Bishop Anthony Fisher's Homily for the Farewell Mass for Most Rev Robert McGuckin
Published in Catholic Outlook, July 2012
St Paul was the first ‘bishop’ of the ‘diocese’ of Corinth (Acts 18:1-17). In today’s epistle he gives public thanks for the many graces God had showered upon that young church: great preachers, teachers and witnesses, fidelity to the Gospel and true worship, diverse and abundant spiritual gifts (1 Cor 1:3-9).
Paul was no rosy-eyed romantic about the Church. Some of his richest theological reflections were occasioned by bad reports from the Church in Corinth. There was sexual immorality, gambling, substance abuse, violence, you name it (1 Cor chs 5 & 6) – the sorts of things you find in the sin-city of Sydney but which are probably unknown in Toowoomba. As always, there were problems with the Liturgy (1 Cor chs 10 & 11).
Perhaps the biggest problem was division: immediately following Paul’s thanksgiving today we read about factions for Peter, for Paul, for Apollos and for Christ (1 Cor 1:10-13; cf. ch 3). Some lorded it over others because of their greater learning, maturity or gifts (1 Cor chs 1-4, 12). Deep divisions were emerging over marriage and celibacy, over various traditions and over relations with other religions (1 Cor chs 7 & 10).
Each party had its slogans and everyone was expected to pick sides. Paul had his own views on these things – he was pro-celibacy, anti-circumcision and didn’t much care what you did with idol meat – but his main concern was to reunite divided brothers and sisters.
In response to this Paul insists, again and again, that the true Church cannot be divided because the Church is the Body of Christ and Christ is undivided. Forget factionalism, he says, let go of ego, rivalries and hatreds. The role of an apostle must be that of a pontiff, pontifex or bridge-builder, bringing people together.
Even when St Paul was quite direct, as vicars general sometimes are, or frustrated that things didn’t go as planned, as bishops sometimes are, he wrote as a friend, a lover, as someone who wills only the good of the other. So Paul got to know his people and make their sanctification his first priority and soon they made him one of their own.
That getting-to-know-you-and-love-you adventure is ahead for Bishop Robert McGuckin as he is called to adopt and be adopted by a new family, the Church in Toowoomba. What might they reasonably expect of their new shepherd?
This year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. That great council greatly enriched our theology of the episcopate. But when it did so, in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), it first reflected upon the People of God as “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Pet 2:9). They are, the Council taught, “a messianic people”, “a communion of life, love and truth”, “a kingdom of priests”.
The common priesthood of the baptised faithful and the ministerial priesthood of the ordained complement and are ordered to each other (LG 9-10). As bishops and priests share in a particular way in the triple office of Christ as priest, prophet and shepherd-king, they do so knowing that all the faithful also share in those offices (LG 11-17).
So the Council was not proposing a flat, Congregationalist view of the Church, as some have suggested, free of the supposedly sclerotic effects of hierarchy. It was, rather, a cross-shaped view, with both horizontal and vertical dimensions, with bishops and clergy there to serve and lead the laity but all called forth from one family dignified by Baptism.
There was no comfort here for the view of Monsignor George Talbot who famously wrote “What is the province of the laity? To hunt, to shoot, to entertain” – a position offered in protest at the larger role imagined for the laity by John Henry Newman (On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine 1859).
Newman’s bishop, William Ullathorne osb (1806-89), was drawn into the dispute. Ullathorne had, of course, previously been Vicar General of all of Australia, as Bob McGuckin probably feels he has been.
Believe it or not the name of the bishop to whom Ullathorne was Vicar General, the bishop than charged with care of the Mauritius, the Cape of Good Hope, Australia and other distant isles, was named Bishop William Morris (1794–1872).
After serving as Morris’ Vicar General in Sydney, Ullathorne finally returned home only to find himself named Bishop of Birmingham. In the dispute between Newman and Talbot, Ullathorne wondered publicly “Who are the laity?” and what have they to do with the Church, to which Newman famously replied “The Church would look rather foolish without them”.
Vatican II was a victory for Newman’s ecclesiology over Talbot’s but it was far from anti-hierarchical. It called the bishops successors of the apostles, a visible source and foundation of unity in faith and communion, transmitters of the apostolic line and tradition, with the fullness of the sacrament of Orders.
As collaborators with each other and the Pope, they exercise magisterium in teaching, stewardship over the liturgy, governance in local churches, uniting priests and people to each other and to Christ (LG 18-29). It’s a big ask!
But if Christ willed this hierarchy, as the Church believes, then those gifts for which Paul gave thanks in Corinth – of preaching, teaching and witness, of fidelity to the Gospel and true worship, of diverse charisms amongst the people – will be guaranteed in our day too.
A week ago at this altar a wedding was celebrated between a wonderful young couple whose engagement ring I blessed upon the altar at Cana in Galilee, while I was en route with them through the Holy Land to World Youth Day in Madrid.
The relationship which Bishop McGuckin will have to his new flock will be like that which began here last week. He too will wear a ring as a symbol of love for his people, his desire for their true happiness in this life and eternal happiness in the next.
He is now called, as Christ and His bishops are, to love the Church as a bride, giving his whole self for her. Of course, this match to Toowomba is an arranged marriage, with the Holy Father as matchmaker! But it is one which Bishop Bob accepts with joy.
We pray that the people of Toowoomba will likewise give thanks for Bob and take him to their hearts. It will not be hard. He is a compassionate man, a practical man, a friend to the sick and needy, as many priests know. He is a natural teacher and has a great sense of humour. He is an easy man to like.
He will also know what he is doing. His knowledge of Canon Law is legendary and only recently he was appointed Chief Justice of the ecclesiastical scene in NSW. He has been an enormous help to me and my predecessors as Vicar General.
He is a perfectionist, who sets the bar high for himself and those around him. He was described by one in the Chancery as “like a little terrier, nipping at your heels, keeping you moving, ensuring the job is done”.
I asked him recently if he would be attending the intensive course for new bishops conducted each year in Rome. His response was: “I could teach it!” He’s right. He knows the Church inside out. I dare say he knows bishoping better than I do. So it will come easily, I hope.
Of course there will be challenges. First, he’ll be losing his daily contact with us, which is a loss for us and for him. He’ll have a new world to learn and serve. And he’ll be at some distance from the sea and therefore from his beloved boat and fishing. Bishop McGuckin’s boat is named Bob’s Retreat, so that when people call for him on Mondays they are told “he’s on Retreat”! I’m not sure what they’ll say on Mondays in Toowoomba.
It is hard for us to say goodbye to you Bob. But we are very proud of you. You are the first bishop from the clergy of this young Diocese and we will always feel we own you, whatever your new adopted family say. Christ now charges you, as He did the man in the Gospel (Mk 5:18-20): “Go to your people and tell them all that the Lord in his mercy has done for you”. All were and will be amazed. Thank you and God bless you Bishop Bob.
« Return to news list