Q&A with the new President of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference


Archbishop of PERTH Timothy Costelloe was elected president of the Australian Conference of Catholic Bishops in May and was recently interviewed by the ACBC media blog.

In his interview, Bishop Costelloe reflected on the Plenary Council, the place of the Church in a society that increasingly rejects the faith, and the role of bishops in the 21st century.

Archbishop Costelloe also reflected on two firsts – becoming the first bishop of a Western Australian diocese elected president and the first member of a religious order.

Here is the interview:

Question – Bishop Costelloe, you have had a few months to get used to the idea of ​​being the new president of the Australian Conference of Catholic Bishops. What are your dominant emotions when you take on the role?

Answer – I was surprised and somewhat intimidated by my election as the new president of the Episcopal Conference. It’s an important role and not one I ever imagined I could be asked to take on.

At the same time, I was and am aware of the trust that the bishops of Australia placed in me. I will certainly do my best to return that trust and work collaboratively with the Bishops to ensure that we remain united in our service of the people of God here in Australia.

During my tenure as Bishop, the Episcopal Conference has been faithfully led by Archbishop Wilson, Archbishop Hart and Archbishop Coleridge. I hope to build on their good work.

Question – You served for four years as President of Australia’s Fifth Plenary Council. It’s only just finished, but what do you think of the Council’s legacy?

Answer – Beyond the important decisions taken by the Council, I believe that the real legacy lies in our experience, during the more than four years of the journey of the Plenary Council, of “lived synodality”.

Pope Francis often insists that this must be the way for the Church as we head into an uncertain future. All of us, sisters and brothers in Christ, are called to walk together, listening deeply to one another. For many of us, the long journey of the Plenary Council has been an introduction to this way of living our faith.

We will now have to deepen our understanding of this reality by participating in it.

A show of support for a motion at the second Plenary Council meeting this month. Photo: Fiona Basil.

My feeling 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 in the richness of our Catholic tradition.

The Plenary Council was a good start. Our listening is ultimately a listening to God, in all the ways God speaks to us. I think we need to pay attention now to all the ways God speaks to us.

Question – Having had this important leadership role in the Church in Australia during these years, what were the biggest lessons you learned?

Answer – I saw, more clearly than ever, the deep desire of 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 young and vulnerable people have not destroyed the Church, although they have, to our shame, destroyed the faith of many in the Church.

What she has done, however, is to awaken in so many people the desire that the Church be what she is called to be – a living and effective sign and instrument of the presence and action of the Lord in our world.

Much of the Plenary Council was, in one way or another, an expression of this desire and a token of commitment to do what we can do to realize this dream – which ultimately will be of course the work of the Holy Spirit, with whom we are called to cooperate.

Opening Mass: The Plenary Assembly of the Council – the first in Australia since 1937 – is made up of bishops, priests, religious, laity, women and men. Photo: Mark Bowling

I also learned how difficult it has been for so many of us in the Church to truly enter into true discernment. I say this because I have 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 have seen and see things very differently.

We have a long way to go in trying to understand how to discern the work and promptings of the Spirit when good, faithful people see things very differently. The temptation of arrogance or spiritual pride needs the antidote of Christian humility.

Another thing that I have come to realize over the years of the journey of the Plenary Council has been the need to get back to basics. The letters of Saint Paul, for example, with their very practical advice on how to treat each other in our communities of faith with respect, kindness, gentleness and compassion must be taken seriously.

How Jesus interacts with various people in his encounters with them should be seen as the model for our own interactions with people. In other words, we must be people whose lives are based on the scriptures. Ultimately, we are disciples of Jesus and everything in our life in the Church should reflect that.

Question – You are the first bishop of a Western Australian diocese to be elected president. What do you think this says about the Church in Australia right now?

Answer – I think it is a good thing that the presidency of the Conference has been held in recent years by bishops from Adelaide, Melbourne and Brisbane – and now from Perth. The Catholic Church is present and active throughout Australia and each diocese has its own characteristics and history, as well as its own unique challenges and opportunities, all underpinned by our common faith.

There is truly 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 Episcopal Conference is our willingness to listen and learn from each other’s experience. Every part of the Church in Australia has something to offer the wider Church.

Question – Another first, no other president of the Conference has been a member of a religious order. What do you think of your election and the presence of many bishops of religious institutes – around a quarter – within the Conference?

Answer – The real significance of this lies not so much in the election of a member of a religious congregation as president as in the fact that now about a quarter of bishops come from religious orders.

It is a recognition of the importance of religious life in the Church, not so much because of the work that religious have done and continue to do in the Church, but because of the role that religious life plays in the Church as a living sign of the fundamental values ​​that should underpin the life of every disciple: poverty and detachment from material things as “being all and finishing all” in life; chastity as a way of living our relationships with others with respect and veneration for each person as a person created in the image of God; and obedience as a radical openness to all that God asks of us.

Religious commitment: Bishop Mark Coleridge with the four sisters who made their final profession for the Sisters of St Paul de Chartres with other sisters of the order and of the clergy.

Every Christian is called to live like this. The religious, by the quality and the radicality of their life, remind us all of this. And the presence of a number of bishops from religious life means that this reminder is “in the foreground” for the bishops as well.

Question – You have spoken of your desire to work in collaboration with your brother bishops, but more broadly with the People of God to “advance the mission of Christ”. How would you describe the role of bishops as shepherds in the 21st century?

Answer – Our Catholic faith is a deeply sacramental faith – we believe that in the practical, tangible, human realities of life, we encounter God by the grace and power of God and are drawn into deeper communion with God.

This is how I see the role of bishops (with priests as collaborators). Bishops are called and empowered to make real, visible and concrete the presence of Christ among his people as their Good Shepherd. They don’t take his place; they do not “replace” him in his absence; they “sacramentalize” his presence, specifically as Pastor. In doing so, they seek to foster and maintain the unity of Christ’s flock, the unity of the Church, so that the Church may be what she is called to be: the sacrament of Christ’s presence in world as Light of the world and as our Way, our Truth and our Life.

Bishops, together with their priests, are called to be catalysts for the vocation of the whole Church to be a priestly people who give their lives for the good of others, as Jesus gives his life for the good of all.

The ordained ministry of bishops (and priests) is therefore a humble and self-effacing service so that, as Saint John the Baptist says, “he (Jesus) must grow and I (the Baptist, bishop, priest) must become smaller. Our “work” is to enable the whole community of faith to do its “work”.

Question – In a country where “the absence of religion” looks set to overtake Christianity as the largest religious group, how can the Church continue to shape or influence Australian society?

Answer – It is almost a cliché to say that the values ​​of the Church and the values ​​of the society in which we live are increasingly diverging. It is clear that the Church no longer occupies the privileged position in our society that it once had.

In such a situation, my firm conviction is that we must follow the advice given by Pope Benedict (and, I believe, by John Paul II before him) and reiterated by Pope Francis. We should continually 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.

Census collection: Question 23 asks Australians about their religion.

There is a coherent Catholic vision, based on key presuppositions (God exists, God makes himself fully known and finally in Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ founds the Church and animates it by his Spirit to be the living sacrament of his presence) which means that the Church has wisdom to offer our world as a precious gift.

But gifts can only be given, never forced upon people, and people are free to receive or reject gifts. We are called to reveal the beauty of the gift both by what we say and by what we do, and to be sure that we offer the gift in its fullness as God gives it to us.

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 dishonor God who is the originator and giver of the gift, and to fail the people of God who have the 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, that bishops are called to safeguard for the people of God.


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