ROME – Just two days ago, yet another victim of Australia’s devastating wildfires was laid to rest. This time it was Andrew O’Dwyer, a volunteer firefighter and a Catholic who lost his life battling the blazes, marking the latest casualty in a nationwide emergency that so far has claimed at least 24 people, with several others still missing.
Our Lady of Victories parish in Horsley Park, where O’Dwyer’s funeral Mass was held on Jan. 7 with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison among the mourners, is currently aiding O’Dwyer’s widow and 18-month-old daughter.
“Everyone in Sydney knows someone affected. The apocalyptic images and fire warnings are constant, and thick smoke has been omnipresent in our city,” said Archbishop Anthony Fisher in comments to Crux.
Fisher, who heads the Sydney archdiocese, said many people in the city, both clerics and lay, have been caught up in the fires or impacted in some way, including one of his priests who, for some time, has been trapped in one of the most precarious areas of New South Wales while assisting his elderly father.
Though most Sydney residents in the inner city are safe, Fisher said 20 people in his own province have died as a result of the fires.
“This has certainly put a dampener on our Christmas celebrations,” he said. Yet, Fisher said the spiritual imagery of the season helps: “We know the Christ-child was homeless at the first Christmas, and he’s with us through these anxious times.”
Sydney is the capital of Australia’s state of New South Wales (NSW), one of the areas most devastated by the fires.
Drought and extreme heat are considered to be the primary causes of the fires, which have been burning for several months. However, police in NSW have made several arrests and have taken legal action against a number of individuals for disregarding burn bans, arson or dropping a lit match or cigarette on the ground.
So far, nearly 18 million acres have been scorched and an estimated one billion animals have died, as the bulk of the fires are tearing through bushland, forests and national parks. More than 1,500 homes have been destroyed and 24 lives lost, yet each of these statistics is expected to rise as the fires continue to burn.
By now, images of bikers and passersby giving water to thirsty animals have become almost a daily occurrence on social media as Australians seek to raise awareness and save as much wildlife as possible.
Numerous celebrities have donated personal funds to relief efforts and have urged other people to step up, including Australian singer Rick Springfield, who encouraged fans to donate to Wildlife Rescue South Coast; American heavy metal band Metallica, which donated $500,000 to relief efforts; and Australian actor Chris Hemsworth, better known as “Thor,” who has donated $1 million.
However, on the ground and at the front lines of ongoing relief efforts has been the Catholic Church, which has offered assistance through welfare programs, health and education agencies, and prayer campaigns.
“Amidst the devastation of the fires, it has been encouraging to witness the support of so many ordinary Australians, including so many men and women of faith,” Fisher said, noting that while the majority of the Church’s response is seen at a local parish and diocesan level, “such a great crisis also requires a national response.”
The Australian bishops’ conference has rallied, distributing prayer cards and offering resources to parishes, families and other Catholic communities. National Catholic agencies and organizations have also provided support through initiatives such as the local CatholicCare service agency and the St Vincent de Paul society, which is dedicated to serving the poor.
The bishops have also coordinated a national network connecting people impacted by the fires with those who can offer support such as meal prep, clearing out properties, rebuilding, counseling support and pastoral care.
Bishops in Australia have also asked that a national collection be taken up at all Masses throughout the diocese Jan. 26, with the proceeds going to the St. Vincent de Paul society.
Parishes and ecumenical and interfaith coalitions have all rallied to offer support, while Catholic programs and organizations in the archdiocese, including welfare, school, health and elderly care programs, have all reached out in “concrete ways” to those struggling as a result of the crisis.
Fisher said free relief will also be given to families in fire-affected areas, which have suffered a drought for nearly a year. Schools and welfare agencies, he said, are also providing counseling to students and families.
“We are well aware that in addition to immediate, emergency relief there will be a need for long-term support as individuals, families and local communities grieve and rebuild,” he said, adding that, “We are determined to be there for people over the long haul.”
However, for the Church, in addition to financial support, there’s also the spiritual side.
“The first thing we can and have been doing is to pray for rain, for safety for those in drought and fire affected areas, and for our fire-fighters and other responders,” Fisher said, noting that several Masses and public and private prayers have been offered for these intentions.
Yet with close to 200 bushfires still blazing and projected to get stronger, the Australian government has fallen under harsh criticism for not doing more to stop the catastrophe, with much of the rage directed at Morrison.
Morrison was criticized in December for taking a family vacation to Hawaii while thousands of Australians were choking on smoke. Facing backlash, Morrison cut his vacation short, however, he has also come under public fire for his stance on climate change and for not taking serious enough action to put out the blazes.
In Fisher’s view, he said there is a “natural anxiety in the air” during a major crisis, and “grief often generates anger. People look for someone to blame.”
However, in his own experience, Fisher said local communities, charities and elected officials “have all worked very hard in the face of these unprecedented fires and responded better than could have been expected.”
“Meantime, our firefighters, including overseas personnel supporting thousands of Australian volunteers, have been exceptional. They have been the St Josephs of our Christmas season keeping the holy families safe,” he said.
Fisher called a refreshing rainfall in NSW over the weekend a blessing, saying, “Every little bit of rain is relief and promise.”
“We must keep praying for rain in great quantities and the right places,” he said. “We need that power Who is greater than ourselves. And such prayer inspires concrete compassionate action.”
Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it
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