01 June, 2019

Looking through the Eye of Faith : 2

Over a period of years, we hope to publish on this blog extracts from Archbishop Polding's Pastoral Letters, as published in The Eye of Faith : The Pastoral Letters of John Bede Polding.  The editors of this important volume had carefully collated all the Pastoral Letters which J B Polding had written to the Faithful of the Church in Australia, of which he was bishop, since 1835. 

In this post, we continue with extracts from an essay which acts as a preface to this volume.

In diebus illis
Archbishop Polding in 1869.
Image : State Library of NSW.
In Polding’s day, in the Church in the New World, the pastoral letter resumed something of the role and importance which its forerunners had in the early Church. In the United States and Australia, clergy were scarce and Catholics were in a minority. In each place, people from different cultural backgrounds were thrown together and were faced not only with the challenge of being pioneers in a new land, but also that of building new human and religious communities. In the case of Australia, there was the additional strangeness of the southern hemisphere and the worn, strange nature of the continent itself. 

In his Pastorals, Polding developed his themes after the manner of the early bishops and monastic leaders, the Fathers of the Church. His Benedictine formation ensured that the first foundation of his thought would be the Scriptures and their writings. … He was primarily a spiritual man, one who read Scripture 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). §

His monastic tradition and formation gave Polding the special aptitude to grasp the Pauline doctrines of the Body of Christ and a spiritual fatherhood. § [They] also gave him his compassionate understanding of the needs of convicts and aboriginals, an understanding which was never patronising. 

Most of Polding’s direct quotations came from the scriptural texts then most commonly employed by the liturgy … As a teacher, as well as one who had learnt in this school, he placed great value on the liturgy. He tried to make it a feature of the Australian Church, even to the public recitation of vespers during his visits to country stations. However, his best use of the Bible was not by quotation or as a basis for apologetics. It was when he savoured the Word of God that Polding’s thought was richest and his exhortations most telling. 

Polding’s liturgical formation gave him a sensus fidelium which enabled him, when he had the leisure, to ramble with delight and sureness through the whole field of the Scriptures. This it was which gave to his best teaching the charm of poetry and, to his exhortations, direct access to men’s hearts. 

This use of Scripture helped Polding to speak directly to his audience. It amounted to a form of teaching which flowed from a life of a prayer and which attempted to arouse in his people of desire for God and the things of God. In its subordinate parts, it presented values other than those materialistic and hedonistic ones which produced inhumanity, the crude brutality of the early colony and the refined cruelty which was taken its place. It took account of the fact that early Australia failed to support little more than a misconstrued old Testament religion – harsh justice, the thriving of the mighty and the lamentations of the weak, many of whom lapsed into that petty iniquity which their little means could afford. According to one observer, those many Catholics who had abandoned the religion had also erected proud barriers protect to protect either the success or their shabby iniquities. Polding deplored this but he seldom confronted the miscreant with the imprecations of church law. Rather, he sought to reach people with the immediacy of the Scriptures, to speak to their hearts and thus encourage them to overcome their pride or their lassitude. 

As a whole, Polding’s teaching aimed to bring a Christian culture to Australia, an integration of the ordinary and extraordinary elements of human life with its most sublime possibilities. He sought to bring to the young church in Australia a contemporary form of that monastic and Christian culture which had inspired medieval Europe. That this grand plan did not find full life, as its model had not found constant, living expression, save as an ideal, destroyed neither the value of Polding’s teaching nor the wisdom of striving to establish an inspiring religious culture in Australia. § 

As the interior of the old continent [of Australia] demands timeless youth, Polding knew how to start afresh. He faced fire, and flood, and dry rot, and disease and yet he continued. He fought for his foundation as a pioneer, in the face of the elements, had to fight for his flock and herds, his crops and his homestead. And when the occasion demanded a fierce fight he could be as a young David facing his Goliath. §

In his determination, Polding showed the young virtue, hope. In his labours, which continued almost until the sun had set, he acknowledged that, as they were from him, his works were impermanent; [yet] as requested by God, by his office as a founder- bishop, they were somehow necessary. The sympathy between Polding and Australia gave a special attraction to the teaching which was required of him. He wrote of spiritual freedom in a land of penal origin. To a land mostly desert, he brought the seeds of a new and satisfying spiritual fruit. His pastoral letters present the gospel truth which sets men free. They present this truth in ways which invite and show men how to live in brotherhood. They brought wisdom to a fertile desert land, to a place which, it has seemed to eyes blind to faith, God forgot.

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.

The engraving of Archbishop Polding was published at the time of his death, but was based on a photograph taken in Melbourne in 1869.  In it, the Archbishop is wearing a cope and mitre which were not his, but belonged to the Bishop of Melbourne, James Alipius Goold OSA.  The mitre was designed by AWN Pugin.

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