ARCHBISHOP Mark Coleridge of Brisbane issued a “direct and personal challenge” at a Catholic men’s breakfast to “join with me in the task of rebuilding God’s Church”.
Minutes later about 220 men stood in solidarity with the Archbishop as he ended his address as guest speaker at the breakfast in Brisbane’s Tattersall’s Club on April 18.
Young men from Catholic colleges throughout the archdiocese and beyond, including a group from Toowoomba’s St Mary’s College who had left for Brisbane at 4.30am that morning, were among those standing.
Archbishop Coleridge’s talk “Often Surprised Never Disappointed” explored the often unexpected twists and turns his life had taken enroute to his present role as Brisbane’s archbishop.
The talk was part of The Catholic Man Breakfast series, which is presented by the Brisbane-based ministry menALIVE.
Archbishop Coleridge paid tribute to two men who had played a significant, even pivotal role in his spiritual journey – his predecessor Brisbane’s Archbishop Emeritus John Bathersby and, surely surprisingly to some, retired Melbourne priest Fr Bob Maguire.
“This is the story of God in my life,” he said.
“And I’m sure the story is there for each of you.
“The only question is whether you’ve got eyes to see it and the time to tell it.”
He said “the God I know is not a God who wants to kick your door down but One who wants to work in partnership with the human being”.
“I can see the way God has cajoled, urged, whispered, encouraged, opened possibilities, opened this door and that door,” he said.
“If the door’s open and you walk through, that’s when life takes off.
“That’s when you become ‘men alive’.”
The Archbishop described his life as a “pilgrimage”.
“I’ve become increasingly aware of this as I look back,” he said. “In my sixty-four years, the longest I ever lived in any one place was my six years as Archbishop of Canberra and Goulburn.
“About every five years the call comes, the bags are packed and off I go.
“Weaving through the tapestry of my years, I find myself constantly surprised but never disappointed.
“As I look back nothing has turned out as I expected.”
Archbishop Coleridge revealed some of these surprises, which included the inspiration to consider a vocation to the priesthood through contact with Fr Bob Maguire.
As a young man attending Melbourne University in the late 1960s, he met Fr Maguire and other young priests “on fire with the vision of the Second Vatican Council”.
That connection with Fr Maguire recently provided an unexpected link to entertainer Josh Thomas, the Archbishop said.
He related with relish his conversation with the young comedian before their appearance on the ABC TV’s recent Q&A show.
“We discovered we had a mutual friend – Bob.
“I was able to tell Josh that without Fr Bob Maguire I would not be a priest … even though his path and mine have diverged shall we say.
“Josh was mightily struck by that.”
Most of those at the menALIVE breakfast would also surely have been surprised to hear of Archbishop Bathersby’s pivotal influence on the man who would become his successor.
It was at a “dark time” in Rome when, cut off from his various supports, Archbishop Coleridge was forced to realise “I couldn’t face this alone”.
“I recall it was a friend of mine, another student, a man you may have heard of – John Bathersby,” he said.
“Over dinner he told me he’d been doing what they called assessment and therapy at the centre of psychology at the Gregorian University.
“John told me how enriching he’d found it and I thought, well if it’s good enough for ‘Bats’ it’s good enough for me … I need something.”
Archbishop Coleridge described the process which followed as “a gruelling journey” as “I faced myself and my woundedness in a way I had never ever had to do before”.
“These were the days that made me and really brought my (prolonged) adolescence to an end and completed in vital ways the journey of formation I had begun (into the priesthood),” he said.
Archbishop Coleridge told the menALIVE gathering of other surprises.
These included Melbourne Archbishop Frank Little’s request that he study scripture.
“I was gobsmacked … I said to him but I don’t know Greek and Hebrew,” Archbishop Coleridge said.
“He said ‘We know that but you can learn them’.
“It wasn’t my choice, it was an absolute surprise but absolutely not a disappointment.
“(The study of scripture) was, if not the greatest enrichment in my life, then pretty close to the top of the list.”
Archbishop Coleridge also told of his appointment as the spokesman for the Church in Melbourne in the mid-90s when clerical sexual abuse started to become a major issue.
“I couldn’t have foreseen then the way in which my life as a priest and a bishop would be overtaken by the tsunami of sexual abuse,” he said.
Just as then Fr Coleridge was becoming increasingly involved in this role, came another surprise.
“In the car park of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, I was met by the then Archbishop George Pell,” he said.
“Then out of the blue, he said ‘How would you like to go and work in the (Vatican) Secretariat of State?’
“It was so out of left field, I just said: ‘I don’t even understand the question. How would I know the answer?’”
In his four-and-a-half years in the Secretariat of State, came another “fascinating experience”.
“As one of Pope John Paul II’s speech writers I had to go deep into his mind, heart and soul … to do so was one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever been given.”
Speaking of his time in the secretariat, the Archbishop said: “To see the Petrine ministry close up is a mysterious and moving thing.
“I came back more than ever convinced that Peter is an incredible gift of God to the Church,” he said.
Archbishop Coleridge said “as bishop I’ve just been bouncing along from place to place – Melbourne, Canberra, Brisbane – they keep moving me north”.
Loud laughter greeted his comment “as someone said, next stop Thursday Island”.
Encouraging those at the menALIVE gathering, he said:
“This is not an easy time in the Church, but what a fascinating time.
“All of us are called to ask: Is this death or is this birth?” he said.
“This is the fundamental question of the Bible – what often looks like death is often birth and what often looks like birth can in fact be death.
“At the moment it seems to me we have both birth and death.”
Referring to the call St Francis of Assisi heard, he said: “We are being called to rebuild the Church and I can’t do it on my own, Pope Francis can’t do it on his own …
“We have been given the task of rebuilding the Church for the sake of mission at this time and at this place,” he said.
“I can’t do it on my own … I’m not a monarch and that’s where I need you.
“This is an extraordinary group of people … the potential in this city is enormous … this Church in Brisbane has incredible gifts and all we need to do is unleash the gifts.
“Don’t be fooled by those who say the Church is finished or going out of business … of course we’re dying in some ways, but we’re coming to birth in other ways.
“We’ve got to be midwives together.”
Master of Ceremonies Peter Gabauer, thanking Archbishop Coleridge for his “vulnerable, personable and honest sharing”, took up the theme of rebuilding the Church.
“Who here will stand alongside the Archbishop in this great project?” he asked.
As one, those present – earlier described by menALIVE founder Robert Falzon as “probably one of the largest gatherings of its kind of Catholic men in Brisbane ever” – stood in support of their archbishop.