Under a Mother’s Care: The Patroness of Australia
On Thursday, 3 May 2001, the Catholic Bishops of Australia held a special ceremony at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney and solemnly renewed the patronage of Mary Help of Christians as the Patron Saint of Australia. In announcing the event, the President of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Francis Carroll gave their reasons: “The bishops of Australia think it an opportune time, being gathered in Sydney for our Plenary Meeting, to hold a special ceremony in the Australian Cathedral that is dedicated to Mary Help of Christians; renewing our devotion to the Virgin Mary, Mother of Christ.
“We hope that Catholics join with us in this historic celebration,” he said.
“At some time in the future, this event will undoubtedly be linked to that which took place in September 1844 when the Church in Australia was first placed under the patronage of Mary Help of Christians.”
The Bishops, conscious of the formidable challenges to be met in another century and the new millennium, decided that the year 2001, the centenary of the Australian Federation and the beginning of the new millennium, provided an excellent occasion to renew Australia’s devotion to Mary Help of Christians.
This was not the first re-proclamation of our National Patron. In 1988, Australia recalled the achievements and ambiguities of two hundred years of white settlement. In that bicentennial year, the Catholic Bishops gathered here in St. Mary’s and renewed the dedication of the Church and the Nation to Mary Help of Christians.
The Original Dedication
The first provincial synod of the Church in Australia occurred in September 1844. It was a relatively small affair: Archbishop Polding of Sydney and the new bishops of Adelaide and Hobart met with about half the three-dozen pioneer priests in the country. Among their decisions, the Church in Australia was placed under the patronage of the Virgin Mary, invoked by the title Help of Christians. The Holy See confirmed this in 1852.
The choice of Mary Help of Christians may well derive from the first Catholic chaplain in Sydney, Fr. J.J. Therry, who dedicated his church to St. Mary in November 1821.
Fr. Therry was ordained in Ireland in 1815 when the Irish Church quickly adopted devotion to Mary Help of Christians. Our celebration of Mary Help of Christians as our patronal feast, therefore, symbolises the Roman and Irish heritage, which is the foundation of the Catholic Church in Australia.
Mary Help of Christians was adopted as patron of the new Church of Australia at a significant time in our history. British settlement was just over fifty years old, the transportation of convicts was ending, and the first elections in Australian history were held in 1843. Issues of land, immigration and education had begun to surface, and the Church was involved in these social problems. In 1843 Archbishop Polding inaugurated the first Catholic apostolic meeting with aboriginal people in Moreton Bay.
Today, in 2001, the Centenary year of Australian Federation, we confront many of the same social problems, and the Church has the same need to witness to the values of the gospel. The task of evangelising the Australian culture is more urgent and daunting than ever. Today resource to our national patron, Mary Help of Christians, is as relevant and necessary as it ever has been.
Archbishop Francis Carroll stated in the homily at the 3 May Rededication Mass: “We meet tonight in this, the Mother Church in Australia, dedicated to Mary the Immaculate Help of Christians and in the year of our Nation’s Centenary of Federation. The centenary recalls, with pride, the birth of one united nation and a hundred years of unbroken democracy under the rule of law. In a spirit of thanksgiving, we celebrate the strong national life we enjoy today. With humble confidence, we renew our commitment to act in the future with the responsibility of a nation mature in our relationships with the land, our fellow citizens and the rest of the world.”
“The Church too faces enormous challenges. Purified and renewed by the Jubilee Year, we are called afresh to live and witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The task of evangelising within contemporary Australian culture is a daunting one but that is our privileged mission. Conscious of the magnitude of the task, we turn to our patron, Mary Help of Christians, and once again entrust Australia to her prayerful protection.”
As Australia celebrates the Centenary of Federation and a new millennium begins to unfold, we are challenged to put out into the deep once again with the enthusiasm of the very first Christians. The same Holy Spirit poured out at Pentecost empowers us to start again in our mission of evangelisation. Mary is the radiant dawn and a sure guide for our steps. So, with confident and loving hearts, let us invoke her prayer and patronage for our Church and our Nation as Help of Christians.