29 March, 2020

In a year of natural disasters

The Pastoral Letter of John Bede,
by Divine Grace and favour of the Holy Apostolic See,
Archbishop of Sydney and Metropolitan,
on behalf of those who are suffering from the blighted harvest
and the floods of this present Year of Our Lord, 1864.

Dearly Beloved Children in Jesus Christ,

He that loveth not his brother whom he seeth, how can he love God whom he seeth not?
1st Epistle of Saint John 4 : 20.

These simple sacred words of the beloved apostle, how they stir our hearts! Saint John, likened to the eagle, for the sublimity of his doctrine concerning the great mysteries known to man only through Divine revelation in the Church of Christ; Saint John, the seer of Apocalyptic visions concerning the future of the Church; Saint John, [who] leaned on our Lord’s breast when the treachery of Judas, and of Judas-like men was heavy on his spirit; Saint John, to whom the mother of Jesus was given by her Son at that supreme moment of His passion; Saint John, who was so much, and had seen so much - what is the sum of the doctrine he preaches with so much earnestness and frequency? Nothing difficult to understand, nothing hard to practise, for the princely spirit of simple truth and love, nothing that needs or provokes discussion – “that we love one another, as he has given commanded unto us.” And then, that there be no mistake, no self-deceit, no resting in mere impulse and warm feeling, he shows, in those simple, keen, luminous words that we have just recalled to your memory, how we may know the truth about ourselves, whether we are genuine Christian men, or wordy, self-deceived deceivers. “He that loves not his brother whom he sees, how can he love God whom he sees not?” What a changed world this would be, Dearly Beloved, if men would be guided by such a rule and motive as is here implied! 

In all the terrible prospect that seems to lie in this world’s future, in all the sin and misery that are darkening it at this moment, we should still rejoice in gleams of the Divine presence, if we could see, even here and there, men proving their love to God by consistent persevering love of their fellows. How light then, comparatively, would be fears of wars, and earthquakes, and tempests; how much less should we be troubled by the sordid intrigues and schemes of politicians; how much less should we be disheartened by the real misery of the sins, and infidelities, and sacrileges, that abound, if we walked more diligently with our eyes fixed on this plain bright path traced for us by the beloved disciple. And indeed there are, thank God, those who walk in this path. Who they are, and how many, or how few they may be, we do not know, nor is it necessary we should. One thing only is necessary, that each one of you should take care to be in this path himself. The judgements of God are upon the earth, but whether they shall be to us judgements of reprobation and destruction or the chastisements and warnings of God’s tender love, this rests upon your correspondence with God’s grace. And, in view of these judgements, our best and safe course is to look simply what might have been our own share in provoking them. It is not always where they seem to fall heaviest that they are most deserved, that there is the heaviest guilt. 

Suffering in this world is not the final reckoning. Whether then such calamities as the blighted harvest in one part of our colony, and the devastation of floods in another, are judgements of a national kind, directed against our guiltiness as a nation, and in what degree they are so, it is less profitable and necessary to enquire than to examine what our own individual sins of omission and commission might have been. It might well be, that as a colony we have been arrogant and boastful, neglectful of God and of God’s service, training our children well and carefully for the gain and service of Mammon, but leaving their education for God - so far as the colony is concerned - to individual neglect or incapacity; we might have the weight of old cruelties to bond-servants about necks, we might have the blood of aboriginal inhabitants on our hands. God knows (may He be merciful to us) how much as a colony we have sinned in this wise. 

I do not say that at this season of truly penitential thoughts you should entirely pass over such considerations as these. There are blessings that we enjoy as a community, as a nation, and doubtless there are sins also that we have committed as a community, and there is an inheritance of sins. But, Dearly Beloved, what I have to say to you on this point is mainly this is: look each one of you to himself. See, lest any worldliness, any pride, any selfishness, any hard-heartedness, any irreverence, any sensuality, any neglect of spiritual interests in yourself, might have contributed to the mass of guilt that at length brings down on man the visible anger of God. This is your care. 

And do not be content with looking at sins of commission only. Sins of omission are weighty and deadly. Have you not duties to the community in which you live as well as to the individuals who compose it? Ah! It is a fearful reckoning when honestly looked into; but still let us look, that we may repent, and see God’s grace and mercy behind and above all. You have influence more or less on the national acts, the government, and character of the colony; has that influence gone to Christianise or to degrade and make heathen those acts, and that government? Hearken in these points also to your Christian conscience.

