Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Lismore: how long does it take to turn around a dead-beat diocese?

I want to resume today my series on the state of the church, a diocese by diocese review of Australia's geographic dioceses.  Today, a look at Lismore, which takes in part of northern New South Wales and is the eleventh largest Australian geographic diocese in terms of catholic population.

Lismore's bishop is Bishop Geoffrey Jarrett, aged 74, currently also Apostolic Administrator of Brisbane Archdiocese.  He celebrates ten years as a bishop on February 18.

About Lismore diocese

Bishop Jarrett inherited a diocese that both sides of the commentary fence seem to agree was a mess.  It can't have been an easy task for an outsider to take on, even with a year as co-adjutor!

His predecessor, Bishop Satterthwaite, had been in office since 1969, and presided over a decline in the number of priests from 119 in 1970 to 56 in 2001. A number of serious abuse cases have come to light.   And the previous bishop left behind him what someone over at acatholica suggested was an entrenched group of  'clerical and lay cronies' who appear to be a source of continuing opposition to the current bishop's efforts.

Source: Diocesan website

Lismore diocese, according to its website is "...home to 105,000 Catholics in twenty eight Parishes living along the picturesque coastline of New South Wales that extends from the Tweed River in the North to Camden Haven in the South." 

The largest population centres are Tweed Heads, straddling the Queensland border, NSW sixth largest town (pop 53, 650); Port Macquarie (42, 042); and Lismore itself (pop 31, 385).  It takes in some 28, 660 square kilometres, and in 2004 had a total of 56 priests (48 diocesan), 2 permanent deacons and 110 religious.

I understand there is a strong Carmel there, which certainly seems to be attracting young vocations, but the diocesan website does not list the religious orders operating in the diocese.


Bishop Jarrett with three newly ordained priests of the diocese, December 2011
Source: Diocesan website
Bishop Geoffrey Jarrett, 74, is a convert from Anglicanism and was a priest of Hobart Archdiocese before becoming Bishop of Lismore in December 2001.

The bishop has worked vigorously to restore the balance, recruiting priests and seminarians from overseas as well as locally.  It has been something of an uphill battle though.  In the first few years of taking office, the bishop managed to recruit priests from overseas.  But in a 2009 statement, with admirable transparency he noted that:

"Twelve months ago it would have seemed that we were managing well enough, thanks to the fact that while we have had no priestly ordinations since 2001 [So he inherited no seminarians, or at least none who persevered], five young priests had come to work among us. There remains the good prospect of new young priests in our five deacons and seminarians spread across the years of priestly formation.

However, since April we have suffered the tragic loss of two of those priests; a third departed overseas to pursue a call to the religious life; and one of our long-serving parish priests moved into retirement. Three others are coping with illness from which we pray they will happily recover. It is only realistic to expect that with the average age of our 29 active priests standing at 56.8 years and with three beyond retirement age or in prospect of it, the health of our priests becomes an important issue in view of the greater burden placed upon them."

But rather than being a counsel of despair in the face of these setbacks, the bishop responded with a call to arms, a call for genuine renewal:

"...we need to look further than the parish and diocesan logistics of territory, personnel, buildings, finance and Mass times, to the reality of what we truly are in each and every parish: the Church of Jesus Christ, a community called to be saints alive with holiness and good works to the glory of the Father, living with a unified spirit compacted about the Eucharistic Sacrifice celebrated by and with a priest in our midst.

The question I ask is this: is it not time now for us as a Diocese to be holding up that mirror to ourselves and to look at the picture in the light of the Gospel, the teaching of the Scriptures, the sacred Tradition handed down to us in trust and the ordinary regulative laws and norms of the Church?"

The bishop went on to call for fidelity and witness to the truth:

...So we get on quietly and unashamedly with the job of positively supporting and living those teachings which draw the incredulity of many of our contemporaries, such as our opposition to the killing of the unborn as a right of choice, artificial birth control/contraception, euthanasia, IVF and the rest. In doctrine we take as our guide the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in liturgy the traditions and norms set out in the Missal and other liturgical books and we support the Church’s social teaching on human rights and the dignity of the human person."

Stirring stuff.

And it seems to be paying off - the diocese currently has six seminarians, and the bishop ordained three new priests late last year!

Bishop Jarrett regularly provides strong teaching on the moral challenges of our times, with recent diocesan newsletters and other documents tackling topics such as same sex marriage, the Greens and giving a Good Friday homily on abortion.


As might be expected from a former anglican priest and subsequently chaplain to the Latin Mass community in Hobart, Bishop Jarrett has provided strong leadership in his diocese on the liturgy.  AD 2000 printed his circular on the new missal last year as an important source on proper participation in the liturgy.  He has done a lot of work to restore St Carthage's Cathedral, which suffered badly under the usual post-conciliar wreckovation and then was severely damaged by storms in 2007, including commissioning a new rood for the sanctuary.

Bishop Jarrett has been a good friend to the traditionalist community in Australia, regularly saying mass in the EF both in his own diocese and on many other occasions.  The EF is available monthly at the Carmelite Convent near Lismore.

Transparency and accountability

The diocese's relatively new website is a rather barebones affair, and those parish websites that do exist not much better (Port Macquarie's for example, where the bishop emeritus resides, is so full of glossy pictures and links of everything in the parish except the actual churches that it took me quite a while to locate actual mass times...). 

Still, better than the nothing in the neighbouring Armidale I guess!

How long to turn around a diocese?

In another post, a commentator raised the question of how long it takes to turn around a diocese.

