ERIC HODGENS. Melbourne’s New Archbishop.

2018 will be a fateful year for the Catholic Church in Australia as Melbourne gets a new archbishop. This appointment, if successful, offers some hope for the Church; if a failure, it will hasten the Church’s decline into insignificance. Here’s why.

The national episcopal conference is of central importance because changes affecting the whole country require its approval. Pope Francis is encouraging national conference to be more proactive – in contrast to the policy of the last two popes who restricted conference authority.

The Australian Conference of Catholic Bishops (ACCB) is in poor shape having been hit by a triple whammy of Roman constriction under the last two popes, the back room influence of Cardinal Pell and the public devastation of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

The two popes exercised their control by carefully selecting compliant bishops and then closely supervising them. Over 35 years this led to a paralysis of local initiative and a policy of doing nothing without Rome’s approval.

George Pell was the right man at the right time from Rome’s point of view. He was a Restorationist like John Paul II. He became a dominant pubic figure following his appointment as Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996, then Sydney in 2001. His move to Rome in 2014 gave him daily access to the Byzantine halls of power of the Vatican. Although out of tune with most of the bishops, it was Pell’s views that got publicity. Now that he is on leave from church duties, he is silent. But no episcopal voice has taken his place.

The Royal Commission has deauthorised bishops by showing how widespread was their failure to act decisively against clerical sexual abuse. They are seen as having protected criminal abusers and prioritised protection of diocesan assets over care for their people. They have lost the confidence of many of their people. When they do speak out, the public, Catholics included, have a there they go again reaction.

The two recent public debates about same sex marriage and assisted dying have highlighted this. They argued that their opinions were the teaching of the Church. The vote of the Catholic people showed they are not the belief of the Catholic Church.

Australia’s bishops urgently need a visionary, charismatic leader to reclaim public credibility for the Church. A golden opportunity is opening up with the impending appointment of a new Archbishop of Melbourne. Melbourne is Australia’s largest Catholic diocese. The right man in this job could become the leading Catholic voice not only in Melbourne but in Australia.

What should the Roman Congregation of Bishops be looking for in the next bishop? Under present rules it will have to be a currently ordained priest. What else is required?

  • He should be an already credible public figure and leader. This limits the field and eliminates most current bishops.
  • He must be across current social and political issues – not interested only in church matters. This demands experience of political, social and economic currents in contemporary Australia.
  • He must have a vision of the mission of the Church as instanced by Pope Francis. This means prioritising care for people. Human rights must be a top priority in contrast to the more totalitarian mindset that puts the institution first. Australia has serious human rights challenges with few strong public voices drawing attention to them.
  • He needs to know Church laws, customs and procedures, but not be hidebound by them.
  • He must be open to urgent intervention on the problem of ministry. Clericalism and its shield of celibacy must be broken. This entails diversifying ministry, admitting women to ministry and married men to priesthood.
  • He must be able to bring the episcopal conference with him. Hence, he needs diplomacy skills.
  • He must be a good listener and a skilled delegator. Nobody can run a diocese as large as Melbourne without defining different areas of responsibility, setting up administrative structures and picking the right people to lead and organise them.
  • He must have a plan for the Melbourne and Australian Church.
  • He must be a good communicator, preacher and public speaker.

Reliable sources say that, as of January 2018, the selection process is on. The Nuncio has circulated a terna to the bishops and others he chooses to consult. The terna is the short list of three possible candidates he is considering for recommendation. The nuncio sends his finalised list to the Congregation of Bishops – a department of the Roman bureaucracy. Further processing by the bureaucrats of that Congregation results in a final, prioritised terna which, once approved by the full Congregation, is sent to the pope. The pope has the final say and is known to occasionally parachute in his own choice. A major difference this time is that Pell, the kingmaker or many recent appointments, will not have an official say.

It is worth noting that this process is an object lesson in clericalism. The pope, the Royal Commission and even our own bishops have decried clericalism in the Church. But it is alive and well. It will determine this appointment – possibly the most important one in fifty years.

Stay tuned

Eric Hodgens is a Melbourne priest who is now retired.


Eric Hodgens is a Catholic Priest living in retirement. He writes for P&I, International Lo Croix and The Swag.

