The new Apostolic Nuncio to Australia, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, took up his posting last month. Beth Doherty spoke with him about his past work as a papal envoy in some of the most dangerous countries in the world and his thoughts on his new role here in Australia.
The work of an Apostolic Nuncio is one of the least understood functions in the Catholic Church, and yet its impact on the overall faith life of a country can be fundamental.
Liverpool-born Archbishop Paul Gallagher was appointed Apostolic Nuncio to Australia in December 2012, following Archbishop Giuseppe Lazzarotto who has been posted to Jerusalem as Apostolic Nuncio to Israel and Cyprus and Apostolic Delegate to Jerusalem and Palestine.
Just four days after his arrival, Archbishop Gallagher expressed many hopes, and a very real and considered sense of the mission field he has entered.
His most recent posts have been in physically smaller countries, Burundi and Guatemala.
“My countries have been getting bigger since I have been a nuncio. Burundi was 26,000 square kilometres, Guatemala 40,000, but what is that compared with Australia? Of course the population density is different, but the sheer distances are daunting,” he said.
Archbishop Paul Gallagher is starting his new post methodically, aware that urgent matters await him, but also conscious that the work is nuanced and requires careful discernment and reflection.
“The hope of any nuncio is to make a positive contribution to the place where they are sent to serve. At one level, I am here to represent the Holy See and the Holy Father to the political community and the people. From a diplomatic perspective, we are always interested in improving relations and working together. I really look forward to working with the bishops and the people of this country.
“My work here is only valuable and significant to the point that I confirm and strengthen the local people, who will be here when I’m gone.”
Australia’s Catholic Church faces a crucial time with a number of dioceses without bishops or with bishops at, or approaching, retirement age.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse will also be a focus for the Church during Archbishop Gallagher’s time here.
“The work in this country in terms of the need for episcopal appointments is also considerable and urgent. We hope to move things forward. However, obviously I can’t arrive on Friday and appoint bishops on Monday morning, but we will move as quickly as possible.”
“There is the understandable anxiety of some communities in this country, and of course with the retirement of the Holy Father and the changes in the congregations in Rome, it is likely that there may be some backlog.”
It seems, however, that the new nuncio comes to Australia with much to offer. His quietly enunciated faith in Jesus has carried him through some challenging times.
Raised in a Benedictine parish in Liverpool, most thought he would become a monk. Then he was sent to a Jesuit school where it was thought he might become a Jesuit.
“In my mid teens I responded to an appeal for vocations in my home archdiocese, when the vocations shortage started. The vocations director began a campaign for priests and we went to vocations seminars,” he said.
“I came to the discernment that I wanted to be a diocesan priest. I wanted to share with others the faith that I had discovered and ultimately the great joy and happiness of belief in Jesus Christ. The Archbishop sent me to Rome when I was 17. This is where the proof is that God has a sense of humour because since then I have spent just two years in the UK!”
“When I was in the seminary, there was no one from the UK in the diplomatic service. I wasn’t the first ‘head on the block’, but they eventually worked their way down to me.”
Archbishop Gallagher speaks candidly about the adaptation that is required working in different cultures. His first post in Tanzania from 1984-88 was “a steep learning curve” but he said he was privileged to work with a very active and pastoral nuncio who travelled around the country creating new dioceses and who really “knew the people”.
“I learnt a lot from him. I saw that when the nunciature works well that you can make a contribution and help resolve situations.”
It was experiences like this and personal gifts that led Archbishop Gallagher to some considerably dangerous posts, most notably, Burundi.
“Burundi was a problematic mission. I was designated in November 2003 to go to Burundi and we were waiting for the authorities to do the Agrément (diplomatic recognition in the country) so that I could begin my diplomatic mission. On December 29 of that year, my predecessor was assassinated.
“Obviously, that coloured the beginning of my mission. Normally when you become a nuncio, it is a moment of immense joy. My appointment to Burundi was overshadowed by Archbishop Michael Courtney’s death. The circumstances were pretty grim. Going there in April 2004 to take over from where he had done a magnificent job obviously wasn’t easy.”
“Again, these things are questions of faith. You don’t go to a place merely because you are asked, but you find the motivation through faith.”
Speaking of his time in Guatemala where he has been since 2009, Archbishop Gallagher is well aware of the major difference between his previous post and his new one.
“Here in Australia we all enjoy a degree of security that many Central Americans can only dream of,” he said. “It was a great joy to be in Guatemala, but the shadow of terrible insecurity and of a people very brutalised by their history was intense.
“One thing I have learned as a nuncio and in the light of faith is that challenges to the Church can be purifying. They invite people to put their faith into action.”
Archbishop Gallagher said despite the challenges facing the Church, there were also signs of light.
“What you (Australian Catholics) call the Year of Grace and the rest of the Church calls the Year of Faith is a moment for all of us to deepen our faith. The Church must be responsible for its failings, and the sinfulness within its frontiers. That said, we are all aware that faith depends on things which transcend our daily lives.
“As we try to work in terms of purifying the Church and cleansing the temple we are purifying our faith and then hopefully we can move forward in healing,” he said.
Beth Doherty is communications director for the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.