Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP,
29 May 2017

I acknowledge and welcome from the Muslim Community: Your Eminence Dr Ibrahim Abu Mohammed, Grand Mufti of Australia; Your Excellency Sheikh Kamal Moselmane, Chair of the Supreme Shiite Islamic Council of Australia; Mr Khaled Sukkarieh, Chair of Islamic Council of NSW; Mr Samier Dandan, President of the Lebanese Muslim Association; Mr Ahmet Polat, CEO of the Affinity Intercultural Foundation; and other leaders or representatives of the Muslim Community;

From the Jewish Community: Dr Benjamin Elton, Chief Rabbi of the Great Synagogue of Sydney; Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins, Senior Rabbi of the Emanuel Synagogue and Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio, also from the Emanuel Synagogue, Woollahra; Mr Peter Wertheim, Executive Director of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry; Mr Jeremy Spinak, President of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies; and other Jewish Community leaders or representatives;

From other faith traditions: Rev. Pravrajika Gayatriprana, President of the RSV Hindu Society; Rev. Shigenobu Watanabe, Minister of the Hongwanji Buddhist Mission of Australia; Mr Bawa Singh Jagdev, Secretary of the National Sikh Council of Australia; and representatives of other major faith communities;

From the Christian Churches: Very Rev. Kyrillos Zisis, representing the Greek Orthodox Church; Mr Emil Dan, of the Antiochian Orthodox Church; Rev. Avedis Hambardzumyan, representing the Armenian Apostolic Church; Rev. Myung Hwa Park, Moderator of the Uniting Church Synod of NSW-ACT; Mr Jolyon Bromley, Chair of the NSW Council of Christians and Jews; Rev. Dr Manas Ghosh from the NSW Ecumenical Council; and other leaders or representatives of the Christian Churches;

From the Catholic Church: the delightful and indomitable Sr Giovanni Farquar RSM, Director of the Commission for Ecumenism and Inter-religious Relations for the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney; Very Rev. Marcelino Youssef, Vicar General of the Maronite Catholic Diocese of St Maroun; Rev. Melhem Haikal, representing the Melkite Greek-Catholic Eparchy; Most Rev. Anthony Randazzo and Most Rev. Richard Umbers, Auxiliary Bishops of the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney; Mr Chris Meney, Chancellor of the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney; and other clergy, religious and lay people representing the Catholic Church;

From civil society I recognise: Mrs Elsie Heiss, Wiradjuri Elder and a dear friend, and with her I acknowledge the elders past and present of the Cammeraygal clan of the Eora nation and thank them for their custodianship of the land on which we meet; Hon. Ray Williams MP, Minister for Multiculturalism and Minister for Disability Services, in the State of NSW; Mr Stepan Kerkyasharian, long time President of the Anti-Discrimination Board and Chair of the Community Relations Commission, still a leader in many sectors; Mr John McCarthy QC, Former Ambassador for Australia to the Vatican; and other leaders and representatives of the media and other sectors of our community;

  • And finally, I acknowledge our hosts tonight here at the tomb of Australia's first recognised saint, Mary of the Cross MacKillop: her daughters Sr Marion Gambin RSJ and Sr Louise Reeves RSJ, Members of the Congregational Leadership Team of the Sisters of St Joseph, representing Sr Monica Cavanagh, the Congregational Leader; Sr Colleen Keeble RSJ, the Director Operations here at Mary MacKillop Place; other Sisters of St Joseph; and of course Sr Giovanni, herself a former Provincial of that great Congregation;

It is a great privilege to host this annual dinner. It is unusual in not being at St Mary's Cathedral House which is presently undergoing renovations: I look forward to inviting you all back to my place next year. But in the meantime we are gathered at what is a very holy place for Catholic Christians here in Australia, because it is the former home and final resting place of our beloved Mary MacKillop. Mary was herself ahead of her time in her openness to receiving children of all faiths into her little bush schools and the emerging system of city parish schools. That leaders and representatives of all major faith traditions could gather to celebrate Iftar or Fatoor, the break-fast of this day of the Muslim holy season of Ramadan, is a tribute to the kind of country Australia is. As St. Teresa of Avila once said, keeping company with God's friends is a good way of keeping near to God Himself; I am grateful to you all for that company tonight.

