“We could turn to Mary, Help of Christians confident that, as in ages past, though her powerful intercession, her Son and our Saviour would deliver us from the evils threatening Australia”
The source of this text is a reprint, that was understood to be a fully accurate record of the Homily of His eminence Cardinal Clancy on the occasion of the rededication of Australia to Mary Help of Christians, at St. Mary’s Cathedral, on April 10th 1988.
“Sailing under a blue banner dedicated to the Mother of God, the Christian fleet conquered the powerful Turks in the momentous naval battle of Lepanto in 1571. It was this event, it would seem, that moved Pope Pius V to include the title, “Help of Christians,” in the Litany of Loreto.
Over 200 years later, Pope Pius VII, attributing to Mary, Help of Christians his deliverance from the tyranny of Napoleon, instituted a Feast in her honour to be observed annually on Mary 24.
Mother church of Australia
Passing to our own Australian story, it seems that the great pioneering priest, John Joseph Therry, intended that this Mother Church of Australia should be dedicated to Our Lady, Help of Christians.
Be that as it may, the first Provincial Synod of the Church of Australasia, held in 1844, began with a Votive Mass of Our Lady under that title.
The synodal bishops, there were only three of them, together with their 15 pioneer priests petitioned Rome for the recognition of Our Lady Help of Christians as the patroness of Australia. Formal approbation arrived in 1852.
Since then, the Catholic people of Australia have acknowledged Mary, Help of Christians as a special protectress and mediatrix before God.
Coming finally to our own day. Pope John Paul II, in his Encyclical Letter, Redemptoris Mater, proclaimed a solemn Marian Year beginning on the solemnity of Pentecost, 1987, and Concluding with the solemnity of the Assumption, 1988.
The Australian bishops in their plenary Conference of November, 1987, resolved that in this Marian Year, it would be a fitting tribute to Mary, and in the interests of the people of Australia, to re-affirm the confiding of the nation to Mary, Help of Christians. And so it is that we father here is St. Mary’s Cathedral today.
Mary has had a significant place in Catholic faith and practice from the very earliest times. Art, music and literature testify powerfully to the antiquity and rich diversity of Catholic devotion to Mary, Catholic doctrine without Mary would not only be incomplete, it would be totally inconceivable.
The Council of Ephesus in 431 repudiated the heresy of Nestorius; it confirmed the witness of the Scriptures and the Church’s earliest tradition; and it established once and for all that Mary is the Mother of Jesus, not only in His humanity, but also in his Divinity. Mary is the Mother of God.
The choice of Mary, from all eternity and from all women of all time, to be the Mother of the Saviour was the central and foundational privilege bestowed on her. From that privilege the others followed.
Assumed Incorrupt into Heaven
She was, in anticipation, herself conceived without taint of original sin, and with her death, her body was assumed incorrupt into Heaven.
Mary is the Mother of the Church. In his Encyclical, Pope John Paul declares: “In accordance with the eternal plan of Providence, Mary’s divine motherhood is to be poured out upon the Church, as indicated by statements of tradition, according to which Mary’s ‘motherhood’ of the Church is the reflection and extension of her Motherhood of the Son of God.”
St. Augustine was later to write: “Indeed she is the Mother of the Saviour’s members, which we are, because she co-operated by love, so that the faithful, who are the members of that head, might be born in the Church.”
“Mary, my Mother.” How many millions of Christians throughout the centuries have reflected lovely on this phrase, and drawn from it, as from an abundant spring, the sweet water of hope and strength and consolation and joy.
The love of a mother for her children as we know it from our own experience — intense, all-absorbing, and unconditional — is but a pale image of Mary’s love for us; the child’s total and unquestioning trust in its mother is but a dim reflection of the trust that we should have in Mary.
Devotion to Mary has not been devoid of exaggeration and abuse in its long history, but its spontaneity and fervour are woven into the fabric of Catholic piety, and it would be its decline at any time in the lives of our people that would cause the greater misgivings.
Simple and robust devotion to Mary
The Catholic faith took root in Australia under the most unfavourable conditions — but then, it is under such conditions that the Fatih seems always to thrive best. A simple and robust devotion to Mary was there among the convicts and free settlers from the outset.
