As he approaches the celebration of half a century since being ordained to the priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church, Archbishop Barry Hickey looks back on a life of work in the vineyards of the Lord, including the highs, the lows and the rewards.
Archbishop Barry Hickey will celebrate 50 years of priesthood at a Holy Hour and meal with the clergy at St Thomas More College on Friday, December 19.
He was ordained a priest on December 20, 1958 at Propaganda Fide College in Rome where he lived for three years while studying for his Licentiate of Sacred Theology at the Urbaniana University.
Although his Golden Jubilee celebrations this week will be relatively private, a major public celebration is being planned for next year to link his 50 years as a priest, his (by then) 25 years as a Bishop and Archbishop, and the re-opening of St Mary’s Cathedral. Although he is widely travelled and well known in Church circles around the world, Archbishop Hickey is a West Australian born and bred and has devoted his priestly life to the service of the people of Western Australia.
He was born on April 16, 1936 in Leonora, and grew up there and at Cue, Wiluna and Kalgoorlie. He was educated at the Presentation Convent, Wiluna and CBC Kalgoorlie before going to St Charles Seminary in Guildford in 1950 and then to Urbaniana in 1955.
“I grew up in a very Catholic household,” he wrote recently. My father (Gregory Hickey) was of Irish stock, my mother (Freda Kruse), a convert, was of German origin ….Growing up in the Goldfields I was always part of the Catholic community. The priests were our friends and prayer was part of my growing up.
“From the age of seven I wanted to be a priest, a desire that never changed.”
Looking back over the journey Archbishop Hickey wrote: “The call to the priesthood is a mystery. It is sensed rather than heard, a peaceful acceptance of God’s will of a future in his service among people. The prospect of taking on a position with such an undefined job description should be daunting and a little frightening. For me it was not. There was a peace about it, a trust that Jesus would show the way and work through me, even, or perhaps especially, through my inadequacies. Every time I have tried to formulate my own job description as a priest, God has made short work of it and sent me off in a different direction without a sail or a paddle except trust. It works.
“The ten years I spent in the seminaries were years of steady and imperceptible formation for the way ahead. I was maturing physically, mentally and psychologically at the time, absorbing daily the words of Jesus, the truths of the faith, and the conviction that what Christ was offering through the ministry of the Church was good news.
“There were moments when the presence of Christ, especially in the Eucharist was intense and overwhelming. There were other times when the head ruled and one began to think that it was possible to attain holiness by intellectual energy, or think one’s way into the spiritual life. This does not work.
“There were also those times when I thought there was just too much religion and I needed to have a break and throw myself into sport or socials events. There were also those moments when I wondered what I was missing out on and I looked a little enviously at those enjoying life on the other side of the ancient Roman walls that surrounded the seminary. Sometimes I still wonder, but nothing I’ve seen can compare with what God has given me. There are so many dimensions to the work of a priest or Bishop that I was not trained to do – teaching, caring for the sick, counselling, spiritual direction, administration, man management, finance, cooking or replacing the washer on a tap, or fitting the s-video to the TV. Some of these skills you pick up on the road, others require special training that I had to look for. Other abilities seem to emerge from practice or necessity. Somehow one copes.
“Although we have to live in two worlds, the practical and the spiritual, we get enough of the practical to manage in order to go deeper in what is the essence of this vocation, the spiritual.”
His first appointment after his return to Perth in 1959 was as Assistant Priest at St Brigid’s, West Perth, where the Italian he had picked up Rome (and still speaks) was a considerable asset.
In 1965 he moved next door, so to speak, as Administrator of Sacred Heart Church, Highgate under Bishop Myles McKeon, until 1968 when his life’s work took on a new direction.
Those who knew him in those days and since will probably recognise him in his own description of the spiritual dimension of the life of a priest: “The spiritual is not just personal growth, or even interior life. It is about people, or, at least, the vocation of a diocesan priest seems to be about people. It involves listening with the heart, being drawn by compassion, feeling empathy, excitement, wonder, enthusiasm, pain and the desire to convey Christ’s love and peace to a troubled soul. Whatever about the list of gifts of St Paul, these, too, are gifts of the spirit.”
These gifts saw him sent off to the University of WA from 1968 to 1973 to gain a BA and a Master of Social Work, qualifications which led to his being Director of Centrecare from 1973 to 1983, Director of Catholic Immigration 1976-83, Chairman of the WA Catholic Social Welfare Commission 1978-82, State Chaplain to the St Vincent de Paul Society 1982-83, and Chairman of the Australian Social Welfare Commission 1983-85.
He was also Parish Priest at Highgate in 1983-84 until his appointment as Bishop of Geraldton in 1984 brought a new direction to his life. He encouraged an active Aboriginal ministry in Geraldton, worked extensively with Vietnamese families (the ‘boat people’ of the 80s), combined with civic organisations to provide facilities for youth, and travelled extensively through his scattered diocese to maintain contact with priests and people.
A spiritual highlight of his time in Geraldton was the establishment by Fr Brian Ahearn of Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament at Bluff Point, the first in WA. The Bishop put himself on the roster for an hour each Friday.
He was enjoying the life of a bishop, but then in 1991 came “the shock” of his new appointment as Archbishop of Perth.
“It was like coming out of a quiet summer breeze into a cyclone, and it hasn’t stopped,” he said a few years ago on his twentieth anniversary as a bishop.
Within a short time of his arrival he discovered that the Archdiocese was seriously in debt and losing money at the rate of $4 million a year.
He reorganised the finances, reluctantly reduced the budgets of many worthy organisations and generated income by going into partnership to develop Church land in the Beaumaris Estate (now the Parish of Ocean Reef).
A major priority was to address the matter of vocations to the priesthood.
In 1994 He reopened the seminary at Guildford, and in the same year established the missionary seminary Redemptoris Mater at Morley.
Despite the predictions of many, the rate of vocations rose and Perth led the way for Australia. From 1969 to 1999 there were 92 ordinations in Perth, but from 2000 to 2007 there have been 58.
His concern for those in need has seen him establish LifeLink and the LifeLink Foundation to try to secure the annual funding for the Church’s welfare services. New services have been created to meet new needs, the two most recent being the Shopfront at Maylands, and the Daydawn Advocacy service.
His admiration for the in-built love of the poor in the heart of Catholic people that he finds so often in the Archdiocese was a highlight in his review of his 20 years as a bishop.
“I could not imagine myself in any other occupation than this.”
He tries to give some personal witness of that in his care for the homeless around Victoria Square. Enthusiasm for the new movements transforming the young was on top of that 20-year review and it still is.
“They touch the idealism of young people and nourish their faith, making them young apostles in the modern world,” he said. “World Youth Day has added greatly to this revival, giving young people a personal experience of the truth that God loves them and the Holy Spirit truly gives them power.
“It is a great joy for many of our priests to see the young so happy in the Lord. For myself, looking back at nearly 50 years as a priest and 25 as a bishop, I can see the hand of God guiding me, even making crooked paths straight. It is sufficient consolation to me if God has used me or my ministry for his own purposes and forgiven my sins and excused my mistakes.
“I could not imagine myself in any other occupation than this. A vocation to the priesthood brings with it plenty of problems, worries, pain and mistakes, but no regret because Jesus truly fulfils his promise to call us friends, not servants, and make us one with him as he is one with his Father.