Seek the Lord while He is still to be found - 160th Anniversary of St Michael's Campbell Town

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As I drive into Campbell Town I notice a sign that declares that this town is the ‘heart of Tasmania’. It is now the regular stopping place for travellers on the Midland Highway. Set in the midst of wide and open pastures, and guarded by mountains to the west and east, it can rightly claim this title.

A century and a half ago this area was a busy and developing farming area. Estates were being opened and grand country houses were being built. The Catholics living in this area, however, were largely of convict stock, many having ticket-of-leave status. They did not own but rather worked on the great estates. They were poor and felt themselves second-class citizens.

The first Catholic bishop of Tasmania, Bishop Willson, interceded with the government on behalf of his poor and desperate flock. He appealed for assistance from the government to pay for a convict chaplain and provide a church for the Catholics in this area.

Nearby in Ross, Catholics were using disused convict buildings for Sunday Mass, but nothing was available except the soldiers’ mess hall for Mass in Campbell Town. The bishop was offered some land but it was too far out of town. He appealed for some land closer to the town centre. He wanted something just off the main street. He finally prevailed and this land on which we stand today was granted to the Catholic community.

It must have been a grand day, June 25, 1856, when the bishop rode on horseback from Hobart and, accompanied by no less than six priests, laid the foundation stone to St Michael’s Church. He said that that this church was going to be “one of the most perfect specimens of the early English architecture in this colony”.

This parish at the time had the services of Fr John Fitzgerald, the first native Tasmanian to be ordained. He served this district from July 1855 until 1863.

Today we recall the history of this church and remember the struggles of our forebears in the faith to establish the presence the Catholic Church in this new colony and up here in the midlands.

Now this parish covers a large part of the centre of Tasmania. The parish priest looks after churches at Campbell Town, Ross, Oatlands, Tunnack and Swansea. It is a vast area and thinly populated. Numbers of practicing Catholics are small. But in the person of the priest the Church is here among the people. A priest is available to serve the spiritual needs of the Catholic community and he is a Christian presence in the broader community.

Pope Francis has reminded us that the Church needs to be among the people. A shepherd needs to be in the midst of the sheep. It is important for the Church here in Tasmania to continue its presence in the small and isolated communities, lest the people feel deserted. This is my personal concern, as it was the concern of Bishop Willson.

As we gather in St Michael’s Church today we are reminded that the church building is the place where the Mass and sacraments can be suitably celebrated. Bishop Willson gave great attention to the design of churches here in Tasmania. He has left us a rich heritage of churches builit in Neo-Gothic design, a design which he considered most suited to Catholic worship.

The sanctuary area was the most important part of the Church. In past times, the sanctuary was separated by a rood screen and there were strict rules as to who could enter the sanctuary area. It was a holy place where the sacred mysteries were celebrated.

In former days, the average parishioner came to attend Mass, or “hear Mass”, as they often said. It was to be present at a sacred rite which was ancient and mysterious. The Latin language and long periods of silence fostered a spirit of reverence and awe. Even receiving Holy Communion was seen as a rare privilege and approaching the altar rails was done with deep devotion. People would fast from midnight.

The church building expressed the Catholic faith through its stained glass windows and statues. The Stations of the Cross reminded each one of the sufferings of Christ. Images of the Virgin Mary and the Sacred Heart cultivated devotional practices like saying the rosary and the practice of the nine First Fridays. Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament was a weekly event.

People were silent in the church. No one would dare to talk. It was the house of God, a holy place. It was a place where one came to pray. It was a place where one was transported into another world: the world of faith, the world of the Spirit.

The church attracted much loving devotion. Altar linens were washed and starched each week. Flowers were brought and carefully arranged. Bells were rung at sacred moments. Incense wafted through the rafters. Altar servers attended the priest and answered the responses on behalf of the people.

The Catholic faith was fully evident in these beautiful and simple churches made of local stone. On Sundays the community would come from local towns and from farms round about. They would greet one another as they arrived and make their way into the church. Afterwards they would stand around and talk as the children played. People would wear their Sunday best. Mass on Sunday morning was an important occasion each week and the centre of the day of rest. If there was not a picnic in the church grounds, the families would return home for the Sunday lunch.

In the first reading today we heard from the prophet Isaiah: “Seek the Lord while he is still to be found, call to him while he is still near.” A church is a special place to seek the Lord. Gathering in a church is principally a time for the community of believers to seek the Lord. Thus, the church is a place of prayer, of silence, of reflection. The Mass offers us a chance to listen attentively to the Word of God. Then following the Eucharistic Prayer we approach the altar to receive Holy Communion. And this is what happens: we are brought into a holy communion with the risen Lord Jesus Christ. We have sought the Lord and He is found.

Today our minds go back to former days. We think of the early Catholics in Campbell Town. St Michael’s church was where their faith was nourished and encouraged. May this simple, beautiful church long be a place where Catholics will come to seek the Lord while he is still to be found.

Archbishop Julian Porteous
Saturday, September 16, 2017