At a later stage of my holidays, I went to stay with friends in northern Victoria, then wound my way back to Maitland through the towns and districts of Central West NSW.
First, let’s remark on the tremendous beauty of the countryside at the moment. It seems now that all I can remember, for years and years past, is driving through more or less drought stricken country. Not now. All the way up through central NSW, the country is green and gold. Vast fields of brilliant yellow canola flowers alternate with the tracts of young green wheat and paddocks of actual long grass. I genuinely don’t remember it ever looking so good. And the paddocks are stocked, making me retrospectively conscious of just how empty the land had often been when I’d travelled through before. Now there are big concentrated mobs of sheep with their lambs, with more scattered general purpose sheep and cattle dotted across the landscape. I know that not all the state is like this, and I apologise to the people with connections in Walgett and the north-west whose situation, we know, is very different − but, gosh, it looks a rich, lavish and beautiful land out there at the moment.
Of course, I was also stopping in towns along the way. My marked preference is for those that haven’t prospered too much since the great depression of the 1890s, or at least were spared the burst of modern building in the 1960s and 70s. Give me a main street of shops, pubs and banks, all dated 1883! Of course it helps if they’re not too depressed right now, if the parks and paintwork are in reasonable order. Still, a little seediness has its own attraction, as does the lack of certain modern amenities. I was delighted when the nice lady at the motel in Grenfell pointed me to one end of the street for the dining room at the Royal or, at the other end, the Chinese restaurant. What more does a town need?
Somewhere or other I was struck by a rather fine, if miniature, stone church. It was all locked up, which I found a little annoying but understandable in its rather isolated position. From then on, however, I was on the lookout. In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis speaks of our need to be a church with open doors. Most people who have only heard the phrase think he is speaking metaphorically of being a welcoming church, but he is not, as the context makes abundantly clear. Sadly, his call that churches be open hasn’t had much impact in this country. I found churches in the main street of small towns all locked and barred. Why? There might be no resident priest there, but can no-one else open and close a door? Several of these places even had Catholic schools right next door, but the church was locked anyway. I know we are a society obsessed with security, with locks and alarms and fences on everything. But it’s one of the national neuroses I think the Church should try to rise above. Churches should be open. People don’t just want houses of prayer, quiet places of reflection, between 10 and 11 on Sundays. The pope and I would like the church communities of this diocese to lead the way in being a church of open doors. Literally and metaphorically.