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Friday, 12 December 2014 12:06

“The Religious made Bishop of a Diocese”

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bishop greg okelly official150As the Year of the Consecrated Life was to commence on the First Sunday of Advent 2014, a morning was devoted to a discussion on the role of Religious Life in a diocese at the recent Joint Meeting of the Australian Bishops Conference and Religious. Port Pirie Bishop Greg O'Kelly sj shared his experiences and insights as one who is a member of a Religious Order being made the Bishop of a diocese.

Address to Meeting of Religious Superiors and Bishops, North Sydney, 23rd November 2014

“The Religious made Bishop of a Diocese”

The quotation given to us from Pope Saint John Paul II as a discussion starter states that there is no conflict or opposition between the institutional and the charismatic elements of the Church. That statement might reflect a conviction held by numbers of Religious Superiors that Pope John Paul II did not really understand Religious Life. One thinks of the conflict between Bishop Polding here in Sydney and the early Religious; there is the conflict between early Josephites and Dr Cani in Queensland; and of course there is a whole story of Mary Ward and the Loreto Sisters. There may in the final result might be no conflict, but there are periods in the story of the Church when it has taken time for the institutional and the charismatic to come to terms with each other.

I would like to make my initial remarks from the point of view of a Bishop facing the prospect of his diocese becoming bereft of Religious life, and what will be the impact from that. I looked up the figures for the Diocese of Port Pirie in 1972, the year I was ordained. There were then seven Religious priests, five Religious brothers and ninety-three Religious Sisters! Today we have no Religious priests, no Religious brothers and twelve Sisters, with six of those being seventy years old and over. One must ponder the implications for us.

The first is from the point of view of an ecclesiology. Vatican II describes Religious Life as a manifestation of the holiness of the Church. The existence of Religious Life in the Church is a revelation of its holiness.

What Religious Life brings is, first of all, prophetic witness. It is an indication of how the Spirit can move individuals, drawing them to closer discipleship, in different ways. One thinks of the three Teresa’s – the Great Theresa of Avila, the young Therese of Lisieux, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Each was troubled by God at a different stage of life, and each was called in deeply personal and different ways to respond. The prophetic is necessarily an individual gift within the Church. The prophet plays a role vis-à-vis the institution. One thinks of how Francis of Assisi addressed the Church in his time. Catherine of Siena is another powerful example. The prophets of the Old Testament were called as individuals to confront or challenge the general body of the People of God. Secondly, Religious Life indicates a witness of radical discipleship. It is perhaps no accident that Religious Life began in the Church at the conclusion of the Age of Martyrs. There always are some called to serve the Lord in a radical following of Him. The three vows encompass that form of discipleship – poverty being all I have; chastity all that I am; obedience all that I ever will be.

Thirdly, there is a contemplative dimension in Religious Life as an indication of an integral feature of discipleship of Jesus. The early founders of Religious Life, the hermits, the hermits of the desert, figures such as St Anthony and St Paul, were essentially contemplatives, and this truth must be part of the reality of Religious Life if it is to be authentic.

Think, then, of the impact on the diocese when the people living such truths, the consecrated men and women are no longer part of the scene.

Apart from the ecclesiology, there is also the pastoral impact that affects the diocese due to the decline of Religious Life. Seven of our twelve Religious are Pastoral Associates, and six of them are over seventy. Their role is so important in the parishes, but there is no way we could afford to replace them with lay Pastoral Associates requiring salaries.

I think of the loss of the impact of our Religious on our diocese as a reducing number. Our present Religious are known, cherished and revered by our people. They are living signs of service, dedication, availability and prayerfulness. Their presence at daily Eucharist is a powerful building up of the Church. As I say, everybody knows them, reveres them and cherishes them, and appreciates them. They exercise an apostolate of presence to our people.

It does not matter whether our Sisters are in habits or not; they are known individually by our people, by the communities of our faithful in places like Roxby Downs, Orroroo, Burra, and the women in the northern cattle stations. The issue of invisibility is not a challenge. I know from the writings of Sr Patricia Wittberg that the invisibility of Religious is an issue not yet adequately addressed, and that would be a feature for the cities.

I am critical of the shrinking back to the cities by Congregations founded to serve people in isolation. Mary MacKillop, in her two periods as Superior General, founded twenty-two convents in the area of the Diocese of Port Pirie. There were never twenty-two existing at the one time, but it shows a great deal of commitment in those days to our little communities. The wonderful Missionary Sisters of Service exercised an apostolate that has been irreplaceable. I notice retired Sisters doing their shopping, unnoticed, along the Parade in Norwood. It is quite feasible to have a community of retired Sisters in a country town, doing their shopping and visiting in places like Port Augusta, even Ceduna, where they would be recognised and appreciated. What the Religious did say, and the shrinking back to the cities affects it negatively, was that no matter how remote you are, how small your community is, how lowly in its resources, you are precious – precious in the eyes of God, precious in the eyes of the Church, precious in the eyes of this Congregation, no matter how remote, how small or how poor your community is.