I suggested at least ten years before you start to see real impacts. Perhaps even that is optimistic. In the end, success probably depends on ordaining a sufficient number of new, orthodox priests to provide a counterweight to, and ultimately replace, the rapidly ageing 'Gaudium et Spes' generation that tend to dominate the Australian priestly demographic at the moment. And training priest typically takes around seven years; encouraging them to consider a vocation and helping them through the initial discernment process a few years on top of that.

Of course one would hope to see, in any diocese, some positive signs much more quickly: things like new priests brought in from overseas; seminarians recruited; the appointment of a good Vicar General and a clean-out of the diocesan bureaucracy if necessary; orthodox priests (if they exist!) moved from the non-core roles they have typically been sidelined into back to the mainstream, and so forth.

Perhaps there are some strategies and approaches that will work faster than others.  But changing hearts and minds requires time for grace to do its work!


HolyCatholicApostoli said...

In your opinion, when and why should Co-adjutor Bishops be appointed?

Kate said...

I don't know enough on this subject to really comment HCA, but let me try anyway!

As as I can tell they are often appointed as a signal that the powers that be are not happy with the incumbent, don't want to extend his term or leave it to the locals while vacant for that reason, and want to give the external man some time to get a feel for what the issues he will have to deal with, as the Vatican counts down the days until the incumbent turns 75!

But there do seem to be other more positive circumstances in which they are used - for example large and important dioceses that just cannot be left vacant.

How well it works either way I really don't know.

The big advantage seems to me in giving the diocese some certainty -the typical pattern of vacancies extending over many months seems very unhealthy to me. I really don't understand why the selection process doesn't normally start well in advance of the age limit being reached except where it is clear the bishop wishes to stay on and the common good suggests he should be allowed to do so!

In principle a phase in/learning/mentoring period seems like a good idea.

But the danger I guess is that instead of coming in as a new broom and making a fresh start, the coadjutor learns bad habits the diocese's old way, and finds it harder to take charge in a clear cut way when the time comes.

Antonia Romanesca said...

“Also, the previous bishop left behind him what someone over at acatholica suggested was an entrenched group of 'clerical and lay cronies', who appear to be a source of continuing opposition to the current bishop's efforts..” *** How familiar does this sound to our ears! It gives one a sort of grim comfort I guess, to learn that this has also happened elsewhere in Australia. It seems to travel side by side, with numerous who are extremely puzzled by the concept of reverence for one’s bishop and indeed all competent Catholic bishops. Certain bishops, it seems, need to be relieved of their episcopacies [in effect], ‘for the sake of all concerned,’ so that the cuckoo rulers who know far better than the Curia, can implement “Progress”. The results, we see about us today…

R J said...

Perhaps the notion of a decade being required to turn around a dead-beat diocese is unusually pessimistic. (Wait: I said that?).

By all accounts, when the future Cardinal Pell took over Melbourne after 29 years of what even Newchurch operatives now admit to have been disaster, he was able to get a substantial amount of improvement carried out within the first year of his reign. It could be argued that his first year was his best year, and that after 1997 his leftist enemies within the archiepiscopal nomenklatura had time to regroup.

Kate said...

I'm certainly not suggesting that you won't see any change at all within the early years - indeed, in my management consultancy mode, I'd suggest that getting 'quick wins' on the board is crucial for building a group committed to making the necessary long-term changes.

The problem though is the group of hard core liberals any diocese has, but some have in positions of power that are hard to dislodge. You have to first persuade, cajole, entreat them to at least outwardly conform. Ideally you have to convert them inwardly as well. And the reality is that some will never be persuaded.

How quickly and successful a bishop is at this process will depend on the strategy he adopts, his skills, willingness to get tough and much more.

Still, there is a practical reality that until the hard core dissidents can be marginalised - no longer have the numbers - they can undermine...

And I'd venture to suggest the Melbourne example illustrates in many ways just how hard it is to make real change, and how quickly things can relapse without someone to keep pushing in the right direction...

Victoria said...

You are correct about Melbourne unfortunately.

byyrnesd47 said...

We are looking at a period of approximately fifty years that you base your summary of the Lismore Diocese journey in faith. Some fifty years ago we began to

live the result of Vatican II there was much searching for what was good for the Church, it was not easy for the Bishop and the priests to discern the direction of the Church, change brings such challenges. I believe the past Bishop did his best, yes there were mistakes, problems etc but surely these are the challenges of growth. It will be interesting to see how history treats the present Bishop These are the observations of a priest who has ministered for many years in the great Diocese of Lismore.

Kate said...

Thanks for your comments Father, it is certainly good to get comments from on the ground.

I note the problems many had in working out how to deal with VII and its aftermath, it is certainly true that almost everyone got sucked up in (what I regard as) the madness!

And I must say that this one, like a number of dioceses, was quite hard to get a real feel for from what is available online.

In an ideal world of course, I'd travel up there, talk to people etc. Unfortunately no one is paying me for this, and I don't have the time or resources to do that, so I'm hoping these pieces stimulate those who do no more into pitching in with corrections and additions so we can get a more accurate picture of what is and isn't happening.

And on comments more generally, friends (and this is addressed to several people, not one!), much as I enjoy comments and they (mostly) encourage me to keep posting, please do try to stick to the topic at hand in your comments, viz in this particular case, the state of Lismore, why things went wrong, how long it takes to turn around a deadbeat diocese and topics closely aligned thereto!

If you have comments on other issues, make them on the appropriate post, or contact me offline to suggest a topic for a post.

Note that if you are using a blogger ID that makes you anonymous, I can't email you back in response to your comment to to discuss the reasons for the rejection thereof.