It does not feel like ten years ago that Pope John Paul II sent me to Armidale to become its ninth bishop. On 14 May 1999, in the presence of a packed congregation of bishops, priests, religious and faithful, Cardinal Edward Clancy ordained me bishop; the assistant bishops being Archbishop Francesco Canalini, Apostolic Nuncio at the time, and Bishop Kevin Manning, the eighth Bishop of Armidale, my immediate predecessor.
My brothers Jef and Marc and their wives, Margaret and Kathy, and families, as well as five cousins from Belgium, were all there to see their "baby brother" ordained bishop.
In the April 1999 edition of Catholic Viewpoint I wrote: "When the news of my appointment reached me I was very taken aback and surprised. I went to my room in an attempt to absorb the decision. To this day I do not know who put my name forward, but I have often wondered. One likes to think that the Holy Spirit was involved, somewhere. His presence was certainly felt on 14 May".
The pastoral task of a bishop is threefold, as we find in Church documents, including those of Vatican Council II:
* The Munus Praedicandi: the task of preaching, which is the generic term for all teaching, preaching, instruction, catechising, proclaiming the Gospel.
* The Munus Sanctificandi: the task of sanctifying, especially through the administration of the sacraments, the Sacrifice of the Mass, the devotional life, and sacramentals.
* The Munus Governandi: the task of "governing", so that good order may prevail in the diocese at every level and for every member of the flock. It is the task of being a "father" to those under the bishop's care. He is guided in this by church law and directives from the Holy Father. The ideas of compassion and helpfulness come to mind.
During the year 1999 I was able to visit every parish in the diocese and meet the clergy and people all over this large territory. Everywhere I was made most welcome. I was able to see the great evangelising work of those who have gone before us. I resolved to continue this great tradition of the Catholic Church in New England North West.
Ever since I have attended many parish functions and occasions; in particular to confer the sacrament of confirmation. A grand total of just over 5,000 young people have presented to me for confirmation in 26 parishes of the diocese. At the same time I note that almost 7,000 baptisms took place. And one of the joys in going to parishes is the debutante balls held in many of them.
On becoming a bishop one also becomes a member of the college of bishops, given expression in membership of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. Attending the meetings of the ACBC involves being away from the diocese at times. Also I do take annual leave and go away to "places near and far" leaving the diocese in the good care of the Vicar General.
Again, every five years bishops go to Rome on pilgrimage to the Tombs of Peter and Paul; at the same time visiting the various dicasteries. And each bishop is given a private audience with the Holy Father.
It sticks in my mind that a number of people asked me when I came to the diocese: how long are you staying? This question puzzled me. After a while I realised that my predecessor had been transferred to another diocese after seven years in Armidale, and that the sixth bishop of Armidale in 1971 had also been transferred south. So then I made the response that I would stay 10 years; which is the time I am required to tender resignation to the Holy Father.
The evangelising of the young takes place mostly through our Catholic schools. Those who attend other schools are served by the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine that has catechists in most parishes. When visiting schools after I first came here, all students were given the opportunity to meet the new bishop and even ask a question. When one young man asked me, "are there any perks in being a bishop", I had to think quickly. I responded by saying that he could ask me again next time I saw him! In a postscript I can add that some years later I was invited to officiate at his wedding.
Now having passed my 74th birthday I have to look at tendering my resignation to the Holy Father as required by Church law. The Holy Father does not seem to be in a hurry to accept hastily such tendering by bishops, "who have reached the age limit". So I'll be around for some years to come, and continue doing what I have been describing above.
I thank all people in the Diocese for remembering me at Holy Mass, where my name is mentioned after the Holy Father's. Without the support of prayers being a bishop would be impossible.