From Convert to Church Leader

Interview With Auxiliary Bishop-Designate Elliott

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MELBOURNE, Australia, JUNE 10, 2007 (Zenit.org).- A love for the liturgy attracted former-Anglican Peter John Elliott to the Catholic Church, a love which he will carry over into his activities as an auxiliary bishop.



Bishop-designate Elliott, 63, of Melbourne, is the third Australian prelate to have an Anglican background. He converted to the Catholic Church during his studies at Oxford. He will receive his episcopal ordination June 15.

In this interview with ZENIT, Bishop-designate Elliott discusses his new mission as a Church leader, and the challenges of secularization and religious formation in Australia.

Q: As a convert from the Anglican Church, and now appointed as an auxiliary bishop of Melbourne, you bring with you a background not shared by many bishops. What influence has your personal history had on your priesthood, and what will it mean for you as a bishop?

Bishop-designate Elliott: As far as I can see, I am the third Australian bishop with an Anglican background. Archbishop Lancelot Goody [1908-1992] of Perth came into the Church as a child, when his family converted. Bishop Geoffrey Jarrett of Lismore, New South Wales, was an Anglican clergyman until he was reconciled to the Church in 1964.

I came in four years later, halfway through my theology studies at Oxford, where I was training for the Anglican clergy.

But apart from the ecumenical advantages, the Anglicanism in which I was raised was firmly based in the High Church Oxford Movement, so my father, an Anglican vicar, was not anti-Catholic. I could say that I learned the basics of the faith at home.

When I was ordained a priest in Melbourne in 1973, my parents were delighted to be involved in the celebrations. Yet what has influenced my priesthood, rising from this background, was a love of the liturgy, a valuing of the sacraments and a sense of beauty, reverence and awe, which characterized the Anglican tradition at its best. My father also taught me to preach -- without notes!

Q: Your work in Rome at the Pontifical Council for the Family, and then in Melbourne as the director of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family, meant you were in close contact with family questions. In these times when there is so much debate over the future of the family, what do you think the Church has to offer a secular society?

Bishop-designate Elliott: Working in the pontifical council from 1987 to 1997 was a fascinating experience, especially guided by Cardinal Edouard Gagnon and Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, two leaders I was honored to serve, in our common service of Pope John Paul II.

It was the era of the famous, or infamous, U.N. conferences. I served in the delegation of the Holy See at the Cairo Population Conference, the World Justice Summit at Copenhagen and the U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing.

Here I learned in no uncertain terms that the family, marriage and human life itself is under direct attack, and that God's providence is guiding the Catholic Church to meet the challenge of global secularism in all its aggressive and destructive forms.

The battleground in not merely in international conferences heavy with ambiguous jargon and deceitful strategies, but right here in your family and mine -- this is where the struggle for the soul of the human person is taking place.

Yet the Church meets this not with negativity, but by proclaiming the good news of life and love, by saying that babies are beautiful, that the future does move by way of the family, that the great hope for humanity is the living cell of all societies, the family based on marriage.

To put it simply: In a world weighed down by doom-and-gloom postmodern ideologies, we proclaim the virtue word "hope."

Q: You are also a well-known commentator on liturgical questions. Amid all the worries over changes in liturgy and a lack of respect for Church norms, how do you think we can recover a sense of the sacred in the liturgy, while at the same time making it attractive to a mentality that often sees ceremonies as boring and repetitive?

Bishop-designate Elliott: Sometimes I regret getting into writing books on liturgy. Some e-mails I receive are quite amazing. But I love the liturgy, and it was largely through the liturgy that I "came home" to Catholicism.

That is why I deeply regret the abuses of liturgy or the sheer liturgical laziness found in various places. While these abuses continue, I believe they are less frequent, and I see signs of hope, particularly through the liturgical vision and leadership of Benedict XVI.

He takes us beyond techniques, details and issues, and he leads us deeply into the "spirit of the liturgy." The wonderful vision of the Second Vatican Council was of a liturgy that linked earth to heaven, the worship of the mystical body.

Our Holy Father understands this well, and interprets it wisely. The sense of the sacred is returning, gradually. Young Catholics bear witness to this trend.

I am delighted at the prospect of real, dignified and accurate texts for Mass in English, and that this reform is being extended to all languages.

Also, I am not so sure that many people see ceremonies as "boring and repetitive." I think there has been a reaction against that phase when ceremonies were made so "meaningful" as to be performances, a liturgical cabaret approach.

People seek stability in worship, and that is where the fixed liturgical forms of Catholic worship in the East and West come into play in our lives.

Q: Benedict XVI has specifically mentioned Australia, along with some other Western nations, as being one of the countries most affected by secularization and a weakening of the Church. What do you see as the priorities for the Church in Australia to affront this situation?

Bishop-designate Elliott: Yes, secularization is prevalent in Australia. I recently took part in a dialogue with evangelicals and Pentecostals on this question, which is of concern to all Christians.

The secularizing process, and a kind of ideology of secularism, has made great inroads into our families, and into the lives of individuals. But that is just the kind of challenge we have had to face, in other pagan forms, in other societies in the past.

In Australia we need to strengthen the Church by concentrating on two points: formation of priests and promoting vocations, and a radical revision of religious education and catechesis.

I have been involved in that second area since I returned from Rome 10 years ago. Cardinal George Pell made me episcopal vicar for religious education in Melbourne, and editor of a 13-volume set of school texts entitled "To Know, Worship and Love."

As a bishop, I will continue working in this field with Archbishop Denis Hart, a hands-on leader who recognizes priorities. We now see these texts spreading across Australia because they "put the beef back into the hamburger" -- in an attractive, creative way.

Formation and education, these are the keys to family ministry, to parish revitalization, and will be evident at World Youth Day in Sydney next year.

In turn, formation and education lead to a real "new evangelization," which, putting aside all the debates about detail, really means converting nonbelieving people to Jesus Christ and his Church. By forming better Catholics we can carry out a mission to others.

So many "secular" people are hungering for God, even if they do not know it. But without formation we have little to offer them.

Nevertheless, when it is all said and done, we Catholics still have to respond to the greatest gift of Vatican II, the universal call to holiness. That is how we meet and transform a secularized society, by deeper personal spirituality, by union with the merciful heart of the Lord Jesus.

Q: We often tend to focus on the negative side. What do think are some of the positive steps that the Church and religious organizations have made in recent years in Australia?

Bishop-designate Elliott: Spiritual movements are growing in Australia, with their different charisms, spiritualities and approaches that reflect the variety, and yet build up the organic unity of the Church. None of these movements is the perfect "silver bullet," yet together they are reshaping large sections of the Church.

Again, that will be evident at World Youth Day. I also see the deep concern for social justice as a major contribution the Church in Australia has made to the life of our nation, and beyond, as in East Timor and the Pacific Islands. Australian Catholicism has a grand heritage of justice work and action based on the social teachings of the Church.

This is another way to penetrate a very prosperous but uncertain -- and fear-ridden -- society. We bring the balance and wisdom of the Christian cultures of the past to bear on our society today. Australia is a changing multiethnic society, ranging from our indigenous Australians through to new waves of refugees and immigrants who seek a new life in our land.

But this is a land of hope, named centuries ago by Catholic explorers -- the Great South Land of the Holy Spirit.