Address to Adult Faith Education Gathering
Statement Released: Thursday, October 13, 2005
I am delighted to be here with you. It is an honour to talk about my faith in any situation. It is a particular honour to talk to people who are intensely interested in adult faith education. Faith is the very stuff of my life and ministry. It is what I am about as Archbishop. I may be one of the very few Bishops at the present time who claims, I think honestly, that I will deeply regret my retirement, not because there is any power or esteem associated with the role today, but because in retirement although I will not lose the opportunity to deepen my faith I will lose the opportunity to explain it to other people.
First of all just a little bit of autobiography. I grew up in a Catholic household in Stanthorpe that was practical but not pious. We made numerous attempts to establish the family rosary as a regular part of our prayer but it inevitably broke down. Nevertheless the love of the Mass was there above all. I can remember sitting in the small cold Church in Stanthorpe during winter as a 6 year old and longing for the day when I would be able to go to communion with the adults. The daily Mass has always been a part of my life from the very beginning and still is. I don’t like celebrating by myself at Wynberg, but when I do so I am conscious that I am not alone but am surrounded by the worshipping members of the Church on earth and the communion of the saints in heaven. Together we gather in an act of praising and worshipping God. Thus the Mass is never an individual Mass but rather a cosmic Mass. I went to the seminary, as I explained to the Rector Monsignor Roberts who interviewed me “to save my soul”. I agreed with him when he suggested I may want to save the souls of others but I was not convinced. My religion at that time was Christ centred, and focussed on the Blessed Sacrament. It was individual, had little interest in the world and its problems, its main purpose being getting to heaven and not worrying about the world. After ordination change came slowly. I was convinced only Catholics got to heaven and had no hesitation in baptizing already baptized non Catholics. I did not like the liturgical changes and can remember arguing 40 years ago with Father Syd Kattie from Inglewood about whether the priest should or should not face the people, and whether or not the people should take communion in the hand. I said in a rather superior fashion that only a young priest would use “I will never do so myself”. Only slowly, ever so slowly did I become enthusiastic about the Second Vatican Council’s call to engage the world.
There were interesting key faith experiences along the path of my life. Two of those experiences happened in Rome where I was sent in 1969 to prepare with study to be the spiritual director of Banyo Seminary. The first experience was to have my faith shattered by a German Theologian who suggested that the resurrection never happened and at that time it made enormous sense to me. The whole edifice of my faith crashed. I felt I had been deliberately misled by the Church. I couldn’t understand at that time how I could remain a Christian much less a priest. Then slowly, ever so slowly it all came back together again as a different faith and I knew as a stronger faith. In Rome also through a whole set of circumstances I failed a most important Gregorian University exam, the first time in my life, and I was devastated. My world crashed around me, but at the bottom of the pit of despair where I felt so desolate I knew God was still there and would always be there. I don’t believe now, and I know it is a rash statement to make, that I could ever lose my faith again.
The third key experience happened after 1986 when I was Bishop of Cairns. When I first went to Goondiwindi in 1962 I was full of what Father Eddie Concannon of Toowoomba used to describe as “filthy pride”. In some fashion I felt the whole world revolved around myself and I would change Goondiwindi for the better despite the fact that a number of excellent priests before me had made very little impression on the town during their time there. When I left Goondiwindi six years later it was still the same but my confidence was dented. When I became Bishop in Cairns in 1986 I travelled to a distant location at Forsythe and discovered there the remains of an old cemetery where a tin mining town had once been. In the midst of the cemetery was a huge tombstone inscribed with an Irish name. I thought that it must have belonged to the most important person in the area at that time, but, try as I might, no one knew who on earth the person was. I suddenly realised each one of us lives in God’s time, for whom a thousand years is as a day, and in another 100 years time someone will kick a tombstone with “Bathersby” written on it and say “Who on earth was Bathersby?” Initially the realisation depressed me until I realised every little deed I had done, every little word I had ever spoken, will be remembered, but remembered by God alone and that is all that matters. So what is important above all is God. God has become so real for me now that I feel nothing can take God away. Once we realise that, then we are beginning to make a little progress.
Nevertheless the presence of God can never be taken for granted. It must be cultivated, and it must be cultivated by regular prayer, and with regular prayer followed by spiritual reading, by study, by discussion groups, and we need to do all this not just for a day a week a month but for a lifetime. As an old gardener at Oxford explained to a tourist who asked him how he developed such marvellous lawns at Oxford “Well we waters ‘em and we rolls ‘em, we waters ‘em, and we rolls ‘em and we does that for 100s of years”. How would I describe my faith now? It is Christ centred, communion centred, and mission centred, and has become the most exciting thing in my life. Nevertheless having heard that Mother Theresa of Calcutta experienced the dark night of the soul at the end of her life, and being absolutely terrified by Paul’s words “I wish to be dissolved and be with the Lord”, I still wonder what lies ahead. I am never comfortable with the suffering that seems to be a necessary part of following Jesus Christ. “Being with the Lord” does not worry me but the “dissolving” part certainly does. Moreover I feel quite uneasy about my faith whenever it feels too comfortable, because I realise that it is then not in growth mode. The Holy Spirit never leaves us alone but rather knits our faith together, pulls it apart again, then knits it together again as a better and deeper faith, and this process seems to continue for a lifetime.