During this week, 36 Australian bishops are in Rome taking part in the once-every-five-year pilgrimage to Rome all bishops around the world make to meet with the pope and heads of various Vatican offices, to talk about their local church.
The Australians arrive at an especially difficult moment back home, as the country awaits a ruling in Cardinal George Pell’s appeal of his December 2018 conviction on charges of “historic sexual offenses.”
With many members of the Australian bishops’ conference notoriously active on Twitter, several have already shared some thoughts on the visit, from images of a beer on a hot afternoon after a day-long flight to Gospel quotes to mock one another.
Yet few have the traction online of Bishop Richard Umbers, auxiliary of Sydney.
Soon after their two-hour meeting with the pope on Monday, he went to Twitter to say that it had been a “brilliant audience” and very encouraging. “We spoke about everything and the Holy Father responded with such great pastoral wisdom. A true ‘incontro’ and accompaniment of the Australian bishops.”
Last January, when he was in the United States leading a group of Australians who participated in the March for Life, he organized Twitter meet-ups with some of the people he’s met through social media, the closest thing to “online dating” a Catholic bishop will ever experience.
“You can make new friends online, but then you have the opportunity to extend that to life outside the computer,” Umbers told Crux on Saturday. “People in the archdiocese were really worried, thinking I might be meeting up with a murderer or something, but it’s really interesting.”
Umbers will be in D.C. again next January for the annual March for Life, an event he hopes to replicate in Sydney in the near future focused on the defense of life from the moment of conception.
“I think that we do need to focus on abortion, though there’s been a lot of debate over this, with the seamless garment idea and so on,” he said. “I do think that we need to be targeted because if not, it can become so broad that it’s meaningless.”
This doesn’t mean that it would have a single-issue focus: “We do have to be pro-immigration, pro-dignity of all sorts of people. I’m not taking away from that, but I do think that you need to give it a focus.”
Umbers would like to have a broad spectrum of people participating, not only Catholics or Christians, but followers of all religions and even non-believers, since, he says, the matter of life beginning at conception is a “scientific fact.”
Crux spoke with Umbers on Saturday, the day the bishops’ spiritual retreat ended and before their meeting with the pope. What follows are excerpts of that conversation.
Crux: Most of you arrived in Rome early, to participate in a spiritual retreat. How was it?
Umbers: It was really something. We went to the same place where the Holy Father did, the same chapel, the same everything. It was very, very simple.
No TV, no air conditioning …
No, none of that. But it was very interesting because we went through the exercises of St. Ignatius, it was a Jesuit discernment retreat, led by a brother, and we did a lot of sharing. It was a bit touchy-feely, but we got to know each other very well. We’re always at meetings, catch up at the end, maybe share a drink. But this was an amazing time to actually open up and share our concerns and worries.
I think that some of the bishops were really taken by the fact that they could speak what’s in their heart and feel understood by the brother bishops, in a way that is not always possible when you’re doing ‘business.’ You don’t always know what it’s like to be out in the country, in a broke diocese…
We could all listen to each other in a very deep way. I think it brought us very close together, so we’re ready for our meeting with the Holy Father.
You’re in Rome for an ad limina visit. What is that?
I’m going to find out! I’ve never been before… But, every five years, the Holy Father receives bishops form a particular country and we prepare a report, and we bring our questions … The main thing is that we get to be open with the Holy Father and hear his thoughts.
During the retreat, we were in the same place with the bishops from Angola, who had just been with the Holy Father. It was just a free-for-all, you know, ‘Tell me what you want to hear, what do you want to talk about?’
You’re meeting the pope on Monday. Do you know what you’re going to tell him?
People have been asking me that question… If you get to sit next to the Holy Father, what are you going to tell him? But I don’t think that’s going to happen. There are 36 of us! But if I had a chance, I would probably talk about social media, I’m pretty sure. I’m also a parish priest, and everyone in the parish was asking me to tell the Holy father that ‘we pray for him, we care for him.’
I actually got to meet the Holy Father last year, and I told him that, in Spanish. As he was moving on, he asked someone, ‘Where’s this guy from?’ Because it’s odd to find an Australian who speaks Spanish.
That’s an Opus Dei element of you…
I learned Spanish in Rome, when I went to the seminary, because everyday life is in Spanish. It’s only since becoming a bishop that I’ve actually started learning Italian.
You were just talking about the importance of social media, and about this being something you want to ask the pope about. There’s a lot of people out there who’ve been talking to me about the possibility of having an online diocese, even a personal prelature. Do you think the Church needs something like this?
