Shared joys make dodging kangaroos all worthwhile for this country bishop
One of the joys of being the Bishop of the Diocese of Wilcannia-Forbes is the opportunity to get to know and minister to people living in rural and remote areas. To do this effectively requires a fair bit of travel. The only means of travel available to me is by car.
Unfortunately, there is very little to no public transport or air services to commute within the diocese which is 52 per cent of NSW. This, of course, impacts on all the people living in the diocese especially those who cannot drive or don’t own a car, creating a greater sense of isolation for them.
Even the Bishop going for a drive is not as simple as it sounds. Driving during dawn, dusk, or night involves the danger of hitting kangaroos, emus, wild pigs and the odd sheep and cow (there are heaps of goats too but they seem to know how to avoid a collision). Some of the roads I travel are not sealed and are corrugated and can only be driven on in dry weather. Another aspect for me to consider when travelling is the distance.
A trip from Forbes, where I live, to Broken Hill, where the cathedral is located, takes me about 9.5 hours. Recently, I attended retirement celebrations for one of our priests and it was a 12 hour drive (return trip) for that weekend. Trying to manage the driving fatigue (and the backaches!!!) is always a challenge.
To help facilitate the travelling I have a 4-Wheel Drive with a massive bullbar! (I call it the BEAST! – maybe it takes one to know one?). The BEAST also enables me to tow my off-road caravan on visits to stations and outlying communities. Often I need to remember to carry plenty of water and two spare tyres (big 4WD tyres are hard to change and they are so heavy, actually so am I!)
A big difference in ministering as a country bishop is population. While my diocese covers half the state it has a total population of just over 100,000. Of that number there are about 30,000 Catholics and they are spread out.
This means that the parishes have small congregations and our schools are small too. I have driven seven hours (one way) to Confirm three children. It is not unusual to put in a lot of effort for few people. I do it because the people in the bush are people entrusted to my care as bishop and I believe they deserve the same pastoral care as people in urban areas, where possible. Travelling in the great expanse of NSW is something I love. I find the quiet and solitude of these areas very conducive to prayer and meditation.
The vast expanse of blue sky over the parched land is just so BIG it easily elevates the heart and soul to the Infinite Creator of it all. I especially like the sunrises and sunsets. When we are in drought and death and dying is all around it is very easy to meditate on the important gift of life which should never be taken for granted. In the difficult times of suffering just being present to people is the most effective way to show the love and compassion of Jesus.
Of course there is the office time required to go through the correspondence and meetings to attend, this is sometimes tricky to organise between the pastoral visits which could be up to a week in duration. I try to find time to keep my bagpipe playing going as they are a great hit with the kids at our schools (and even at a couple of outback pubs!).
In Wilcannia-Forbes there are a number of Aboriginal communities. It is from the first custodians of the land that I, personally, learn a lot from, particularly their wisdom and insights regarding Faith and, in particular, the ‘Joy of Gospel’ in difficult times.
When I am at ‘home base’ (Forbes) I go to a personal trainer and ride my road bike (bicycle that is!) in order to maintain my superb physical fitness (in my dreams!). I have my pet Dog Mollie to keep me company (she is a Maltese-Shitsu) and I love a good BBQ.
Being the Bishop of Wilcannia-Forbes has its challenges and its joys.
My life and ministry is really a reflection of the lives of the priests, teachers and indeed, all the people of the diocese – everyone who lives and ministers in Wilcannia-Forbes (Willy-Forbes to our mates!) have the same challenges of isolation, transport, climate and rural decline to some degree. We also all share the joys of the wide open spaces, the uncomplicated lifestyle, the very genuine and ‘down to earth’ people and the support we give to each other.