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by Edmund Campion

The Catholic Church and Community by Patrick O'Farrell

It was a genial thought for the organizers of the recent international history congress at the University of NSW to have sessions devoted to the memories of Tony Cahill and Patrick O'Farrell. Each has been a generous servant of history and historians: Tony Cahill in his editorship of The Journal of Religious History and his biographical work on Cardinal Moran and Archbishop Vaughan; and Patrick as the dean of Catholic history in Australia.

It is now nearly forty years since Patrick's magisterial work appeared, in August 1968. The Catholic Church in Australia; A Short History 1788-1967 was sourced largely from the Sydney church archives and written in six months. It sold 10,000 copies. That is an impressive sales figure but, alone, it doesn't tell of the full impact of the work, for single copies went through many hands: they were passed round and read in convents, teachers' colleges and parish discussion groups. If impact was wide, it was also deep. Those were turbulent years - the year of Vatican II and Humanae Vitae - and in that foundation shaking era O'Farrell gave Catholics something solid to hang onto, their history. This was critical, since Catholic identity and spirituality are rooted in history (which is seen as salvation history). So his book had a large pastoral significance.

But no history is final - Patrick himself wrote these words in the preface to an expanded version of the history, published in 1977. 'Expanded' is the right word here: the Short History had 278 pages of text; this new book, called The Catholic Church and Community: A History weighed in at 429 pages of text. Teachers learned to hide copies of the Short History, to try to direct students to the larger and more mature book. The bibliography in each book tells something of what had been happening between their publication: the 1968 bibliography has 95 items alongside nine unpublished theses and research papers; by the 1977 publication, however, the bibliography had grown to 216 items with 54 theses and research papers. History is a moving frontier, one knows, but this is surely a remarkable and rapid expansion of territory. In the middle of it all stood Patrick O'Farrell himself as teacher, supervisor, examiner, editor and writer, now well on his way to being recognized as the dean of Catholic historiography. In 1990 The American Catholic Historical Review would say of O'Farrell To him, more than to any other individual, is owed the fact that Catholic intellectual life in Australia is noticeably historical, rather than theological, philosophical or biblical.

All this new material gave the author opportunities to revise his estimates and to enlarge his horizons. Indeed, come to think of it, a comparison between the two histories, the 1968 version and the 1977 one, allows the reader to see how a working historian can take new material into his memory bank and utilise it. A good example is his treatment of the great Archbishop John Bede Polding. O'Farrell venerated Polding. He learned this veneration from one of his mentors at the ANU in Canberra, Timothy Suttor, a former Dominican friar, who had learned his veneration from the Sydney church archivist J J McGovern, who had learned it in turn from his boyhood's parish priest at Newtown, Dean Cassidy, who had been Polding's last Benedictine postulant - there's an apostolic succession for you: Polding, Cassidy, McGovern, Suttor, O'Farrell. Patrick kept the faith, he continued to reverence Polding. In 1970, however, there appeared a Life of Polding's unfortunate Vicar-General, Henry Gregory, by a nuanced historian, Mary Shanahan. Then, in 1973, the Marist historian John Hosie published a revisionist article on the archbishop which so upset Polding's admirers that they organized a day of rebuttal against Hosie. So when O'Farrell came to look at the 1968 Short History again, he had new material to work on, more in his memory bank. He did not resile from his admiration; but a comparison of the two histories, 1968 and 1977, shows that he qualified this admiration once he came to see that Polding's sorrows were partly his own creations, both from his 'exaggerated sense of threat' and from the identification of his own opinions and interests with those of the Church, so that he thought of his critics, many of whom were excellent Catholics, as potential Martin Luthers.

Critics of the Short History had called it "a bishops' book", and so it is. A book written out of the Sydney archdiocesan archives could scarcely be otherwise; for these are the bishop's archives, they mirror his episcopal policy and his interests. O'Farrell's histories did not carry footnotes; to see where his material came from, you must go to his Documents in Australian Catholic History, where you might be surprised to find so many pastoral letters and episcopal statements: head office history, not the view from the pews. O'Farrell made no bones about this, writing that the substantial attention given to bishops in his book was a reflection of historical reality; and he would not, he said, read the contemporary role of the laity back into the past. Not that he was a flatterer of bishops. Oh no. In some circles the best remembered O'Farrell sentence comes from his review of Tom Boland's Life of the great Archbishop of Brisbane, Sir James Duhig, where O'Farrell asked about Duhig, Would you buy a used car from this man? Or take a look at his pages on that mitred mediocrity, Archbishop Michael Kelly of Sydney. No flatterer, he.

He was able to use the extra 150 pages of the new History to fill in some of the gaps in the Short History, notably the laity. Yet, reading him again the other day, I felt that something was missing. What was it? Was it that one scarcely gets from this history a sense of what it felt like to be an Australian Catholic? I have already called it 'head office history' to distinguish it from history that is alert to the experiences of popular religion. For contrast, take a look at Katharine Massam's seminal Sacred Threads. (But in fairness notice that it was published in 1996, and so much too late for Patrick. For that matter, in this book Katharine Massam said that the first Australian Catholic article on popular religion did not appear until 1978 - no straw for the 1977 O'Farrell rewrite there either.) Katharine Massam gives you the world of the people in the pews, the sights and sounds and smells and tastes and feel of popular religion. But, as I say, too late for Patrick. There are signs that he knew what was absent from his pages, knew for instance that single sentences listing catalogues of devotions would not be enough to convey the vividness of the experience. Similarly, in two sentences he glided over the pamphlets of the Australian Catholic Truth Society, yet these, in millions of copies, were the layman's library, clues to what was in his or her head. As were the mass circulation popular religious magazines, the true archives of layman's religion. There is only one sentence on those heart-stirring revivalist meetings known as parish missions. For that matter, the parish as a social centre - with its dances, house parties, picnics, car drives, fetes, concerts and all that - has gone missing from these pages. And so it goes... God save us from silly whingers, as Patrick wrote in a 1998 article. No history is final - that's the answer to all such carping. On his day and at his weight, as Dr Veech liked to say, Patrick O'Farrell did a good job; and you cannot ask for more than that. He deserved his fame as dean of Australian Catholic historians; deserved, too, the tributes paid to him at the international history congress the other day.

There were two later editions of the Catholic history, in 1985 and 1992, with only slight additions to the 1977 version.

The Work:

  • The Catholic Church and community in Australia : a history (Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, 1977)
  • 1992 Edition
  • from books and collectibles.com

  • UNSW News
  • humanities.org
  • History Department
  • another appreciation

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