“I will miss many people I have come to know.”

Archbishop Mark Coleridge looks back on his time in the Archdiocese

01 May 2012

What do you remember most fondly of your time in the Archdiocese?

On the chance to get to know this fascinatingly diverse Archdiocese – the places I had never known, the coast, the Monaro, the west, and the cities, Goulburn and Canberra, but most especially the people who are even more diverse than the places. I have never really missed places, but I will miss many people I have come to know in my six years here. I came to the Archdiocese as a city slicker, having spent most of my life in Melbourne and Rome. But here I had to become something of a bush pastor, because Canberra and Goulburn is basically a rural diocese with an unusual city in it. I wasn’t sure how I’d cope with the vast rural areas of the Archdiocese, but I’ve come to love them. They have gone through hard times and are still passing through a time of deep and permanent change as many of the smaller communities are dwindling and farming not what it was. But through it all, the country people have been magnificent – their human resilience and their spiritual richness. Getting to know them and ministering to them has been one of the great gifts of these years.

In terms of events, the one that really lingers in the memory is World Youth Day in 2008, especially the Days in the Diocese before the final celebration in Sydney. To welcome young pilgrims from all around the world was great, especially at the International Festival in Goulburn, even if the weather was appalling. But before they came, there was the Journey of the Cross and Icon around the Archdiocese, and that was a deeply moving experience, with me even passing the Cross to the Bishop of Wagga on top of Mount Kosciusko. I look back on the preparations for WYD 2008 as excruciatingly hard work, but in the end it was all worth it. I gave so many people, especially the young, an experience of the Catholic Church that they could have had in no other way. People sometimes think the Catholic Church is no bigger than their back yard, but it is the greatest show on earth, and that’s what we see in WYD.

What issues were most difficult?

In the life of a bishop, there is no shortage of difficult issues. In a general sense, the greatest challenge has been to plan for the future at a time when the future must be made, not simply awaited. This involves identifying the facts as clearly and comprehensively as possible – not the facts of 50 years ago, but the facts of now. Then, on the basis of the facts, it involves taking decisions – at times difficult – to shape the future. The decisions taken may be wrong; if so, then we have to admit our mistake and try something else. All of this involves change, even cultural change at times; and that can be difficult for some people. Our greatest challenge is to become a more missionary Church, looking outwards, not inwards.

In terms of specific issues, the Calvary saga was certainly the most protracted and difficult. The threat to the hospital came out of nowhere, and I had never had experience of anything similar. It took me time to get my head around some very complex facts and issues before I could see what my role was as Archbishop. Once I did – with the help of many people – I came to see that I had a role to play. I was not calling the shots, but I certainly couldn’t just look the other way. It consumed my time and energy in an extraordinary way. I was very satisfied with the final result which I am convinced was in the best interests of both the ACT and the Catholic Church. I regret that there were some bruising aspects of the saga, but perhaps it couldn’t have been otherwise. The fight to save Calvary touched on deep issues which were important for Catholic health care far beyond the ACT; and the saga clarified some of those issues for Catholic health care as a whole, especially issues concerning the relationship between Catholic hospitals and the local Church. It also helped to clarify the rights and responsibilities of the bishop in dealing with Catholic hospitals at a time when the bishops have to be more engaged than they traditionally have been in health care.

What personal effort was needed to visit parishes across such a huge Archdiocese

In my six years, I’ve been in all the parishes of the Archdiocese, though one regret I have is that I was unable to undertake systematic canonical visitation of the parishes. This was because I was so involved in various ways both nationally and internationally. These involvements meant I was out of the diocese more than I would have wished to be, but it’s hard to see what the alternative is, given that all bishops are involved on three levels – locally, nationally and internationally. The mix varies from bishop to bishop, and through these years I’ve been more involved internationally than some others. Parish visitation can be exhausting, but it’s hard to think of a more valuable use of a bishop’s time and energy. In a diocese the size of Canberra and Goulburn, it has special challenges, with hours spent in a car. But I came to use the car as a kind of travelling prayer-room, so that I came to enjoy the long hauls. I used to think of my predecessors who went all over the diocese, but not in an air-conditioned car.

What is the future of the assembly decisions and your proposals?

As far as I can see, the decisions of the Archdiocesan Assembly will stand, and the proposals will continue to provide the basis for discussion. These decisions weren’t just idiosyncratic moves of mine; they came from a wide and deep consultation. That’s why the new Archbishop will build upon them. Obviously he will see things differently than I have, but the arrival of every new bishop doesn’t mean that the diocese starts of scratch. This will be true not just of what came from the Assembly, but of other trajectories which have emerged in the Archdiocese in recent years. People have asked how long it will be for the new bishop to be appointed. I’ve tended to say that it won’t be less than six months. Some big decisions will have to await his arrival, but in the meantime, the Archdiocese can’t just stand still.

First impressions of Brisbane Archdiocese.

Brisbane is another planet when compared to Canberra and Goulburn. Canberra and Goulburn is basically a rural diocese with an unusual city in it. Brisbane is a very large urban diocese with a burgeoning hinterland. So there are big differences of scale and social profile. The Archdiocese of Brisbane also includes some of the fastest growing areas in Australia, and therefore one of the challenges is to adapt to demographic growth. I’ve been up to Brisbane twice since I was named Archbishop, and my sense is that it’s a diocese with great energy and with personnel and resources to match. It has all the usual problems, and they tend to be writ large because of its size. But the overriding sense I have is that Brisbane is a mission field rich in possibility. I’ve been greatly encouraged by the welcome I’ve found there, even in the editorial comment of the Courier Mail. I hope and pray that my health and energies hold up.

Do you see the Cathedral precinct redevelopment going ahead as planned?

The development of the Cathedral precinct is now such a mature project and has such momentum that it will certainly go ahead, as will the allied development of the Braddon property where I hope to see the Heritage Council’s decision overturned so that we can get on with the job and present something which will enhance the inner-city services of the Church and enhance the look of the city itself. Bureau­cratic delays have slowed the project dramatically, but it will go ahead, and I look forward to seeing the finished product.

You have a connection with your predecessor in Brisbane Archbishop John Bathersby.

I go back a long way with John Bathersby, and there are few people for whom I have greater respect and affection. We first met back in the 1970s when he was spiritual director of the Brisbane seminary and I was a very young priest in Melbourne. He invited me to Brisbane to lead the Holy Week retreat for the seminarians. Our paths crossed again in the early 1980s when we were both students in Rome and enjoyed many a meal and a laugh – even the odd argument – together. Our paths have crossed again and again. He is not just my predecessor but a good personal friend. Never did I imagine that I would be following him in the See of Brisbane.

Mark Coleridge