Bishop Donal McKeown homily for RTE Christmas Day Mass in Sydney

25 Dec 2006



RTÉ Christmas Day Mass – 25th December 2006

Hyde Park Barracks Museum, Sydney, Australia

Bishop Donal McKeown

I’ve always wanted to come to Australia and – on my first visit here – it is a great pleasure to welcome you to this celebration today. I greet you who are here – in a particular way Minister Reba Meagher representing the Premier of New South Wales – and those of you who are joining us on television. It is still night time for you in Ireland, though it is already mid morning for us in Sydney. But wherever you are, it is Christmas.

We begin our Christmas liturgy:
 In ainm an Athar agus an Mhic agus an Spioraid Naoimh.

As we celebrate the mystery of Emmanuel, God with us, we are invited to acknowledge that, in our lives and our world, there is much need of healing, forgiveness and new hope.

This great country of Australia brims with energy, youthfulness and opportunity. That energy was evident when Sydney hosted the Olympics with great success and panache. This is a nation, aware of it past and confident about the future. It is a rich and varied land and at the beginning of our celebration we were welcomed by representatives of those peoples who had lived here for 30,000 years before the arrival of the Europeans little more than two centuries ago. Since then so many have come here from Ireland for various reasons and the different waves of Irish and their descendants have been making their own unique contributions to the building this nation. Those here today – whatever generation they belong to – can proudly take their place among Australia’s 20 million inhabitants who now represent most of the world’s peoples and languages.

We celebrate this Christmas Mass from a building, which has seen its fair share of Irish over the years. Initially Hyde Park Barracks was built to house convicts, including some of the 40,000 from our shores who were trabnsported here, often for the most minor of offences. Then in the years following the Famine of the late 1840s, An Gorta Mór, it served as a temporary home for thousands of orphan girls, brought here to an uncertain future in a new land. Most of them were no older than the members of our choir this morning from St Mary’s Cathedral just across the road. It is hard to imagine the experience of those famine orphans for whom this was their first home in this strange land. They came here with a terrible experience of displacement in their lives – the horrors of famine and bereavement, the four month voyage across the oceans, and then having to face the future without parents or family to offer support and love. Those girls had their dreams but they must have cried themselves to sleep on more than a few occasions. It may have been lonely round the fields of Athenry – but, walking round this powerful place yesterday, I sensed how it still echoes with the lonely voices and silent tears of those who, within these walls, first sought to stitch together the scattered fragments of their lives.  The powerful Famine Monument continues to evoke something of that experience. It is not surprising that Hyde Park Barracks has become an important and evocative gathering place for the Irish of Sydney.

Of course, in every generation, people still struggle with terrible trauma. But, then as now, so many have survived and thrived because the human spirit is capable of great resilience. Those who have a ‘why’ for living can survive almost any ‘how’.  In our search for the ‘why’, Christmas starts with the alluring mystery that is concealed in a newborn baby. And then that little figure invites us to come in and look more deeply. After all, for Christians, the Bethlehem baby is not just a cute figure in a clean manger, a sort of holy Disneyworld. For people of faith the Christmas story is a strange assertion that God, who created each of in his image and likeness, still loves this world so much that he was prepared to send his Son to be in solidarity with the human race – a race that has shown itself capable of both great goodness and great stupidity. This perennial story challenges us to embrace that human reality in all its beauty and messiness. The baby of Bethlehem reminds us that he was born far from his parents’ hometown and would soon suffer exile in Egypt – and yet something beautiful was revealed, not at the centre but at the edge of things. The Christmas story invites us to believe in a strange comforting and yet uncomfortable God who continues to believe in people, particularly those who feel most in the wilderness.

