27 May, 2019

Looking through the Eye of Faith : 1

In diebus illis
The newly-consecrated Bishop Polding OSB in 1834.
Image : State Library of NSW.
Thanks to the zeal of a previous generation of Church historians, a most important volume was published in 1977, to coincide with the centenary of the death of Archbishop Polding.  This volume was The Eye of Faith : The Pastoral Letters of John Bede Polding.  Its editors had carefully collated all the Pastoral Letters which Polding had written to the Faithful of the Church in Australia, of which he was bishop, since 1835.  It is a collection of great value.  In two marvellous and inspiring essays at the beginning of the volume, the editors describe the significance of these Pastoral Letters.  The following are some extracts from the first of those essays.

John Bede Polding’s Pastoral Letters are valuable historical documents. During middle forty years of the nineteenth century, Archbishop Polding wrote some seventy letters on a variety of subjects : education; the care of orphans; hospitals; capital punishment; salacious literature and censorship; world events,  including the Crimean war, the Indian mutiny; the papacy and the Papal States; floods and other very local events; politics, the responsibility of government, social harmony and the monarchy.  A number of them comment on questions which are attractive to present-day historians: aboriginals; family life and the role of women; the wider social life of colonial Australia, rather than its more narrow political expression. §

For the historian, the value of the Polding Letters is enhanced by the acuteness of their observations and comment.  Their author’s sensitivity to the nuances of colonial life - as well as to its obvious aspects - grew out of his belief that religion was a vitally involved with human activity, that each moment of time had an eschatological significance. §

Polding did not observe facts alone, but their implications for people in Australia. Each time he wrote he tried to draw his audience closer to God, to encourage upright human conduct and to counter evil, sin and the false ideologies which challenged God’s presence in Australia.  His letters present a consistently based view of the state of religion and of private and public morals in Australia throughout the crucial years of the nineteenth century. §

As historical documents, these letters present aspects of colonial life which are not often encountered in the writings of politicians, administrators and newspaper correspondents.  They have an underlying unity which derives from the known and consistent attitude of the author and which, in turn, is of assistance to those who are seeking a basis of comparison between one time and another during the forty years which they span. §

The Pastoral Letters of John Bede Polding are the footprints of the Australian Catholic Church’s first apostolic tradition and its best surviving expression.  They comprise a testament of the faith proposed for the Church’s belief; of the hope which sustained its faith and justified its discipline; and of the soul of its life of faith and hope, the doing of the truth in charity.   This deeper value, this bond of greater unity in Polding’s Letters is to be seen by those who read, not as students of one discipline or another, but with the eye of Faith. §

The Polding Pastorals are possibly Australia’s only (though by no means pure), example of a religious literature – and of an implied Christian culture – which was both markedly monastic in character and contemplatives in orientation.  They confronted the activism and unbelief which marked his day and do no less today.  ...

Polding  … and his writings suffer no embarrassment by being numbered with John Henry Newman and his works.

To be continued.

The Eye of Faith was printed by the Lowden Publishing Co., Kilmore Victoria in 1977.  The editors were Gregory Haines, Sister Mary Gregory Foster and Frank Brophy.  Special contribution to the volume were made by Professor Timothy Suttor and James Cardinal Freeman.

This, the earliest known illustration of John Bede Polding, was painted at Downside Abbey shortly after his consecration as a bishop in 1834 and before his voyage to Australia.  This image was digitally enhanced from an old photograph made of the painting many years ago.


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