Cardinal John O'Connor: what Catholics believe

Cardinal John O'Connor: what Catholics believe

Cardinal John O'Connor

This is the text of Cardinal John O'Connor of New York's homily given at St Patrick's Cathedral, Melbourne, on 27 October 1997, on the occasion of the Cathedral's centenary and his consecration of a new altar as the Pope's personal representative.

G.K. Chesterton said that the wonderful thing about the Catholic Church is not that she is 1900 years old, but 1900 years new. We Catholics believe this is so "because we believe the Church is the living Body of Christ," that we are the living stones, as St Paul says, the living members of his body, of which he is the head, that his heart beats within us, his spirit vibrates and pulsates and breathes within us and through us.

We believe that this same Christ, the Son of God, is here with us in his eucharistic presence, that in this holy sacrifice of the Mass, a piece of bread will actually become his sacred body, a cup of wine, his precious blood, fountain of life and of eternal youth and renewal. We truly believe that not only will we receive him in Holy Communion, but that he will receive us, in a sense, divinise us, as St Thomas would have it. We, who are many, become one. Because he incorporates us into himself, so that all our differences are absorbed in his oneness.

Power of Calvary

It is in this holy sacrifice of the Mass, then, this mysterious, spiritual "reincarnation" of the birth and crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, in which all the power of Calvary is again unleashed, in this Mass, the source of the Eucharist, that we are made young and renewed. This great cathedral, then, is not simply 100 years old, but 100 years new.

This is, indeed, one of the great reasons for the existence of this magnificent cathedral, to serve as his Eucharistic dwelling place. But there is another.

A cathedral is so-called because it houses the seat, the cathedra, in Latin, from or in the presence of which, the bishop preaches the word of God as taught by Christ, himself, the Word who became flesh, as St John tells us, and dwells among us. As we receive the living Lord in Holy Communion, so we receive the same living word from the lips of the bishop, once again making us young and renewed with its own life and vigour.

I know that our Holy Father would want me to thank Archbishop George Pell in a special way for the fidelity and vigour with which he transmits that Church teaching which we believe to be revealed through Christ the Word in the Holy Spirit. I assume that you know better than I that you are a fortunate people.

Today's Gospel makes clear that Christ is not a Lord of compromises, ambiguities or equivocations. "Who do you say that I am?" he asks every Christian. Not: "Who does the world say that I am, the media, the philosophers or psychologists or nuclear physicists or the government or the university or the man or woman next door; but, "Who do you say that I am?"

Peter gave the answer: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." That was not the answer of the world. "Flesh and blood have not revealed this to you but my Father in heaven."

"You are the Christ, the Son of the living God," and you, Peter, the rock, have the keys of the kingdom. We believe everything flows from this, without compromise or ambiguity or equivocation. For example, the sacredness and worth of every human person from the instant of conception to the moment of death, with abortion and euthanasia (or physician assisted suicide) both abhorrent, because every human person is fashioned in the image of that same Christ, the Son of the living God, and is therefore sacred and inviolable.

This is the truth taught by Archbishop Pell and each of his six predecessors, who have vigorously and courageously taught that the truth alone sets us free. They have given short shrift to the relativism that sees no difference between right and wrong. With the English essayist, Coventry Patmore, they would say, "It will not do to let falsehood say to truth, 'I will tolerate you, if you will tolerate me.' The most powerful solvent is the strongest opposite. You can best move this world by making it clear that you stand upon another." How critical is this commitment to truth in a world caught up in what our Holy Father has called "the culture of death."

Nor is the teaching of truth ever an impediment to those constructive ecumenical and interfaith activities to which this Archdiocese has demonstrated it is sincerely committed. Indeed, it is an honest articulation of truth

as we understand it that makes it possible for Muslims and Jews, Protestants and Catholics and others of good will to converse together and work together for the good of all. It is the truth that sets us free not merely to tolerate, but to love one another.


