Priests I Have Known

Priests I Have Known: Bishop Barry Collins

Barry and I lived together in the Holy Family parish of Maroubra for ten years back in the seventies and eighties, with Fr Mick Slattery, and at different times with Bruce Hawthorne, John Truman, Bill Challenor and Richard Dixon.

They were lively years – Slattery the father figure, surrounded by young colleagues. A time of great fun, stimulating table conversation, and strong friendships.

The Maroubra experience provided a strong argument for priests working together in a team.

At this time Barry was working in the Sydney Catholic school system with Monsignor John Slowie who directed the whole system. He would come home to us at night for light banter and a bit of goss. Following studies at the Jesuit University of Boston College in 1979, he was appointed director of religious education in Catholic schools. We watched as the burden of the fast growth of the school system and administration expanded.  He played a significant part in the expansion of that bureaucracy in Sydney and the wider national scene.

As one of his co-workers said: he loved  meetings – the stormier the better. A natural peacemaker, he developed into a creditable and intensely loyal Church politician. He was a company man in the good sense. He wanted things to run smoothly.

Describing his administrative style, one colleague wrote: I’d call him a man who showed trust in those he worked with, never jealous, tried to get the best out of them. A good leader – yes, though not always a well organised one.’

This surprised me greatly. Living with him at Maroubra, I was in awe of his compulsively well organised personal library – and gratefully dipped into it regularly. His collection of books included every latest book on theology, scripture, church administration you could imagine, all lined up shiny and new, neatly arranged in his bookshelves. We all have our addictions. His was getting his hands on the latest book.

in 1994, Barry was appointed the fifth bishop of the diocese of Wilcannia-Forbes, an immense area of a little less than half a million square kilometres in the Western half of New South Wales. The name Wilcannia came from a once thriving town on the Darling River where river boats would transport the wool clip safely downstream to city markets. Tragically  the Darling is no longer a navigable artery –  in places it is reduced to a mere trickle.

The new bishop took on the challenge with his characteristic enthusiasm. He was 56 years of age.

‘Barry Collins was a city boy,’ his friend Peter Ingham said at this requiem. ‘who on being made bishop of Wilcannia- Forbes turned himself into a ‘bush bishop. He exchanged his city life as an ‘office priest’ at the Catholic Education office for  very different life-style. Much of his time was spent behind the wheel of car travelling at speed across this vast and lightly populated diocese, keeping a keen eye  out for Kangaroos. The parishes were often two and three hundred kilometres apart.

He had the habit of telephoning his priests once a week – there were only about twenty of them – just to keep in touch. These bush pastors led isolated and quite tough lives. The people in the parishes also needed to know what was going on and to feel some sense of the concern he had for them. So in these days before the magic of the internet, he started a diocesan newspaper ‘Spirit Across the Plains’.

Communication in whatever medium possible, was a key tactic in his understanding of the job. Further he would criss-cross the highways and lesser roads to regularly visit these parishes, travelling distances that would make a Qantas pilot quake. Some believe that it was his long distance driving that killed him.

Another burning need in a diocese hit by intense drought at times, serious depression and isolation, frequent suicides was the need for good counselling services. Sydney’s CatholicCare – the church’s social welfare arm – was asked to help set up a similar enterprise in the diocese. A Loreto Sister and psychologist Margaret Flynn began with the thinnest of resources, a desk a chair but no computer – the  need for her skills was immense. Today from that tiny beginning there are 150 people staffing a range of social services throughout the bush. A great Wilcannia story.

The existence of such vast dioceses in Australia, some of them larger in dimension than the whole of France, have been discussed for decades. Should they be split up and attached to dioceses with more resources. As rural populations shrink and people follow the drift to the city the viability of such ecclesiastical regions increasingly come under pressure.

However despite frequent speculation Wilcannia-Forbes continues as a proud but challenged church in the west.

Barry would be delighted to know that the story of the church reaching out to remote margins in the West, both its challenges and its advances has been featured in a recent ABC programme of Compass.

‘Barry was a great devotee of Alexander Graham Bell’ Cardinal Clancy admitted affectionately ‘he found it impossible  to pass a telephone without availing himself of its services. Sadly there were certain basic life skills he didn’t possess – cooking was one of them. His kitchen was a place of the most profound of mysteries.’

Back in the CEO days there was a story that went around that one of his workmates claimed that Barry needed to look after his weight. ‘You know he only had a grapefruit for lunch’. Came the quick reply, ‘ oh yes, but he had fruitcake for morning tea’.

In his farewell Cardinal Clancy again touched the truth:   ‘He possessed unfailing cheerfulness and transparent friendliness which brought him thousands of friends throughout his life’.

Bishop Barry Collins died at the age of 62. He is buried in the Forbes cemetery deep in the red earth of the western plains of this ancient land.