A couple of weeks ago, we marked the one year anniversary of my presence in the Archdiocese of Brisbane as an auxiliary bishop – a good time to reflect on the year that was. Over that time I’ve come to know a lot more about life and ministry here as I have taken up opportunities to visit some of our parishes, schools and communities. Time has gone quickly, however there are many memorable moments that I savour.
During a visit to one of our 146 Brisbane Catholic schools, as I sat on the floor playing with a group of prep students, one of them asked me with a worried look on his face: “Why don’t you have any hair?” I told him that it was because I was old (not that I wanted to look like Vin Diesel as I was told by a year 11 student). That seemed to satisfy his curiosity and concern.
Another memory that abides with me in a deeper way is when I was sitting in a joint Year 5-6 class watching students conduct a debate. The students were sitting in a semi-circle and paying attention to the speaker when one of their classmates – a girl with special needs – skipped in through the door. Let’s call her Sarah. Sarah seemed a little agitated and, as soon as she sat next to one her classmates, began tugging at the hem of her uniform. The classmate did not slap Sarah’s hand, nor did she try to shush her. She simply covered Sarah’s hand with her own firmly on her thigh while using her other hand to bring Sarah’s head to her shoulder. Sarah’s classmate was another year 5 student, maybe 11 years old. Sarah was instantly calm, nestling into her friend’s shoulder. Her classmate never lost sight of the debate at any time. Such a precious moment. Girls certainly learn to multi-task from an early age!
I was aware that this class had recently received the sacrament of confirmation, and what I saw that morning was a wonderful example of the Holy Spirit dwelling with us and guiding us, even when we are not conscious of it.
I can identify that same Spirit as being present with me when I came to Brisbane a little over one year ago, even though I was reluctant to leave my ministry in another part of the world.
At that time I had the privilege of working in Italy with people from many parts of the world, listening to their stories, and helping them understand their mission. It seemed incongruous to me to be asked to put that on hold and to come to Australia as a bishop. I had visited Brisbane before, however I had never lived here.
I knew that about 50 of my fellow Society of the Divine Word (SVD) confreres were bishops in diverse parts of the world such as Angola, India and PNG. But I was being asked to be a bishop in my home country in an Archdiocese defined by boundaries. This seemed a strange request for a missionary. My discernment helped me understand I was being asked to step out into the unknown.
I was used to moving to new places – my first parish appointment was in Mexico City – but I wasn’t used to living alone. I had always been in community. That wouldn’t be a part of my Brisbane experience. I was being asked to step out in faith, so I did.
Since arriving, I have met the most wonderful creative, loyal, hard-working, faith-filled, clever and enthusiastic people. I’ve seen the remarkable work of so many of our Catholic teachers, particularly those working with marginalised students. I have met spirit-filled First Nations peoples, those working every day for social justice and those assisting in prisons and with our seafarers. This work goes on every day, without anyone seeking attention, by people committed to this critical work. They have enthused me and helped me to find myself in this role in Brisbane.
Without the Spirit showing herself to me through the ministries of these fine people, I imagine I would have been lost.
One year on, I find myself happy in the Spirit. I feel accompanied even though I’m living alone. I feel the Spirit with me in a personal and collaborative way. That same Spirit that was in that classroom when that young girl pressed her head into her classmate’s shoulder, content that she was noticed and loved.