February 12th Homily by Msgr James Harrington


Bishop John, Monsignors and Fathers, brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus,

The forecourt of this Cathedral church is bordered by a band of black marble. Etched upon, it in foot-high letters, is a quotation from the Book of Psalms. It reads: ┬I rejoiced when I heard them say let us go to God's house, and now our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.' Who wrote those words we have no idea. Was he a pilgrim from Bethlehem , six miles to the south, or Nazra, 70 miles north, or far off Corinth , a thousand miles away? It matters not. For the Jewish people, generation after generation, those words brought a tear to the eye and a lump to the throat. Why? Because they speak of Jerusalem , the Holy City , and of its temple, the only dwelling place on earth of the one true God.

Today's first reading took us back to the beginnings of the temple. The great King David was dead. His son, Solomon, in the fourth year of his reign, knew the time had come to fulfill the dream denied his father - the building of a house for Yahweh-God. The site had been chosen, the plan predetermined, and the materials gathered - the best quality stone and marble, the finest copper and brass, the richest timbers of cedar and cypress. Skilled builders and craftsmen were brought in from neighbouring countries, and hundreds of Israelites were engaged in shifts of three months. For seven years they worked, quarrying, sawing, hammering, carving, and casting precious metals of gold, silver and bronze.

And so the temple became a reality. Its magnificence was matched only by the celebrations which marked its dedication. With the king leading them, the elders, the judges and the priests marched in procession. Behind them, bringing up the rear, were the Levites. They carried on their shoulders the Ark of the Covenant - symbol of Yahweh-God's presence among his people. As it was solemnly taken into the Holy of Holies, the tribes of Israel gathered outside in prayer and song. And suddenly the temple was filled with a dazzling light, far brighter than the gold with which it gleamed. The shekenah, God's cloud of glory had come to rest on his holy house. It was the sign of Yahweh's acceptance of the temple, and of his blessing upon it.

Two thousand, nine hundred and one years later, a pastoral letter was read in all the churches and chapels of the Christchurch Diocese. It was written by John Joseph Grimes of the Society of Mary, its first bishop. It read in part: ┬For some time prior to my visit to Europe in 1897 ┌ I had the idea ┌ of devoting my energies ┌ to the building of a suitable temple ┌. for the worship of God.'

Like Solomon before him, the bishop already had preparations well in hand. The site had been chosen, the plan pre-determined, and the nucleus of a building fund collected. It is not my intention to tell the story of how this Cathedral came to be. Suffice it to say, that in 1980, the ┬Press' summed up its story with a feature article. The heading read: ┬A building of splendour which inspired greatness and survived all animosities.' You can read the Cathedral's story for yourselves in Michael Hanrahan's splendid book, aptly called ┬A Suitable Temple'. I commend it to you.

One hundred years ago today, at this very hour, the dedication of this ┬suitable temple' was underway. Earlier, a procession of clergy had made its way to the front steps and continued on around the perimeter of the building. Then, the procession made its way up the centre aisle, and down and up the side aisles, as Archbishop Carr of Melbourne sprinkled the walls with holy water. All of this to the accompaniment of a march by organ and orchestra. Then at 11.00 o'clock came the Vice-regal party, the Prime Minister, the Mayor and Mayoress, and specially invited guests. They were met at the front doors and escorted to their places. All about them, the nave and galleries were crammed with people. They had come from all over the city, and well beyond it by special train. In the sanctuary, ready to begin the Mass was a host of clergy, among them seven bishops, - four of them from Australia . And, seated on his throne to the left of the sanctuary, was the proudest man in all of Australasia .

A centennial is a time to remember and to recollect. The very make up of those words spells out their meaning - to remember is to re-member - to put together again. To recollect, is to re-collect. This is a day to re-member and to re-collect, that we, too, may offer fitting praise and thanks to God a hundred years on.

For Bishop John Joseph Grimes, the building of this Cathedral was the fulfillment of a dream. For Francis William Petre, its architect/engineer, it was the crowning achievement of a distinguished career. For J. and W. Jamieson, the contractors, it meant a succession of major projects over years to come.

For our forebears, workers from the city, farmers from Canterbury , and miners from the Coast, the building of this Cathedral was a proclamation of their Catholic faith and a proud statement of their belonging in what was still largely a Church of England settlement.

And so it is that the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament stands today as an enduring symbol of the courage, energy, and drive of a bishop, and the faith and generosity of his people, few in number and mostly poor. Between them, despite disputes, setbacks and difficulties of every kind, they bequeathed to us a Cathedral of which any diocese in the world would be justly proud.

While today's centennial recalls the distant past, we must be mindful also of others - those whose contribution to the Cathedral belongs to later times. With the name of John Joseph Grimes must be linked that of Bishop Brian Patrick Ashby. With the same courage and determination which brought the building into being, he undertook to clean and repair its fabric and re-order its interior for the liturgy of today. That, too, was no mean undertaking.

With the name of Francis William Petre must be linked that of Sir Miles Warren, consultant architect to the Cathedral for the past thirty years and more. In no small measure, it is due to him that we have a Cathedral for our time that is second to none.

