Archbishop Pell's tribute to B.A. Santamaria

Archbishop Pell's tribute to B.A. Santamaria

Archbishop George Pell

The following is the full text of Archbishop George Pell's homily at the Solemn Pontifical Mass of Christian Burial and State Funeral for B.A. Santamaria, on Tuesday, 3 March 1998.

We are told that the sure mark of the false prophet is that all people speak well of him. In death, as in life, Bob Santamaria has triumphantly ecaped such a fate.

Bartholomew Augustine Santamaria was born in 1915 in the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick, the first of six children of Joe Santamaria and Maria Terzita, who had migrated here from the Aeolian island of Salina to escape poverty just before the First World War.

He was educated by the Christian Brothers, ultimately at St Kevin’s College where he was dux of the school, then winning his way to Melbourne University through a scholarship like three other members of his family. To me, he always retained something of the self-confidence, directness and instinct for struggle and competition that then characterised the Brothers’ schools.

Prime Minister, John Howard, with Archbishop D'Arcy and Cardinal Clancy after the Funeral Mass (photos: John Casamento)
Prime Minister, John Howard, with Archbishop D'Arcy and Cardinal Clancy after the Funeral Mass (photos: John Casamento)

Catholic cultures

His personal story is a wonderful example of the openness of Australian society, of the interplay of two different Catholic cultures; of the capacity of the Irish Australian Catholic education system, then without government funds, to promote social mobility and build on the strengths of Italian faith and family. He himself wrote, "I have never had any doubts about my identity. I was born in Australia. It is my country and I owe my primary loyalty to it. About this there is no room for confusion. The rest of me is Aeolian, my blood, my background, my earliest memories."

When he visited Salina as an adult he marvelled that those tiny islands could have bred so sturdy a people with their "instinct for stability" which he so prized.

It was his Aeolian background, he claimed, which gave him his values; the sense of family, the necessity of religious belief, the importance of accumulating some modest property for a degree of independence and the love of Italy and the Italian way of life.

The Italian-Australian community has made many wonderful contributions to Australian society. We are especially in their debt for B.A. Santamaria.

Bob grew to manhood in the Brunswick of the Depression. He saw unemployment and poverty. The brothers at St Kevin’s gave him reasons for believing and in the Campion Society, as he was introduced to the Catholic intellectual tradition, he came to realise that ideas are powerful, that ideas provoke consequences.

Dr Daniel Mannix was then Archbishop of Melbourne and Pius XI was the Pope, a great champion of lay Catholic involvement in the world (Catholic Action), a strong opponent of capitalism, communism and fascism and a regular advocate of the application of Catholic principles to public life. All agreed that he was a strong, perhaps even a tough Pope.

However, these were important background factors rather than the defining issue of Bob’s long career, which was the Spanish Civil War between Franco and the communists.

The great English historian A.J.P. Taylor wrote that "The Spanish question far transcended politics in the ordinary sense. The controversy provided for the generation of the thirties the emotional experience of their lifetime."

In Australia, Bob himself wrote that the Spanish Civil War reshaped his own priorities and that his primary concern was the freedom of religion from persecution by the State. Here the fire was lit.

A panegyric is not the occasion to list all Bob Santamaria’s achievements and disappointments. It would be difficult to attempt this without appearing partisan and quite impossible to identify them without being controversial, but I want to focus a little longer on this Spanish theme because it reveals the crucial motivation and something of the style and passion that characterised his long public life.

The debate in March 1937 in the Public Lecture Theatre at Melbourne University on the topic "That the

Spanish Government is the ruin of Spain" has entered into Catholic legend. Manning Clark wrote about it a number of times. It was held before a packed, rowdy audience of at least 1,000 people, two-thirds Catholic, many of them working class militants from the Catholic Young Men’s Society.

Bob Santamaria was part of the three-man affirmative team and he provoked uproar as he declaimed, "When the bullets of the atheists struck the statue of Christ outside the cathedral in Madrid, for some that was just lead striking brass, but for me those bullets were piercing the heart of Christ my King."

The good Catholic turn-out ensured that, when the motion was put, it was carried amid "unparalleled scenes of enthusiasm" as one report described it. Santamaria’s cry of "Long live Christ the King," a phrase coined first in the Mexican persecution of the Christians, also drew thunderous applause.

It therefore comes as no surprise to us now that soon afterwards Archbishop Mannix offered young Bobby Santamaria, a new graduate in law and arts, a position in the recently formed National Secretariat of Catholic Action.

Bob Santamaria (few called him Bobby except his parents and Manning Clark) struggled, indeed flourished, in the hard world of Australian politics for sixty years. The verdicts of his friends and enemies are various and conflicting, not only on his strengths and weaknesses, but even on his successes and failures. More than ever then, commentators today find it difficult to accept that the engine of his life, the central unifying motivation was his Catholic faith; but Spain is a help in understanding this.