That’s probably getting too far ahead of yourself. I think what would be interesting would be to see particular charisms developing of religious and even lay people getting together and seeing how they can coordinate that kind of apostolate.
Let’s translate that, because “charism” sometimes is a big word and not really saying much. What do you mean by this?
It’s like saying ‘special’ I guess. They would dedicate time to being online, but they would need a good deal of formation and a good deal of time offline as well. Because to be useful online, you have to be elsewhere: in front of the Holy Sacrament, reading spiritual books, actual books, so you can bring something different. The problem is when you can read internet, speak internet, but all you do is regurgitate what’s being brought forward elsewhere. You need to have something new to bring, and that comes from your life in prayer and classic spiritual reading.
There’s also the fact that evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, we don’t actually live our lives online.
No, please God! Or we shouldn’t anyway. But that’s where Twitter meet-ups and all the rest can happen. You can make new friends online, but then you have the opportunity to extend that to real life. When I visited the States, in Washington, I met up with all sorts of people.
People in the Archdiocese [of Sydney] were really worried, thinking I might be meeting up with a murderer or something, but it’s really interesting.
Much like online dating, you don’t always know what you’re going to encounter …
Yes. But I met with a lot of college students, people from all walks of life. It was very interesting.
You were in the States this year for the March for Life in Washington. Are you going back next year? And will you be having another Twitter meet-up?
Yes! In fact, meeting people is half the fun. I even have some Americans asking if they can join the Aussie tour. Last time we had two giant inflatable kangaroos.
Why do you go to the March for Life in D.C.?
When I was there in January, it was the first time. And to see half a million people, families, youth, so joyous … Yes, there were a few nutcases, but they were drowned by the others. To bring that forth, to bring Australians to see that, it was a big step forward in understanding the issues behind pro-life that are often taken for granted. Going to the conferences before and after organized by university students was really something.
I would like to organize something like that in Australia, but to get there you need to basically energize people and get activists who’ve seen it in operation elsewhere doing the groundwork.
The March for Life in the United States was born as a response to Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion in the United States. Why the importance for having the March for Life in Australia?
There’s a very infamous Australian philosopher by the name of Peter Singer who’s at Princeton and other places, having an enormous influence in practical philosophies at university, despite being very controversial. I think we need to be confronting that kind of ideology head on: he wants to remove the image of God from our society. He’s quite explicit about that, and at a time when we see euthanasia legalized, when everything is about utilitarianism, preference utilitarianism, which is pretty much Singer’s thing, we need to respond in a very strong way about the importance of seeing the image and likeness of God in every person, from the moment of conception until natural death.
When you say you want to have a pro-life rally in Australia, will it be centered on abortion, or will it have a broader scope of the meaning of pro-life?
I think that we do need to focus on abortion, though there’s been a lot of debate over this, with the seamless garment idea and so on. There’s a group I met called Re-Humanized. I loved that they gave a very pro-feminist defense of life, on the grounds that age is not grounds for an abortion, violence, we’re not violent, why would you introduce violence to the women. I would love to bring them to Australia. But above all, I do think that we need to be targeted because if not, it can become so broad that it’s meaningless.
We do have to be pro-immigration, pro-dignity of all sorts of people. I’m not taking away from that, but I do think that you need to give it a focus. That said, even though it involves a lot of people, the March for Life in the U.S. is pretty Catholic, and I would love to see a broader representation of Protestants and people of other faiths.
We do have a very good relationship with other religions in the Archdiocese of Sydney, and it’s pretty much the work of Sister Giovanni, a Josephite sister, who’s amazing and who’s responsible for a really wonderful relationship built with Muslims and Jews and people of Eastern religions. We meet often and she’s been the catalyst for that. But I would like to build on that, so that it becomes evident that this is not just a Catholic issue.
That’s been something interesting I saw during the debate of the legalization of abortion in Argentina, where you saw a large confluence of different religions coming together in the defense of the unborn and the mother, including many atheists who insisted that they were participating in rallies or debates because of God.
One of the persons I met from Re-Humanized is an atheist, and he told me that the argument being put forth is that it’s a scientific fact: from the moment of conception there’s a human life.
But I would still ask the question: what sort of society we want to see ourselves in: one in which we’re supportive or is it a throwaway culture, where we get rid of things that are an inconvenience. What kind of society do we want to live in? That’s the message I would like to get across, for people to reflect on.