When he arrived a week after the First Fleet and saw the foundations for the first Government House, Louis XVI’s explorer, Laperouse, famously said: “If my countrymen were to settle here, the first building they’d erect would be a church.” From the outset, religion and especially Christian religion, has had a strange history and a strained place in this land.
The Reverend Richard Johnson, an Anglican and official chaplain to the colony, had to wait more than a week before the settlers were ready for the first sermon. He had to wait a further five years for the first church: he got fed up waiting for the Government to get its act together and built one himself at considerable expense.
The simple fact is that governments in Australia show active disinterest in affairs of the soul. This puts them on a shaky foundation because we know the well-formed soul governs the whole person. Strangely, Arthur Phillip himself knew this when he instructed the same Reverend Johnson to preach on the prison hulks while they were still in Portsmouth: “Begin with moral subjects,” he instructed the cleric.
Because religious identity is ever going to be an exclusively-personal responsibility, we shall take heed and heart from the Lord’s Beatitudes. These blessings are not for Australia as such but for Australians, for it will not be the local Commonwealth which enters the Kingdom of Heaven but its sanctified members together with others from other nations.
It seems to be a very Australian thing to have a second cultural identity, to say, “I’m Australian and Chinese, or Polish, or Italian.” Many of you already very well celebrate this fact of your own life because of the richness in your own stories and heritages. It would be a very good discipline for people of my ethnicity to identify that second culture when thinking of how they live here. It may well improve our self-understanding and ready our compassion to say more often, “I’m Australian and a British mongrel.”
So, it will be Christians taking up their personal responsibility which makes a fair Australia advance. We can rejoice that many individuals have become people of the Beatitudes in their own lifetime. Laperouse’s chaplain celebrated the first Mass in these parts. Later, the Blessed Sacrament was reserved in the Dempsey family home when there was no priest here for almost a decade. One priest, Fr Ullathorne, taught the men on death-row simple prayers to say on their way to the gallows. And our saint, Mary MacKillop, provided for the needs of the poor with her sisters.
We ask the Lord to make each of us people of the Beatitudes: may he make us peacemakers and mercy-doers, satisfied justice-seekers and comforted as mourners, so that we in turn will bring the good news of these blessings to those among us who continue to suffer thus.
May our great country be truly blessed by God, so that our soul’s desire may be to please God and see good done to all, until we come at length to our true home, the eternal Kingdom, of which we are citizens by the grace of Christ, to whom be glory for ever. Amen.