To the list of founders and benefactors named in the Memorial Chapel, we must add the names of all who dug deep for the Cathedral Conservation Project, and the names of the ┬Friends' who continue to support the Cathedral by generous giving, year in year out. Like their grandparents before them, others, too, have not been found wanting when the time came. The Cathedral Trust is indebted to them.

Each of us brings our own special memories of the Cathedral to this celebration. You were baptized here, or you made your first Communion here, or you were confirmed here or married here, or ordained here, or like me you have a long association with the Cathedral. I could relate a hundred stories, but this is neither the time nor the place to do so. Suffice it to say that it was my privilege to show hundreds of children around the Cathedral over a ten year period.. I think of the six year olds from St James' School, Aranui. I gave them the ┬A' tour, and before they left I invited them to send me their thoughts on paper, which they duly did. One boy wrote: ┬Just as an elephant would weigh two or three tons, and think how big an elephant is, so I think the Cathedral would weigh about a thousand elephants.' So much for my beautiful, inspirational talk on God's holy house!

While only a child would see the Cathedral in terms of an elephant, one sometimes wonders how others see it. Undoubtedly, there are those who would see the Cathedral only in terms of a fine building. George Bernard Shaw did for one. He hailed its architect ┬a New Zealand Brunnelleshi,' a reference to the great duomo in Florence . Over the years, others widely traveled have sung its praises as well. Even the less knowing are impressed. In most of our cathedrals visitors simply walk around and leave. Here they stop and stare to take it in.

Yes, the Cathedral is a fine building. But there are other fine buildings in this city that are both lofty and spacious. Somehow though, these do not touch the soul as this one does. Obviously, the secret of the Cathedral lies beyond the grandeur of its architecture.

Others would see the Cathedral in terms of an historic place. It is historic indeed. It stands on the site of the first Roman Catholic chapel erected in Christchurch . It houses the tomb of the bishop who undertook and completed this mighty work. It enshrines, too, the workmanship of skilled craftsmen long since gone.

But the Cathedral is no mere document of past history. In it one experiences something quite different from a visit to the Canterbury Museum or the Provincial Government buildings. The secret of the Cathedral is not to be found in its historical past.

Yet others would see the Cathedral as a depository of the arts, a place where fine music may be heard and the works of artists enjoyed. These things are rightly found here since glory is given to God through the exercise of man's creative talents. But the Cathedral is not a concert chamber; nor is it an art gallery. Its secret lies beyond the purely artistic.

What then is the secret of the Cathedral? Its secret is to be found in the text from sacred scripture carved in foot high letters across its fa∞ade: ┬Ecce, tabernaculum dei cum hominibus.' Freely translated, the words say: ┬Behold! Here God lives among people.' For us, this Cathedral is a living home, a place enriched with God's presence. Its very mass bears witness to the sacred amid the secular, the eternal amid the ever-dying present. Like the great cathedrals of Europe , this building proclaims the primacy of the spiritual and the kingdom we must seek above all else.

But of even greater significance - here is found the chair from which every cathedral takes its title. Here, ┬ex cathedra' a bishop teaches and guides the local Church committed to his care, linking it in his person to the Church universal under the Bishop of Rome, successor of Peter. And it is in this Cathedral church that the Catholic community does what is central to its faith and life - welcoming the newly-born in baptism, pronouncing vows, commending the dead to the Lord, preaching the word, ordaining and commissioning, educating children, gathering what is needed for the poor, supporting the oppressed, and opening doors to those rejected elsewhere. But above all, it is in the Cathedral that the Catholic community celebrates the liturgy. When clergy and faithful gather about their bishop, for the celebration of the Eucharist, as we do today, the secret of the Cathedral is finally disclosed and fulfilled.

One hundred years have passed since worship was first offered in this Cathedral. The decades have seen a Pope presiding at an ecumenical service, eight bishops enthroned in their turn, and a dozen dignitaries mourned at their passing. To the solemnity of these occasions the Cathedral has responded magnificently. It was made for grand ceremonial occasions.

But for all the splendour it has witnessed, our Cathedral has always been the church of ordinary people. Sunday after Sunday, mothers and fathers with children in tow, have gathered here with widows and singles, the old and the young, the joyful and the mourning, the enfeebled and the strong, the virtuous and the sinners - all made one in the great sacrifice of praise which is the Holy Mass; all fed by the bread of life and the cup of eternal salvation.

If the altar, and what takes place there, is the central focus of the Cathedral, the tabernacle is surely its heart. There behind screened doors is kept the Blessed Sacrament reserved, the pre-eminent presence of Christ in his Church. How fitting then that this Cathedral, named for the Blessed Sacrament, should celebrate its centennial in the ┬Year of the Eucharist' - recalling the Lord's greatest gift to his Church - that sacred banquet in which Christ is received, the memory of his passion is renewed, grace is given to the mind, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.

As the Cathedral enters its second century, we pray that it may ever be ┬a suitable temple' where the Good News of Jesus is proclaimed, where God's people are fed in word and sacrament, where the faithful come to pray, where art flourishes and music is loved. Above all, may it continue to be a place where little people matter, where justice speaks louder than words, and the cause of peace and reconciliation is ever served.

Amen - so be it.