07 August 2012

Surprise and hope greet new Bishop

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There is distinct air of both surprise and hope at the announcement this week that Father Paul Bird, the regional head (provincial) of the Redemptorists will be the eighth Catholic Bishop for the Catholic Diocese of Ballarat.

It is interesting that commentators and bloggers from different theological quarters in the church have been united in their positive reception of the news.

The note of surprise comes because in the modern history of the church in Australia it is the normal expectation that priests of the diocesan clergy are appointed as bishops.

Pope Benedict XVI is setting his own trend by selecting as bishops not only diocesan clergy but also some particularly outstanding representatives of what the church calls its "religious" orders.

There are many kind of religious orders in the Catholic Church, but they all have in common a particular commitment to witness to Jesus Christ in a radical way by taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and by living in a special mission to the wider society while living in community life. Members of religious orders often work outside the organisational square of both the conventional church and the prevailing culture. They try to live the Gospel faithfully but in a transforming way.

Many of the religious orders were founded by saintly people who formed communities of followers to address particular problems that faced the church and society in their times. They became the trouble-shooters for their age and it is clear that Pope Benedict believes that the church is facing many intractable troubles which need the sharp and radical creativity that continues to motivate religious men and women today.

For example, into the bankrupt and fractured American Archdiocese of Boston, wracked by the most appalling accounts of child sexual abuse and bureaucratic mismanagement the Pope appointed the Franciscan Cardinal Sean O'Malley. O'Malley insists on wearing the sandals and brown habit and being visibly Franciscan. He shocked many by selling prime Boston church property in order to assist the victims of abuse.

In Australia the distinctive spirituality, scholarship and mission of different orders is beginning to be visible in some key diocesan appointments around Australia. A Salesian in Archbishop Timothy Costello in Perth, a Jesuit in Bishop Greg O'Kelly in Port Pirie, a Dominican in Bishop Anthony Fisher of Parramatta, and in Brisbane an Auxiliary Bishop is a Capuchin Franciscan, Bishop Joseph Oudeman.

Pope Benedict frequently comments on the need for the church to spread the gospel of Christ in ways which engage and challenge the culture more intelligently, more imaginatively and by example rather than by words.

The Pope also sees the beauty of art and music as a great ally of spirituality and faith a point noted recently by the popular atheist philosopher Alain de Botton.

In Bishop-Elect Paul Bird there is a winning quadrella. He is a highly cultured man who is a musician, theologian and liturgist. One commentator has noted that he is the first Australian bishop to have composed a Mass setting. Yet he is also a highly effective organiser and one with a heart and ear to the concerns of people both Catholic and non-Catholic. The name "Paul Bird" is a quietly household one for Catholics from urban to outback parishes. As a writer of spiritual reflections, retreats and as editor-in-chief of The Majellan, a national magazine for down-to-earth family spirituality (founded in Ballarat in 1949) he deserves to be called a Catholic household name.

The Redemptorists (whose full title is the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer) were founded by Saint Alphonsus Ligouri who was a lawyer, a priest and later a bishop himself. Alphonsus concerned to help the poor and to guide priests who were facing dramatically changing cultures in their congregations. Alphonsus Ligouri also brought to some of the most troubling moral issues of his time a bridge-building wisdom and clarity. He also embedded in his congregation a deep concern for those who were homeless, stateless and without hope those the order sees as the abandoned in society.

The Redemptorists are part of the physical landscape and spiritual heartland of Ballarat.

Their original monastery which was once a place of retreat for people is so longer in their possession but its presence still stands as a striking image on the Wendouree skyscape. Yet their social and spiritual commitment to the disadvantaged continues on in the Exodus Community run by the Redemptorist Father Frank Smith.

Believers, some very confused, damaged and disenfranchised, and the wider Ballarat community may take hope from the announcement of the new Bishop which took place on August 1 feast day of Saint Alphonsus Ligouri.

This opinion piece first appeared in the Ballarat Courier on 3rd August 2012.