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12 Responses to ERIC HODGENS. Melbourne’s New Archbishop.

  1. Avatar Joan Seymour says:

    Let’s give the Holy Parachutist a chance and send a name directly to the Pope. We all have a name in mind – if he happens to be on the shortlist, fine; if not, it will draw the papal attention. The good money is on the laity now – let’s see if we can gather our power and bring home a winner.

  2. Avatar Lynne newington says:

    What difference is it going to make; they’re formation has been made on the same principle/s and too ingrained in my opinion.

    • Avatar Lynne Newington says:

      Apologies for the dictation as in “they’re”, instead of their……….

  3. Avatar Jim Boyle says:

    I hope that the mistake I note below is an artifact of the auto-correct function of a word processor program!

    George Pell was the right man at the right time from Rome’s point of view. He was a Restorationist like John Paul II. He became a dominant pubic figure following his appointment as Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996, then Sydney in 2001.

    Shouldn’t that refer to a “dominant public figure” ?

    Cheers jb

  4. Avatar John Challis says:

    A very good job description for Archbishop of Melbourne, and the only person I can think of who easily measures up to it is Fr.Fran Brennan, S.J.
    Even if he doesn’t get onto the bishop’s terna of mates, let’s hope he is already
    in the sights of his fellow Jesuit, Pope Francis.
    Maybe the Nuntio reads “Pearls and Irrritations” and sends it onto the Vatican.

  5. Avatar Nick Agocs says:

    Is the Archbishop of Perth moving on?

  6. Avatar Garry Everett says:

    Eric Hodgens provides a good example of what McAuley wrote about recently in his article distinguishing between the exercise of authority and the exercise of leadership
    We who are to be led by the new Archbishop have as usual had no say in the m,atter. We do not know what names are in the terna, nor do we know what criteria of selection were used. We certainly were not asked for our views.
    A process shrouded in secrecy as this process is, does not bode well for successful office bearer.
    it will be almost impossible for the new Archbishop to exercise leadership which enshrines open-ness, transparency, honesty and accountability, when the process through which he was appointed, is based on the opposite qualities..
    Culture is king! Looks like we can expect that the Church will be unable, perhaps unwilling, to change, even in its most fundamental of aspects: the selection of a much needed courageous leader.

  7. Avatar margaret callinan says:

    “He should be an already credible public figure and leader.”
    What does ‘public’ mean in this context? Because if that means “gets his name in the news” then you narrow the field even further. Whoever fills the position, good or bad, will quickly become known – our bishops might be on the nose but, remarkably, they still get invitations to events and are quoted in the media.
    I suggest we need a Vatican II priest – but if one did get the nod he would have to act quickly … members of this cohort are ageing fast! Possibly/Probably any of the better contenders are known (in an uncomplimentary sense) in Rome and in Australian clerical circles because they are progressive, outwards looking and want to meet people where they are, rather than in a text book world.
    Any younger than a Vatican II priest and the real risk is we will get a “young fogey”, from the “back to black” brigade.
    We must trust in the Spirit because the system gives no credible grounds for hope.

  8. Avatar Jim KABLE says:

    I would add one further criteria – that he neither consult with or be consulted by politicians. We all remember the obfuscation of Tony ABBOTT about meeting privately with his good buddy George PELL – any meetings or phone calls or other communication must always be in full public view/visibility. No secret agendas or other undemocratic contact! We have had enough of that – whether we are Catholic or not. And the same goes for all the other religious players – whether Christian or Jewish or Islamic or Hindu or Buddhist or whatever – always and only in full view – and any attempt to make contact – one way or the other – always immediately on public record! If not – sacking!

    • Avatar Rosemary Lynch says:

      A great argument for a lay member: no sacramental excuse for political secrecy.

    • Avatar Rosemary O'Grady says:

      Jim Kable’s criteria eliminates ‘Fr.’ Frank Brennan from eligibility; which, given his published willingness to be imprisoned in defense of preserving ‘the seal of the confessional’ is probably a Good Thing – and to be Applauded.

  9. Avatar Graham English says:

    St Ambrose was a layman chosen as bishop of Milan because of his skills then ordained and consecrated. First Timothy makes it clear there were precedents.

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