The words “patience is a virtue” have taken on a deeper significance for Greg Bennet, Bishop-elect for the Victorian Diocese of Sale.

It has been more than five months since his appointment by Pope Francis as the tenth Bishop of the Diocese of Sale, however COVID-19 restrictions across Victoria have seen Bishop-elect Bennet’s Mass of Installation and Ordination postponed a number of times.

With the recent easing of restrictions, the Diocese announced that his installation will take place on Tuesday 8 December (Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary), at St Mary’s Catholic Cathedral in Sale.

The Installation Mass of Bishop-elect Bennet will be streamed live from St Mary’s Cathedral on Tuesday 8 December from 10.45am. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, a limited number of guests and clergy will be present but the community is encouraged to participate in the celebration online via the Sale Diocesan website.

Based in Warragul, Bishop-elect Bennet said the past few months have not gone to waste.

‘Though it hasn’t been the easiest time, one of the graces is that I’ve been able to, in recent weeks, visit all the parishes, particularly the very rural parishes, to see the priests. This diocese is very diverse and covers such a vast area—it’s about 5 hours from Warragul to Mallacoota in the far east corner.’

It’s been a lovely chance to get settled and to drive through this beautiful countryside, meeting the priests and listening to their experience, particularly those in the more remote areas. They really care for one another and their people – it’s really moving at times. A good number of them are international priests who’ve found their place and who have put a great deal of effort into their ministry.’

Bishop-elect Bennet served as the Vicar General in the Archdiocese of Melbourne from 2012-2019. Prior to that role, he was Director of Ministry to Priests and was the inaugural Director of the Archbishop’s Office for Evangelisation, initiated by the then Archbishop, Rev. Denis Hart. Woven throughout these appointments, he also served in a number of parishes including St Mary’s in Greensborough, St Bede’s in Balwyn North and most recently, St Joseph’s in West Brunswick.

He was due to commence a shared role with Fr Greg Burke as parish priest for “all the Brunswicks” [Brunswick parishes] in Melbourne’s west from 1 July 2020, when he received a call from the Papal Nuncio.

‘That’s how to make God laugh,’ he said. ‘Here I was thinking I’d be a priest in Melbourne for my remaining days, and happily so, and then I received the call. Upon hearing the news, I just felt very calm, in a way that if you’d asked me how I’d feel, I would never have imagined I’d feel that way. And I have felt that peace since that day.’

Reflecting on his life and the journey that has brought him to this moment, he said his story ‘has been one of continually letting go and trusting’.

I could never have planned these things for myself—it’s been God’s doing,’ he said.

As a child, Bishop-elect Bennet wanted to work in horticulture—he thought he’d run a nursery. He loved gardening (and still does) and also enjoyed growing vegetables. During his high school years, his thoughts moved toward being a chef. He was offered an apprenticeship but turned it down. By this time, the Bennet family – his parents Len and Maureen Bennet with their four children – had moved from their home in Canterbury (in Melbourne’s east) to the Woodend-Mount Macedon area in the north-west of Victoria.

‘Those were very formative years,’ he said. ‘I grew up in a very loving family. Mum came from a very large Catholic family of 10 siblings and dad came from a long line of butchers—six generations—with the business still running under the family name to this day. Through the business I watched the way my parents worked together and their strong work ethic. Commitment to faith and parishes were very important anchors throughout my family life.’

Throughout his ministry, he has drawn on his connection to long-time priest friends, family and community, prayer, daily Mass, hearing the word of God, celebrating the Eucharist and sharing the journey with others. These anchors were particularly important during the difficult period of the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse and the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, when he was Vicar General.

‘There were times when some of the material was absolutely horrendous and it was hard to imagine how another person, let alone a priest, could have done such abhorrent things to children, in particular. That was really tough to process emotionally. And yet, I’ve always had a sense of the presence of God, even in the very difficult moments. I do believe that God is working in all this—not in the sin, but in the mess. There is something for us to uncover.’

Bishop-elect Bennet has also suffered deeply upon the death of his beloved father last year, and at the same time grappling with serious health issues, which saw him take some time off to rest and replenish.

‘There’s a beautiful image, it’s Jeremiah’s image of the potter, which I hold dear,’ he said. ‘One of my priest friends had died and had left me this beautiful Japanese pottery pot. It had been broken and restored using gold. I think this reflects the image of God’s grace re-forming what seems to us to be broken and wounded and could never be redeemed. Through the gift of God’s Son Jesus, everything can be held. The pot demonstrates that the wound becomes in that case, a moment of grace, if we allow God to take hold of us. That’s a very powerful, physical image in my life. God breathes into us something new.’

Bishop-elect Bennet is conscious that he has arrived at the diocese in a year when the impact of the bushfires has been ‘particularly horrific and tragic’. In his own life, he has experienced bushfires.

‘We didn’t lose our home, thankfully, but we were in the Ash Wednesday bushfires of 1983. There is a strong image from that time which has always stayed with me: Our home had a view of Mount Macedon and the Memorial Cross and I remember the next day, after the horrendous noise and trauma of that previous night, seeing that image of the cross standing on the mountain, and I was thinking there is hope and there is love and there is purpose.’

‘And like the terrible bushfires this year, you could think it’d never be green again, and yet, now when I drive through the bush, everything is black and green. Life does come.’

In his new role, Bishop-elect Bennet will draw inspiration from Pope Francis and the image of the shepherd.

For me, that image of the shepherd is about accompanying the people of the diocese through the valleys and dark places, to the restful waters of God.’

‘Part of my role is to help people see that opportunity, to see the wonder of God working in ways that we don’t imagine. And when things are hard, discipleship means being able to accompany people and support them. I have seen this in action in profound ways and I’ve been part of it in my ministry.’

In today’s Church, emerging from COVID-19, Bishop-elect Bennet said this coming time will require ‘great listening, careful thought and deliberate strategies’.

‘It’s about drawing forth the baptismal gifts of people and helping them to recognise that the Holy Spirit is part of their lives. How do we nurture, support, encourage and form people for mission? It’s also about the way we lead in terms of collaboration, dialogue and listening. Life will necessarily be quite different now, so how do we welcome people back to the life of the Church? How do we journey together, allowing the Holy Spirit to guide and strengthen us?’

Bishop-elect Bennet has chosen the words, “Life for me is Christ”, as his motto. As he prepares to commence his role, he hopes to be ‘known for humble service, an ability to listen to the “heart-questions” of people’s lives, able to take advice respectfully and to share responsibility.

‘I’m part of a much bigger story.’