I turn now to the impact on an individual Religious of being made a Bishop. It has become quite a phenomenon in the Australian Episcopacy. When I was made Bishop seven years ago, there were four Religious as Bishops – a Redemptorist, an MSC, a Capuchin and a Dominican. After that there has been a Jesuit, Salesian, another Redemptorist, a Paulist, a Conventual Friar, and an Oblate. I believe the episcopacy belongs properly to the diocesan clergy, but we are witnessing something of a raid on the leadership of the Religious Orders, which will naturally have its own impact on the communities from which they are being withdrawn.

Firstly, there is the personal impact. The news that as a Jesuit I had been called to become a Bishop resulted in a period of great turmoil and anguish. From the point of view of my Jesuit brethren, there was bewilderment and astonishment. It was not in the culture, so to speak, of the Jesuits to become Bishops. For the professed Jesuit there is a subsidiary vow against accepting prelacies. Ignatius had said that it would be one the quickest ways to destroy the Society of Jesus to allow its men to become Bishops. He was talking out of a sixteenth century era, considering the wealth and power and political position of Bishops at that time. I quoted the vow to the Nuncio, the vow against prelacies and was reminded that we take another vow, the fourth vow. I pay tribute to Philip Wilson who allowed me all the space to struggle with this. Consultation with Jesuits from different backgrounds, such as canon law, scripture, spiritual direction, provincial, and so on reinforced for me the obediential aspect, that one must trust the processes, that the Spirit is there somewhere.

I think that a Religious being made a Bishop reinforces the loneliness that goes with any priest being called to the Office of Bishop. Napoleon said that at the top of the pyramid the wind blows in four directions. A Bishop can be on a lonely peak of authority. A man can be imported to a Bishopric from another diocese, and abandoned there! Often he might have no family, no circle of friends in his new place. Bishops quote the Gospel phrase about the burial of Jesus, that they sealed the tomb, and left. There is a big gathering at the time of the installation, and then they all disappear, leaving you there….

It is a little bit more acute for a Religious; you are being called to live in someone else’s family, you are called to be separated from the community that has been part of your living for many years.

I do not believe it is a good idea to make a Religious a Bishop, from the point of view both of the individual man and from the diocese to which he is sent. I know this is a personal view, not necessarily shared by others. Firstly, there is the identity issue. Having lived for quite some years as a Religious, he now finds that he is dispensed from the vow of obedience, from the vow of poverty, and from his right to participate in the governing processes of his Order. He can neither vote or be voted for. And he is a stranger to the lifestyle of the diocesan priest.

Why is it not a good idea to make a Religious a Bishop? I think, quite sincerely, that a Religious is not worthy to be a diocesan Bishop. The office pertains more appropriately to the diocesan clergy. The Religious who is made a Bishop is not permanent, especially if he is appointed at an older age. He will serve for a few years, and return back to his community. The diocesan priest, on the other hand, is born in the diocese, lives his life there, and dies there. In a very real sense the diocese belongs to the diocesan clergy. They are the ones who have staked their lives in it.

So for the Religious who is made a diocesan Bishop there is a conflict. How is one to identify authentically with the priests commissioned with him for the mission of the diocese? For the Religious made a Bishop he must forgo significant aspects of his life to date. He has to give up regular familiarity with the communities of his order, often simply a phenomenon of distance. He must work to identify himself with his priests, as much as he can. That is why I would never wear Jesuit regalia in the company of my priests of the diocese. I do not want any distantation. As Bishop I am their father and brother, and in striving to do this, with our priests, you get to admire them more deeply, to love them, and to feel quite unworthy to be their Bishop. I mean that sincerely.

One is conscious that some of our priests have been hurt by decisions of their Bishop. I am in a very fortunate circumstance, that my priests know that I like them, and I am conscious that by and large they like me. In our diocese the support of the clergy is a prime call for the Bishop. It is important to provide in-service at one level, and occasions for a gathering together at other levels, for sake of human affirmation. That is one of the reasons that I introduced an annual dinner for the clergy, the Bishop John Lonergan Memorial Dinner. He was Vicar General in Melbourne and in the 1930s was appointed Bishop of the Diocese of Port Augusta, as it was known then, and whereupon he died, without ever getting anywhere near the diocese! The point of the Bishop John Lonergan Memorial Dinner is to celebrate the memory of the only Bishop of the diocese who never upset the clergy! We all come together, and anecdotes are told of the greats of the past.

