Homily for All Saints Day
1 November 2020
Readings: Rv 7:2-4,9-14; 1Jn 3:1-3; Ps 23:1-6; Mt 5:1-12
Today we celebrate All Saints Day. In the spirit of the Beatitudes, we express our joy today for having known those who have gone before us living faithful lives, being poor in spirit, being gentle and mourning, hungering and thirsting for what is right, being merciful and pure in heart, being peacemakers and persecuted in the cause of right, and being abused and vilified on account of their Lord. All of us have a catalogue of people who come to mind, including dearly departed parents and loved ones. None of them was perfect. But, especially in hindsight, we can see them for the saints they were and are today. They inspire us; they show us the way in the midst of the mess and complexity of our world and our lives; they intercede for us; and they are forever part of the communion of saints.
During the week, Archbishop Anthony Fisher observed: ‘As if the Catholic Church didn’t have enough saints – and it is estimated that it has recognized about 10,000 so far – it celebrates all the others as a job lot, and we assume that we are talking billions. All Saints is the festival of all who have gone to God, whether fêted or not. Is this just spiritually greedy? We already have an average of 29 saints to celebrate each day, which can make praying the Mass and Divine Office rather complicated.’
If you’re like me, you are not much given to close scrutiny of the entire saints calendar nor of the processes for canonising saints. But you are helped from time to time by the potted biographies you know of those who appear in the liturgical calendar. I take heart from the catalogue of Jesuit saints. If you’re keen you can find one of them for almost every day of the year. Here at Newman College, we now celebrate John Henry Newman as our patron saint. And we Australians take heart that the little Aussie battler Mary MacKillop has made it on to the approved list. We take heart that our departed loved ones who lived good lives now share the company of those like Newman and MacKillop.
I thought my disinterest in the canonisation processes justified when I read the Vatican press release of 24 September 2020: ‘Today, the Holy Father accepted the resignation from the office of Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and from the rights connected with the Cardinalate, presented by His Eminence Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu.’ Cardinal Becciu is drowning in a sea of allegations about suspect financial transactions. Just as no saint is perfect, I daresay no process for considering canonisation is perfect. And not every prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints is a model of sanctity. Having read the press release, I checked the details of the last papal audience enjoyed by Cardinal Becciu. It was on 11 July 2020 when ‘the Supreme Pontiff authorised the same Congregation to promulgate the decrees’ regarding various miracles and declarations of the heroic virtues of individuals whose causes for sainthood are being advanced. One of them is a Jesuit who died in Mexico in 1711. I daresay there is now some delay in his move towards canonisation.
On All Saints Day, we are not celebrating lives or processes of perfection. We are celebrating those who are blessed and whom we count as blessed, having lived amidst the mess and complexity of our world.
On Monday and Tuesday, we Victorians scored our first doughnuts since 6 March 2020 – zero new cases and zero COVID-19 deaths. We’ve endured a tough lockdown. We’ve done well. So have our leaders and their advisers. We thank God. We now celebrate our daily freedoms with renewed gratitude, taking nothing for granted. Through it all, some have hailed Premier Daniel Andrews as a perfect hero; others regard him as a deceitful villain. Like most of us, he is probably neither.
On Wednesday, our Prime Minister asked the Parliament to express its ‘thanks and gratitude to the people of Victoria for their extraordinary resilience, their determination, their patience and the care that they have shown for each other through what has been an exhausting, difficult and overwhelming time for so many.’ The Leader of the Opposition expressed the Parliament’s ‘admiration of Victorians for their bravery, their fortitude and, not least, their sheer stamina. Victorians have demonstrated the true meaning of “we are all in this together”.’
Some members of the Commonwealth Parliament wanted to give particular praise to the Victorian premier and his government. Others wanted to single out Mr Andrews and his advisers for adverse comment. Mr Andrews’ supporters indicated that three months ago, Victoria had 723 new cases on one day, while the UK had 846 new cases on the same day. On Tuesday, Victoria had no new cases, while the UK had 20,890. There can be no doubt that Mr Andrews and his team have done a fantastic job over those three months suppressing the virus. This could be done only at great economic cost requiring sacrifice by small business owners and constant financial help from Canberra.
