ERIC HODGENS. Spare A Thought for the New Archbishop.

A bishop’ job is part shepherd, part leader, part ruler, part manager. Pope Francis insists that pastoral care is the primary role. The Melbourne Catholic Church is getting a new bishop. At 54 he can look forward to 21 years in that post. What is the scenario Archbishop Peter Comensoli is walking into?

It is not a good time to be a bishop. Over the last 50 years Western culture has dramatically changed. Contemporary culture is secular and pluralist. Authority, once derived from status, now must be won. Where bishops once had the last say, they are now just another voice in public debate.

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) has problems. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has diminished episcopal authority in the public forum.

Meanwhile, within the Church institution, some bishops take a strong, conservative line on issues like abortion, same-sex marriage and dying with dignity, asserting that their views are “the Church’s teaching”. But a proportion of faithful Catholics either oppose or take more nuanced views on these matters. The Church itself is divided. The Bishop’s Conference is divided. 

The new archbishop leapfrogs most bishops in seniority. As archbishop of the biggest diocese he now has a much stronger base in the Conference. Uniting the Conference is a challenge awaiting him.

Catholics are steadily walking away while others, once fervent, are tired or disillusioned. The inevitable result is decline in voluntary contributions – both personal and financial.

There are 1.07 million Catholics in Melbourne according to the 2016 census – nearly 24% of the population. The ethnic mix is increasing.

There are about 220 parishes.

There is a large Catholic School system. There are 260 primary schools and 66 secondary. Parents bring a more consumerist mentality than in the past. Declining enrolments will most likely track disaffiliation.

Then there is the massive problem of ministry. 

Melbourne has 300 diocesan priests. 100 are retired, leaving only 200 active. It is an ageing work force – half are over 55. It is becoming increasingly a foreign workforce – currently 40%. Foreign priests, with their own cultural upbringing often find it hard to adjust to Australian church culture. In many cases their English is hard to understand, especially from the pulpit.

Older priests are tired. They are generally happy doing their local parish work but find the job’s ever-growing bureaucratic demands oppressive. Though ageing, they are still the backbone of the pastoral leadership of the diocese. In the main, they are Vatican II priests who see themselves primarily as pastors in the field, rather than consecrated priests in the sanctuary. A simpatico new leader could win their support.

A significant component of the few younger priests that the seminary is producing have a heavily sacral view of priesthood which shows in greater clericalism and ideology. Priesthood for them is a consecration to sacred status, and not a profession. So, professional demands do not apply to them.

The priesthood itself is divided.

Seminary training is very long – seven years – but with little practical training for pastoral ministry. Ongoing professional development in schools, hospitals and caring institutions is now taken for granted. This is not so with priests. A “grace of state” theology, sends newly ordained into roles requiring leadership, counselling and management skills, public speaking ability without appropriate preparation or much ongoing support and supervision.

Ironically, many effective pastors have adapted under this sink-or-swim policy. But they have been largely self-taught. It is not good policy. Grace of state is a failed theory.

Whatever about the quality of the priests, they are in short supply. There is no prospect of an increase in numbers under the presently required conditions of service – male, celibate, full-time and life-long. Between 1955 and 1975 Melbourne ordained 15 priests a year. In contrast, For the last 35 years there have been only 3 per year. Over the same time the Catholic population has grown 70%. The present organization structure is unsustainable. Recruiting lay men and women to formal ministry is the only option.

Pastoral planning is another challenge. Melbourne led the way with its Pastoral Research Office which was set up in the eighties. Besides projecting future needs, it discerned early that ministry had to be undertaken by laity, both women and men. Training courses were designed, and recruitment was good because, at that stage, there were still numbers of people willing to work for the Church community both remunerated and volunteer. The ACBC set up a national Pastoral Planning Office (PPO), while Melbourne’s office was weakened under Archbishop Pell and closed by Archbishop Hart. There may be better days ahead because Archbishop Comensoli has valued pastoral planning in Broken Bay.

The picture is not entirely bleak. There is a hard core of sophisticated faithful who are willing to give their time and effort to promote a faith that has sustained them.

