In over seven years as a parish mission preacher I have never had an opportunity like this one, to be one of the first missionaries from our religious community to preach in a new land, the land Down Under. You can only imagine my excitement when our Mission Director, Fr. David Wilton, asked me if I would like to lead our inaugural mission trip to this beautiful land that most Americans only know from Crocodile Dundee and The Crocodile Hunter (Steve Irwin). Since airfare to Australia is so expensive (it runs around $1,500 each, and that is if you buy tickets far in advance of your trip), Fr. David had told the priest organizing the missions, Fr. Peter Austin (Parish Priest of St. Joseph’s Parish, Rochester, Victoria) that we would need to have four to six missions lined up in order to cover our costs and Fr. Austin delivered. Six parish missions were lined up: Fr. Austin’s parish (which is in the Diocese of Sandhurst) plus five parishes in the Archdiocese of Melbourne.
On May 1st, Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, Father Tom Sullivan and I flew out of Nashville on our way to Melbourne. It was the longest day of travel in my entire life over 24 hours, including a 15 hour flight from Los Angeles to Melbourne. After clearing customs in Melbourne, Fr. Austin drove us two hours north to stay (and recover) at his Presbytery in Rochester. Fr. Tom was to begin his missions there at St. Joseph’s; I was to return to Melbourne for my three missions.
My first mission was for the parishes of St. Paul’s, Kealba (for the morning session) and Blessed Mary MacKillop, Keilor Downs (for the evening session). The Parish Priest of these two parishes is a wonderful man named Fr. Charles Portelli (he is assisted by Fr. John O’Connor). Fr. Portelli was born in Malta, but grew up in Melbourne; he served for five years as Master of Ceremonies for then Archbishop George Pell and is largely responsible for the restoration work done at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne. The parish church of Blessed Mary MacKillop is quite interesting: it doesn’t look like much on the outside, but it is very beautiful on the inside a true testimony to what can be done on a shoe-string budget — that just because a parish is poor does not mean that it cannot be beautiful. It is also the ONLY Catholic Church in the entire world that is named after Blessed Mary MacKillop, a very holy woman who is the first (and so far the only) Australian to be raised to the altars. Our mission for these two parishes had a wonderful attendance of 500 600 each day, Sunday through Wednesday the Australians are truly hungry for the truth of the Gospel would that we had many more men to send there to proclaim the Mercy of God and bring the Australian people back to a full living of the Gospel message! On Thursday, Archbishop Denis Hart came to celebrate the closing Mass of the Mission and to consecrate all of the families of Blessed Mary MacKillop and St. Paul’s to the maternal protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary under the title of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. This is the first time that a bishop has celebrated the Solemn Close of a Mission in my seven years as a parish mission preacher. Archbishop Hart also blessed 2,000 icons of Our Lady of Perpetual Help which had been especially prepared for the occasion, and Father Portelli told the people that he expects to see them in a prominent place in their homes when he goes to visit the families of the parish. It was an outstanding mission, and one that I am not likely to ever forget.
My second mission was in a different section of Melbourne, at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Mill Park. I truly enjoyed getting to know the Parish Priest, Fr. Brendan Lane and his new assistant, Fr. Arsenio (from the Phillipines). The turnout at Mill Park was disappointing (150 200 people per day), but I was able to speak to the school children on two occasions, including talking to the Confirmation class about the incredible graces of that sacrament, which is so misunderstood and neglected today. Fr. Lane is in his mid-sixties, and I am in my mid-thirties, but Fr. Lane put me to shame when we went out hiking together to see Kangaroos! — real, live, wild kangaroos; living in a city park that is up in the Quarry Hills on the borders of the parish.
After our second week of preaching missions, Father Portelli and Father Austin took Father Tom and I on a one-day trip up to Sydney (we flew; Sydney is around 600 miles from Melbourne) our purpose: to meet George Cardinal Pell, Archbishop of Sydney. Before meeting Cardinal Pell, we had lunch on the waterfront, in view of the famous Sydney Opera House; we then went to visit Old St. Patrick’s Church, the site of a Eucharistic Miracle in the early 1800s, and the Shrine of Blessed Mary MacKillop (I decided that I really like Mary MacKillop her mother’s maiden name is Cameron, which is my last name). We then visited St. Mary’s Cathedral-Basilica and then were privileged to meet with Cardinal Pell for 45 minutes. He was very interested in learning about our community and our mission work all of the religious communities that used to give missions in Australia have either died out or have gone liberal and to hear also the reflections of our two hosts, Fathers Portelli and Austin, who had both studied under Pell when he was Rector of the Seminary in Melbourne.
My third and final parish mission was held at Sts. Patrick and Holy Angels Parish in Mentone; Fr. John Walshe is the Parish Priest. This parish was very different from the others: most parishes in Melbourne had a practice of General Absolution (the so-called Third Rite of Reconciliation) until Cardinal Pell became Archbishop in 1995 Sts. Patrick and Holy Angels NEVER had General Absolution, and therefore, the people had never been taught the falsehood that you don’t have to go to confession anymore. I found that a good number of the parishioners in Mentone are already in the habit of going to confession every month, which every Catholic should be doing. How easy it is to become blinded by our bad habits of sin if we do not confess them regularly! How great are the graces and the Mercy of our God that we fail to receive when we do not confess! We had a wonderful mission in Mentone with around 500 people attending every evening, plus several hundred children attended the Children’s Mission Monday through Wednesday evenings. This practice of having a special mission, rather than merely providing childcare, for the children was a wonderful addition to the mission that I have never seen before.
After the missions were over, I returned to Rochester to spend a few days resting and getting in some well-earned (at least I hope it was) recreation. Father Austin and I visited the port city of Echuca on the Murray River and rode one of the old paddle-steamers there. Following the weekend Masses at Rochester, Father Austin, Father Brian Kerry (another good priest in the Sandhurst diocese) and I took a long drive up into the Great Dividing Range — the mountain chain that runs down the entire length of the eastern part of Australia, which separates the coastal areas (where most of the people live) from the Outback. Our goal was to visit the town of Corryong and to learn more about the Man from Snowy River, which is the subject of one of my favorite movies and is the title of the most famous Australian poem. We were able to visit the grave of Jack Riley (The Man From Snowy River) and to learn about his famous ride down the mountain after a wild stallion. We also learned that Riley was an Irish Catholic immigrant who lived high up in the Snowy Mountains, seldom coming down to the settled areas, but when he was near death, he was assisted by an Australian priest who was himself a famous poet who wrote under the pseudonym of John O’Brien. It was a beautiful ending to a beautiful story.
Well, dear friends, my story is coming to an end, but there is hope for a sequel: we have been invited to go back to Australia, this time to preach 12 missions in the late spring (for them it is the late fall) of 2007. Please continue to pray that God, the Master of the Harvest, will grant us many holy vocations to the priesthood in our religious community, so that we may bring as many souls as possible to know the Infinite Mercy and Love of our God and Father, through His Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, in the Unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen!