I’ve recently arrived in Australia to take up a new teaching position at the University of Notre Dame Australia. This is my first visit, so the first few days in Sydney (I’ll eventually move on to Perth) have been full of first impressions.
Our editor suggested I write about why I took this position at my advancing age. But 45 years ago as a first-year cadet at the Air Force Academy (a “doolie,” from the Greek doulos or slave), I was trained always to answer “why” questions with a sharp “No excuse, sir/ma’am.”
That won’t fill a column. So I’ll stick with my first impressions.
First, the trip itself: it’s very long. This may seem obvious from glancing at the globe, but to understand it viscerally from experience is a different matter. The pope says time is more important than space, but the distance on this voyage made me wonder. The two are closely related, of course. A long way takes a long time. But you can sit still for a long time and go nowhere. You can’t go halfway around the world in no time.
And the idea of coming from England or Ireland to these shores on a ship begins to seem even further beyond my imagination than ever before.
For some reason, that beyond-imagining makes the accomplishments of those who undertook that journey, voluntarily or with a non-declinable invitation from His/Her Majesty’s Government, stand out very prominently. When I look at the Sydney Harbor Bridge, or St. Mary Cathedral in the Gothic style, or the city’s modern skyline, they strike me as European-Western in design and heritage but somehow more remarkable for their coming-to-be so far from those cultural roots.
On my first walk, I made what is apparently a standard rookie mistake, thinking that I had happened on an example of Australia’s exotic wildlife right in the city, a bird with long legs and a long thin beak. This turned out to be an ibis, which for Australians is about as exotic as a pigeon. They are quite aggressive about stealing food from those dining al fresco.
Several people had warned me that Australia has many creatures, especially spiders, that will try to kill you. My usual response was that maybe that’s right, but I was coming from Washington, where many creatures try to kill your soul. There are hazards everywhere. Australians would have figured out how to deal with them, I assured myself. And so they have (better than Washingtonians).
Speaking of hazards, Australia is well-known for its tough approach on COVID. That has not stopped my attending Mass regularly, but it has complicated it a bit. Masks are mandatory here in the state of New South Wales, and you have to sign in and out of churches and other establishments using a smartphone app for “contact tracing.” (There’s a hard-copy paper option as well for those lucky few without smartphones.)
I had the good fortune to attend Mass at lovely St. Patrick Church Hill and St. Mary Cathedral in my first couple of days. St. Patrick and all the Irish saints show their reach in both places and in many Catholic churches here.
I decided to try a different church on Sunday. The first church I visited had a sign indicating the priests had been notified of a COVID contact, so Mass was cancelled.
I walked on to a second church which, as it turned out, was under the care of the same priests as the first church. So, no Mass there.
As I sat on a wall contemplating my options, all of which involved another long trek, an elderly woman walked up slowly and saw the cancellation notice. In a broad Australian accent, she said, cheerfully and without great concern, “Oh, well, back to streaming.”
There was in her voice a certain “stiff upper lip” tone that surely hearkened back to the British and Irish forebears of today’s Australians. They have been through a lot with COVID, like others around the world. They have seen exceptional restrictions that have been controversial and tiring.
But I thought I detected something more than mere resignation.
I suppose I looked both jet-lagged and a little forlorn, because she seemed to see in me a soul with whom she should share her cheerful acceptance. I asked her if there might be another Mass nearby. She suggested the cathedral, a little farther away than I was hoping for.
Maybe St. X, which wasn’t too far away?
She smiled, “Well,” she said, “Yes. I used to like the Mass there and the priest. But the new priest, well. . . .Everything changes.”
I didn’t ask her to elaborate on the liturgy at St. X.
But she paused a long moment and looked at me, and she seemed to be thinking about all that has changed in Sydney and the world and the Church not just since COVID hit, but over her entire life. Perhaps it had been a life that had seen a share of suffering, confusion at the stunning pace of change in recent years, and all that brings wisdom or defeat.
Her eyes took on a sparkle that assured me that for her, it was wisdom, not defeat.
She smiled and repeated, again in that great accent, “Everything changes. But if you’ve got your faith, it’s all right. You’ve got what you need.”
Some providential force restrained me from offering a discourse on the importance of both faith and works. She didn’t need it, of course – she had just done a good work for me with her simple words and smile. I headed back to St. Patrick’s.
Real Wisdom doesn’t change with time or space. And I have found much to love in Australia already.
You may also enjoy:
Helen Freeh’s Education in a Higher Key
Daniel Guernsey’s The Remedy for “Canceling” and Division: Catholic Education