Australia Day 2020

A little later in the year, towards the end of May, the 54th World Communications Day will be celebrated. However, just a few days ago on 24 January, the feastday of Francis de Sales, patron saint of journalists, Pope Francis released his annual message on communications.[1] For us celebrating Australia Day this weekend, his emphasis this year on the importance and power of story might perhaps help us enter our national celebration.

The Pope recounts our natural instinct for stories. “From childhood we hunger for stories just as we hunger for food. Stories influence our lives, whether in the form of fairy tales, novels, films, songs, news, even if we do not always realise it . . . Stories leave their mark on us; they shape our convictions and our behaviours. They can help us understand and communicate who we are.” We delight in weaving stories. For this reason, there is a link, as Francis identifies, between the words, ‘textile’ and ‘text’. Both come from the Latin word, ‘to weave’ (texere). Yet we know the capacity we have to weave both stories of good and stories of evil. And so, the Pope goes on to say, “. . . we need wisdom to be able to welcome and create beautiful, true and good stories. We need courage to reject false and evil stories. We need patience and discernment to rediscover stories that help us not to lose the thread amid today’s many troubles. We need stories that reveal who we truly are, also in the untold heroism of everyday life.”

For us, Scripture is a “Story of stories . . . the great love story between God and humanity.” At its centre stands Jesus, “whose own story brings to fulfilment both God’s love for us and our love for God.” And yet, we also recognize other stories that Scripture helps us to understand and to interpret – the story of our own lives, the story of our family, the story of our nation. These stories, too, by our telling of them teach us something important – they bear “witness to what the Spirit writes in our hearts.” They all bear an invitation to follow Christ more deeply in the context of our narratives, as the Gospel today implies.

This weekend we recount the story of Australia. It is both a story of dislocation and dispossession when told through the memory of our Aboriginal peoples and a story of possibility and progression when told through the memory of those who have come to the land in more recent times. We are heirs to this extraordinary story of both hurt and opportunity in which all the actors in the story have their part to play.  It is the story given to us to continue to narrate and to develop, so that we are not merely passive recipients of the story but those with a responsibility to “re-weave the fabric of life, darning its rips and tears” – as Pope Francis would say – and to continue to generate new chapters of the story.

One of the key motifs of the mythology marking our experience as Australians since 1788 is that of pitching ourselves against overwhelming odds with every possibility of defeat and failure and yet discovering there a renewed sense of community and solidarity with one another.[2] It is the thread of the story that weaves its way through the experience of convict settlement, the pioneer farmer, ANZAC, our confrontation with the landscape with its threat of fire and flood, and our particular Australian fascination with sport.

This summer this thread of our national story has presented with even greater clarity. For many weeks we have been in the grip of this aspect of our national story as whole communities have faced the devastation of drought and fire. We have been amazed and deeply affected by the stories of the courage of our firefighters and those at the frontline of the national disaster who have put their lives on the line day after day, for many months, for the protection of others – countless of them on a voluntary basis. We have been touched by the stories of those who have banded together to assist those who have lost everything. We have been assured of the goodness of human nature in the multitude of stories of kindness, generosity and selflessness. Many of these stories are captured not in words, but in images. These pictures tell a story of a thousand words; they bring us back to something defining, something enduring, something true. They are the stories that remind us of our most genuine identity – an identity that is not forged through political or social debate but through simple practice, though all the practical moments, often the face of danger, which express our openness to each other in the midst of what troubles us.

As Pope Francis writes, “How many stories serve to lull us, convincing us that to be happy we continually need to gain, possess and consume . . . Often on communication platforms, instead of constructive stories which serve to strengthen social ties and the cultural fabric, we find destructive and provocative stories that wear down and break the fragile threads binding us together as a society.” The stories we have heard this summer of courage and companionship are those we must remember always and keep telling. Like the best stories, they nourish life. They teach us what our future can be like. They teach us what being Australian might be.

Let us honour the Australian story not in grand ideology or in grandiose display. Let us honour our story through these remarkable accounts of companionship and community that we have heard this summer. And as we celebrate the story, let us remember that we are not only the hearers but that we are also the writers. Let us commit to writing a new chapter to our story, especially from our experience of this summer, so that we might have a story to tell our children and grandchildren (Exodus 10:2) so that they too may have a story to tell those who come after them. In this way our Australian story will not simply be relegated to a faded memory but will continue to live and grow. May the story gain renewed energy by the way we now write it in a new way.

[1] “Message of Pope Francis for the 54th World Communications Day,”

[2] See Joachim Dirks, The Inner Snowy, (Melbourne:  Spectrum, 1984), 20.

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