St Patrick's Feast Day 2019
Homily at the midday Mass, Michael Whelan SM
Feast days are days for remembering. Today is our feast day. We remember the people, events and things of 175 years. This particular act of remembering by us here today, is grounded in a more general act of remembering by the Church. For the feast of St Patrick evokes a broad landscape of memories that belong to the whole Church and, we could say, the human race at large. As Sister Fidelis McTeigue is wont to remind us, there are two types of people in the world: Those who are Irish and those who want to be!
Remembering is a mysterious process. Among other things, it is crucial to our sense of identity. “If you do not know where you come from you will always be a child.”1 The words of the ancient Roman poet, Cicero. I would add: “If you don’t remember well your past, your future will be more or less stunted.”
At the heart of the mystery of remembering is our capacity, indeed our willingness, to remember well. The word “well” is important here – remembering well. Put most simply, remembering well means seeking out and submitting to the truth. Too easily, selective remembering can take over, prompting us to live some kind of idealized story, more or less ignorant of our formation, perhaps in denial of the truth about events and processes that have shaped us and brought us to this moment in time. “If you do not know where you come from you will always be a child.”
Denial can only work for so long. In time it catches up with us. Demonization then replaces idealization. This applies to us all – as much to the wider society in Australia as it does to the Catholic Church in Australia. In both instances, we are being asked to face the serious and deeply painful fact that our remembering has been shot through with denial and ignorance. We have not remembered well.
When I was a child, I learned of the wonderful and inspiring stories of courage and daring and decency of the pioneers who came here from Europe over two centuries ago. However, in the time since then, I have learned of stories that we were not told. Stories, for example, of the terrible treatment of the indigenous people. Our first war as a nation was not fought offshore. It was fought right here against the people who have lived on this continent for some 60,000 years. Now we know there are more than two hundred known sites of massacres of aborigines in Australia. We must remember that, and remember it well, otherwise we will never grow up as a nation.
And more recently I learned of the testimony of the first Parish Priest at St Patrick’s. Born in Cashel, Tipperary, Ireland, John McEncroe was by any measure a most extraordinary man. He was the fourth Catholic priest to be legally recognized in the colony – more than 40 years after the colony had been established. McEncroe arrived in 1832 and during his first three years he accompanied 75 men to the gallows. The gallows were a few hundred metres from here, situated roughly where the five-star Four Seasons Hotel is now. To this day, that part of Sydney is known as Gallows Hill or, alternatively, Hangman’s Hill.
Yes, we must remember the courage and daring and generosity and sheer goodness of so many of those early pioneers – people like Fr McEncroe. However, remembering well demands that we also remember the brutality and inhumanity that was part of laying the foundations of our nation. Human history is never “either/or”. It is always “both/and”.
And so, as we celebrate the feast of St Patrick, we remember both the fidelity, the generosity, the courage, the great goodness and the endurance of the Catholic Community and we also remember the bigotry, the self-serving, the oppression of people’s consciences and, yes, the sexual abuse and the denials and the covering up. The key to our health and wellbeing as Catholics in Australia, both as individuals and as a community, will be found in remembering well – that is facing and submitting to the whole truth.
We here at St Patrick’s are part of a crisis of memory with the rest of the human family. Though, of more immediate concern to us, is the crisis of memory within the Catholic Church. I have sympathy for those who feel betrayed and walk away. Given that the crisis of memory is a worldwide phenomenon, however, I fear that the walking away is not going to solve anything. A more life-giving response is to be quite deliberate and courageous about remembering well.
And we must not forget our deepest Christian memories are of the victory of God on the Cross. The Cross stands at the intersection of all that is most horrible and most wonderful about human existence. The human story ultimately unfolds at that intersection. There, love and hatred contend but love will triumph over hatred, truth and the lie contend but truth will triumph over the lie, good and evil will contend but good will triumph over evil. No merely human response can match that.
Good storytellers are guides to remembering well. In 1957, the American Catholic short story writer, Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964), contributed an essay to a publication that contained the statements of various writers on their art as storytellers. In her essay she observed:
“St Cyril of Jerusalem, in instructing catechumens, wrote: ‘The dragon sits by the side of the road, watching those who pass. Beware, lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon’. No matter what form the dragon may take, it is of this mysterious passage past him, or into his jaws, that stories of any depth will be concerned to tell, and this being the case, it requires considerable courage at any time, in any country, not to turn away from the storyteller.”2
Celebrations of feast days give particularity to the ultimate story of human existence. We are privileged to be part of a wonderful story here in this Catholic community at St Patrick’s. For whatever reason, God has chosen each of us to be tellers of the ultimate story of Jesus Christ and the particular stories of those immigrants who lived out their faith and passed it on to us and with it the particular story of St Patrick. Do not be afraid to tell that story with your life – it is the greatest story ever told! Do not be afraid to remember well!
1 Cicero, cited by Brendan Walsh in a review of Simon Goldhill, Love, Sex, Tragedy: How The Ancient World Shapes Our Lives, John Murray, 2004, published in The Tablet, 19 June 2004, 21
2 Flannery O’Connor, ‘The Fiction Writer and His Country,’ in Mystery and Manners, Occasional Prose selected and edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1993/1969, 35.