The Cathedral of St Stephen
22 February 2022
The appointment of Tim Norton as bishop was a surprise to many, including himself. So too was the prophet Jeremiah’s call, not least to himself. When the call comes to Jeremiah, he protests that he is too young. Tim couldn’t claim that, but he could claim perhaps that he didn’t have the right pedigree or even the right ecclesiastical style. He is a Divine Word Missionary, and there’s never been a bishop in Australia from among them.
Tim and I have spoken about this, and I’ve said to him that bishops – at least in this country – aren’t quite what they used to be. Even in my years as bishop, the episcopate has changed, at least in style if not in substance; and the coming of synodality means that it’s being resituated. As I’ve said to Tim, there is no ready-made episcopal template to which he must conform. He will have to discover and shape his own profile and identity as bishop, not unlike what Pope Francis has done and is doing as Bishop of Rome. Tim will be different, and that is good; it’s one of the reasons he’s been chosen.
Yet for all the change, there are some things which endure, given that apostolic succession down through the centuries has been a powerful interplay of the changing and the unchanging. In asking what it is that’s unchanging, we turn to the Scriptures read on this feast of the Chair of Peter. They put before us three things which will always and everywhere mark the ministry of bishop.
In his First Letter, St Peter speaks of himself as “a witness to the sufferings of Christ”. A witness is someone who has seen something; and Peter had certainly seen the death of Christ and all that led to it. But he had also seen the risen Christ and come to understand that the passion and death lead to what he calls “the glory that is to be revealed”. To witness to the sufferings of Christ means to see and proclaim that they are birth not death, victory not defeat. It also means to share those sufferings, as Peter will do in his apostolic mission. The word witness in Greek is martyr; and Peter’s martyrdom will seal his witness and his mission. He will, in the words of St Paul, “reproduce the pattern of the Lord’s death” (Phil 3:10), the pattern of a death which leads to life. Unless that is also true of a bishop, there will be the form of the episcopate, its aesthetics, but not the power; and the power is what we need, the power of the Cross. We need martyrs.
A second thing always and everywhere true of the bishop is the call to be what St Peter calls “a shepherd of the flock of God”, a shepherd who, according to Pope Francis, walks at times ahead of the flock, at times behind and at times in the midst of the sheep; and a discerning shepherd who knows his sheep will know where best to position himself.
He will also know that the flock belongs not to him but to God, since were he to claim the flock as his own he would be usurping God and acting as a dictator, against which St Peter warns. The dictator craves power and possession; the shepherd cares for the sheep because he cares for the owner. The dictator may be authoritarian but never has real authority; the shepherd is never authoritarian but has real authority, an authority given to him by the owner of the flock.
The shepherd will also know that the sheep depend upon him to survive, since sheep without a shepherd simply die. But he also knows that the shepherd depends upon the sheep for life and what sustains it – food, drink, clothing, shelter. There is a mutuality between shepherd and sheep that also lies at the heart of the episcopal ministry: God’s people depend upon the bishop and the bishop depends upon God’s people. If that mutuality ever breaks down, you do not have the Church of Jesus.
A third thing always and everywhere true of the bishop is that, like Peter, he is to be a rock. Not every bishop is chosen to be the Successor of Peter, but every bishop is called to be a rock upon which the Church stands. A book I’ve just read shows how rock, for all its seeming stability and immutability, is in fact more malleable and mobile than meets the eye. There are various kinds of rock, but all of them change at different times and under different pressures. Rock, then, is both strong and fragile, which is how Peter will emerge as his apostolic mission evolves. It will also be true of any bishop – that he is both strong and fragile, that he will be both stable and malleable, both immutable and mobile, responding to the many different pressures he faces in his ministry and being shaped by the Holy Spirit.
Through the Church’s history, there has always been a creative interplay, even a tension between institution and charism. A classic image of this is the sculpture of St Francis and his first brothers in front of the Lateran Basilica, the Pope’s cathedral church in Rome. The grand basilica looks to the poor little man of God who with his brothers hails the Successor of Peter. In recent times, this interplay has entered a new phase with the coming of a Jesuit to the papacy and with the appointment in this country of a number of bishops from the religious orders, the most recent of whom is Tim Norton. Institution and charism are interacting in new ways in the Church both here and beyond.
In the apse of St Peter’s Basilica there is the Altar of the Chair above which stands the Glory of Bernini. It shows the Chair of Peter descending to earth under the impulse of the Holy Spirit and being welcomed as God’s gift by the four great Doctors of the Church of both East and West. The archetypal ecclesiastical institution, the papacy, is seen as essentially charismatic, since without the in-breathing of the Spirit the institution would be just an empty shell. What is true of the papacy is true of the episcopate more generally. It will always be an institution, but now more than ever it needs the Spirit’s in-breathing; and that is one reason why we ordain Tim Norton today. We the bishops and we the Church need to be more charismatic; we need to be more missionary.
There was a time not long ago when we thought of missionary bishops as those who went off to mission countries – people like Archbishop Doug Young of Mt Hagen in Papua New Guinea who joins us here today. Like Tim, Doug is a Divine Word Missionary, and it makes sense therefore that he go to the highlands of PNG and serve as bishop there. But Brisbane is a long way from Mt Hagen; and it seems less obvious that a Divine Word Missionary should be appointed here. But the fact is that the distinction between missionary and non-missionary countries has lapsed. Every country and every place is now mission territory, a frontier land, Brisbane as much as Mt Hagen. There are differences of course, but every bishop is now a missionary bishop; and Tim, I hope, will remind us of this both in the Archdiocese and beyond.
The God who called Jeremiah and Peter also equipped and empowered both prophet and apostle for the mission that lay ahead; and the God who has called Tim will also equip and empower him for all that lies ahead. It will not be “flesh and blood” that does this, but the Holy Spirit who will make of Bishop Tim Norton, in ways that will surprise even him, “a prophet to the nations” and a rock upon which the Lord himself will build and rebuild his Church. Amen.