Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP,
24 May 2017


Help of Christians. You might think Christian-helper is a funny sort of surname for Mary. After all, Christians get all sorts of help: from God the Father who created us and from God the Son who is Jesus and who redeemed us, and from God the Holy Spirit whom we call the Paraclete or Helper who inspires us. We get help from the Word of God, that is the Bible. We get help from the people of God, that is the Church. We get help from our parents, our priests and teachers, and lots of other places if we are Christians. So why does Mary have the surname Christian-helper in Australia?

Well, the story starts more than five hundred years ago. Things were really bad in Europe, because it was on the verge of being conquered by the Ottoman Empire. Many people feared that if that happened everyone would have to give up being Christian or else be imprisoned or killed. But a guy called Pius, a Dominican Bishop like me but much posher because he was also the Pope and a Saint, asked everyone in Europe to pray the Rosary, so Mary would ask her son to keep the Christian people safe. On 7 October 1571 a coalition of Catholic navies, led by Admiral John of Austria, met the Ottoman fleet at Lepanto. There were more than 400 big warships rowed by 80,000 sailors, with about 60,000 soldiers on board. It was the biggest naval battle in history and the last one using giant rowing boats: after this time the great sail ships were developed, then the steam ships, and nowadays diesel or nuclear powered ships. But back then it was man power.

Many people were convinced that the Christian navies and armies would lose, but Pius was confident that Our Lady would help. And so people prayed hard, they prayed the Rosary, and sure enough, the Christians won the battle. It was a turning point in the history of Europe that meant Christians would be free. So Pope St Pius V proclaimed the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary of Lepanto.

Fast-forward a quarter millennium and there was another invader in Europe, General Napoleon. He also wanted to enslave or stamp out the Catholic Church. And another Pope Pius - this time Pope Pius VII - called all Christians to pray the Rosary again. Again God gave decisive assistance. After Napoleon was defeated Pius VII returned to Rome on 24 May 1814, and gave Mary the new surname Help of Christians and a special celebration on the anniversary each year.

Now, that very same year a young priest called John Joseph Therry was ordained, and was sent out to be the Catholic chaplain to the Colony of New South Wales or Australia. He's buried under this church. Fr Therry knew that when the first Catholics came to Australia they were not allowed to have priests or Mass. Again, some people just wanted to get rid of them. And so yet again they prayed the Rosary to ask Mary to keep them faithful to Christ and hopeful about the future. So Fr Therry thought Mary's flash new surname and feast were just the thing for us Aussies! And so we named the first chapel on this site after her, and now our beautiful cathedral.

So it's a long and complicated but interesting story. But why did Pius V or Pius VII or Father Terry or their friends pray to Mary at all? Well, one good reason is she was and is close to Jesus; He is her son after all, and He listens to what His Mum asks! She is a great example to us of how to be good Christian disciples, how to always look for what is true and good and beautiful, and we should try and be and do that ourselves. And as we saw in our Gospel this morning (Jn 19:25-27), Jesus as He was dying on the Cross gave her to his mate John to look after and so to us to be our mother. We remember that when Jesus was captured and killed all his disciples ran away, even the twelve apostles. But the youngest guy John and His own Mum Mary stood by to watch as Jesus died. Mary was so good and so loving and so strong, that she wasn't going to run away from what was right; she wasn't going to let Jesus suffer alone.

Most Mums are like that, aren't they? When we fall they're there to pick us up; when we're sick, to look after us, and when we're sad, to comfort us. When a mother gets up out of bed in the middle of the night for the millionth time for her screaming baby, she probably doesn't feel very lovey-dovey, just exhausted; but she gets up out of sheer will-power, out of the loving that keeps on loving when the loving is hard, the loving that's acted out in a thousand little acts of love every day.

And if Jesus' Mum Mary won't let her Son down, she won't let us down either now she's our Mum too. That's why Christians have been praying to her for two thousand years, particularly when things have been tough. That's why we still pray to her for persecuted Christians in Africa, Asia and especially the Middle East right now. And so, when things are tough for us, it's natural that we turn to her for help, for a strong Mother's help.

Remember that, my young friends, in your life too. Remember that Mary loves you with a mother's heart and is always ready to listen to you and help you. If we turn to her like we turn to our own Mums and Dads, she'll be there, ready and waiting to comfort us, to give us all her love, and to get Jesus' help for us. So when you're sad, when you don't know what to do, ask your own mum; but also ask your spiritual Mum, Mary the Christian-helper.

Mary, Help of Christians: pray for us!



Welcome to this special Mass to celebrate the Feast of Our Lady Help of Christians, Patron Saint of Australia, of the Archdiocese of Sydney, and of this Basilica of St Mary.

I acknowledge Dr Dan White, Director of Catholic Schools, along with all the teachers and leaders of our Sydney Catholic Schools. In particular, I extend a very warm welcome to all students, from every primary school in the Archdiocese, both congregational and systemic. For some of you it may be your first visit to our cathedral, which is the mother church of Australia. This is your cathedral my young friends and you are always welcome here. Welcome to your cathedral on this Feast Day of St Mary, Help of Christians!