The Andrews government made some major blunders back in March when they set up the hotel quarantine arrangements with independent contractors to provide the defective security. That’s what set the virus loose and that’s why Victoria has had over 800 deaths while the rest of Australia has reported less than 100. That’s why Victoria has been in lockdown and other states have not. The federal Treasurer, a Victorian and father of young children, spoke with raw emotion when he told Parliament about ‘the pain, the cost, and the loss of Victorian people’. While children elsewhere in Australia missed little school, Victorian kids missed six months. While the Australian economy has started to recover with 2,000 new jobs each day, in Victoria, ‘on every day of the lockdown, on average, 1,200 jobs have been lost’.
The Andrews government set up an inquiry to find out what went wrong. Who in the government made the fateful decisions? No one seems to know, and no one wants to admit having made the fateful mistakes. The inquiry was to report in two months. Now it will take five months. The five government departments involved and the Victoria Police all have their own QCs appearing for them at the inquiry. Four government ministers have their own QCs. There are 28 barristers appearing for government ministers and their departments, passing the buck from one to the other. All this to provide simple answers to a few questions which should have been on the Premier’s desk the day after the problems were first identified. If there’d been no buck-passing and if the Westminster system of government were working, there would have been no need for an inquiry, let alone one lasting for five months to determine what happened over a few fateful days.
I believe Mr Andrews and his government made big mistakes in March and April, leading to hundreds of deaths. I believe Mr Andrews and his government made bold decisions and suppressed the virus successfully from August to October, saving many thousands more lives while shutting down much economic activity. I believe Mr Andrews and his government have expended much energy and forfeited much community trust by continuously failing to admit to the mistakes they made in March and April. You can correctly hold all three beliefs together.
We now live in an age when people in public life try to avoid personal responsibility for their mistakes or the mistakes of those for whom they are responsible. Maybe it was always thus, but I think not. When no one in government takes responsibility, it then becomes more difficult for us the citizens to trust government when they make laws and regulations limiting our freedoms but without explanations as to why for example we can go to the pub in greater numbers than we can go to church.
Today, I give thanks to the Andrews government for having conducted a successful lockdown and for having persevered in leading us through the difficulties. But at the same time, I remain critical of the Andrews government for the mistakes it made at the end of March with the hotel quarantine, security and tracing arrangements. I am also critical of the Andrews government for setting up an inquiry designed rather more to exculpate individual ministers and public servants than to arrive quickly and clearly at the truth of how the contracting arrangements for quarantine were so badly mishandled. We need restored trust if we are to work together coming out of lockdown with the right mix of social isolation and economic activity.
None of this is intended to be partisan. But inevitably some will think it so. This highlights the complexity of our present reality. We come to pray in the midst of our diverse social and political perspectives. We come to pray for those who have died and for those who have suffered, to pray for those who have cared for them, and for those who make the decisions leading us as a community seeking the well-being of all, particularly the most vulnerable.
There is no simple answer to virus suppression and economic recovery. On this All Saints Day we pray in thanks for all those who have expended themselves for the good of their fellow citizens; we hope that everyone can admit the truth of past mistakes; we pray that past wrongs can be forgiven; and we pray that our leaders and the experts will be deserving of renewed trust happily given by those who need to be assured good health and sound economic prospects. We hail the saints who have gone before us, and the saints in our midst. We thank God for the saints who admitted their mistakes and who dedicated their lives to justice and truth, the ones ‘with clean hands and pure heart, who desired not worthless things’. (Psalm 23:4)
Happy those who mourn:
they shall be comforted;
Happy those who hunger and thirst for what is right:
they shall be satisfied;
Happy the merciful:
they shall have mercy shown them.
Fr Frank Brennan SJ is the Rector of Newman College, Melbourne and the former CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA).