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Books Etcetera

by Edmund Campion

Be Not Afraid; Tell Me a Story; Bread for the Journey

Preparing my last book for publication a couple of years ago, I was surprised by the reaction of an editor to a sentence on George Pell's Sunday sermons. I've heard him preach more often than any other Sydney priest has done I suppose; so I could claim the authority of experience for the statement that his Sunday sermons were brief, prepared and uncontroversial. "Uncontroversial," the editor queried, "George Pell?" Yes, indeed. And now anyone who wants to test this can do so, for Duffy and Snellgrove, the Sydney publishers, have just put out a selection of his Sunday sermons, now in shops for $25.00. It's called Be Not Afraid, Pell's arresting episcopal motto - what does it tell you about the psychology of the bishop who chose it? - and its contents have been gathered by his biographer, the Murdoch journalist Tess Livingstone. She bulks the book up with writings from outside the pulpit, such as his columns for the Sunday Telegraph; but for the most part, these pages were written for pulpit delivery. Here he is, at the primary task of any bishop - feeding his people a diet of Catholic faith, with meat and potatoes high on his menu. Students of the Pell project will need to search hard to discover information about the man himself. Parochial and Plain, the title Newman chose for his parish sermons, would suit this book, too.

Its appearance now is of interest to the historian. Duffy and Snellgrove are a commercial house, not a propaganda unit of the Catholic Church. They publish books to make money. So their experience with Tess Livingstone's biography, published in 2002, must have shown them that there might be a market for a book of sermons (although I notice that dread word is kept off the title page). Are people ready to read sermons again? If that is so, historians should notice the fact, as a pointer to a significant shift in Australian life.

It may be so. Four years ago, Harper Collins, another commercial house, published the Sunday sermons of Geoffrey Plant, who had been parish priest of Paddington in Sydney for some years. He was a dynamic preacher, something of a hot-gospeller, caught memorably in the photo-flash of Barry Oakley's diaries (Minitudes, 2000). At first Oakley, having just returned to Catholic practice, found the priest too flamboyant for his reawakening Catholic tastes - roaming the aisles, firing questions at people, tipping a pot plant on the sanctuary floor to illustrate a point. Soon enough, however, Oakley came to appreciate such theatricality as the sort of thing Francis of Assisi would have done. (Plant, who is now a secular priest, was then a Franciscan.) Tell Me a Story was subtitled Meditations for the Spiritual Journey, a moniker that may have made it more widely attractive than just calling it Sunday Sermons. But Sunday sermons is what it was: a faithful record of the sparkling experience that drew people from all over Sydney to St Francis' Church, Paddington - the jokes, stories, poetry, quotations and book references that were the outer casing of a lively exploration of what it meant to be a Christian in today's world. Opening these sermons again, I am reminded of something George Pell preached in 1988: "Part of our challenge is cultural - explaining the eternal truths of Christianity in a contemporary accent." Plant's accent was certainly contemporary: he read the papers and novels, watched TV, went to the movies, and plunged unafraid into the world about him; then reflected on all this in the light of the Gospel. If, in centuries to come, Tell Me a Story were the only surviving bit of evidence from end-of-the-20th-century Sydney Catholicism, historians would rate the spiritual vitality of the archdiocese highly.

But what would such putative historians make of Peter Steele's book of sermons, published as Bread for the Journey in 2002 by David Lovell in Melbourne? I doubt that they would mistake these as typical samples of Melbourne preaching, once they came to know who Peter Steele was: onetime provincial of the Jesuits, holder of a personal chair in English at the University of Melbourne, poet and critic. A civilised man, one might say. Yes, and it shows in these sermons, most of them preached in the beautiful Newman College chapel to (I imagine) people who share Steele's world. A characteristic of that world is its alertness to words, their meanings and resonances. I'm not saying that Steele sounds as if he had swallowed a dictionary - not so. His prose is clean, his sentences straightforward. What I mean is that as you read him you become aware of his respect for language, as our greatest cultural artifact. In that sense, these are a poet's sermons; and thus likely to last longest. What else? Well, the faith you find here is light-hearted, unthreatened, expects the best of its hearers; it is a nourishing faith, not a nagging one. In a pulpit, nagging is easy, nourishing's hard.

The Books:

  • Be Not Afraid
  • Tell Me a Story
  • Bread for the Journey

    Previous Columns:

  • Issue 1 Books Etc
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  • Issue 7 Books Etc
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  • Issue 23 Books Etc

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