As he commences his tenure as president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB sees one of his key tasks as ensuring the bishops ‘remain united in our service of God’s people’.
In an interview with the Bishops Conference’s Media Blog, Archbishop Costelloe admitted he was ‘surprised and somewhat daunted’ when he was elected president of the Conference in May.
‘At the same time, I was and am conscious of the trust the bishops of Australia have placed in me. I will certainly do my best to repay that trust,’ he said.
Archbishop Costelloe also reflected on a pair of firsts: becoming the first bishop of a West Australian diocese elected president and the first member of a religious order.
‘I think it is a good thing that the presidency of the Conference has in recent years been held by bishops from Adelaide, Melbourne and Brisbane—and now Perth,’ he said.
‘The Catholic Church is present and active right across Australia, and each diocese has its own characteristics and history, and its own unique challenges and opportunities, all underpinned by our common faith.
‘There really is unity in diversity among the bishops, and the choice of the Archbishop of Perth as the new president demonstrates this.’
On his membership of a religious institute—the Salesians of Don Bosco—Archbishop Costelloe said the increasing number of bishops who are members of religious orders recognises ‘the role religious life plays in the Church as a living sign of the fundamental values which should underpin the lives of every disciple’, namely poverty, chastity and obedience.
About one quarter of Australia’s bishops are members of religious orders.
In this interview, Archbishop Costelloe reflects on the Plenary Council, for which he served as president, the place of the Church in a society increasingly rejecting faith and on the role of bishops in the 21st century.
Archbishop Costelloe, you’ve had a couple of months to get used to the idea of being the incoming president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. What are your overriding emotions as you take on the role?
I was surprised and somewhat daunted at my election as the new president of the Bishops Conference. It is an important role and not one that I had ever imagined I might be asked to take on.
At the same time, I was and am conscious of the trust the bishops of Australia have placed in me. I will certainly do my best to repay that trust and to work collaboratively with the bishops to ensure that we remain united in our service of God’s people here in Australia. During my time as a bishop, the Bishops Conference has been faithfully led by Archbishop Wilson, Archbishop Hart and Archbishop Coleridge. I hope to build on their good work.
You are the first bishop of a West Australian diocese to be elected president. What do you think that says about the Church in Australia at the moment?
I think it is a good thing that the presidency of the Conference has in recent years been held by bishops from Adelaide, Melbourne and Brisbane—and now Perth. The Catholic Church is present and active right across Australia, and each diocese has its own characteristics and history, and its own unique challenges and opportunities, all underpinned by our common faith. There really is unity in diversity among the bishops, and the choice of the Archbishop of Perth as the new president demonstrates this.
One of the most important aspects of the Bishops Conference is our readiness to listen to and learn from each other’s experience. Every part of the Church in Australia has something to offer the wider Church.
In another first, no other president of the Conference has been a member of a religious order. What do you make of your election and the presence of many bishops from religious institutes—about a quarter—within the Conference?
The real significance of this lies not so much in the election of a member of a religious congregation as the president as in the fact that now about one quarter of the bishops come from religious orders. This is a recognition of the importance of religious life in the Church, not so much because of the work religious have done, and continue to do, in the Church, but because of the role religious life plays in the Church as a living sign of the fundamental values which should underpin the lives of every disciple: poverty and detachment from material things as the ‘be all and end all’ of life; chastity as a way of living our relationships with others with respect and reverence for each person as someone created in the image of God; and obedience as radical openness to all that God is asking of us.
Every Christian is called to live this way. Religious, by the quality and radical nature of their lives, remind all of us of this. And the presence of a number of bishops who come from religious life means that this reminder is ‘front and centre’ for the bishops as well.
You served four years as president of the Fifth Plenary Council of Australia. It has only just finished, but what is your sense of what the Council’s legacy could be?
Beyond the important decisions made by the Council, I think the real legacy lies in our experience, over the four-plus years of the Plenary Council journey, of ‘lived synodality’. Pope Francis often insists that this must be the way for the Church as we move into an uncertain future. All of us, sisters and brothers in Christ, are being called to walk together, listening deeply to each other. For many of us, the long journey of the Plenary Council has been an introduction to this way of living our faith.
Now we will need to deepen our understanding of this reality by participating in it. My sense is that as a community of faith we are only at the beginning of this journey. We all have much to learn about what synodality is and how it should be lived within the richness of our Catholic tradition. The Plenary Council has been a good start. Our listening is ultimately a listening to God, in all the many ways God speaks to us. I think we now need to attend carefully to all the ways in which God speaks to us.
