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The cathedral: symbol of Christ's authoritative teaching
What distinguishes a cathedral from all other churches is not its size or beauty, but the bishop's chair, or cathedra. The bishop's chair is not akin to a throne; rather it is more akin to a pulpit. For the cathedra is a symbol of teaching, of that authoritative teaching that belongs to the bishops as successors of the Apostles.
It is the continuation of that authority spoken of by Jesus: All the authority of heaven and earth that is his as the Son of God he gives to his Apostles and their successors, so that the Church might make disciples of all the nations through baptism and right teaching right up until the end of time.
When Jesus says, "know that I am with you always, yes, to the end of time," we know that this refers to a number of different modes of his continuing presence amongst us: through his Holy Spirit; in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist; and whenever two or more gather in his name.
But another such mode of Jesus' presence, which perhaps we seldom recall, is his authoritative presence in the Church. And this is why Jesus gave his authority to the Apostles and their successors: so that until the end of time, whatever Peter and the Apostles taught, whatever their successors the bishops, in union with the successor of Peter, taught in regard to faith and morals, we would know to be true.
For our faith needs a sure foundation. Christ does not want us to be deceived; he wants us to be sure in faith. Sound faith and right morals can only be proposed to our hearts and minds authoritatively if they are true. Truth and authority go together. Christ is the possessor of both and he has gifted his Church both with the truth and with his authority.
The Bishop's chair is thus the seat of this authoritative teaching. Let this chair then be a sign and reminder to us that the faith we profess is not just wishful thinking; the faith we profess is true.
And let this chair also be a sign of the unity we enjoy. For the bishop, as a teacher of Catholic truth, guarantees the unity of the diocese, of its priests and of its faithful, be it amongst ourselves, be it also in communion with the Universal Church, past, present, and future.
Whilst the cathedra is essential to the Cathedral, it is the altar that stands at its centre. Every Catholic church has an altar, but it is in front of this altar that bishops are ordained and consecrated; in front of this altar that the bishop ordains and lays hands on the men sent into the parishes as priests; in front of this altar that the sacred oils - of Chrism, of Catechumens, and of the sick, - are consecrated, and with these oils the sacraments are then celebrated and administered throughout the diocese.
On the sacred altar itself the Eucharistic sacrifice is offered; here the passion, death and resurrection of Christ is made present anew every day. On the altar our Lord's words come true: "I am with you always yes, to the end of time." And as we make our prayerful procession up the nave, our feet walking the same journey as our forebears in faith, stepping on the very tiles they walked upon, we arrive at the communion rails and receive Holy Communion.
Here we are reminded that the Church of Jesus Christ is not a mere human society made up of competing group interests. Rather, the Church is the Body of Christ; it is Christ himself who unites us with himself and with one another in a unity that is full of life, in a unity that is both human and divine.
Every Catholic church has an ambo or pulpit from where the Word of God is proclaimed. In our Cathedral this has occurred in various places: the Gospel has been proclaimed from the original and elegant timber pulpit; from this solid and dependable marble pulpit; and from the wings of the brass eagle.
These three places remind us of some of the qualities of the Word of God: it possesses the elegance of truth; we can depend upon it; and it lifts the human soul toward God as on eagle's wings.
But these three places also serve as a reminder that God does not want his Gospel proclaimed in just one place. It is as an appeal to us to proclaim and make known the word of the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, in many and varied places: in our homes and families, in the workplace, in society, in the economy, and in culture.
And just as our cathedral often and eloquently proclaims its message of faith, hope and love, in silence, so too at times, we can proclaim the Gospel without a single word, allowing the goodness of our actions and the beauty of our lives to speak instead.
There are so many more lessons in faith built into this cathedral: the solid walls; the spire soaring heavenward; the prayerful arches; the stained glass windows bathing us in God's light; the heroic lives of the saints they depict; the tombs of bishops the statues of saints.
One thing I notice every time I enter the cathedral are the fresh and beautiful flowers that constantly adorn Our Lady's altar. They are a tangible sign of the heartfelt love that the children of God have for his mother. They express the reality about Mary that was highlighted by the Second Vatican Council which began fifty years ago, at the midpoint of our cathedral's history.
The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, noted (54) that Mary occupies that place in the Church which is the highest after Christ Himself, and which at the same time, is also closest to us. For this reason, it went on to say that the devotion of the faithful to Mary "does not hinder in any way the immediate union of the faithful with Christ but on the contrary fosters it" (60).
Our attempts to spread the Gospel, however, will be futile unless they spring from and are animated by our union with God. For 100 years this cathedral has been as a beating heart in the Church's mission: the faithful streaming into Sunday Mass to be filled and empowered by the love and grace of God, only to be sent forth an hour later to carry the Gospel to the surrounding world, just as blood is sent forth from the heart to carry oxygen to the entire body. This has been the way in Armidale in this great cathedral, Sunday after Sunday, five thousand two hundred times so far. Long may it continue.
This is the edited text of Bishop Michael Kennedy's homily on the occasion of the centenary of Armidale's Cathedral of Saints Mary and Joseph, on 21 October 2012.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 26 No 1 (February 2013), p. 20
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