Learn who you are in the eyes of God: Bishop Mark farewells Melbourne

Tuesday 21 July 2020

Communications Office

This Wednesday, Bishop Mark Edwards OMI will be installed as the sixth bishop of the Diocese of Wagga Wagga, NSW. Before leaving Melbourne, Melbourne Catholic caught up with Bishop Mark for a conversation and walk through the Fitzroy Gardens, where he reflected on what he’ll miss most about “home”, his thoughts on the Plenary Council and how passing on the faith is all about telling stories.


What was your first thought when you received the news about your appointment? 

Shock! I was expecting to go to the Port Pirie Diocese which had been vacant for a while. I’d presumed that I didn’t have the right skill set for Wagga as it had been vacant for three years already.
That day, I had two missed calls from the Papal Nuncio at 8 and 9am and then a WhatsApp message at 11am. The last time I was called by the Papal Nuncio, I was made a bishop, so I knew it was important. “There’s a message from the Holy Father”, I thought, and in my head, I was already thinking it was to go to Port Pirie. I called the Nuncio and he says, ‘The Holy Father would like you to, etc…’ and when he got to Wagga I went, ‘Woah! Just let me sit down!’ That was a surprise to me.
You were made a bishop by Pope Francis in 2014. At the time, you said that Pope Francis had spelled out how a bishop is to be, that is, ‘You’ve got to smell of the sheep’. Is that how you’ve approached your ministry?
Well, I would now say that that’s half of the picture – yes, you’ve got to smell of the sheep, but I’d be very clear now that you’ve also got to be a person with a relationship with Jesus. Without that, you don’t have an engine room and nothing else matters!
At “Bishop School”—where Bishop Terry Curtin and I went along with Bishop Pat O’Regan—Pope Francis spoke for about 20 minutes in Italian. Bishop Terry translated for me and explained that the Pope was giving a reflection on the gospel where Jesus went up to the mountain to pray. He calls the apostles to be with him and then sends them out to teach and to preach. The Pope’s message was that if you don’t pray and go and be with Jesus then the people are being cheated. And if you don’t go out and teach the people are also being cheated.
As Auxiliary Bishop of Melbourne, you began as the regional bishop of the Eastern Region and concluded as regional bishop of the Western region. Seems like you’ve walked the expanse of the diocese!
But I haven’t been anywhere near the North and the North is huge! I knew the South from when I was a kid and would holiday down at Sorrento. Growing up, I lived in the East and the West had been a bit of a mystery to it – you know like everything on the other side of the Maribyrnong River is a mystery. I think in Melbourne that’s the dividing line. Now I pretty much know my way around the West.
When Archbishop Emeritus Hart asked me to move to the West, he told me that it would be a different experience. I didn’t really understand what he was saying at the time but I took it on faith. The West is quite active, lively, and more migrant-based. In the South-East you have the Chinese, Koreans, Italians, Indians and some Vietnamese. In the West, you’ve got the Filipinos, Vietnamese, South Sudanese, etc. and it’s very vibrant. These people have really brought their love of the Church with them. The East is vibrant too but in a different way.
During your time as Auxiliary Bishop of Melbourne you were the Episcopal Vicar for Tertiary Education and Youth and had a lot of involvement with youth ministry. As someone who was a youth leader growing up, what differences have you noticed in the way that young people are formed for ministry?
I think in the Archdiocese of Melbourne we’re more intentional and more structured about youth ministry. When I was a youth leader myself, it was really just “go in there and do the best you can!”. It wasn’t really clear what the goal was; I didn’t even know to ask the question of what we were trying to achieve. I had an intuitive idea that we were trying to build community but now there is youth ministry training with very clear goals and suggestions about how to get there.
There’s also child safety training and a lot more policies now to support those things. I think we’re a lot more intentional and much clearer in our ideas of what we’re trying to achieve these days. I hope youth leaders feel more supported and can achieve more ‘success’ because of those things.


One of your other key roles is serving on the Bishops Commission for the Plenary Council. Will this continue when you get to Wagga? 
Yes, I’ll still be on the Commission for the Plenary Council – you don’t lose that job. I have been a big fan of the Plenary Council from the time it was mooted. It’s become important to me in new ways. I don’t have a vision yet for the Diocese of Wagga Wagga, but I’m thinking that the themes for discernment of the Plenary Council will help me with that. What happens at Plenary Council and the six themes are the sorts of questions I’d be asking in our Diocese: How is God calling us to be a Christ-centred Church in Australia that is: Missionary and Evangelising; Inclusive, Participatory and Synodal; Prayerful and Eucharistic; Humble, Healing and Merciful; A Joyful, Hope-Filled and Servant Community, and; Open to conversion, Renewal and Reform.

I’d be asking, ‘how are we as a diocese doing in those areas? How are we as parishes, schools and hospitals in those areas?’

