Looking back a bit

It was a dark and stormy night... And then it seemed to rain for weeks afterwards. June 15 2011, the night I was ordained and installed as bishop of Maitland-Newcastle, just on six years ago.

Anyway, as I said, it was a dark and stormy Wednesday night that just happened also to be a State of Origin night, something for which various family and friends and numerous members of the clergy have never quite forgiven me. For all that, I recall the night with great joy. It was then I discovered that our cathedral at Hamilton really is a fabulous setting for a big enthusiastic celebration and that this diocese can do these things in style. It may be a prejudice of mine, of course, but though I've had occasion to attend quite a number of such installations since then, ours here was clearly the best. Of course I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

But you may be wondering why I am thinking about this after six years. Surely the significant anniversaries might be the fifth or tenth or twentieth, not the sixth. The fact is, the normal term of appointment for a parish priest is six years, though he may go on for a second term or even longer. But we think in six year cycles. Personally, the last appointment I had that lasted more than six years ended in 1991, and that was a seven-year job. If I last out my full term as bishop here (another ten years) it will be by far my record for stability in one place, ever. That's why my sixth anniversary seems of significance − to me at least.

Anyway, in those rain-drenched weeks of June 2011, I began. On the Friday night I was celebrating Confirmation in one of our larger parishes, trying to look like it was all second nature to me but actually having a devil of a time with the 'hat-on, hat-off' rigmaroles of bishops' ceremonial. It was weeks before someone pointed out to me that, at the end of Mass, a bishop gives the blessing by making the Sign of the Cross in the air three times, not once. Thirty-four years a priest, and I'd never really noticed that! There was a lot I had to learn.

I was fortunate in my teachers. Bishop Malone had in place superb senior staff when I came. It was just as well because the diocese was still struggling financially after taking a pounding in the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, but under Bishop Malone's people the recovery had begun and I have had things relatively easy in that regard. Other things that had been put in place were working well, too, notably our child protection systems and the services we could provide to survivors of abuse through the staff of Zimmerman Services. Everyone knows that this diocese has a lot to answer for in its past failures to protect children or deal properly with abusers, but it was a real tribute to how we do things now to have the Royal Commissioner, Justice McClellan, telling me in the public hearing room that I should make sure that all Australian bishops knew about how Zimmerman Services operates. Again, I thank God and Bishop Malone that these things were in place when I came.

It's a funny thing to be a bishop. Officially my job description is that I am the chief teacher and preacher of the faith here, the chief 'sanctifier' or celebrant of the Mass and sacraments, and the 'shepherd' of the people and clergy under my care. That, of course, is simply the priesthood writ large. It is what I felt called to give my life to when I was still a teenager, and still do. But as a bishop these days one is caught up in all 'the other stuff'. Through its schools, social services, housing schemes, child care and so on, the church is one of the largest employers in the region and, for all legal and civil purposes, the bishop is the head of the church. And so it goes on. Meetings about schools, finances, property, IT systems, training schemes, industrial relations, whatever. Of course there are managers and boards, but in the end the bishop is responsible and has to be kept in the loop. And there's a helluva lot of loops! Every bishop I know is trying to work out how to discharge his responsibilities in this world while still having time to do something for the Kingdom of God. At this time in church life, it's a work in progress.

So, I look back over six years. In some ways they have passed quickly, but on the other hand, my time at Liverpool seems already long ago. Time is funny that way. I've had lots of good times out in our communities, sharing their special occasions and their worship. I've had some tough times. Overall, I remain grateful to the people of the diocese for their welcome, friendship and support over these six years. I hope I won't do too terribly badly in the times ahead.

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Bishop Bill Wright Image
Bishop Bill Wright

Most Reverend William (Bill) Wright is the eighth Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle and is the pastoral leader of more than 150,000 Catholics in the region.

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