Bishop hits the off-road: New horizons for Wilcannia-Forbes

Bishop Columba Macbeth-Green/Catholic Weekly

Bishop Columba Macbeth-Green clocks up 60,000 kilometres a year driving across the Wilcannia-Forbes diocese, which spans an area larger than the United Kingdom, writes Sharyn McCowen.

This Sunday marks two years since the boy from the bush turned Gold Coast police chaplain celebrated his installation as Bishop of Wilcannia-Forbes.

It was an unexpected but felicitous appointment. While any bishop would have been welcomed with open arms by the people of Wilcannia-Forbes, perhaps only one of their own could help heal the feelings of mistrust and abandonment that began with the sudden departure of the diocese's former bishop.

In June 2009, when Bishop Chris Toohey resigned, the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference appointed a series of apostolic administrators as they dealt with the larger question: What was to become of the diocese?

The bishops drafted a proposal for the dissolution of the diocese, which was roundly rejected by local clergy in 2010.

While the period of uncertainty affected all corners of the diocese, it was felt deeply by the Catholic school system, said diocesan director of schools Anthony Morgan.

"Teachers were among the most vocal supporters of the diocese, so that period hurt deeply," he told The Catholic Weekly.

"There is a strong sense of identity and a real love of Wilcannia-Forbes that is palpable in the schools. Even though the schools would have been simply transferred to another diocese, this was not a future that they wanted or believed would be better for them."

In 2012, a second proposal, drafted in consultation with local priests and parishioners, was submitted to, and ultimately rejected by, the Congregation of Bishops.

In a letter to the Conference, president Archbishop Denis Hart, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation of Bishops, acknowledged the desire of the faithful to maintain the institutional identity of the diocese, "which has its own respectable history and traditions."

While the future of the diocese was playing out in negotiations between the Conference in Canberra and the Congregation of Bishops in Rome, a police chaplain on the Gold Coast was following the developments from a distance, never dreaming he would be the one named to lead the diocese.

"I knew some of the difficulties, but being in an order that didn't have bishops and being a full-time police chaplain, it wasn't even on the radar that I would ever be a bishop," Bishop Macbeth-Green said.

The Order of St Paul of the First Hermit, founded in 13th century Hungary and known simply as the Pauline Fathers, was such an unlikely source of bishops that there are just three Pauline bishops in the world.

The diocese of Wilcannia was established in 1887, incorporating areas that previously formed part of the Bathurst diocese.

"Out here it's particularly challenging pastoral work due to the long distances. A lot of our priests are elderly, and they do huge work, and they won't retire unless there's someone to replace him," Bishop Macbeth-Green told The Catholic Weekly. "Their duty to the people is just amazing.

"As there are fewer priests, there are fewer opportunities for priests to get together and support each other. So they're even more isolated."

But that is changing, Bishop Columba said, with the enrolment last year of two seminarians for the diocese of Wilcannia-Forbes: Hugo Chis and Godwin Nyamida.

They, along with the presence of Bishop Macbeth-Green, have helped boost morale in an area that had long felt neglected by urban authorities, both civic and religious.

"Because of the history, with the uncertainty of the diocese, a lot of priests and people were really upset by the process," the bishop said.

"For a lot of people it was a bit like the Church was turning their back on us because we live out in the middle of nowhere . . . and there's not many of us."

Compounding that were years of drought and economic decline in the diocese's towns.

"But now we're back in business and people are very happy that they can see a future for the diocese. There's a vibrancy now."


Wilcannia-Forbes: a new horizon for the Church in the back of beyond (The Catholic Weekly)

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