves. For the Church, as you know, is the pilgrim people of God, Christ’s Body in community, and not a building. Who do people meet when they meet us at the doors of our mother-home? Do they see Christ’s face, hear his words, witness his actions? Are we the kind of light we need to be, so that the people of our city may come to see?

Answering these questions is no small task, as you might imagine. It is not a ‘project’ or a ‘build’ that is beckoning before us. We each have a responsibility, to the present generations and to those who will come after us, to ensure that those who encounter St Patrick’s Cathedral, and her life, might find a home with Christ among us, and a light to guide their way.

I have taken you through a journey today—from a garden to a home—not just to land at the announcement of a major project but to light a fire that might encourage us all to seek more in our lives and enlighten those around us. As the great patron of our Cathedral once prayed, I arise today; Christ with me … This Christ is the One in whom St Patrick himself yearned. May his yearnings also be ours. May we arise today. Amen.

The Patrick Oration was delivered by Most Rev Peter A Comensoli, the ninth Archbishop of Melbourne, on the feast of St Patrick at the Greg Craven Centre, Australian Catholic University, Fitzroy.