January 26: Australia Day




            A few hundred years ago, a landmass in the earth’s southern regions was no more than a supposition. It must be there, they said, to balance the globe.


            The Spanish explorer de Quiros, sailing in 1606 from Peru for Manila, thought he had discovered the supposed southern landmass when he sailed through the New Hebrides, Vanuatu today. He called it “Austrialia del Espiritu Santo”, that is, “the Austrian Hapsburgs’ Land of the Holy Spirit.” The Hapsburgs were ruling Spain at the time. So de Quiros expressed his loyalty both to the Emperor and to God.


            No one was much the wiser until Captain James Cook, an English navigator, charted almost the whole east coast of the continent and he called the lot New South Wales because it reminded him vaguely of his own birthplace in the south of Wales. He named many landmarks, including Botany Bay, and he noted it as possibly suitable for settlement.


            The English at that time were accustomed to disgorge their overcrowded prisons into their North American colonies. But when the same colonies won their independence in 1785, England lost no time looking for another waste disposal area.


            On January 26, 1788, a fleet of prison ships carrying a thousand convicts entered Botany Bay but chose Port Jackson, a few miles up the coast, for a settlement.


            It was the strangest place on earth for Europeans. What they discovered here, stone age people, unimaginable animals, birds and plants, extremes of heat, deadly silence and isolation, often made the newcomers doubt their own sanity.


            Not until the 1820's were they certain that it was the southern continent after all. Mathew Flinders sailed round the entire three million square miles in a tiny sailing boat and in deference to de Quiros, he called it Australia. English historians prefer to translate it as “the Southern Land”,   avoiding the Spanish and Catholic connotations.


            At the same time, the Catholic Church was established with some appearance of regularity when two Irish priests were appointed to New South Wales. Their parish stretched from Sydney to Mauritius. Previously, a few convicted priests had ministered to the faithful in Sydney.


            There were few Catholics among the first colonists until after the Irish rebellion in 1798. By 1855 there were 40,000 Catholics in the Australian colonies, which shows that the beloved Irish were still misbehaving at home and were irrepressible abroad.


            The Catholic Church in Australia has been overwhelmingly influenced by Irish Catholicism. Irish immigrants, whether in convict chains or in soft cap or top hat, in nun's veil or priest's biretta, planted the Catholic faith to Australia. There can be no doubt about that.


            In spite of successive waves of immigration of Catholic people from many other countries, the Australian church has always been most influenced by Irish Catholicism.


            Outstanding among the qualities of the faith in Australia, especially in earlier days but even up till Vatican II, was the people's tenacious hold of the Catholic faith as best they knew and loved it in face of extreme hardships.


            They were loyal to the pope as head of the universal Church, to their local bishop and especially to their priests, when many of their fellow immigrants esteemed Roman clerics as the lowest form of life.


            They were faithful to the Blessed Sacrament. They had an unerring Catholic sense that it was the Mass that mattered.


            They courageously and often heroically supported Catholic education for their Australian children as opposed to the Government's policy, especially after 1900, of free, compulsory and secular education.


            Their intense personal piety was essentially their faith put into practice.


            These are some of the qualities of Irish faith that formed the foundations of the Australian Church. In our own times, these qualities have suffered decline and need to be revitalized.


            The face of the Catholic Church in Australia reflects no longer the map of Ireland but rather the map of the world, especially the map of Asia. When we celebrate Mass in the parishes of South West Sydney, we play a little game, not of “Spot the Aussie”, but of “Spot the Anglo Celt”.


            The point of Australia Day is that all who are present are proudly Aussies, and all are making their own contribution to the qualities of the Catholic Church in Australia. They are not the future Church. They are the Church of today.


            Let us praise and thank God today for Australia’s past and present. Let us pray that all Catholics will play a more vital salvific role in the development of the Catholic Church and of Australia.