Bishop Brian Heenan reflects on his time in the priesthood
I FIND it interesting that I am speaking to you the day Pope Benedict XVI has stepped down from office.
I guess I am here among you because I am expecting to step down before too long, having turned 75 (popes have a certain priority), and been privileged to minister as a priest and bishop for 50 years.
It is also interesting that I am speaking to you - Rockhampton Churches Together. That certainly did not exist 50 years ago and we can thank the Vatican Council that the approach of Catholics has changed.
I found the first special experience for me, coming from Brisbane 21 years ago, was the vastness of it all.
Travelling early to Longreach, Bundaberg and Mackay, and gradually visiting all the places in between, was an eye-opening experience for many reasons.
I guess having a city background was partially the reason, though I had a special love for the bush given to me by my father.
I had travelled through Central Queensland but never expected to live here.
This diocese is so special because of the people, the religious and the priests and the community spirit of Central Queensland. It is unique.
As well as being part of the rural spirit, the Catholic people I have shared with have often come from faith-filled families.
It is not only in this diocese, but most of our Catholic people have been liberated from a childhood faith, which wasn't always developed, to a mature faith nourished by Vatican II, and the opportunities to grow in adult spirituality, prayer and access to and understanding of the Scriptures and theology.
Our laity themselves have become the leaders, the teachers, the spiritual directors, in roles that were thought to belong to priests / bishops.
Of course, I have experienced this among the people of other Christian communities.
Sisters, brothers and priest have moved through incredible changes, diminishment in numbers and diversification of ministries - from an education focus to welfare, missionary, arts and music etc.
They have been to the fore among the laity who have led the way in faith formation.
They continue to inspire health and aged-care services, while being aware that they need to hand on their charisma to others, who will bring the same Gospel-centred vision to those who have taken up their ministries as associates.
They are a remarkable group of generous servants.
From being a diocese that was sending priests to overseas missions and other Australian dioceses, we have become a diocese greatly dependent on priests from Religious Orders, like the Marists, the Divine Word Fathers, the Holy Spirit Fathers, and the six priests who have come to us from India.
In my years in Rockhampton, quite a number of priests have left the active priesthood.
I think there has been six, who had been ordained since my time as Bishop - three of those have not continued.
When I was in the seminary, it was almost unheard of that a priest would leave. Perhaps, like marriage, separation was rare. All has changed.
This situation has not helped the morale of our priests and has increased their work-load considerably and drawn on the generosity of priests who have retired.
It has brought forth remarkable commitment on their part and loyalty to their ministry and to the people of the Diocese, which is outstanding. To describe them as ''other Christs" is so deserving, they are so faithful to the task, all of them.
May I simply add that when I came here I found organisations and ministries which surprised and delighted me, like the system of Catholic Education, Catechists representing from all the Churches visiting the government schools, Centacare (Catholic Family Welfare Agencies), Pastoral Services - Prison Ministry, Youth, Justice and Sustainability, Pastoral Planning, Western Ministry, Seafarers, St Vincent de Paul Conferences in most parishes, etc, vibrant Catholic parishes, even with reducing numbers, handing on the faith with parents, to their children.
Lest I give the impression that all has been easy, may I add that there is always the mix of graces and blessings, and crosses and sorrows.
The fewer people gathering for worship regularly, or coming to faith formation experiences, is a sadness.
This is not because we are interested in numbers but because so many opportunities for grace, support and meeting with a loving God are lost.
One of my often repeated thoughts is that we are bereft of a sense of the divine presence in our midst, living in one of the most beautiful countries in the world.
Another great sadness has been the sexual abuse of children and all of its ramifications in the Catholic Church, other Churches and organisations and families.
This has rightly brought shame on us all.
The Royal Commission, we pray, will bring a better future and make us aware of the dangers in unexpected places and people.
Authority in our Church has been misused by popes, bishops and priests.
Clericalism has greatly diminished by understanding of the different roles in the Church - Parish Councils, Finance Councils, and I believe we were helped by the Vatican Council and the foundation of our equality, through the call of Baptism.
The meaning of our Baptism, the theology and the spirituality of this God-given call, has been a marvellous discovery / revelation, with a great impact.
When I speak of authority, I acknowledge that this is what the Catholic Church is built on.
It has many advantages, like a world head, like the Pope, and congregations set up to help the Pope govern and ensure that the Gospel message is proclaimed.
Yet, it does have dangers and conflict between authority or control and freedom and initiative which can lead to serious divisions.
Before I came to Rockhampton, I was privileged to be part of a very positive sharing among the churches locally.
Coming here, I was in a different position, and I met with the heads of churches in Central Queensland and then, as a bishop, met with heads of churches from all over the State.
The co-operation, dialogue and "at homeness" here in this region has been easy.
With the Anglican Bishops, Presidents of the Uniting Church. Presbyterian, Lutheran Leaders, the Ordinariate of the Traditional Anglican/Catholic Communion, and leaders of all religious communities, has been a real privilege, through shared prayer together, and services - Christmas, Palm Sunday and Pentecost celebrations (though, I have farewelled many and I am still here).
We do not all agree, differ on theological and moral questions, our liturgies quite different, but overall, it is the Gospel of Jesus Christ that we proclaim.
Perhaps one day that is where our unity will arise, an association of Christian communities, proclaiming Jesus as Lord and Saviour.
Some years back, Pope John Paul II who really believed in the dream of unity, asked how it could be fostered and how his position might be causing an obstacle to unity.
I think people tendered to say "yes as long as you believe you are head of all Christians, it will prevent unity". It was either John Paul II or another who raised "the association idea".
I love the Church, the Catholic Church which has nurtured me, but in the broader sense, I love the whole Church which embraces all the Christian Churches.
I honour the words of Jesus to Peter "on you, I will set up (build) my Church, and the forces of evil will not overcome it" (Matthew 16:18)
So, I believe that the Church will continue, but no one knows the future.
We look back over 2000 years and see huge developments - the Orthodox split in the 10th century, the Reformation 16th century, and the spread of almost all countries of the world - Africa, India, China etc.
I think I said before, my hope is that if there is not a way of achieving unity, an association of Christian Churches (perhaps like the World Council of Churches) where dogma and discipline were not paramount, but rather the twofold law of God's love held sway.
Then, relationship with the other non-Christian faiths is another issue but there again, a far-away hope can be that because we hold much in common - God, prayers, almsgiving, peace, etc, that the common beliefs might be a basis for harmony, association, if not unity.
Every country is different culturally, historically and each is unique.
If we think of Australia, we are tremendously blessed in our culture which is really a blending of many cultures and I think we are fortunate that we are not normally subject to extremes.
There is much goodwill and compassion, evidenced generally in the way people relate - neighbours, communities, voluntary organisations.
But, very markedly in times of crisis, bereavement, accidents, floods, fires and any catastrophe, people simply rally.
I believe this is a marvellous characteristic of our society and it highlights the mystery of the natural virtue, or naturally good people. Certainly as Church groups we work together for many exercises of charity, but we gladly join those with willing hearts who respond, whether they are believers or not.
As a lead on from that, I believe that the place of the Church (or Churches) is to witness and encourage - to witness to what? To the message of Jesus Christ.
Key points of Bishop Heenan's career include:
- 21 years as bishop;
- Born in Ashgrove, Brisbane, he was the youngest of six children;
- Ordained a priest in 1962;
- Twenty-nine years a priest in the Archdiocese of Brisbane, in various parishes and in Ministry to Priests;
- September 25, 1991 - ordained Bishop of Rockhampton.