Having had that significant leadership role in the Church in Australia over those years, what have been the biggest lessons you have learned?
I have seen, more clearly than ever, the deep desire in so many people for the Church to be authentic and faithful. The horrors of the sexual abuse crisis, and the extent of the suffering inflicted on the young and the vulnerable, has not destroyed the Church, although it has, to our shame, destroyed the faith of many in the Church. What it has done, however, is to reawaken in so many people a desire for the Church to be what it is called to be: a living and effective sign and instrument of the Lord’s presence and action in our world.
So much of the Plenary Council was, in one way or another, an expression of this desire and a pledge of commitment to doing what we can do to realise this dream—which in the end, of course, will be the work of the Holy Spirit, with whom we are called to cooperate.
I have also learnt how difficult it has been for so many of us in the Church to really enter into true discernment. I say this because I detected in others, and in myself, the powerful temptation to believe that what I thought was best for the Church must inevitably also be what God desires for the Church. The challenge, of course, is that other equally committed and sincere Catholics saw, and see, things very differently.
We have a long way to go in trying to understand how to discern the work, and the promptings, of the Spirit when good and faithful people see things very differently. The temptation of arrogance or spiritual pride needs the antidote of Christian humility.
Another thing I came to realise through the years of the Plenary Council journey has been the need to keep going back to the basics. The letters of St Paul, for example, with their very practical advice about how to treat each other in our communities of faith with respect, with kindness, with gentleness and with compassion, need to be taken seriously. The way in which Jesus interacts with various people in his encounters with them needs to be seen as the model for our own interactions with people. In other words, we need to be people whose lives are grounded in the Scriptures. In the end, we are disciples of Jesus, and everything in our life in the Church needs to reflect this.
You have spoken about your desire to work collaboratively with your brother bishops, but with the People of God more broadly to ‘carry forward Christ’s mission’. How would you describe the role of bishops as shepherds in the 21st century?
Our Catholic faith is a deeply sacramental faith—we believe that in the concrete, tangible, human realities of life we do, through the grace and power of God, encounter God and are drawn into a deeper communion with God.
I see the role of bishops (with priests as their collaborators) in this way. Bishops are called and empowered to make real and visible and concrete the presence of Christ among his people as their Good Shepherd. They don’t take his place; they don’t ‘stand in’ for him in his absence; they ‘sacramentalise’ his presence, specifically as the Shepherd. In doing this, they seek to foster and maintain the unity of Christ’s flock, the unity of the Church, so that the Church can be what it is called to be: the sacrament of Christ’s presence to the world as the Light of the world and as our Way, our Truth and our Life.
Bishops, together with their priests, are called to be enablers of the vocation of the whole Church to be a priestly people who give their lives for the sake of others, as Jesus gives his life for the sake of all. The ordained ministry of bishops (and priests) is therefore one of humble, self-effacing service so that, as St John the Baptist put it, ‘he (Jesus) must grow greater and I (the Baptist, the bishop, the priest) must grow smaller’. Our ‘job’ is to enable the whole community of faith to do its ‘job’.
In a country where ‘no religion’ appears set to overtake Christianity as the largest religious group, how can the Church continue to shape or influence Australian society?
It is almost a cliché to say that the values of the Church and the values of the society in which we live are growing further and further apart. Clearly the Church does not hold the privileged position in our society that it once had.
In such a situation, my firm conviction is that we should follow the advice given by Pope Benedict (and, I think, by John Paul II before him) and reiterated by Pope Francis. We should endlessly propose but never impose our beliefs on others. I often speak of the ‘Catholic worldview’, by which I mean the way in which, in our Catholic tradition, we understand what it means to be a human person, created in the image and likeness of God and called by God, in and through God’s self-revelation in Christ, to live in relationship with God, with others and with ourselves.
There is a coherent Catholic vision, based on key presuppositions (God exists, God is made known fully and finally in Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ establishes the Church and animates it through his Spirit to be the living sacrament of his presence), which means that the Church has a wisdom to offer our world as a precious gift. But gifts can only be offered, never forced on people, and people are free to receive or reject the gifts. We are called to reveal the beauty of the gift both by what we say and what we do, and to be sure that we offer the gift in its fullness as given to us by God.
It is one of the roles of the bishop to ensure that the gift is maintained in its integrity; to do otherwise would be to fail and dishonour God, who is the designer and giver of the gift, and to fail God’s people, who have a right to receive the gift in its fullness. But, of course, it is the faith of the Church, and not necessarily the bishop’s particular and personal interpretation of it, which bishops are called to safeguard for the sake of God’s people.
Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC)13 July 2022