Bishop-elect Anthony (Tony) Ireland was born a short walk from St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne. He was ordained a priest in the cathedral and will, on Saturday 31 July, be ordained a bishop within those same walls. In his 34 years as a priest for the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne, Bishop-elect Ireland has served in various academic and leadership roles, but at the heart of his ministry lies his desire to invite people to know and love the person of Jesus Christ.
Bishop-elect Ireland grew up in Caulfield, in Melbourne’s inner south, in a home that fostered Catholic life and culture. The eldest of three children, his devoted parents Bernard and Elizabeth Ireland (now both deceased), led the family in Rosary each night. The family attended Mass weekly and they were all involved in local sodalities, or Catholic groups, that fostered friendship and camaraderie within the context of prayer and service.
He attended De la Salle College in Malvern in his teens and remembers the positive influence of the brothers and the nearby Vincentians. ‘The brothers always folded their arms when they prayed. And before doing the Sign of the Cross, they always began their prayer with, “Let us remember that we are in the holy presence of God”,’ he said. ‘That stayed with me for a long, long time. It still does. If I’m asked to lead prayer, I occasionally use that phrase.’
Only a week after graduating from high school, Bishop-elect Ireland started work at the then National Australia Bank and later worked for the City of Hawthorn. He also studied Business part-time. In his early 20s, inspired by his Catholic faith and those who had helped shape him, he applied to enter the seminary at Corpus Christi College in Clayton.
At Corpus Christi College, we were blessed with staff who were good pastoral models. Monsignor Peter Jeffrey was rector at the time and he always spoke of his hometown Bendigo, and about service of the people. He was and is a good pastoral man’.
Bishop-elect Ireland doesn’t describe himself as a typical poster boy for vocations. ‘Initially, I didn’t consider “this is for me”. I considered “I’m going to give this a try”.’ He said he ‘knew’ it was going to work when, aged 29, he was ordained a Deacon in 1986. ‘When the bishop said, “we choose this man”, that’s when I knew.’ He was ordained to the priesthood one year later. He went on to serve in the parishes of Grovedale and Torquay, Mentone, Sandringham, Langwarrin and Frankston. For the last 12 years he has been parish priest of St Gregory the Great in Doncaster.
During his priesthood, he has undertaken academic studies in Italy, receiving higher degrees in Moral and Spiritual Theology, as well as a doctorate. He has lectured in Moral Theology at Catholic Theological College in East Melbourne and was Head of the Department of Moral and Practical Theology for eight years. He has been a tutor at Corpus Christi Seminary College in Carlton, was appointed its Dean of Studies and was also Rector for a number of years.
‘I can still remember when I first started the academic work at Catholic Theological College. I wasn’t so keen on that,’ he shared. ‘But Fr Austin Cooper OMI took me aside and said, “Now, you might think you want to be with the people and run the youth groups and do all those types of things, but this is pastoral work too. You, teaching and giving these people a good education and forming good priests for the future is pastoral work too”. So that was very helpful.’
Along with his parish and academic work, Bishop-elect Ireland has been Spiritual Director to the St Vincent de Paul Society State Council and has been appointed to a number of boards, committees and councils. He has been Episcopal Vicar for Health and Aged Care and is currently the Episcopal Vicar for the Eastern Region of the Archdiocese.
‘The academic [part] has been a large part of my life as a priest—the academic formation of future priests, religious, and lay people for leadership within the church,’ he reflected. ‘Being of service to the Church in various portfolios of committee work and making a contribution by way of expertise and decision making has also played a key role.
But through it all, it’s also been about prayer and life with the people. Most of my ministry has been spent living in parishes, being with people and at the pastoral service of the people. Prayer and life with the people have always been an emphasis of my ministry.’
‘And for me, the thing that is really important is being with people at the right moment, for the right moment. Being with them in the right moment. It could be with someone who is vulnerable on their death bed, or someone who is joyful about the announcement of an engagement, or the celebration of their marriage. It’s about being with the people in those moments.’
This was illustrated during a recent visit to a local hospital to anoint a sick parishioner.
‘I was in the lift leaving and a gentleman stepped into the lift with me. He asked, “Are you a Catholic priest?” I said, “Yes, I am”. He said, “We’ve been hunting and hunting for a Catholic priest. My father needs to be anointed up on the fourth floor.” I said, “OK, let’s go.” I walked in and knew the man. He was a well-known figure at the Catholic War Veterans Mass and I knew his daughter. I anointed him and he died shortly after. So that was a case of being there at the right moment.
The important thing is to be there at the significant times in the lives of people from womb to tomb, from birth to death.’
As he prepares for his pastoral mission as Auxiliary Bishop for the southern region of the Archdiocese, Bishop-elect Ireland hopes to be a living witness to the words he has chosen for his episcopal motto – “Confirm, Strengthen, Support” (1 Peter 5:10).
He explained, ‘Peter is writing to the early Christians who are being persecuted and he is saying to them, you will only have to deal with these challenges for a certain amount of time. He then goes on to say, “The God of grace, who called you in Jesus Christ will confirm, strengthen and support you”. The Ministry of an Auxiliary Bishop is to confirm, strengthen and support the priests and local communities in the region to which he is sent.’
Recognising that the Church faces many challenges, and inspired by his own personal relationship with Jesus Christ, Bishop-elect Ireland said he intends to be a bearer of hope ‘in this moment’. ‘We’re in the wilderness and we’re not alone. God meets us in the wilderness. The wilderness is a place of promise and that gives us hope.’
He hopes to help the Church be a ‘vehicle’ for introducing and reintroducing the person of Jesus Christ to others. ‘The Church is the vehicle for the proclamation of the kingdom of God and the person of Jesus Christ, and for introducing people to the love, mercy and healing of Jesus Christ.
Imagine a mirror. On one side of the mirror is you. On the other side of the mirror is the Lord Jesus. You are reflected in him, and he is reflected in you. We want people to see their value in Jesus Christ and his value for them.’
Bishop-elect Ireland’s coat of arms provides a pictorial reflection of his priestly ministry. The blue in the shield acknowledges the importance of Mary in his life from childhood. The anchor represents St Jude’s parish in Langwarrin where he served for seven years. At the top of the anchor are three horizontal bars, the Papal Cross symbolic of Pope St Gregory the Great, representing St Gregory’s parish Doncaster where he has been parish priest for the past 12 years. The crab refers to St Francis Xavier who lost his cross in the water on one of his missionary journeys and a crab pulled it out. It represents his time at St Francis Xavier Frankston. And the sun in its splendour refers to his theological education. Depictions of St Thomas Aquinas, patron saint of scholarship, show him with the sun on his chest.
The episcopal ordination of Bishop-elect Anthony John Ireland and Bishop-elect Martin Ashe will take place on Saturday 31 July 2021 at St Patrick’s Cathedral from 10.30am. The Mass will be livestreamed to the Archdiocesan YouTube channel and broadcast on free-to-air TV community channel C31 (channel 44 on digital TV).