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Playing the timely tune, singing the timely song


Generations of young Australian children grew up watching Play School and well knew its signature tune, 'There’s a bear in there'!

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Few would know that it was written by Richard Connelly. More would be familiar with the hymns that he wrote with the famous Australian poet, James McAuley (1917-1976). In the 1960s the pair’s work anchored the Living Parish Hymn Book, edited by Fr Tony Newman which would go on to sell more than one million copies over the next decade, enabling congregations to sing hymns in a distinctively Australian voice. Connelly died recently on May 4 2022, aged 94.

This collaboration between McAuley and Connelly bought a freshness and a theological literate character to the hymns we sang and the tunes we hummed. We no longer only sang hymns from afar, we also sang hymns from near. Hymns that were both poetic and prayerful, graceful and memorable.

Part of the Wikipedia entry for Richard Connelly says:

In December 2009, he was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Arts by the University of Notre Dame Australia in recognition of his ‘extraordinary contributions to Catholic liturgical music in Australia’. In his acceptance speech he said the hymns he had made with James McAuley were ‘the centrepiece of my liturgical work and, of all the things that I have made, apart from my family, the best’.

Connelly’s tunes and McAuley’s poetry gave us a language of faith which was profound, not simply just because it was new and Australian but because it represented the very best of what it is to collaborate and speak (sing) our faith with a hopeful and life-giving voice.

The Plenary Council, the most significant event in the life of the Catholic Church in Australia for 80 years, comes to its conclusion in early July in Sydney, with the second session.

For most people who have been on the journey of these past six years it has been a fruitful time. My own experience is that while the process was unfamiliar to me, it is not an unfamiliar pathway of the Church over 2000 years. I have found that one can only understand what synodality is all about when you are part of it. Just because it is unfamiliar; just because it has called us to learn new, or forgotten skills such as listening, collaboration and discernment; just because it is not perfect, does not mean that the process is wrong or that we should as those signs on the highway say ‘Go back wrong way’. It is a legitimate pathway forward.

No wonder that the Gospel story of the disciples on the way to Emmaus is so often referenced when talking about the journey of the Church. It is at the very point of desolation, when the disciples were most downcast that Jesus, the Risen Christ, turns up and their eyes were opened. Journeying together always means that Christ journeys with us, and even though Jesus ‘disappears’ from the disciples’ limited sight, when their eyes were opened it enabled them to see Jesus everywhere. Notice that they do not continue to stay where they are; they do not long to return to the golden age of the three years with the master before the crucifixion and resurrection, rather they return to the place of defeat, to the place of crucifixion and boldly, sing Christ is Risen.

The Church throughout the world through the prophetic voice of Pope Francis calls us to this same experience. Have we forgotten Pope Francis’ first apostolic exhortation The Joy of the Gospel, written in 2013 in which he says:

‘The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew. In this Exhortation I wish to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelisation marked by this joy, while pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come.’

The Church in Australia in prophetically calling the first Plenary Council in 80 years looks to sing the old songs in a new way. It seeks to provide the same experience that the two disciples experienced on the road to Emmaus.

It is true that there have been some voices that are concerned about where the Plenary is taking us. I am not in any way fearful of this process but rather hopeful and energised because of this and I encourage you to be too.

In the Adelaide Archdiocese we are well prepared by such things as our Diocesan Assemblies and consultations; groups such as our Diocesan Pastoral Council and Senate of Priests and other bodies to continue this process. It will not be water poured into the sand.

We go with the Risen Christ and towards the Risen Christ impelled by the Holy Spirit. Is it perfect? No. Yet it is the best way forward. How often have we forgotten the evangelist Luke’s encouraging reminder, ‘the kingdom of God is among you’. (Luke 17:21)

Richard Connelly often named his hymn tunes after things Australian. One such is Araluen we know it as ‘In faith and hope and in love’. Even in the late 1960s this theme of travelling together was apparent as the Church, the People of God, moved forward. James McAuley’s poetic words summed it up well when he said, ‘In faith, hope and love, in joyful trust we move towards our Father’s home above’. There might not be ‘a bear in there’, but certainly the kingdom of God is amongst us. Would that we had the eyes of the Emmaus disciples to see Christ amongst us.

God is good, good indeed.


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