Raising St Patrick’s Cathedral catalyst for unity

Silver Jubilee St Patrick’s Cathedral Rebuilding Reflection
The rebuilt St Patrick’s Cathedral was blessed and opened on 29 November 2003. Photo: Hamilton Lund

By Most Rev Kevin Manning DD, Bishop Emeritus of Parramatta

In responding to an invitation to write ‘something’ about the 25th Anniversary of the Catholic Diocese of Parramatta, I had to restrain myself from writing solely about the rebuilding of St Patrick’s Cathedral, which had been destroyed by fire in February 1996, 10 years after it had become the Cathedral Church of the new Diocese.

But then I remembered that the purpose of sacred architecture is to offer the Church a fitting space for the celebration of the mysteries of faith, especially the Eucharist.

And I also recalled that it was the Christian faith which inspired artistic creations, the most elevated of a whole civilisation: the cathedrals which were a renewal, a rebirth, an upward surge, and an invitation to prayer.

As Pope Benedict XVI said, the Christian faith “inspired one of the loftiest expressions of universal civilisation: the Cathedral, the true glory of the Christian Middle Ages” (General Audience November 15, 2009).

It was not without a sense of trepidation that I came, in 1997, from a safe haven in Armidale, where I had spent six very happy years, to Murphy House, which abuts St Patrick’s Cathedral, and which was considered somewhat of a fish bowl whence the local clergy might study and assess the new bishop. My predecessor, Bishop Bede Heather had resided at Blacktown – a safe enough distance from the Cathedral!

The welcome by the people of Parramatta was overwhelming and enduring and totally supported by the local Council whose support continued throughout my 13 years in the city.

In no time I was involved in a regular Sunday night dialogue with 15 young people and invited guests from time-to-time, discussing the world’s problems. These gatherings continued during my time in Parramatta and many of these young people now form a solid, educated, and dedicated Catholic nucleus in the Cathedral Parish.

From this initiative I was introduced into the Catholic/Muslim dialogue, which enriched my life and that of many others. Firm friendships were formed and prejudices overcome, through meetings in churches, mosques and homes, especially during the observance of Ramadan.

I treasure the Kahlil Gibran Award I received from the Arabic Heritage League and the inaugural Australian Affinity Award for Interfaith Dialogue.

One of the richest aspects of the Diocese is its multicultural nature – a veritable United Nations without the political and nationalistic elements, but bound together in a living Christian charity.

The Diocese is privileged with its institutions: the Catholic Education Office, with its openness to new ways of education; the Institute for Mission with its outreach to, and embracing of, all sections of the community, extending their knowledge of, and adherence to the Church; and the Seminary of the Holy Spirit, training young men in the environment in which they will work as priests.

Parramatta boasts major assets in her directors of the various agencies which make up the administration of the Diocese; Justice and Peace, Ecumenism, Liturgy, Prison Chaplains, Catholic Charismatic Renewal, Catholic Commission for Employment Relations, Young Christian Workers among them. It was a pleasure to work with such dedicated people.

The rebuilding of St Patrick’s Cathedral was the catalyst for uniting the people of the Diocese who came from the different parishes to help with fundraising and planning. This gave them a common goal and a sense of belonging to the Diocese.

Our approach to the rebuilding was animated by a sense of sharing and energy and a conviction that the Cathedral would be a place where the living community would worship the living God, and open itself to the city of which it was part, but from which it would stand apart.