Catholic Church in Australia Responds to Unprecedented Bushfire Crisis
Christian charity will carry People of God and their fellow citizens forward in the days ahead.
SYDNEY — A sudden downpour brought much-needed relief to some fire-ravaged and drought-stricken Australian states. While the rain is not enough to extinguish all blazing fires, it will assist firefighters battling what are the most horrific bushfires in recent memory.
Since October 2019, when Australia’s intense fire season began, at least 28 people have died, more than 26 million acres of land has burned, 2,000-plus homes have been destroyed, and more than 1.25 billion animals have perished, with countless species and endangered Australian wildlife on the verge of extinction.
In the wake of these raging wildfires, the Church in Australia has held steadfast to the timeless Christian message of faith, hope and love through the provision of material, practical, financial, spiritual and emotional assistance.
Australian bishops are currently coordinating a national response to the bushfire crisis from the whole Church. This national response, a statement said, will involve the “facilitation of a national network connecting people affected by the bushfires with people who can help with tasks such as preparing meals, clearing properties, rebuilding communities, as well as pastoral and counseling support.”
The bishops’ conference has directed that all parishes across Australia take up a special collection in Masses held on Australia Day weekend (Jan. 25-26) and that all funds be donated to the St. Vincent de Paul Society Bushfire Appeal.
The St. Vincent de Paul Society (Vinnies) has offered immediate and long-term assistance to those who have lost their homes, livelihoods and family members. The Vinnies, with more than 60,000 Australian members and volunteers, have provided food, clothing, blankets, household items, financial assistance to pay bills and emotional support to survivors and those who have had to evacuate bushfire-affected regions.
“After the destruction of the bushfires comes regeneration. The blackened bush is already full of green shoots. We will continue to work together and support each other with purpose and promise,” said New South Wales Vinnies’ state council president, Peter McNamara. “The initiative of Vinnies members is daily refreshed by the fire of the Holy Spirit and the waters of our shared baptism.”
Vinnies is currently offering initial emergency payments of $1,000 to those who have lost property/household effects or to those suffering from losses affecting their livelihood and has provided more than $200,000 in relief so far.
Other key Catholic agencies in health, welfare and education, including hospitals, eldercare facilities and CatholicCare, which provides free counseling to those impacted by the fires, are working with local parishes to help people and towns in drought and fire-affected regions rebuild their lives and communities. Parishes that have not been impacted have partnered with those which have, to identify immediate needs and provide direct support.
Unity in Charity
The need for solidarity and charitable giving has unsurprisingly united the Eastern and Western Churches in Australia.
The Maronite Catholic Eparchy of Australia has responded generously through fundraising initiatives organized by its local parishes and the delivery of truckloads of food, drinks and other supplies to victims and families in fire-affected regions.
“St. Mary MacKillop, the patron saint of Australia, left behind a powerful message for us today: to never see a need without doing something about it,” said Christopher Ibrahim, 21-year-old youth vice-coordinator and volunteer from Sydney, who encouraged members from his local Maronite parish to gather together truckloads of foods and other supplies to directly assist victims and struggling communities.
“It is in these tragic times that we are called to bear witness to the Christian mission to be a beacon of hope and light so that we can help rebuild communities, towns and lives affected by the fires,” Ibrahim added.
“We Australians are united and are always ready to lend a helping hand to those in need," said 25-year-old Sandy Khoury, a Maronite Catholic law student from Sydney, who, over the past few weeks, managed to round up friends and families from local parish communities to assist in supplying two carloads full of materials, including toiletries, bottled water, baby supplies and sleeping materials.
"Australia has been our home since birth. It is impossible for us to simply do nothing as we watch our country burn right before our very eyes and see our neighbors suffering,” Khoury explained. “As Mother Teresa once said, ‘Stay where you are. Find your own Calcutta.’ We need to do more than just donate money. We need to donate our time, and go out and spread love to our wider community.”
Through the combined efforts of various charitable organizations like Maronites on Mission, MaroniteCare and individual donations personally made by Australian Maronites, close to $1 million has been raised so far to assist with bushfire relief.
“It is in these very testing times that we remember, pray for and thank the selfless volunteers, firefighters and emergency personnel who sacrifice their lives each and every day in order to protect others,” Bishop Antoine-Charbel Tarabay of the Maronite Catholic Eparchy of Australia told the Register. “It is heartwarming to see the response of the wider community and the solidarity of all Australians at this time.”
“May we never forget our role, as stewards of this planet, to care for it, share its resources fairly and protect all its creatures,” he said.
Baptism by Fire
The Church in Australia is now faced with a new challenge: to bear witness to the resurrection of Christ through love and through self-sacrifice of communities, volunteers and people of goodwill banding together to rebuild communities, towns, cities and lives from the ashes of destruction.
Powerful and inspiring stories of selflessness and solidarity have emerged out of Australia’s bushfire crisis. When around 800 people gathered together on Jan. 7 for the requiem Mass of 36-year-old firefighter Andrew O’Dwyer from Our Lady of Victories parish in Horsley Park, many honored the great legacy left behind by the Sydney Catholic who tragically died when a tree caused his firetruck to roll over. The fallen firefighter was described as a protector, an extraordinary hero and a selfless man who, as his father, Errol, said, “took great pride in taking care of others.”
“As our nation passed through an inferno these past weeks, the spirit of our people was not consumed,” said Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher on Jan. 12 as he celebrated a solemn Mass on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord for those affected by the bushfires. “Rather, their hardiness and goodness were on display; hope and love were expressed through prayer and fire-fighting and practical support.”
“The sacrament of baptism initiates and purifies: It also unifies. Baptism brings together diverse peoples into a single family, the children of God,” said Archbishop Fisher. “Likewise the recent fires have brought us together, aware that however safe we are in Sydney, our brothers and sisters have lost much or are at risk. The fires have bonded firefighters, servicemen and other responders, from around Australia and even overseas, united in self-sacrifice, for some even unto death.”
“Fire, we know, is part of the ordinary rhythm of life, death and rebirth in this land. Danger and devastation seem to be the dreadful price we must pay to live alongside the beauty of the Australian bush,” continued Archbishop Fisher. “Yet one thing the bush says through fire and ashes, that perfectly accords with the Christian Gospel, is that, after destruction, by God’s grace, comes regeneration.”
Describing how the mettle of the Australian community is being tested by fire, Archbishop Fisher reassured adherents that while Australia “passes through this baptism of fire, it can emerge stronger and greater than before.”
He said, “Together let us pray for a great outpouring of water from the heavens to cleanse our land of destruction and revivify both the bush and our hearts. Together let us stand with all those suffering the destruction of drought and fire, and all those assisting them.”
Register correspondent Georgette Bechara writes from Sydney.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
If you wish to support Australians affected by the fires, donate to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Australia by clicking on this link: BushfireAppeal.com.au.
All funds raised will be directed to bushfire relief across Australian states.
The Order of Malta in Australia is also directing their National Disaster Fund to the relief of those in fire affected areas: OrderofMalta.org.au/mission/.