This is an edited version of the speech Fr Bill O’Shea gave at the Priests’ Farewell to Archbishop John Bathersby on April 19, 2012
ON January 29 1992 I had the privilege of making the formal address of welcome on behalf of the Brisbane clergy to our then new archbishop on the eve of his installation.
Today I have been asked to propose the toast to him as we farewell and thank him for nearly twenty years as our leader – so for me, it’s a case of closing the circle.
I unearthed a copy of that address the other day, and it certainly was formal.
My remarks today will be less so. I said then that it was with delight and thanksgiving to God, and with not a little sense of relief, that we greeted the news of his appointment.
I cannot remember who were the other options at the time, but there must have been good reasons for that sense of relief.
I concluded my remarks on that occasion with the expressed hope that, God willing and Archbishop John’s health permitting, we would have him as our arch- bishop for nearly twenty years – unless, that is, he were promoted to be cardinal in the meantime.
It’s hard to comprehend that 20 years have elapsed since the day we welcomed him.
When he came to the diocese, he mentioned as his three major goals the promotion of spirituality, of ecu- menism and of social justice.
The past 20 years have seen a marked decline in Church affiliation across the Western world.
Archbishop John has done his best to arrest that decline in Brisbane and beyond, by promoting such spiritually charged events as Hearts on Fire and Pray 2010, which attracted many visitors from beyond the archdiocese.
An Archdiocesan Synod and Jubilee 2000 were other memorable initiatives.
He has also been an enthusiastic promoter of World Youth Day, and a popular participant in these gatherings.
His Jesus–Communion–Mission vision has given many Catholics a more spiritual, even mystical, understanding of Church, and what it means to belong to the Church.
On the ecumenical level, he has maintained and even in- creased the standing of the Church with our sister churches. I sat with him for many years on the Roman Catholic-Uniting Church Dialogue group, and was always impressed by the respect and obvious affection in which he was held by Uniting Church ministers and leading lay people.
And, of course, he was a part of ecumenical dialogue groups on the international level as well.
No plain sailing
Probably his most publicised conflicts during his time in office have been the Womenspace and South Brisbane events, though I daresay many of us know of others in the privacy of his office, that did not get the attention of the media.
Despite the difficulties which are part of the episcopal office – the lack of privacy, the public scrutiny, heavy administrative duties, and the need to take difficult decisions – John has told us many times how much he has enjoyed being an archbishop.
While some of us might find that difficult to understand, given the criticism that Church leaders have been subject to in recent years, he has been totally sincere in saying that.
He has also said publicly that the latter years of his time in office have been the happiest years of his life.
I think his unfailing optimism has been one of the most powerful aspects of his leadership.
I read recently of a bishop who, on the eve of his episco- pal ordination, was told by a senior bishop, “This is the last time people will speak to you in a straight-forward way”.
I do not believe that would have been Archbishop John’s experience. His manner and approach encourage straight talking, and one could be pretty sure one would receive some straight talk in response.
His humble and unassuming nature has been a great gift.
Sometimes it can seem that the donning of the mitre changes, if not the wearer’s personality, at least the way he relates to people.
But in John’s case even though he has “increased in wisdom and stature with God and men’’, he remains basically the same person I knew at Nudgee College 60 years ago.
Last year, the Courier Mail in its weekend maga- zine section, did an extensive profile of the Archbishop.
What I remember about that article is not only the photograph of the happy chap, which graced the magazine’s cover, but the very positive, respect- ful and even affectionate approach taken by the writer.
I do not believe this was just one person’s appraisal, but that it was typical of the way the media and the public in general saw, and see the Archbishop. We, as a diocesan clergy, share in the light of that public approval. We have a lot to be grateful for.
Leaving Archdiocese ‘in good shape’
I think John’s great contribution has been to leave the archdiocese in good shape.
I am not talking about our sound financial situation, but about the good repute we enjoy with the media, and among the general public. And that is no small thing.
Back in January 1992, as part of that Address of Wel- come, I gave Archbishop John and the assembled priests something of a history lesson, as I sketched the history of our diocese.
I mentioned, in relation to our first bishop, James Quinn, that history had not been kind to him, but excused him – partially – on the grounds that he had some unruly clergy to deal with.
We hope Archbishop John, that as a body we have not been too unruly.
I have no doubt that history will be kind to you. You can help to ensure that by writing your memoirs in retirement.
Winston Churchill said: “History will be kind to me, for I shall write it.”
We say “farewell” and “thank you”, as I ask all to stand and raise your glasses as a toast to our Archbishop Emeritus.