Dearly beloved, I have suggested so far the uses that may be made of our calamities, or of those of our friends and neighbours, as a matter of examination and self-abasement for Lent; but I have now to ask for the fruits of your faith, the alms that will give wings to your prayers. And I ask with some confidence that you will be generous in aiding those who are now suffering so heavily. I cannot here give you details of the loss and wretchedness which so many, in the inscrutable providence of God, are enduring, but it is unnecessary, for the public prints have informed you, and they are a matter of common sympathy and conversation. And what you have done before fills me with thankfulness and hope : you have given your money freely to relieve distress throughout the world. England, Ireland, France, India, all have been helped and comforted by your Christian devotion, true devotion of Saint John’s kind, the love of God that is seen in the love of your brethren. You will not fail, nor shame me now, you will again honour your Catholic name and faith. The cry of distress comes now from distant Donegal, or Lancashire, or Hindustan, but from near homes, the familiar names of Camden and Maitland. When the arms of your charity have reached to the extremities of the world, they must not be paralysed here, at what is to you a centre. 

A rare photograph taken in June 1864 shewing a flooded street of Maitland NSW.
Image : National Library of Australia.

There is an order in charity and so it should never cease to glow whenever there are men who struggle and suffer, yet it should be more intense in proportion as the all-wise Providence of God has placed its objects near to us duty or place. They are the voices of friends and kinsfolk that are calling upon us. As we are now crying to God for mercy upon ourselves, let us give an attentive ear to their misery. It is very deep, very overwhelming in its nature. Here is no failure of a mercantile venture, no disappointment of a gambling speculation, but destruction to the righteous hopes of honest, hard, patient labour. The toils and anxieties of many homes, of parents and children together labouring, and utterly lost. God has withheld from them their harvest. What is it? Is it that he is deaf to their prayers unthoughtful of their labours? No, but it is this. I am speaking to Christians, and you will understand me. He would have you supply to your brethren by your gifts the harvest that has failed in the order of nature, and He would gain for Himself a spiritual harvest in the works of your Christian faith and love. So will there have been this year two harvests instead of one, and that in an especial manner had a greater glory of God. You will do your part well, and the calamity of your friends and fellow-countrymen will be transformed into a blessing. 

The labours of the husbandman requiring, as they do, patience, industry, foresight, and trust in the future, call more than other earthly employments upon our sympathy when they are disappointed of their results. It seems almost as if humble faith in the course of God’s providence had received shock. The common lot of humanity, that man should earn his bread for the sweat of his brow, is at all times hard enough to be borne, how much more this affliction that God has laid upon our brethren! Their toil, their patience, their early and late anxiety, all aborted. They have laboured, but so far in vain; the food and clothing for themselves and their children, all gone; in some places considerable debt has been incurred for the fruitless seed, and the future is darkened beyond the present distress. The elements themselves, ordinary sources of benediction upon human toil, have been hostile to those who have deserved ordinary reward of their obedient labour at least as well as we.

It is a mystery, until we remember that God has not left us to the elements of material nature alone. He has planted in us, in our hearts, other elements which, in His plan and intention, are to complete and correct the operation of those others. Compassion, kindliness, the instincts of brotherhood, are His gifts as well as those higher gifts of Christian grace, and all these are intended to heal and remedy the hurts that our brothers have received from the viewless blight, and the resistless [sic] flood. Do you then show that you interpret aright the designs of God, and accept the occasion He offers you? Dry up as you may the bitter tears, and give new hope and courage to failing hearts. Sanctify your fast of Lent by a work that God has eminently chosen for such purpose. It may be that your ready open-handed liberality in this emergency, will give a spiritual fruitfulness to your season and penitence, and an Easter Joy such as you have never gained before. And, if any of you should perchance yourselves be wearing your lives under the weight and gloom of some providential chastisement, come forward the more eagerly, and help the suffering, and so our God may look graciously and speedily on you also in your time of need. These are the words that He Himself says to you, and such as you, for all time: “When thou shalt pour out thy soul” - it is, you see, no cold unsympathising gift, no stinted measure that He calls for – “when thou shalt pour out thy soul to the hungry, and shalt satisfy the afflicted soul, then shall thy light rise up in darkness, and thy darkness shall be as the noon-day." (Isaiah 58:10)  May He, the giver of every good gift, inspire and bless your alms.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the charity of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all. Amen.

Archbishop Polding's Pastoral Letter for 1864 as contained in the anthology The Eye of Faith.


1. 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.

2. Concerning the floods which devastated Eastern Australia from 1860 - 1864, this page be consulted.

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