B.A. Santamaria: ten years on

B.A. Santamaria: ten years on

Cardinal George Pell

As a Christian comes closer to the end of his working days than the beginning, he should now and again look back with gratitude on providential moments in his life. Certainly I thank God for being Archbishop of Melbourne when Bob Santamaria died so I could do my part to ensure that he was sent off to eternity in a manner befitting his achievements.

His large extended family, his many friends (and he had a gift for friendship), his dedicated co-workers from the Movement and then the NCC were there, of course, with some bishops and his allies in the priesthood. A host of others came also to fill the large cathedral; the Prime Minister John Howard, many politicians from both sides, some of his old foes, but predominantly those who belonged to that broad natural law, Judaeo-Christian tradition which for most of our history has provided the cement, the social cohesion which brought out the best in Australian society.

All were there to pay tribute to his unique contribution, while the Christians, Catholic and otherwise, were there to thank God for him and pray for the repose of his soul. We were all saddened by B.A.'s death and some of us, perhaps many, realised the huge gap in the ranks caused by his passing.

Later on overseas friends who had seen photos of the congregation in the cathedral grounds immediately after the ceremony, young and old, rich and poor, powerful and powerless, politicians and widows, marvelled that our way of life permitted such an informal Australian get- together.

Time passes quickly. New generations regularly come on the scene with new insights and offering new possibilities. Today, more than ever, they can also be ignorant of even their immediate past history. In the last ten to fifteen years of his life Bob often acknowledged gratefully the number of grandparents who supported him. He also won over a goodly number of their grand- childrens' generation. But the intervening generation was regularly missing.

Today ten or twenty years later the age profile is still similar. Therefore it is good that Miegunyah Press has already published a large volume of his letters, well edited and introduced by Paddy Morgan with another book collecting his papers soon to appear.

In his lifetime Bob's followers sometimes claimed that his files were the best available in Australian political life, so the decision to house his archives in a special room at the Victorian State library and make them available to scholars, activists and the general public is a wonderful contribution to Australian history.

As a European-type lay intellectual in a church dominated by clergy and not overrun with intellectuals, his files provide an unusual point of entry to understanding Australian public life, political, cultural and religious, from the thirties to the nineties. Young Catholic politicians and young lay leaders will benefit from studying these works.

Australia: ten years on

Is it too much of a digression to wonder what he might have thought of Australia today ten years after his death? I can't resist such a temptation entirely.

He might have been surprised by the continuing success of the Australian economy, because he was not an economic rationalist. While he might have underestimated the market's capacity to generate wealth, he would not have been surprised by the inequalities the market produces, nor by the number of families too heavily mortgaged for hard times.

He always enjoyed warning against national indebtedness and would have seen the US economy today as justifying his fears.

He would not have been surprised by the economic rise of India and China and would have continued to be a vigorous champion of the religious freedom of all Catholics in China, especially those still underground.

As a keen student of Chesterton and Belloc he would not have been too surprised by the rise of radical Islam. He was always clear-headed about the USA, our most important ally, after they dumped (and in effect eliminated) President Diem in Vietnam.

I hope he would have acknowledged a modest progress in the Church in Australia, at least in some places. The Melbourne-Sydney religious education text books are being taken up in more and more Australian dioceses and the number of priestly seminarians has risen in Perth, Melbourne and Sydney.

A strong admirer and defender of Pope John Paul II, he would have welcomed the election of Pope Benedict, and the quality of his writing and teaching.

Pope Benedict's insistence on a fundamental continuity in the Church before and after the Second Vatican Council was foundational to Santamaria's theological viewpoint. There was no rupture, no abrogation of most doctrines and practices followed by the Church between Vatican I and Pope Pius XII.

He would have welcomed the wider permissions for the celebration of the Latin Tridentine Mass and the prospect of a richer, better English translation of the Roman missal.

I believe I could have persuaded him not to be too sceptical publicly about the fruits of World Youth Day but he would have wanted evidence of these fruits.

He would have welcomed the upsurge of vitality among Catholic university students, admired their prayerfulness and hoped that a good number would retain their faith and zeal as they moved into political and intellectual life.

As we struggle to arrest the decline in the social capital of Australia and the erosion of Catholic life, we should remember that B.A. Santamaria has bequeathed to us a handsome legacy. In his lifetime he was a continuing source of inspiration, and the spark of considerable controversy.

Today his life story and writings remain as an important source of Catholic wisdom.

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