|Maitland-Newcastle Diocesan magazine cover, |
This is another diocese where another recent bishop appointee has taken on a very tough task indeed.
Bishop William (Bill) Wright is a very recent appointment indeed: his episcopal consecration took place on 15 June last year, following the early retirement of Bishop Michael Malone (bishop of the diocese from 1995) in the wake of continuing publicity about the handling of abuse scandals in the diocese.
And I’d like to be able to give him a break because he is so new.
Unfortunately, unlike a number of other dioceses where the incoming bishops have quickly said and done things that suggest that they are working to restore orthodoxy and orthopraxis, that is not the case in Maitland-Newcastle.
Quite the contrary.
The strong and growing traditional Mass community there has effectively closed down, no longer, I gather having even a weekday mass, in deference to the bishops views on this subject. He has also launched attacks on traditional devotions, and has indicated a disdain for the (genuine) traditions of the church generally.
His appointment, on the face of it, means that the liberal wing of the Australian Church will not die out as a result of demographic factors alone!
A troubled diocese…paedophilia
The biggest problem facing the new bishop is of course the abuse scandal. Maitland-Newcastle has been pretty much ground zero for the Church in Australia due to the number of paedophilia cases that have resulted in jail sentences and the handling of them. Several cases are still in progress.
And completed cases include the covering up of offences on the part of Bishop Malone’s Vicar General between 2005 and 2008. Similar allegations, and claims that he failed to take appropriate action, have also been leveled on an ABC Lateline program at another former diocesan Vicar-General, now AB of Adelaide and ACBC President, AB Philip Wilson (helped along by some potshots from now Bishop Emeritus Michael Malone).
I’m not in a good position to comment on Bishop Wright's handling of the abuse cases in the diocese so far. He seems generally to be saying and doing the right things, and he certainly has some experience to draw on here, given his last parish placement, where his predecessor was jailed in 2010.
A troubled diocese....orthodoxy and orthopraxis
But abuse cases are very far from being the only problems in the Maitland-Newcastle diocese: once dubbed ‘the diocese of the Big Drain’, or ‘Malone’s Miasma by the Cooees from the Cloister blog (a subject of some preoccupation also of the associated ‘Warden’s Window’ blog until its closure some months back in 2011). In short, this is a diocese famous for its heterodox and heteropraxis character.
You can get a flavour of just what The Cooees are concerned about by looking at the Diocesan Vision Statement on the web, or this ‘About Our Faith’ statement:
"Catholicism is a rich and diverse reality. It is a Christian tradition, a way of life, and a community. That is to say, it is comprised of faith, theologies, and doctrines and is characterised by specific liturgical, ethical, and spiritual orientations and behaviours; at the same time, it is a people, or cluster of peoples, with a particular history." (Richard McBrien, Catholicism, 1994)."
Bishop Malone was appointed as co-adjutor to Bishop Leo Morris Clarke, 1976-95 (who resigned aged 72 due to ill-health). He in turn asked for the appointment of a co-adjutor with a view to early retirement. When this proposal was rejected he resigned aged 71 on 4 April 2011.
Bishop Wright, has, I'm told set about addressing some of the administrative issues facing the diocese (not the least of which is the lack of a canon lawyer!). Whether all of these decisions are soundly based remains to be seen.
About the diocese
|Source: ACBC website|
The diocese was erected from Sydney in 1847. The parish of Newcastle was added to the diocese in 1873, and the name of the diocese was changed to reflect the major population centre (population 288,732), in 1995. At that time, the parish Church of the Sacred Heart was converted into the Cathedral after the Maitland pro-Cathedral was damaged in the 1989 earthquake.
Interestingly, Bishop Wright, like many city dwellers who migrate to the Hunter region, has decided to ‘renew tradition’ and live in the old bishops residence in historic tourist centre Maitland rather than coal-export centre Newcastle itself, next to the now much reduced ‘St John’s Chapel’ apparently in the hope of generating interest in its repair.
|Diocesan website banner|
In 2004, the diocese included some 147, 602 catholics, 24.5% of the total population of the diocese. The diocesan website suggests that there are currently 39 priests and three permanent deacons who minister in 45 parishes as well as 19 priests who may be retired, on leave or engaged in special duties (though this information seems to be out of date, however, as it doesn't line up with the separate clergy listing), 6 permanent deacons…and, in keeping with the diocese’s reputation, one clergywoman (listed as: Sr Margaret Valentine rsc, Pastoral Coordinator, Clergy)! The diocese has apparently had six ordinations in last decade, although two of these priests have subsequently left the active priesthood.
The number of priests has declined, as far as i can see, in line with the general Australian trend, from 99 priests in 1990, 79 of them diocesan. In 2004 the diocese has a notional priest to people ratio of 1: 2203, putting it in the category of high priest to people ratio dioceses.
The diocese has one contemplative monastery, of Redemptoristines.
How do you go about turning around a diocese?
At the beginning of this series of diocese by diocese reviews, I suggested an number of areas that could be important, such as strong leadership, particularly in focusing on vocations; good liturgy, a commitment to transparency and accountability; a mission outlook; and strong catechesis.
‘Bishop Bill’, as the diocesan website repeatedly styles him, has some curious things to say on some of these topics.
On leadership, for example, he is apparently committed to “the principles of collaborative decision making and co-responsibility”.
On the liturgy, the bishop was already infamous for his rejection of Church law in the form of Summorum Pontificum even before his appointment to this position, and for his disdain for Latin even in the Novus Ordo Mass.
The Newcastle Traditional Latin Mass Society used to have around a hundred and fifty names on its books as interested potential participants, and after only twelve months was attracting around 40 to 50 people to its weekly masses.
Now those masses have been discontinued, in line with the bishop's direction that there should be no 'special masses' for particular groups (a ruling that has also impacted on charismatic groups amongst others, though not apparently languages other than English except Latin!).
Even more alarming though, are some comments in the diocesan newspaper back in July.
In the run up to his Episcopal consecration he expressed his dislike of big ceremonies, indicating that he has “always dodged the big church events when I reasonably could.”
Bishop Wright says:
“But my preference is for simpler gatherings, where the power that is in God’s word, and in our joining with Christ in self-offering, can work its way into our hearts without the need of adornment.”
His bio page on the website includes the comment that:
“I would like to see much more evidence of a church of ideas, so that at the heart of things, there are some very strong Christian religious ideas, instead of rote practices or ‘emotional devotionals’. [Does that mean the rosary and Adoration??!]…
No doubt on all of this he will continue to be aided by Sr Carmel Pilcher's interesting views on the liturgy.
Bishop Wright's favourite pejorative word seems to be ‘churchy’: an offer to have his cassock ironed for him in preparation for the Ad Limina meeting with the Holy Father was dismissed as “that sort of obsession with ecclesiastical ‘form and trivia’".
Concern about what is happening within the Church is dismissed by saying that we need a ‘willingness to look beyond “narrowly church” concerns to the wider questions of how people in our time and place find strength in their faith for living in the real world.’
On one topic, however, there has of late been rather less noise, at least since his episcopal consecration, and that is ecumenism.
Bishop Malone’s final piece in the diocesan newspaper is a paean in praise of his own achievement in pulling together an ecumenical agreement with the Anglicans – an agreement that at one stage resulted in the Vatican having to step in to stop a proposed joint confirmation ceremony!
Bishop Wright appears to share the Coooes from the cloister disdain for the traditional Latin Mass and small 't' Church traditions.
Let’s hope he also shares some of the more positive elements of their critique of the contemporary church, such as the dangers of false ecumenism.