Jesuit Profiles

Farewell to a family: Q&A with Bishop Greg O’Kelly SJ

Bishop Greg O’Kelly SJ reflects on 11 years as Bishop of Port Pirie. ‘I think quality of relationships is what we must always look for. A diocese is a family, and so you have to work at building relationships.’

Bishop Greg O’Kelly SJ has just retired after 11 years overseeing Port Pirie Diocese. Michael McVeigh from Jesuit Communications caught up with him to explore some of the things that will remain with him from his time among the people in the region.

You’ve had a few farewells over recent weeks, in various parts of your diocese. How has that been?

There’s been a number of farewells in different parts of the diocese. It’s been quite humbling. Quite moving.

The schools all came together from the four corners of the diocese, which was a wonderful gesture on their part. All the principals came in and we had Mass and a dinner. Then the next day the whole school of St Mark’s was there, and the leaders from the other schools.

A highlight was when all Grade Three [at St Mark’s] came in dressed as bishops – in chasubles and mitres – and imitated my various gestures as bishop. That was rather lovely.

Watch a farewell video from Port Pirie Diocese: 

How does it feel to be finishing your time in Port Pirie after 11 years?

I think it’s very hard to be in a country diocese and not fall in love with the people in the communities. So there’s a real element of sadness. It’s the right and proper thing – given age and energy levels. It’s time to hand over to someone younger and with a good perspective.

What are some of the things that have stood out for you in your time there?

It’s always been a learning curve. The first thing I had to do was to get to know and appreciate country parishes. I had the advantage that my family comes from the mid north. So I was accepted, so to speak, as one of their own.

I had to understand how an isolated small parish operates, and the relationship between the priests and the people, and the local initiatives that have to be taken, and how to support the priests. That was a challenging thing.

I also had to work out how to get around. Bear in mind this diocese is the same size as France and Germany put together. Our western-most parish is over in Ceduna, and we go up to Uluru, and we go down to Port Lincoln. So you’ve got to travel a day or two each side of some of those places. I associated visits with going out on visitation, and confirmations and things like that. Obviously you don’t get around as often as you’d like to some of the places, especially the small places.

What are some of the things you’ve accomplished as bishop?

I appreciated the opportunity to strengthen the work of the diocese, in terms of prison ministry and working with Aboriginal people.

We have three prisons in the diocese, and several hundred inmates. There’s a team now, led by a priest, who are active in terms of letter writing and visitation and supplying things for prisoners, and who also support post release. It’s small, but it’s active.

The other thing was we were able to introduce an Indian congregation of sisters. There are two communities of them, at Port Augusta and Ceduna. They’re working with Aboriginal people, and they’re working with female prisoners.

We also just announced the founding of a new secondary school, over in Renmark, named after Saint Francis of Assisi, trying to pick up themes and outlooks from Laudato Si’. Because it’s right in the heart of an ecological environment there on the River Murray, in the Murray Darling Basin.

I think the sense of community amongst school principals and staff has been a rewarding thing to be able to be involved in, and trying to set up regional pastoral councils, because we’re too large an area to have frequent meetings. So we now have four regions. No parish can stand alone, and no parish has all the resources that it needs, but together we can do something.

I think quality of relationships is what we must always look for. A diocese is a family, and so you have to work at building relationships.

I’m more conscious of my failures than I am of my accomplishments, but certainly there have been some blessings, I know.

What have you learned and appreciated about the community in Port Pirie diocese?

I think when you’ve got families that have had to endure, as country people do – I mean some of our people have just come out of three-and-a-half years of drought, especially those in the upper north. These people know how to endure. And that distils their virtues as well as their values. They put the emphasis on the things that matter.

There’s a very strong emphasis on family bonding. Relationships are to be honoured. You don’t let people down, you move to help them. And that comes through time and again.

Being small communities, they know each other. So it would be strange for somebody’s needs not to be known. It’s not a question of people getting lost in the crowd, as might happen in the city. Needs are known. If somebody’s acting in a distressed manner, or if there’s been family discord or whatever, it’s known about. Not in a gossipy way, but just the fact that people might be suffering. So the ability to know what your neighbour is feeling is one of real support.

What it has taught me about the Church is that the Church needs to be reborn in the families. It’s taught me that there’s a great love of the Church, but something has to be done about it in terms of family catechesis. We have to learn from the past, where parents taught prayers to their children, where there was a Catholic identity manifested in the home, even through religious symbols. The faith is not something that simply exercised in a school classroom or in church. Unless the Church is reborn in a family, in our remote rural families, then it will be weak.

Have there been any opportunities to introduce or foster Ignatian Spirituality in the diocese?

Well, to begin with, we were able to go back to our origins and roots because this diocese was virtually founded by the Jesuits from Sevenhill. The first priests to come up here, in 1851, Fr Kranewitter himself, followed by Fr Tappeiner, followed by Fr Pallhuber. So those 1850s priests were the pioneer priests on horseback throughout this region, going even up to the far northern fringes.

They built all these little churches, about 25 of them, allied with the Sisters of St Joseph in the middle and eastern parts of the diocese, including Mother Mary MacKillop herself. And then in the rest of the diocese we’ve had the Good Samaritan Sisters.

But in terms of Ignatian spirituality, we’ve been blessed over a few years with the [Jesuit] tertians. As part of their tertianship experience they have come and given the Retreat in Daily Life in numbers of towns over several years. There are other prayer groups which rely on resources like Sacred Space, and there’s our own little ‘Stop a Minute’ which goes out daily, which is quite Ignatian in its background.

You have to acknowledge of course there are other spiritualities in the Church – or you’d say there’s only one spirituality in the Church with different facets – but there are the other facets. With the Good Samaritan Sisters, of course, there’s a whole Benedictine spirituality and Lectio Divina, which is promoted in prayer groups. And the Franciscan spirituality appeals to people with that ecological bias. I’ve been a bit careful not to sort of impose anything. But they are very conscious of Ignatian spirituality and imaginative prayer, and that type of thing.

I understand you’re moving to St Ignatius’ Parish in Norwood. Do you have any plans for what happens next?

My only immediate plans are to sleep in for a couple of days and then work out what to do. I’m sure I’ll become involved in aspects of the parish, and I’ll do bishop things from time to time either in Port Pirie or in Adelaide.

Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to share?

I can say this. I felt that when I was asked to be Bishop of Port Pirie, although it’s not a Jesuit work as such, I still felt very much that I was working as a Jesuit, taking up the work our forefathers commenced. They helped start off this diocese and here I was put in a privileged position of being able to try to continue some of the work that they had done, and to recall their presence with our people. So I thought it was being a rather Jesuit thing, to care for something we started ourselves.