So, spare a thought for the new archbishop. He faces the biggest episcopal task in Australia. He will have to make big changes. He will meet resistance. But he has the brains. He has post-graduate qualifications from Rome’s Alphonsianum and Scotland’s prestigious universities – St Andrew’s and Edinburgh. No doubt this caught George Pell’s eye. George picked him as his auxiliary, got him made administrator of Sydney when George went to Rome and then guided his move to Broken Bay as he secured Anthony Fisher as his successor in Sydney.

His academic background is juridical rather than pastoral, but any new job requires adaptation. His episcopal motto is “We proclaim the Messiah – a Crucified One”. This is the core of St. Paul’s message as N.T. Wright explains in “Paul: A Biography”. God is doing something new for us. Not a bad omen for future endeavours.

He will find that the Melbourne Church has a very different history and culture to Sydney’s. Still, he will find a small, but faithful Catholic core who will respond to positive leadership.

Strength to his arm.

Eric Hodgens is a Melbourne Priest currently living in retirement.


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9 Responses to ERIC HODGENS. Spare A Thought for the New Archbishop.

  1. michael schell says:

    Eric is generous and optimistic in hoping that the new Archbishop of Melbourne will bring a different pastoral response and leadership to the needs and challenges that face the communities that make up this great Archdiocese.

    However, if his 2 year reign here in our small diocese of Broken Bay is to be taken as evidence of what he has to bring, I fear that that vision of Church and Ministry in Melbourne will sadly remain out of touch with the signs of the times – continuing the legacy of one George Pell – but we do wish you all the best!

    ps Perhaps you could have asked for the Bishop of Parramatta – he does seem to have
    a vision of how the Church needs to witness to Gospel Values as expressed in the Beatitudes and the teachings and examples of Jesus.

  2. Michael Flynn says:

    Thank you for this good news about the new Archbishop of Melbourne that complemented all I read on page one of The Age today. I await news about his choice of an AFL football club. I hope he seeks advice from an Archdiocesan Pastoral Council with an independent lay person in the chair because now ” pastoral circumstances suggest” as provided in canon 511 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law that governs Melbourne. As a Canberran who lived in Sydney and follows rugby I know little of the tribal meanings of the clubs but I have a few clues. Collingwood could be working class so fits Wollongong and was the choice of Paul Keating. Hawthorn has a Jesuit parish. He should listen !

  3. Guido Vogels says:

    Trish martin I agree with everything you have written . Thank you sincerly
    The Clergy need to remember that it is God’s Mission and we ONLY share in that mission .So in reality the Mission has a church not the other way that canon lawyers have pushed. We need to Trust the Holy Sp.

  4. Trish Martin says:

    Leah thinks the archbishop is a member of the fundamentalist movement called Opus Dei. Its disappointing if that is true because what we need most is a Leader for this large Catholic archdiocese, one who is free from severe traditions and practices that stand in the way of church reform. Members of fundamentalist groups such as Opus Dei develop their own power through perceived elitism, their group embraces firm boundaries with strict rules for the behavior of their members. Such groups are largely confrontational since they are convinced of their own righteousness, in pursuit of practices that border on fanaticism.
    What the Church needs is a leader who has vision, an understanding heart and sound integrity, a person in which worlds and cultures can meet amicably, so that we can all evolve together in faith with the Spirit of God as our guide. I pray that Peter Comensoli is that person.

  5. Ben Morris says:

    Priest involved in child sexual abuse do not seem to be observing a “grace of state” theology. Further those who protected them may be in the same state. Let us hope that the new archbishop can lead the archdiocese to place where state of grace and an acceptance of the modern world are in the same space. Maybe the Holy Spirit is working in his/her normal strange and mysterious ways.

  6. Ben Morris says:

    Priest involved in child sexual do not seem to be embracing the “grace of state” theology. As Eric Hodgens states it has failed. Maybe the new archbishop can lead the clergy to embrace both a state of grace and a place in the modern world. May the Holy Spirit is working in his/her strange and mysterious ways.

  7. Nick Agocs says:

    member of Opus Dei ? More of the same?

  8. Leah Dobrejcer says:

    It seems to me that a very important factor to be taken into account with the new Archbishop of Melbourne is that he is member of the now behind the scenes very powerful “traditionalist” outfit Opus Dei.

    • Adrian Williams says:

      He is not a member of Opus Dei. There is nothing wrong with being a member of Opus Dei.

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