Australian fire victims buoyed by faith

Firefighters line the road as a vehicle carrying the casket of volunteer firefighter Andrew O'Dwyer passes en route to his funeral Mass at Our Lady of Victories Catholic Church in Sydney Jan. 7, 2020. O'Dwyer, a member of the Horsley Park Rural Fire Brigade in Sydney, died Dec. 19 when the truck he was traveling in rolled off the road after a tree fell in the town of Buxton. (CNS photo/NSW Rural Fire Service via Reuters) See AUSTRALIA-FIRES-COLERIDGE-APPEAL Jan. 7, 2020.

CANBERRA, Australia (CNS) — Saying that “there is no end in sight to the horror which confronts us,” Archbishop Mark Coleridge, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, said the bishops have implemented a national response to months of wildfires.

The bishops have set up a national network, connecting people affected by the fires with “people who can help with tasks such as preparing meals, clearing properties, rebuilding communities, as well as pastoral and counseling support.” They are collaborating with other religious agencies and their institutes and will take up a special collection the last weekend in January, when Australia Day is celebrated.

Archbishop Coleridge said people who do not want to wait to donate to their parish collections can donate to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, known in Australia as Vinnies.

The bishops’ conference also set up a special page,, with a button for donation to the Vinnies, as well as resources such as prayers of intercession, prayers for those affected, and statements on the fire from other organizations.

“We have all seen the apocalyptic images, even if we are not in the areas most affected,” the archbishop said. “Lives have been lost, homes and towns have been destroyed, smoke has shrouded large swathes of our country.

“The efforts of firefighters have been heroic. The resilience of the communities affected has been extraordinary.”

At least 24 people have died in the fires, which began in August and now are in four states. CNN reported Jan. 7 that more than 2,000 homes in the state of New South Wales alone have been destroyed.

Archbishop Coleridge said the bishops were aware of “the huge amount being done” by governments and first responders and noted that local faith communities also were responding.

“This has been Australia at its best, and we all stand with those who have been most stricken and with those who are putting their lives on the line to fight the fires,” he said.

He also renewed his call for “insistent prayer for those stricken by drought and fire, for those who have lost their lives in the fires and their families, for rain to quench the parched land and extinguish the fires, and for urgent action to care for our common home in order to prevent such calamities in the future.”

“A genuinely Catholic response to a crisis of this magnitude must draw strength from prayer, which inspires concrete and compassionate action.”

He said experts recognized that it would be a longterm process to help people and whole towns rebuild.

At the Vatican Jan. 8, during his general audience, Pope Francis also remembered those affected by the fires: “I would like to ask everyone to pray to the Lord to help the people in this difficult time, with that blaze that is burning so strong. I am close to the people of Australia.”

Those affected by the fires echoed the pope’s call for prayer.

Marie Burton, a parishioner of Our Lady of Sorrows Church, in the New South Wales Diocese of Wagga, lives on a farm in Jingellic, near the border with Victoria border. In late December and early January, Jingellic was surrounded by fire twice.

“We know so many Catholic people who are being affected. There’s a lot of suffering going on, and we’re continuing to pray,” Burton said in tears.

“Twice our home was saved. On Monday evening — and again on Tuesday.

“The fire came up over the hill but there was no stopping it. My husband was getting things out of the house, but he was told to just get out of there.

“We didn’t know for 24 hours (what happened) but luckily, it was saved.”

Burton has taken shelter with her sister’s family, the Darlows, including nephew Matthew Darlow, a member of the local brigade of the Rural Fire Service. The Darlows live at Lankeys Creek, approximately 12 miles north of Jingellic. While staying with her relatives, Burton has been cooking at a shelter to feed firefighters.

“We just need to band together, get the fires out and support those who have lost their homes and livelihoods,” said Darlow.

“We’re waiting on a change in wind that could affect things, and an increase in temperature, tonight or tomorrow,” said Darlow, who asked Catholics around the world to pray.

“Offer up prayers for the people who’ve lost their lives and those who’ve lost their livelihoods so that they can rebuild as quickly as possible,” he said. “And pray particularly for widespread rain across the whole country.”

Catholics such as the Burtons and Darlows say their faith is strong.

“We have a very deep faith,” said Burton. “I put a scapular on the door and sprinkled the house with holy water, and we have statues in our home, including the Infant of Prague, and so I prayed — we prayed very hard, and asked other people to pray.

“All of these people are amazing people, with an amazing Catholic faith, and we know God will protect them,” she said. “Every time we hear good news, we’re overjoyed that these people haven’t lost their homes. There is just miracle after miracle happening.”

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