I wish to return to what I said at the opening, the search to articulate and share, and understand, the spirituality of the diocesan priest. Upon my appointment I began to read, as widely as I could, all the articles and books by Stephen Rosetti and others on the charism and spirituality of the diocesan priest. Although I had the advantage of having significant family roots in the diocese, on both sides, and being quite well-known to numbers of them, it was not easy at first. I did not know their inner and outer story, and they did not know mine. It was hard to enter their story, based as it is on the anecdotes of seminary life, and the anecdotes of diocesan identities who have helped frame the character of the diocese. They were giants unknown to me.

In contrast to the Religious, they lived separate and private lives, facing the challenge of isolation and loneliness to a degree that no Religious is ever asked to do. As a result, they are in their spirituality, our diocesan priests, deeply private men, not used to talking about their spiritual lives, reluctant to share it, and certainly not used to talking about their inner life with others in an easy manner. The clergy retreat is a good symbol, so different in structure and style to that of a Religious. There is a great deal of sharing and relaxation, reflecting the need for this group of men to get together. There is nothing like eight days of continuous silence. The Bishop who is a Religious asks about their in-service, and asks about the extent of their times of prayerful silence they might have in their daily lives, to hear the Lord who speaks in gentle whispers. They can be hard on each other, noting their brothers’ oddities rather than their virtues. As I said above, some have been hurt, and can view the Bishop more as an administrator than as a father. It is quite a different relationship than that of the Religious to his or her Provincial. One of my priests told me that in fact I was acting towards them as a Provincial might, and he meant that as a very positive statement. The Provincial of a Religious cares for them ultimately. He is not somebody who changes them from parish to parish. Among our priests, there is considerable respect for the Office, but in some ways a reluctance to engage with the Bishop in any deeper personal revelation.

Of course, the challenges facing the diocesan priest are the same in many ways as those facing any priest. There are the two dangers on the one hand of activism or inactivism, and that for both diocesan and Religious, the two most dangerous types of priests can be those, firstly, who don’t pray, and secondly, those who don’t read.

What I have to realise and appreciate greatly, after all this searching, and the search is not yet over, is the highly incarnational nature of the spirituality of the diocesan priest. With the background of Ignatian spirituality, I was able to appreciate a greater similarity than I thought at first, but that is to be expected, as Ignatius devised his Spiritual Exercises as a layman, and they focus on the concept of finding God in all things, and the Lord speaking to the individual soul directly. When running a school as Headmaster, I knew everything about the school and its people, but there is no way that I would have realised that the butcher down the road had been advised he has cancer, or the lady four doors away had been advised that her daughter has lost her baby. The diocesan priest knows that. He knows everyone in the area assigned to him.

His outlook is horizontal, not simply vertical.

The spirituality of the diocesan priest was very well witnessed for me in the life of Fr Bill Wauchope, whom we have just buried, one of the finest priests I have been privileged in God’s grace to know. He was one of those who did the hard yards, for years, an Outback priest. He would set out from his presbytery and could be a month or two out with his combi van, sleeping on a swag, visiting every place, driving up and down sand hills, letting tyres down and pumping them up, calling in on everybody, from the Western Australian border down to the railway along the Nullarbor Plain. At his funeral there was the reading from the Apocalypse -

“You see this city? Here God lives among His people. He will make His home among them; they shall be His people, and He will be their God; His name is God-with-them.”

God lives among His people. The poet Gerard Manly Hopkins wrote “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.” The spiritual dynamic of the diocesan priest is an adaptation of that, seeing all as charged, made alive with the presence of Christ, in His humanity and His Divinity. The ministry of the diocesan priest among his people is one of discovery and revealing – to take back the cover, to take back the veil, to show Christ present in ordinary human activity. The immersional baptism of Jesus in the Jordan is a powerful image of the incarnation. He was plunged down, in the waters of the Jordan, all over and completely and everywhere. Christ was immersed in our humanity…. The diocesan priest tries with his spirituality to enter this world, to manifest the Christ present in plain human circumstances, be that in a traditional parish, or the lonely runs of the Outback, be that a devout Catholic family, be that a lapsed Catholic family, be that anyone in the territory assigned to the priest, a parish in a small town, or in our Inland Mission, a parish the size of France, and in those areas he is to be a priest for all people, as the diocesan priest is sent on mission to all, including every cattle and sheep station, medical centre and police station on the way. As Pope Francis would say, it is a mission to the outskirts. Bill Wauchope lived that ministry to the full.
Serving as a Bishop with such men, God has privileged me greatly. I know they have given me so much more than I have been able to give them. That is good, it keeps you feeling like a servant.

+ Gregory O’Kelly SJ
Bishop of the Diocese of Port Pirie