He had decided, like St Paul in today’s letter to the Romans to be on God’s side and he worked tirelessly to ensure that nothing - no power, height or depth - came between him and the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus. In faith, and of necessity and from long experience, he came to realise that if he was to triumph at all it was through the trials which beset him.

He went to daily Mass and his religious devotion was deep, reserved and conventional. He had huge and hidden reservoirs of compassion for individuals, which never obscured his clarity of mind about principles and issues. It was Thomas Carlyle who wrote last century that "a man who does not know rigour cannot pity either."

He well knew the hazards of working with the leadership of the Church as he had in fact lost his first pay packet playing cards with an Irish Australian priest friend! And many times he experienced the wrath of Church opponents as he espoused unpopular doctrines and practices.

Archbishop Pell concelebrating B.A. Santamaria's Requiem Mass with Archbishop D'Arcy, Cardinal Clancy and Archbishop Little (photo: John Casamento)
Archbishop Pell concelebrating B.A. Santamaria's Requiem Mass with Archbishop D'Arcy, Cardinal Clancy and Archbishop Little (photo: John Casamento)

Christian hope

Nor do I believe that his well known pessimism can be completely understood without a background of Christian hope. It is true that he did recently tell his grandson who was organising a seminar on "Signs of Hope" that there were no such signs. He did believe strongly in the consequences of original sin, that flaw or fault-line that runs through every community and every human heart and that makes all improvement costly and difficult. But he also believed that our good and just God would implement in the next life the promises outlined in the beatitudes by his Son; and balance things up, even things out for the poor, oppressed and suffering.

Then the Lord of hosts will prepare a rich banquet for all peoples, wipe away every tear, remove our shame, put aside the burial shroud.

These deep convictions of his were not retained without struggle. He knew the enticement to agnosticism, to set the great issue of God to one side was too difficult. He spoke of the silken thread which sustained personal faith, but for him it was a thread which never broke and which strengthened him magnificently in his last illness. He died a beautiful Christian death.

The Catholic community in Australia owes B.A. Santamaria a great debt for his leadership in the fight against communism in the unions; for his indispensable contribution in obtaining financial justice for all Christian schools from state and federal governments; for his authorship of fifteen of the Bishops" statements on social justice; for his brilliant alliance with Archbishop Mannix, where he progressed from the status of a young disciple to being suspected, inaccurately, of exercising an excessive influence over an ailing and declining archbishop.

However, some would believe that his greatest religious contribution has been during the last ten or fifteen years as different forces contended for the soul of Catholicism. Here B.A. stood squarely With the Holy Father

No other person had the intellectual skills or organisational ability nation-wide to inform Australian Catholics of the nature of the challenge they faced. It was his last great struggle and the issue is far from settled.

There are minority forces in Australian Catholicism who want to subordinate gospel morality to individual conscience. Some want to use this to expand beyond recognition the limits of proper sexual activity. Some reject not only particular Papal teachings, but would like to sideline Papal authority itself. Others see the ministerial priesthood as one relic of a vanished clerical age.

Even more seriously some do not see Christianity as a revealed religion. So the divinity of Christ is impugned, the Trinity redefined and the worship of the one true God relativised and minimised. It is increasingly hard work to convince our youngsters of the evils of abortion and euthanasia, let alone contraception.

Thanks to Bob Santamaria much more of this struggle is now in the open, with the issues available to public scrutiny. This represents progress. He could not remove or much deflect the mighty forces damaging faith and morals in the Western world, but he has managed to alert an increasing number of us to the folly of embracing the forces seeking our destruction.

Once again, Bob was an effective agent of God’s provident concern for our community. He changed the course of Australian religious debate on both faith and family. He inspired many of us to join him in the long twilight struggle between good and evil, between faith and unbelief. We thank God for this.


Bob Santamaria was a great Australian, and a saintly Catholic. He would be annoyed if we did not pray during this Mass that he be loosed from his sins. And I do this willingly, but without deep conviction about the need.

He did know the attractive force of the principle that the end justifies the means. But he rejected this. He loved greatly his Church, his family, his nation and because of that he knew God’s love and forgiveness.

He has left us, but his legacy remains. As we await the resurrection of the body we also have to keep up the struggle with hope and strength.

His close friend, the distinguished Australian poet James McAuley has pointed our way:

It is not said we shall succeed,
Save as his Cross prevails;
The good we choose and mean to do
Prospers if he wills it to.
And if not, then it fails.
Nor is failure our disgrace:
By ways we cannot know
He keeps the merit in his hand,
And suddenly as no one planned,
Behold the kingdom grow!