The 18th of May 1974 was the 54th birthday of the then Archbishop of Kraków, Karol Wojtlya, who later happened to become Pope John Paul II, and in more recent times a saint. That was all back in Poland. In Melbourne it was a cold , misty Saturday morning and into St Patrick’s Cathedral, which looked quite grim with its blue stone on this grey morning, there trooped 21 young men , I among them at the age of, would you believe, twenty-five. Those 21 of us, this was really the last hurrah of the big numbers both in seminaries and for ordinations, were ordained by Bishop John Kelly, who was at that stage the administrator of the Archdiocese of Melbourne because Cardinal James Knox had gone to Rome where he was to serve as the Prefect of Congregation for Divine Worship, and his successor, Archbishop Frank Little, had not yet been appointed. So we were ordained on that cold Saturday morning in an interregnum. For me it came at the end of only six years of seminary training. I was only partly done, as it were, because normally one did eight years however I had done three years at the university before I went to the seminary. I had left school with not a thought of the priesthood in my head because I was going to be a diplomat. Yet I ended up a priest and this was the first of many surprises in my life, which as I look back has been nothing if not surprising. How could I ever have known on that day 40 years ago that I would stand here as the Archbishop of Brisbane? It seems almost incredible to me as I look back across the landscape of my life.
Beyond ordination I served for five years in parishes and got mud on my boots. I look back upon those five years as being one of the most crucial times in my life. Then for almost twenty years I studied and taught the bible. I had never imagined that I would be given to biblical studies, but what greater gift could I have been given by Archbishop Little. Then beyond those twenty years of study and teaching scripture, and this was another astonishing surprise, I served for nearly five years in the Holy See in the Secretariat of State. These were in the last years of John Paul II. After service there I was ordained a bishop and for 12 years I have served as bishop, firstly in Melbourne, then in Canberra-Goulburn and now in Brisbane. Someone said to me “next stop, Thursday Island”.
In all of this, and here I state the obvious, I have been a pilgrim, or perhaps a rolling stone is better. At the recent meeting of the Australian bishops in Sydney I sat, as I often do, at the tomb of St Mary of the Cross MacKillop. On one side of her tomb there are inscribed the words “we are but travellers here.” This was absolutely true of her. She was an astonishing traveller! All over the place and indeed the world as pilgrim, or as rolling stone. For me this has been “the home is nowhere, and the home is everywhere.” I think of the words of the Irish immigrants when they used to say, and perhaps still do, “you are never far from home if you can still say your prayers.” Those words are simple but in my experience they are profoundly true. I’ve never known what homesickness is or what it feels like. I have never missed any place. Occasionally people have said to me ‘do you miss Melbourne or Rome?’ The answer is no because home for me is Brisbane. Home is nowhere, home is everywhere and home happily is here.
As I look back across the story of these 40 years I can say that nothing, and I do mean nothing, has turned out as I expected. In fact it has turned out to be better and richer than what I had in mind. I thought I would be at parishes, and why not? Then I thought perhaps I would teach because teaching is the thing that I will probably do best in life but nothing has turn out as I expected. I look back upon my ordination and I can see there what I could not see at the time, that I signed a blank cheque. Had I known that the cheque was quite as blank I may have hesitated but sign I did and blank it was.
I have applied for none of the missions to which I have been assigned. People said to me when I went to work at the Vatican “why did you apply for that job?.” I said “I didn’t.” I didn’t see it coming. How could I? Yet it’s turned out so much better in saying “yes” to the call, however unexpected the call that comes from others. I see this as following the lamb wherever he goes, to use the words of the book of Revelation. To follow the lamb wherever he calls and wherever he goes, even into strange places like Brisbane, life ends up far better and far richer than anything we could possibly plan for ourselves.
There have of course been dark times and here I state the more than obvious. These have been dark and difficult times through these 40 years. Moments of going into depths of my own weakness and my own woundedness. Depths that I did not know were there. Yet I can see now what I could not see at the time that those moments, and the grappling that they entailed, were the most fruitful and decisive moments of my life. To see this was a kind of ‘eureka’ moment. Now I get it. It came to me with a special vividness when for the first time I taught the letters of St Paul, many years ago now. I was teaching upon the letter to the Philippians and there was a moment there that I will never forget in which, if I might quote the Acts of the Apostles, the “scales fell from my eyes”. I saw the truth of Paul and I understood that it was my truth too. What Paul has said in Philippians is “I have come to see now that what’s happened to me has served to advance the Gospel”. What he is talking about is his imprisonment. He was put in prison to shut him up and to stop the Gospel, his mission, in its tracks. What Paul comes to see is that it had the exact opposite effect. It gives his mission, the good news, only greater momentum. Every attempt to stop him and his mission only gives it greater impetus. It was then I understood what he meant when he says “when I am weak I am strong,” It was as if scales fell from my eyes and I saw, as if for the first time, the truth of the cross as the truth of my life and as the truth of Jesus the good news, and hence the rather enigmatic motto that I chose when I was named bishop. ‘Blood and water’ – from the wound becomes the fountain of life. From the weakness and precisely there in the thing that we seek most to escape from or deny, from that point there comes the true strength. That is the good news. The weakness does not have to mean death, nor does the wound. On the contrary, they mean life in the light of Easter.
Some of my year mates have died, some have departed from the priesthood and others have lived, as it were, on the precipice through 40 years. They have had moments of uncertainty and doubt, perhaps about their vocation. I can only say that since I entered the seminary on the 22nd February 1969, a stinking hot summer’s day down south, I have never doubted, not even for a moment, that I am where I am meant to be. There may have been dark moments and there certainly have been difficulties or challenges which I felt I could not meet, but none of that has lead me to doubt that this is where I am meant to be. Here, brothers and sisters, I am talking about the mystery of vocation. I went to the seminary because I felt called. 40 plus years later I feel even more deeply called. Don’t ask me to explain anything in great detail the mystery of vocation because it is intensely personal. It is about me, Mark, and I don’t fully understand that. Yet it is no less intensely communal. I have been public property, more so than ever now that I am the Archbishop of Brisbane, but that is fine. So I now look to the God who has called me, with all of my weakness and woundedness, and I see him because through all of these years I never failed to see Jesus. The vision might have blurred, it undoubtedly has from time to time. I have grown myopic and the cataracts of sin have intervened, but through all of these years I have never failed to see Jesus. These were his words in the Gospel we have heard. “To see me is to see the Father!” In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Paul spoke of us being companions and witnesses to Christ. He has been a far better companion to me than I to him. Yet that sense of companionship has never failed and I have, in the midst of all my half-visions, never ceased to witness to the one whom I have seen and heard, so that in a moment like this, where my life is gathered to a point of focus looking back over 40 years, I can say, in the words of St Paul, “there is only Christ. He is in everything and he is everything.” Amen.
Most Rev Mark Coleridge
Archbishop of Brisbane
May 17, 2014