Detail from St Patrick's Church Hill, Sydney
On Christmas Eve, I went to a Vigil Mass at a very old church, St Patrick’s at Church Hill in The Rocks, the earliest part of Sydney, a neighbourhood built with convict slave labour. What happened was astonishing.
The church seats a few hundred people and I’d guess that over a thousand turned up. Five priests celebrated Mass and at communion one moved out onto the street to give communion to the hundreds of people who couldn’t get in. Quite amazing to think of this happening in the heart of the Sydney CBD. Sydney is not a little country town!
One of the priests giving communion inside the Church ran out of hosts. There were lots of carols, which everyone heartily joined in singing, and, likewise, in the offering of the sign of peace. At the end of Mass, the congregation burst into a standing ovation as they finished singing the recessional carol, “Joy to the World”.
I saw what unfolded throughout this liturgy as an extraordinary demonstration that people are still spiritual, but in a lot of cases can’t find an avenue through which to experience or express it.
The statistics in Australia are that only around 6 percent of Catholics go to Mass on a regular basis. Apart from other factors, the sexual abuse scandal in Australia has been appalling. So many abuser priests and so many children seriously harmed has disgusted, one hopes, all Catholics, let alone the rest of the nation. That response has been reinforced by what can seem like a relentless and ongoing campaign against an archbishop and a cardinal by people who can appear to have strong anti-Catholic sentiments and who include some police, judges and media.
This is not meant in any way to excuse or deny the horrors of the sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy. Rather, it’s to suggest that, while we must mourn and make reparation for those abominations, what I experienced on Christmas Eve indicates that the Church, necessarily reformed to prevent any such tragedies in the future, still has an important and unique role to play in the lives of individuals and society as a whole.
The Christmas Eve Vigil Mass was a spontaneous, powerful display that people still want – and need – the Church, and when its doctrines are sensitively and empathetically presented, as is always the case at St Patrick’s, will participate in its rituals.
The sermon by the wonderful Parish Priest, Father Michael Whelan, delivered the advice that we need to accept that Christmas can be “messy” as well as being wonderful. He explained that this messiness – that even Christmas is not all sweetness and light, that we experience conflicts within our families and so on — is part of being human and was also true for Jesus.
May the Church take to heart an important lesson from the mess it has been in with the child abuse scandal and in other respects, learn from these and move through them to find a new integrity that its followers – and others – will find compelling in the New Year 2019.
Margaret Somerville is professor of bioethics in the school of medicine at the University of Notre Dame Australia.