Australia Day: A time for thanks and commitment

Australia Day: A time for thanks and commitment

Cardinal George Pell

Australia Day does not rate at all in the liturgical year, while it does not hold any place in our secular world to compare with the Christmas break or Anzac Day.

For Catholics, and indeed all Christians, Australia Day should be more than a holiday, and rather be-come a day when we give thanks and ask for God’s continued blessings on our activities now and during the coming generations.

We live in a land which does achieve significant measures of the justice, integrity, peace and security, which the Old Testament prophet Isaiah endorsed. Most Australians, but certainly not all of them, do live in peaceful homes, safe houses and comparatively quiet dwellings. Those who have gone before us have built well and handed on a patrimony which we must work to preserve and enhance.

Let me suggest a couple of themes we might contemplate today. First of all I return to the idea of thanksgiving, recommending that we expand the focus of the holiday to express our gratitude more explicitly and I will then conclude with a few words about the essential Christian and Catholic contribution to Australian life.

We all know that the difference between a pessimist and an optimist is that one says the glass is half empty, while the other claims it is half full. We should not compare Australia with heaven, but with other countries. By any standard the quality of Australian life is good, reason for gratitude and the glass is more than half full, even if (to change the meta-phor) our social fabric is fraying in many ways.

We can learn from two other immigrant nations.

Both Canada and the United States have officially mandated Thanksgiving Days, which began in Canada in 1578, when the safe arrival of a fleet was celebrated, and in 1621 in the US, when the British colonists, the Pilgrim Fathers from Plymouth, joined with the local Wampanoag tribe for a couple of days of disorderly festivities, which set up a peace between them lasting more than 50 years.

The New England colonists were strong Protestants and thanksgivings emphasised prayer to God in gratitude for e.g., military victory or the breaking of a drought.

Enthusiasm spread slowly across the expanding nation as Southerners were rarely enthusiastic about New England customs, but in 1863 President Abraham Lincoln pro-claimed an annual national thanksgiving.

The year 2013 was the 1700th anniversary of the so-called Edict of Milan, which in fact was not an edict and not issued in Milan, when the first Christian emperor in the Roman Empire, Constantine the Great, granted religious liberty to the Christians, who had been persecuted intermittently for nearly 300 years.

Christians literally came out of the catacombs as the Empire recog-nised the corporate identity of Christ-ian communities and the regular house worship was transferred into the new church buildings, which did not follow the form of pagan temples, but of the basilica, a multi-purpose hall with a raised section at one end.

Sixty percent of Australians declare themselves to be Christians, so that in our explicitly secular society, which should be religiously neutral and not anti-religious, it is not unreasonable to claim that Australia is a predominantly Christian community as it has been during the whole history of European settlement.

Some today would like to privatise religion and especially Catholicism, granting us permission to say our prayers in private, but suggesting that Christian virtues and values cannot be espoused in public discuss-ion.

We cannot accept this, as Christian teaching has consequences in our personal lives and in community life. The rule of law deriving from the natural law and the Ten Commandments remains the essential moral framework and the Christian struggle for social justice, for human life, for marriage and family, for honesty and integrity, for a loving self-discipline in sexual matters, all combine to make Australian society better and healthier.

One other important Christian task in Australia comes to mind after hearing Jesus’ words in St Luke’s Gospel. It is one of Our Lord’s most lyrical passages as he talks of the ravens, who neither sow nor reap, have no storehouses or barns, yet are fed by God.

Think of the flowers, he said, which neither spin nor weave, but are robed in a way that not even King Solomon, the flashiest of the Jewish Kings, could equal. An old translation spoke of the lilies of the field and I think I read somewhere that the flowers actually were something like Flanders poppies, but the general point is clear and unambiguous.

Pleasure and possessions are constant temptations in Australian life, especially in times of peace and comparative prosperity. They are good servants, when set in perspective against human love and the faith, hope and love of God’s kingdom but they are ruthless masters, which can become despots hardening our hearts making them blind to faith and sacrificial love.

One role of the Catholic Church in Australia is to remind ourselves and others that man does not live on bread alone; that it is wrong to become obsessed by the financial dimension of our daily lives. Regular generosity is an effective antidote to those temptations.

And it is when we place all our concerns, petty or serious, in God’s hands, consider them in the light of eternity and measure them by genuine Christian norms, that we will be able to stop worrying or at least not worry too much.

“There is no need to fear, little flock, for it has pleased your Father to give you the Kingdom.”

This homily was given at Domus Australia in Rome on 26 January last year.

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