BRISBANE Archbishop Emeritus John Bathersby was laid to rest in the city’s St Stephen’s Cathedral today (March 16), remembered as a popular churchman of strong spirit, humour and genuine interest in the lives of others.
“In life, John cherished and preached the Gospel of Christ,” Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge said during a funeral Mass.
It was a Mass celebrated in extraordinary circumstances – on the first day of a national ban on non-essential gatherings of 500 people or more to slow the spread of coronavirus.
It meant seats were limited inside St Stephen’s Cathedral, however many people gathered with friends and loved ones to view the funeral Mass as it was streamed live online.
Archbishop Coleridge, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, described his predecessor as “an Aussie original and a Queensland classic”.
“He (John Bathersby) was in fact a man of high intelligence, a deep spirituality, straightforward, yet deceptive – a very accessible character yet with great distances,” Archbishop Coleridge said, describing a great Church leader who had touched many hearts and minds.
“There was even a touch of the mystic about him.”
Archbishop Bathersby died on March 9 at age 83, ending 58 years as a priest.
He was ordained for the Diocese of Toowoomba at St Joseph’s Church in Stanthorpe on June 30, 1961.
His first parish appointment was to Goondiwindi from 1962 until 1969, at which time he was invited to study spiritual theology in Rome, completing a doctorate in 1982.
This was to assist him in his role as spiritual director at Brisbane’s Pius XII Seminary.
In 1986 he was ordained as Bishop of Cairns, a position he enjoyed until succeeding Archbishop Francis Rush in Brisbane, in 1991.
Archbishop Coleridge delivered a heartfelt eulogy, describing Archbishop Bathersby’s legacy, and a friendship forged in Rome, as many young Australian priests undertook theological studies together, shared meals and experiences of life on the other side of the world.
“John Bathersby was at the heart of it all – master of the banquet in the most unpretentious way,” Archbishop Coleridge said.
“He was delightful, often hilarious company regaling us with stories of extraordinary characters of the Toowoomba diocese and eye-popping events from his years in Goondiwindi.
“But there was more than the fun. There was a human solidity and a spiritual depth in him, which were precious in our time away which most of us found humanly and spiritually very taxing.
“He was a bit older than the rest of us and had a wisdom to match.
“I … owe John Bathersby a deep, deep debt of personal gratitude in ways that are not easily expressed.”
Attending the funeral Mass were Queensland Governor Paul de Jersey; Tourism Minister Kate Jones, representing the Queensland Government; and many religious leaders.
Priests from Queensland’s five Catholic dioceses were also present, in a show of the respect held for Archbishop Bathersby across the state.
During Vigil Prayers and Reception of the Body, retired priest Fr Bill O’Shea, 83, spoke fondly of the man known by many simply as “Bats”.
The two priests shared 70 years of friendship, starting at Brisbane’s Nudgee College, and later during seminary training, and as priests.
“He (John Bathersby) was a young man grounded solidly in the faith,” he said.
“He made friends easily and he kept them. And that was to be the pattern of his life.
“He had a great sense of humour and fun.
“He was a humble man with not a trace of pretentiousness and never allowed the honours that he received or the roles that he filled in the Church to change him from the way he always was.”
Surfers Paradise priest Fr Peter Dillon also described Archbishop Bathersby’s legacy as a priest who fused a powerful ecclesial spirit with an unpretentious, earthy approach to life.
He said the archbishop was a keen mountain climber and sports watcher.
“Of course he was very confident and certain of his abilities,” Fr Dillon said during the Vigil Prayers and Reception of the Body.
“He spoke a dialect of Italian that only he could understand.
“He was in no doubt he could have coached the Queensland Reds to win every game, he drove a Ford like a Ferrari, as well as being a mountain climber undaunted by heat or height.
“Once I suggested to him that I might accompany him on a climb of Mount Tibrogargan (one of the Glass House Mountains) to celebrate my 50th birthday to which he very boldly claimed that I wouldn’t last the first 50 minutes.
“Now this from a man who was 20 years my senior and only ever climbed in Dunlop volleys.
“No mountain was literally or figuratively too high for this man to scale.”
Fr Dillon also described “Bats” as generous to the poor, even as Brisbane Archbishop.
“His generosity was legend. (He was) known for handing out $50 notes to the homeless who sometimes lined up at Wynberg (the official residence of the Archbishop of Brisbane),” he said.
“These people made frequent calls to the door hoping to get the little guy who always gave them a good feed.”
Archbishop Coleridge had one more, lasting memory to share – the night in Rome when he road pillion passenger on the back of Fr John Bathersby’s Vespa motor scooter as the pair headed home after an evening meal together.
“The night was wet and the cobbles were slippery,” Archbishop Coleridge said.
“I clung on for dear life and I’ve never been more relieved to make it home.
“But I vowed never again to ride or go pillion on a motor scooter – at least not with him.
“I think now how extraordinary the two archbishops of Brisbane were on that Vespa that night and both of us could have been killed.”
In retirement, Archbishop Bathersby enjoyed a return to the Granite Belt before settling into the Canossa Complex retirement home in Oxley, and St Vincent’s Aged Care at Carseldine.
He died in Brisbane’s Wesley Hospital, and is survived by his three sisters Carmel Mahoney, Sue Nolan and Anne Johnson, and his brother Michael Bathersby.