Our Lady of the Southern Cross

Our Lady Help of Christians (Our Lady of the Southern Cross)

At the beginning of May this year (2018), I attended the Bishop’s Conference in Sydney.  The Conference spread over a weekend, and this year the Bishops attended Mass at St. Patrick’s Church Hill, which is the second church building after the Cathedral (1821).  St Patrick’s building began in 1840.

 However, the history of the faithful connected to St. Patrick’s pre-dates the church and the Cathedral, because it was here that Catholicism took root in Australia.

 In 1817 a Catholic Priest – Fr. Jeremiah O’Flynn arrived in Sydney unexpected and unannounced.  Fr. Flynn was a colourful character who had been driven out of several places in the World, but somehow persuaded Rome not to remove his Priestly orders.

Flynn told Governor Macquarie that he was an authorised Catholic Priest and that official authorisation would arrive from Britain soon (it’s in the Post). Macquarie would have none of it and told Flynn to leave the Colony.  Of course he didn’t, instead he went to ground and began marrying, baptising and saying mass in private homes.  No authorisation arrived from Britain so frustrated with Flynn, Macquarie had him arrested in May 1818 and forced out of the Colony.  Flynn had been authorised by Rome to travel to Australia as Prefect Apostolic of Botany Bay, but he just didn’t get authorisation from the Brits to minister in their Colony.Before Flynn departed, he left consecrated hosts with one or two families, both political prisoners – the Davis and the Dempseys.  The exact details of this arrangement is disputed by the families, but the Sacrament was left and the small group of Catholics maintained their faith by saying the Rosary and Adoration of the Blessed Sacraments in the absence of a priest.

This went on until 1820 when the first official Catholic chaplains, Frs. Therry and Conolly arrived.

It was to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the leaving of the Blessed Sacrament in Sydney that the Bishop’s Conference went to St. Patrick’s church.

In 1845 the Bishops of Australia met.  This was the first meeting of Catholic Bishops on British soil since the Reformation as the Catholic hierarchy was only re-established in Britain in 1850.  They consulted the faithful of Sydney about the dedication of the Cathedral.  Without hesitation, the people, aware of being sustained by the prayers of Our Lady during their priestless days wanted it dedicated to Our Lady Help of Christians’ – its full dedication is The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Mary Help of Christians.

Now the description of Our Lady as Help of Christians has an even longer history.

In 711 Muslin forces moved into Spain – the Moors. They controlled Spain for 700 years during which time Christians had little success in reclaiming the land.

Devotion to Our Lady increased among the Christians, and at a battle in 1003, the outnumbered Christians were defeated.  More and more Christian armies invoked the Blessed Virgin before battles. Finally, in 1212, King Alfonso VIII took Mary as his patron and won back large areas of the land. Marian devotion increased and as Christian armies had more success, every mosque captured was turned into a church dedicated to Our Lady.

All kinds of stories emerged of Our Lady helping prisoners etc.  Finally in 1492 under the banner of Mary, Christian forces re-took Spain.  Before that in 1326 a Shepherd had a vision of Our Lady who told him she wanted her image to be exhumed and a church built on the site. The Shepherd told the local priest who unearthed a box containing Our Lady’s image. Legend says, it was painted by St. Luke. Following this exhumation, under Our Lady’s banner, Christians reclaimed Spain.  The place where the image was found and the church built was Guadalupe (Spain).

Spain conquered Mexico.  The Aztecs were hostile but one of the natives – Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin had embraced Catholicism and had a vision of Our Lady – this was the famous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe (Mexico).

 In 1571, the Muslim Turks of the Ottoman Empire were invading Europe.  The Christian Holy League under Pius V engaged them in a massive naval battle at Lepanto, just off Greece. The night before the battle the Papal Forces and Pius V prayed the Rosary knowing that they were hopelessly outnumbered.  Despite this they were victorious partly because they had better weapons and marksmanship, but the victory was attributed to Our Lady’s intercession. Following the battle Pius V instituted the feast of Our Lady of Victories to commemorate the event.

This battle didn’t end the Muslin insurgence into Europe. Another battle in Vienna in 1683 was fought.  The Christian forces went into battle with rosaries in one hand and weapons in the other.  The Polish King Sobieski visited the shrine of the Black Madonna at Czestochowa.  The troops asked Our Lady for help in battle. 

Again, the Christian army, though outnumbered, were victorious.  After weeks of siege, the battle of Vienna was over in a few hours.

Conflict arose again in 1716 in Europe, and once more the Rosary was prayed – after three months Hungary was liberated after centuries of Muslim control.  Pope Clement XI changed the feast of Our Lady of Victory into Our Lady of the Holy Rosary.  In 1717 the grip of Islam in Europe was finally broken.

It was John Chrysostom who first used the title Mary Help of Christians in 345 AD.

The title is linked to the Christian defence of Europe and its victory over Islam is attributed to our Lady’s intercession under this title. In1903 Leo XIII recognised an image of Our Lady under this title and authorised images of her under this title to be crowned,

Our Lady of the Southern Cross is another name for Our Lady Help of Christians.  She is Our Lady ‘with combat boots,’ so when commissioning our Icon we asked Michael Golavic to portray her as a strong woman defending her son and the faith he revealed to us. Notice that she is crowned and regal, not looking at her son, but looking at the world from behind him as he blesses it.

Once again the Western Christian world is in crisis. Europe and other ‘Western’ nations including our own, are targets of terrorist attacks aimed at de-stabilising the Western world. Although we might be certain that Western political leaders are familiar with the philosopher George Santayana’s phrase, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it,” there appears to be little in the combined political wills of Western leaders that indicates that they have in fact so learned. 

How should the Church respond to this situation? The crisis we face should be seen as self-inflicted in the sense that if Christians cease to believe and live their lives according to the truths of God revealed through Jesus and the Church, then the Church will fracture.

Prior to 597 B.C., the Jewish people had become complacent about the observance of their faith. They still believed in God, but thought he didn’t care about them. They observed the outward rituals of their religion, still considered themselves to be God’s children, but didn’t believe what they practised. They became ‘empty shells’ or ‘straw men’. The consequence of their apostasy was that Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians and the leading Jews were taken into exile. The Jews lost their land, their priesthood, their law and their Temple, the very pillars upon which their identity as God’s chosen children was built.

During the exile, the Jews began to realise that their troubles were due to their abandonment of God, so they attempted to live their faith as best they could without the pillars they had in their homeland (read Psalm 137).  After 48 years, God used Cyrus, King of Persia as his agent to return them to their homeland.

We need to learn from this and see our situation as one that stems from our willingness to absorb the values and standards of the secular world rather than living Catholic Christian lives.  In our struggle to re-Catholicise Catholics and re-connect Western Culture with its Christian heritage, we must again invoke the intercession of Our Lady of the Southern Cross, Help of Christians. Even so, the onus is on everyone who claims to be Catholic to live the faith and not be ashamed to confess that faith in a hostile world. Apostasy is the real enemy, and that is what we must address.

Adapted from Msgr Harry Entwistle

May 2018