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A Bishop who led by joy

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Bishop Ingham. Photo: Supplied.

Homily for the requiem Mass for most Rev. Peter Ingham. Given at St Mary’s Cathedral on 8 May 2023.

I was there when Bishop Peter Ingham, during an ad limina visit of all the Bishops of Australia to Rome, asked one of the gloriously dressed Vatican soldiers what country he was from. “Switzerland,” the guarded guard answered. “Switzerland?” Peter said, “I didn’t know there were Catholics in Switzerland.”

Then he asked another of the guards, “And what country are you from?” “Switzerland,” the puzzled youth answered, to which the elderly Australian bishop responded, “Switzerland also? Remarkable that there would be two of you from the same small country!” As we walked away, one of the other bishops said to Peter, “Why do you think they are called the Swiss Guards?”

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Was Peter simply naïve, one of those innocents celebrated by Our Lord in our Gospel: “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for hiding these things from the wise and learned, and revealing them to mere children. Yes, Father, for that is what it pleased you to do.”? (Mt 11:25-30) Or was this an example of Peter’s legendary humour, his endless Dad jokes, that delighted generations? I was never sure.

“Where I’m terrified by what I am for you, I am comforted by what I am with you. For you I am a bishop; with you I am a Christian. The first is an office undertaken, the second a grace; the one means danger, the other salvation.”

Preaching a sermon on the anniversary of his episcopal ordination, the great Father of the Church, St Augustine of Hippo, said episcopal leadership can be as frightening as it can be hopeful, like being all at sea. The weight of a bishop’s responsibilities can be overwhelming:

“The turbulent have to be corrected, the faint-hearted cheered, the weak supported. The opponents of the Gospel must be refuted, its enemies resisted. The ignorant need to be taught, the indolent awoken, the argumentative checked. The proud must be humbled, the lowly raised up, the quarrelling reconciled. The needy are to be helped, the oppressed liberated, the good supported, the bad tolerated. And all must be loved.”

How was any man to do all that? Augustine’s first answer was to “recall by whose blood I have been redeemed”. Every bishop is “obliged to the Redeemer”. “Do you love me?” the Lord asks him. “Yes Lord, you know I love you,” the bishop replies. “Then, feed my sheep.” (Jn 21:16) By God’s grace, weak men can yet do great things, repaying the Lord for His goodness to them.

Secondly, Augustine relied on people’s prayers:

“In all the vast and varied activity involved in fulfilling such manifold responsibilities, please give me your help by your prayers as much as your obedience… It is only right that as I pray earnestly for your salvation, you too should pour out prayers to God for me…”

Because the Christian people—bishops, priests and lay faithful—share a common baptism and are united in Christ’s mystical body, the dangerous office of bishop could serve the good of all. It was that reality that sustained the Bishop Augustine and gave him comfort.

In today’s first reading (Acts 10:34-43) Peter, the first bishop, preaches to a Roman centurion and his household. If the episcopal ministry was still crystallising, one thing was already clear: proclaiming the kerygma was non-negotiable. Peter knew that to bring people to Christ he had to first bring Christ to people. He had to teach them by words or example. On this occasion he used words.

He told Cornelius and his family about Jesus of Nazareth, anointed with the Holy Spirit and power, who went about doing good and healing all ills. About how they killed Him, by hanging Him on a cross. And about how God had raised Him from the dead on the third day and appointed Him judge of the living and the dead. Only through Him might sins be forgiven and souls find the salvation they craved.

Tonight we celebrate another shepherd by the name of Peter. Like his namesake, Peter Ingham understood that his primary responsibility was to proclaim the Gospel—in a way that ensures it is truly good news for all. His task was to announce to the people of Sydney and then Wollongong that the Lord of the living and the dead, through him we can come to know the Father, rest for our restless hearts.

So how did Bishop Peter, this good shepherd, feed his sheep? His approach was to share joy. It was rare for him not to be smiling. He always had a corny Dad joke to tell, and, if we moaned, he told us more. Till his dying days he conveyed the joy of being a Christian to all those with whom he engaged. It was not just a tactic. His unstoppable joy came from the One whose Easter victory he celebrated in his last weeks.

As busy as he was about the many responsibilities that so weighed on St Augustine, Bishop Peter managed always to express the joy of Christian hope. In Pope Francis’ words, he was “a shepherd with the smell of the sheep”. In his care for bishops, priests and seminarians, for the faithful in his flock, for the downtrodden or destitute, for Aboriginal brothers and sisters, and for non-Catholic Christians: to each and every one of them, he offered the smile of God.

Such joy can be hard to sustain. Augustine’s advice is Bishop Peter’s also: recall by Whom you have been redeemed, repay his goodness to you, and lean on others, especially their prayers. His coat of arms had the keys of Peter and a bug-eyed Ingham’s chicken, with his episcopal motto taken from Cardinal Freeman: “Per ipsum, ipsa duce”.

Per ipsum referred of course to the doxology of the Eucharistic Prayer: “Through him, and with him, and in him…”. lpsa duce referred to the Blessed Virgin, Help of Christians, “leading” us in our discipleship and worship. Christian joy is sustained by the Holy Eucharist and the intercession of the saints.

For 60 years Peter laboured in service to the Church. Although long an administrator, he was no mere bureaucrat: he humanised the Archdiocesan chancery and supported the priests. He had a prodigious memory for names and faces, loving people for God’s sake and their own, whether in parishes, schools or other corners of Church and society. He was loved dearly by many in Wollongong but also here in Sydney, and so we might hope for Peter as St Augustine did for himself:

You see, if we all pray tirelessly, I for you and you for me, with the perfect love of charity, we shall all happily attain, with the Lord’s help, to eternal bliss. May He be graciously pleased to grant us this, who lives and reigns forever and ever. Amen.

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