“THERE are moments of wishing I could be 53 not 63, simply because the task ahead of me is so alluring and the place so fascinating.”
Archbishop Mark Coleridge is sitting in a study in New Farm’s historic Wynberg, residence of Brisbane archdiocese’s archbishops since Sir James Duhig.
With his May 11 installation as Archbishop of Brisbane looming, there’s a palpable sense of mission and zest for the challenge ahead as he speaks.
“Getting ready to roll out the wagons” has been one of the archbishop’s favourite expressions since his appointment to the Metropolitan See of Brisbane was confirmed by the Vatican on April 2.
During our conversation, he indicates where and how this “rolling out” might occur – giving at the same time, candid insights into Mark Coleridge the man.
Brisbane’s first archbishop from outside Queensland in 50 years, and Archbishop to Canberra and Goulburn these past six years, describes himself as an extrovert.
Allied to this extroversion is a desire to make Wynberg “a house even more renowned for its hospitality” and openness to visits from people from all walks of life.
“I’m a great believer in the power of the table,” he says.
Sport, particularly cricket, emerges as an abiding passion along with that other great love – the Church.
Self-deprecatingly he calls himself “the mouth from the south”, alluding to his great love of communication in all its variations. (He was recently appointed to the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Social Communication.)
The archbishop says “patience is not my strongest virtue” but he will be consultative; doesn’t see himself as autocratic, but will be definitely “very hands on” and “not prepared to see things happening around me”.
He talks of “dark times” during his priesthood “at times personal, at times institutional”.
Influences are discussed including the role played by priests such as Melbourne’s Fr Bob Maguire on his decision to join the priesthood.
Then there’s the enormous influence he experienced during four years as speech writer to Pope John Paul II – “he was indomitable; I hope I have some of that same spirit”.
As I arrive at Wynberg, Archbishop Coleridge is being filmed as he delivers what will be his first pastoral letter in the new archdiocese. The theme is Pentecost.
Sitting in the next room, I catch fragments of the message.
The tone is encouraging – challenging the way some see Christian life as a hard slog up a mountain in the hope of eventual victory.
The archbishop indicates such an outlook fails to take into account God’s unfathomable love and mercy.
Then, after a couple of quick re-takes on small sections of the message, he’s onto the next task of the day, The Catholic Leader interview.
Archbishop Coleridge explains that, on leaving school in 1967, he had no intention of becoming a priest.
“I’d come from a not particularly pious Catholic family and had attended Catholic schools in Adelaide and Melbourne,” he says.
“I was doing honours English and French and was planning to become a diplomat, of all things.
“I got to know three priests quite by chance who were studying at university … this was largely through playing cricket.
“One of them, the now famous Melbourne priest Father Bob Maguire, was chaplain to a movement for young men.
“He opened up to me this vision of Church and priesthood I had never seen growing up.
“It was a vision that saw the Church and Christianity as an adventure, something exciting.
“This spirit was to do with heady days of Vatican II – these priests opened up in many ways a vision of what the council had offered.”
So, the then 20-year-old Mark Coleridge rethought his career direction.
“I started to think: Well what about becoming a priest?
“Then I’d think: Don’t be ridiculous; it’s the craziest thought you’ve ever had.
“But it kept coming back at me – one day I’d think no, then yes.
“Through thinking and praying, I came to the understanding that I was being called to this by a God who doesn’t cajole or force but who invites, nudges and won’t go away.
“And so an attraction to the priesthood matured into a sense of call that’s never left me.”
And has he ever regretted his choice?
“Mysteriously, no,” the archbishop says.
“There have been some dark times but I never had a sense, even in darkest times, that I was in the wrong place.”
These “dark times” were both institutional and personal in origin.
“There was “the tsunami of sexual abuse … I still remember when I heard the first case, that of a Melbourne priest abusing children, I thought: How unspeakably weird,” he says.
A personally dark time was when the new priest arrived in Rome around the age of 30 “on the crest of a wave”.
This jubilation quickly faded.
“I was stripped of the support of home and friends,” he explains.
“It was a kind of delayed end of adolescence; a time where I had to deal alone with my own woundedness in a deeper more difficult way.”
Yet Rome would become one of his favourite places, a kind of spiritual home, eventually putting him in touch with one of his greatest influences, Pope John Paul II.
This period is also in his words “one of the most misunderstood parts of my life” as evidenced by recent newspaper headlines touting his role as “chaplain to His Holiness”.
“The title is given to the lowest grade of monsignor at the Vatican,” he explains.
“The role is the least important thing on my CV and one which I intend removing as soon as possible.”
Far more important was his four-and-a-half years in the Secretariat of State as speech writer to Pope John Paul II.
“In this role, I had to learn to get into the pope’s mind, heart and soul.
“Apart from anything else he was a great man.
“His early life should have destroyed him as it destroyed so many others – in fact it had created him … the suffering in his life had released a kind of human energy that was extraordinary.
“Also central to the pope’s outlook was what he said in his first encyclical letter … that Christianity isn’t a religion – it is an experience, an encounter and the experience of amazement as a result of this encounter.”
Archbishop Coleridge agrees this vision had “an enormous influence” on his strong sense of the Church’s mission.
“The pope was always optimistic; he would see the mess that’s always in life but the magnificence at the heart of the mess.
“I would like to think some little part of this thinking rubbed off on me.”
And that very much explains that “roll the wagons” image.
“We can’t circle the wagons,” he says.
“We can’t succumb to a type of fatalism or defeatism that the party’s over.
“People must be encouraged to imagine ways in which we can reach out into the culture generally … to try and find words and images to share our faith with those who do not share our faith at all, or who reject it.
“There are also many, many Catholics who in one way or other have drifted away; we can’t just sit back and say ‘Well stiff cheddar’.”
The new leader of Catholics in Brisbane archdiocese says his leadership style will be to “listen to all voices” but “once I’ve made up my mind I will not be afraid to make decisions”.
“From the outset I want to be quite ‘hands on’ so I can get a handle on things from early on,” he says.
“I don’t want things happening around me or decisions being taken without reference to me.”
The setting up of an office in the Francis Rush Centre next to St Stephen’s Cathedral, and the intention to celebrate Mass as often as possible in the cathedral, are among practical ways Archbishop Coleridge will achieve this.
The approach will flow into a keen involvement in schools, youth gatherings and many other events throughout the archdiocese.
All the while, he’ll be juggling the other responsibilities which go with the role of bishop nationally and internationally including several additional roles.
He chairs the Australian Bishops’ Commission for Liturgy and is a member of the Bishops’ Commission for Doctrine and Morals. He is also a member of the Pontifical Council for Culture.
As chairman of the international editorial committee responsible for the new English translation of the Roman Missal, the archbishop spent a considerable time in Rome.
Rcently he took part in the Catholic Media Congress in Sydney.
As he was preparing for his installation as Brisbane archdiocese’s seventh bishop and sixth archbishop, Mark Coleridge had a simple message for the people of the archdiocese.
“I will devote the best of my energies to the task,” he says.
“I would ask the community to pray for me and I will in turn pray for the community in a communion of prayer.”
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