The Irish influence certainly assured that, and with neither Mass nor Sacraments readily available, or available at all, the Rosary assumed a special significance in people’s lives. The Englishman, Archbishop Polding, gave further impetus to Marian devotion as is obvious from several of his pastoral letters. On the tenth anniversary of the definition of the Immaculate Conception, he wrote:
“Go to Mary. She is my mother, she is your mother; she has the authority of a mother for me, she has the love of a mother for you. Go to Mary, souls sorrowful and oppressed; go to Mary, souls overburdened with crime. Go to Mary the refuge of sinners, the comfort of the afflicted. In her maternal bosom the poor will find an asylum, the weak a place of refuge; the doubting a faithful counsellor; the oppressed, and invincible defender.”
With such beginnings, it is no wonder that devotion to Mary flourished in Australia in the years that followed, and has remained a prominent feature of Catholic life ever since. In recent decades, in fact, it has been further and immeasurable enriched by different devotional traditions brought to Australia by migrant and refugee peoples from other countries the world over.
It is probable that the synod of 1844 chose Mary Help of Christians as the Patroness of Australia because of the massive difficulties that faced and threatened the survival of the infant nation of that time. After all, what is more natural than that one should turn to one’s mother for assistance in time of trial and danger.
Mary, who had enabled the Christian forces to survive the might of the Turkish fleet, would surely see Australia through the difficulties that now threatened to overwhelm it. And, of course, the nation’s problems were the Church’s problems, too.
History has shown the trust of the synod Fathers was not misplaced. Both Church and nation prospered beyond all expectations.
Today, in this Bicentenary year, while we acknowledge with great gratitude the blessings of the past, we also recognise that Australia faces difficulties no less formidable than those that the young nation faced 150 years ago.
It seems that we are beginning another chapter in our history, and the problems are remarkably like those of the last century, though cast, perhaps, in even more sombre terms. One writer has identified six such problems.
- A scale and depravity of man that is not even our transported ancestors would have known;
- The tensions of mutual acceptance between old and new in a multicultural society;
- A painful reassessment of the rights of black and white in a land given by God to both;
- A gross imbalance of opportunities for rich and poor in a land of plenty;
- An urgent need for effective Christian formation in an environment of proselytising materialism;
- The discovery of an authentic Australian voice to speak the Gospel from which culture is born.
Once again, the nation’s problems are also the Church’s problems. And to these, we should add the perils that are of worldwide significance: the instability and injustice of international economic structures, the threat of new and presently incurable diseases, criminal disregard for the sacredness of human life, and the ever present shadow of nuclear conflict.
The Church, furthermore, has additional problems of its own stemming from the impact of a dramatically changing and progressively secularist society. These accumulated anxieties cause anguish in the lives of Australians today.
We turn instinctively to Mary, our help in ages past, confident that through her powerful intercession, her Son, Our Saviour, will deliver us from the evils that threaten us, stimulate through the action of His Holy Spirit the immense goodwill that there is in the nation, and guide us safely along ways of justice and peace.
The words of Pope Pius XI in his Encyclical, Lux Veritatis, strike a chord with us at this time. In reference to the Virgin Mary he wrote:
“Let us confidently entrust to her all that is ours — joys, if we rejoice, woes if we are in trial; hopes if we endeavorer to rise to better things. If the Church falls on difficult times, if Fatih wanes, and charity grows cold, if morals, private and public, grow worse, if any danger threatens the Catholic cause or civil society, let us have recourse to her, begging help from heaven.”
The present Holy Father bids us entrust to Mary the new millennium, seeing in it the promise of a new age for the Church and for humanity. Hence he proclaimed this current year a Marian Year by way of preparation for that new age.
By means of this Marian Year, he wrote, “the Church is called not only to remember everything in her past that testified to the special maternal co-operation of the Mother of God in the work of salvation in Christ the Lord, but also on the Church’s part, to prepare for the future of the paths of this co-operation. For the end of the second Christian millennium a new prospect opens before us.”
“Therefore, it is with Fatih and trust and confidence that we this day commit the future of nation and Church to her who is the special Help of all Christians.”