On his recent visit to Egypt, Pope Francis spoke of how our faiths offer a vision of the human person, which finds its fulfilment in relationship, both with God and with other persons, and thus encourages that conversation with God that is called prayer, and that conversation with our fellows that is called dialogue. The marks of true dialogue, His Holiness noted, are: first, respect for one's own identity and that of others; second, the courage to accept differences; and third, sincerity of intentions. The first of these means that we do not seek to conform ourselves to others, nor do we expect others to conform themselves with us. True dialogue can only begin when we all respect ourselves and each other. Genuine conversation allows that the other person may think differently to me.

In our world today such conversation can sometimes be very difficult: it can be so much easier to focus on the differences and complain about them, as if somehow the world would be problem-free if only everyone thought the same as me about everything. But Pope Francis suggested that such an aspiration is cowardice: real courage, on the other hand, admits of difference and is strong enough to work together despite the differences, celebrating what we have in common and even celebrating the differences. And to do this, His Holiness continued, we must have sincerity of intentions: just as Socrates asked his interlocutors to tell him only what they truly believed, so too must our dialogue be sincere, more than mere lip-service or diplomatic posturing.

Nearly ten years ago, during World Youth Day 2008 here in Sydney, Pope Benedict XVI spoke at an interfaith gathering and suggested that the friendship between faiths demonstrated here tonight, is "all the more important at a time when some people have come to consider religion as a cause of division rather than a force for unity", and indeed some people use it as such a divisive force. True faith, the Holy Father thought, can be a force for healing divisions, and for that friendship that comes of rectifying such discords, and for that peace that flows from true friendship. Today, more than ever, we need that genuine dialogue if we are to know friendship and peace. The endless series of horrors in the Middle East, such as the bus load of Coptic Christians slaughtered this week past apparently in reprisal for the Pope having been invited to speak in Egypt, the continuing violence and persecution of minorities, the poor and the powerless, all cry out to heaven for healing of division, building of friendships, and making of peace.

In Australia we do not face the worst challenges of places like Syria, Iraq and beyond today, though the recent atrocity in Manchester reminds us that nowhere is exempt, even those places where little girls gather to hear music. Ours is a remarkably cohesive society, in which people can be neighbours to each other whatever their religious backgrounds, schoolmates, workmates, friends. But we must not be naïve in assuming this is everyone's experience, or all the time, or will always be so if we neglect to work at it. There are those who would seek to divide us, such as the Isis website that earlier this year threatened my dear friend the Mufti for the terrible crime of being friendly to Christians and having his photo taken with the Catholic Archbishop. I honour his courage in continuing to lead in such circumstances. The challenge of Interreligious Dialogue to which Pope Francis spoke so recently in Egypt, is a challenge as much for us as it is for those who live in distant lands. And we face two additional challenges, not so prevalent in those communities…

First, we often face a kind of relativism regarding faith and morals or indifference to traditional religion and ethics, which means we sometimes lack the kind of shared morality which is the premise for collaboration of various kinds, which is essential if children are to grow up well and adults to have direction in life, and without which our community cannot sustain crucial institutions such as marriage and the family. Only this past month we faced off an attempt to legalise abortion even of full-term babies and for any reason at all and to require all health professionals to co-operate in it; and Australia's greatest female tennis player, who is also a Christian pastor, has been vilified for choosing not to fly with an airline that is campaigning for same-sex marriage.

Secondly, we are challenged by a kind of anti-religious 'religion', a dogmatism that would exclude faith from culture, society and polity, that belittles those who believe, and insidiously infects even believers with certain secularist assumptions, such as the primacy of individual preferences over God and our God-given nature, over duty, loyalty, honour, integrity, truth. We may increasingly have to stand up for the right to educate our children according to our faith and values, to run our charities accordingly, and to live our public and private lives as people of faith without threat from those who would seek to force us to act contrary to our religious or moral conscience.

These are big challenges, but they are challenges we can and I believe we will face together as believers. We must continue to work, individually and together, to make this country a model of respectful dialogue, genuine friendship and lasting peace. If our brothers and sisters suffering elsewhere in the world for their race or religion are to be relieved, it must begin with us, repudiating all hatred and violence, showing our world a better way to live. If our brothers and sisters facing challenges even here in Australia for their faith are to be encouraged, we must show our community how reverence for God and the things of God is the surest way to a truly happy life rather than a confined one, and helps build up a good community rather than dividing it. And so tonight and always we salute each other, Al-salāmu 'alaykum, peace be with you, and pray to God for that peace which is beyond all human understanding or achieving. And we affirm in common: God, the Holy, the Divine, the All Powerful, the All Merciful, wants peace and friendship among us.

So I thank you all tonight for your friendship, and for that genuine conversation that it both produces and allows. Together we can change the rhetoric of division to the reality of community. Your presence here tonight is testament to that.