Would you say there’s a connection between your episcopal motto, “Learn who you are in the eyes of God” and the sentiment behind the Plenary Council? That is, as a Church – a pilgrim people of God – we are always seeking to learn who we are in the eyes of God and how we might ‘be’ as a church in Australia. Would you agree?
I hadn’t thought about my motto in a corporate sense but yes, that’s right. That could be in my homily—that’s very helpful!
The tired old divisions between conservatives and progressives and all those sorts of things which are just not “church categories” anyway – how do you get passed those? Well, you could get pass those by wanting to be closer to God. And if the other people are doing the same then there’s common ground. I also think of those categories—conservative, liberal—as just where you start. If you stay there, you’re not being a disciple because to follow Jesus you have to grow. We’re all on a journey and we all start somewhere; it’s “are you following the call?” That’s really the secret.
What’s sustained you during this time of COVID-19? How have you been able to sustain your prayer life and ministry during this time of lockdown?
My diary took a real hit because of COVID-19 but that meant that life hasn’t been as frantic. I’ve gone for walks, my prayer routine has been regular, and I’ve been able to do projects that I’ve wanted to do but just haven’t been able to get to them.
One of them has been to create a video series on [the philosopher] Charles Taylor. I’m convinced that he understands our society very well and if we understand our society as well then we’ll be able to be better missionaries. We’re not very good at passing on the faith in this era.
Why do you think that is?
I think my parents did what their parents did to pass the faith on and it worked for them, so they expected that it would work for us. And it did, partially, because it’s not like the church has stopped but obviously it hasn’t been as successful as it was in the previous era.
That’s only part of it. Society’s changed too and where we used to be a more disciplined society and a society where you could mobilise, we’ve entered what Charles Taylor would call “the age of authenticity”. And in this age of authenticity, you can’t let other people tell you what to do. So it’s not like the church can tell you anything or your parents – and if they do, we push back on them because to be authentic means you have to do what is true to you and not what an authority tells you to do. That’s not authentic. That’s why feelings are so important to us. And feelings are very authentic; they come from the heart of who we are. They’re changers. People of my dad’s generation weren’t very good at sharing their feelings but it’s a new era now.
Is it harder to pass on the faith these days?
Religion hasn’t gone away; we just need to look for it in different places. People are still being really spiritual; they might be new age or Buddhist or connecting via ecological movements—there’s all sorts of different ways that people connect now. It’s not how it was before but it’s certainly not an era with no spirituality.
When you think about the goal of life in this age, people now talk about “flourishing”. When I interviewed parents for their children coming to Iona College [a boys’ school in Brisbane, where the Bishop was Rector], they would say ‘we want him to be happy’. But if you’d ask my mum and dad what they wanted Mazenod College to do for me, they would have said something like, ‘we want him to be polite and disciplined and hardworking.’ So if today the thought is for them to flourish, previously we wanted to transform them.
And I think as Christians, we still have to think of the language of transformation. To just want to flourish is too much caught up in what Charles Taylor calls “the immanent frame”. We all live in the immanent frame – that is, the world of physics and chemistry where if for instance, you push a button, something happens. We all live in that world – but some of us live only in that world and some of us live in a world where there’s if you like, a skylight where the transcendent can get in.
Those are the sorts of things that have changed in massive ways, which means we have to find massively new ways of passing on the faith. How does one do that? I think it needs to be through stories… we need to understand that people in our society are on a journey – they’re seekers. Seekers are looking for something and if they find it, they’re probably not going to be happy with just a momentary “wow” – they’re probably going to want to settle in that spot. I don’t think any of us can stop being seekers, but some of us will become dwellers as well.
You recently taught a unit on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age at Catholic Theological College. Do you miss teaching?
Yes. I miss it a lot. What I miss about teaching is the engagement, the friendship, the formation… I miss seeing people “get it”; me being able to explain something. I think with every job you do there’s bits that you like and don’t like and I tend to remember the bits that I like. When I move away from being Auxiliary Bishop in Melbourne, Melbourne will get a little golden glow around the things that I liked about it!
What will you miss most about Melbourne?
I get really sad when I move. I’m going to miss being close to my parents … I’m going to miss being close to the family, the house, the people I work with, the school teachers, the RE teachers, the principals… when I think about it too much I get teary.
What’s the first thing you'll do when you begin your ministry as the next Bishop of Wagga Wagga?
Hang pictures on the walls! That’s when you feel like it’s home. Work-wise, the liturgical reception is on Wednesday 22 July and I’ve organised in the intervening time to visit all the parishes in the three weeks beforehand. There are 31 parishes in total in Wagga, and I’ll say a Mass here or there and pray with the people. I’m looking forward to that very much.
Archbishop Peter A Comensoli recorded this special message for Bishop Mark Edwards on behalf of the people of Melbourne:
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