At a critical time in the history of our culture and our world, we are conscious of the reality of violence, greed and a frightening capacity to destroy all that we hold dear. Many hearts feel the pain of loneliness all the more acutely at Christmas. Those who suffered from the Famine in Ireland had to struggle to find meaning in the midst of loss and chaos. The men and women who passed through this site challenge us to believe in the future despite the past, to have a wisdom that can grow in the harsh soil of apparent failure and pain.  The baby of Bethlehem offers a ‘why’ for the struggle to work to heal the broken hearts of the world. That child dares us to dream of a world where we discover that love is stronger than hate, where we can celebrate our common humanity and feel enriched by our great diversity.

Perhaps it is not surprising that this bustling city of Sydney has been chosen as the venue for the next World Youth Day. Following in the footsteps of other great cities like Paris, Denver, Manila, Rome, Toronto, and Cologne it will welcome hundreds of thousands of young people from all around the world in July 2008 for a festival of music, prayer, celebration and challenge.

As a teacher for over twenty years I know that young people today are as generous and idealistic as young people in any previous generation. They respond to goodness and challenges with great generosity.  The theme of the 2008 World Youth Day is “You will be my witnesses”. It is an invitation from the insignificant one who was born in Bethlehem to decide what we want to be witnesses for. Do we want to stand for the possibility of love, forgiveness, faithfulness and solidarity? Or do we really stand for nothing much and risk falling for almost anything? Do we reaffirm here today that the small and vulnerable might be more powerful than the fit and strong? Or is the God corner just something that is located in the back shed of our lives, far from the loud voices in the main house? The smile from the crib and the voices that echo round these walls still ask us to seek integrity in our lives, wisdom and not just knowledge, solidarity with those in pain and not just charity to them. The names on the Famine Memorial here remind us that – today as in every generation – we are asked to relate to people, not just to statistics, to believe that the baby of Bethlehem has embraced every human heart.

Ireland is now seeking a new identity, after centuries of comparative poverty and suffering. That is only right. But our celebration here this morning invites us – as we seek that new identity – to be in solidarity with the past, its pain and its successes. However, those trapped by the past cannot see beyond the walls of their prison. It is those who are at peace with their past who are best able to construct a future. And the new Ireland will be a really attractive country for people from other lands if we can offer them a welcome and not just a job, a handshake and not just a pay packet. Perhaps the people of Australia can give us some advice in that respect.

 Today, as thousands gather round cribs across the world, we are all invited to be silent before the great mysteries of life – love, beauty, generosity and grace. Christmas will remain a feast of the Christ if it reminds us to seek, not just things to live by, but a reason to live for.  The baby of Bethlehem welcomes us with open arms, wherever we are on the journey. And he asks us if we really believe that giving glory to God in the highest is intimately linked to giving peace to all his people on earth.

Introduction to Creed
On this Christmas Day we renew our faith in the God who continues to have enormous faith in us. We believe….

Prayer of the Faithful

God made us in his image and likeness and offers to renew us in Jesus, who took on our human image and likeness. With confidence in Emmanuel – God with us -we bring our prayers.


Father of peace, help us by our lives to be bearers of hope and Good News as we celebrate your Son’s birth. These prayers we make through the same Christ our brother and our Lord.

Introduction to the Sign of Peace

Some of you at home will be with other people. Others of you will be on your own. Whatever your circumstances, that peace of Christ is offered to you. May you know it in your heart this Christmas. Here in Sydney we offer each other a sign of that peace.

President’s intro

I am especially delighted and honoured that President Mary McAleese has sent a greeting to all of here today. It is my pleasure to introduce Máire Mhic Giolla Íosa, Uachtarán na hÉireann.

Go raibh míle maith agat, a Uachtaráin, as na focail sin dúinn. All of us here in Sydney wish you, Martin and the family a most enjoyable Christmas. Slán agus beannacht.

Final Blessing

concluding with

Agus go mbeannaí Dia uilechumhachtach sibh, Athair, Mac agus Spiorad Naomh.

The Mass is ended. Go in peace to love, proclaim and serve the Lord.
All: Thanks be to God.