May I turn now briefly to what our Holy Father singles out in his message, what we might well consider the centrepiece of today's ceremony: the consecration of a magnificent new altar. I would like to focus on the relics that will be placed in the altar. They are particularly meaningful to Australia: St Oliver Plunkett (to honour the Irish origins of the Catholic Church in Australia); Peter Chanel (the first martyr of Oceania); Thomas Thien (seminarian and one of the Vietnamese Martyrs, in honour of the vibrant Vietnamese community in Melbourne); Anthony of Padus (chosen to honour the largely European origins of Melbourne Catholics); Therese of Lisieux (patroness of the missions, and especially venerated in Australia, very recently declared a Doctor of the Church, third among women); Francis Xavier (the other patron of the missions honouring the fact that Australia was under the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples until 1976).

What did all these have in common besides the Faith itself? Sacrifice and suffering. If we failed to reflect upon so obvious a lesson, even briefly, this occasion could be purely ceremonial. Every one of us here and all those who have gone before us are united in the same language of suffering and sacrifice as that of the saints whose relics will be placed here, the suffering of the crucified Christ himself. We are not martyrs, although for some each day it can be a living martyrdom.

Our sufferings and sacrifices may be unknown except to God and to ourselves and offer little in the way of drama. Surely someone here is a widow or widower, who has known the suffering of loneliness; someone here almost certainly is afflicted with cancer or another dread disease; perhaps some live in lonely or difficult or empty marriages; some bear the scars of a divorce; some have lost their children to drugs or suicide; someone has a daughter who has gone through the tragedy of an abortion; someone feels alienated and rejected even by the Church; someone struggles with a tremendously difficult moral temptation that seems overpowering.

Why reflect on suffering and sacrifice on such a joyful occasion, the anniversary of a great cathedral and the consecration of a new altar? It seems to me that this is the perfect time to do so, if we use the occasion to remind our-selves that the greatest tragedy is not pain or sacrifice or suffering itself; the greatest tragedy is wasted pain, wasted sacrifice, wasted suffering. Our Lord did not make possible the salvation of the world through his preaching, however magnificent; his teaching, however eloquent; his miracles, however spectacular. Christ made possible your salvation and mine by his suffering and death on the cross.

The great tragedy is to be unaware of, or indifferent to, the potential of our suffering, mental, moral, emotional, physical, that we can unite it to the suffering and death of Christ on the Cross and help continue the salvation of souls, as well as to bring down great graces on the world. There may be someone at this moment in New York on the verge of suicide, who will receive the grace to pull back from self-destruction because someone here offers a headache or a heartache in union with the suffering of Christ on the Cross. It doesn't make the suffering easier; it does make it meaningful.

Was it by chance that Our Lord cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" How else could he show us that it was when he seemed utterly powerless that he was most powerful? And how else could he show us that when we seem completely powerless in our physical or mental or emotional or moral suffering, uniting our powerlessness with his gives us enormous power for good.

These are not mere words. I believe them so passionately that, at the risk of seeming presumptuous, I can say with deep sincerity that I would have come here from New York simply to say these words to one suffering soul, because I believe they can change our lives. They do not make suffering the slightest bit easier, but they can make it tremendously meaningful.

By way of conclusion, I want simply to cite from Archbishop Pell's powerful homily on the occasion of completing the renovation of this magnificent cathedral begun by Archbishop Little:

"It was faith that shaped these stones and faith which inspired the generosity and dedication for the restoration ... Neither money, nor history, nor legitimate community pride can replace the spirit of truth. If the time ever comes, and may God forbid this, that the flame of faith vanishes in our community, then these stones will fall silent and the spirit of truth will disappear to await recall."

The great architect of this cathedral, William Wilkinson Wardell, adopted as his motto at the time of his reception into the Catholic Church in London, "I have found that which I sought."

May it be that through the intercession of the great St Patrick, whose relics will be inserted into this new altar, and, in a very special way through the intercession of Mary, our Blessed Mother, Patroness of Australia, all who enter this magnificent cathedral through years to come, will find that which they have sought.

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