Before Bishop Bill Wright assumed the office as head of the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, he wrote a column for Aurora. In it, he stated:
“Soon I will be ordained as a bishop in a magnificent ceremony in Sacred Heart Cathedral. The irony of this is that I’ve never been much of a one for the big ceremonial occasions, in fact I’ve always dodged the big church events when I reasonably could …
“My preference is for simpler gatherings… I’ve often said that the Lord was onto something, both as to time and circumstance, when he celebrated the first Eucharist with just a few friends in the calm and hush of the evening.”
It should not come as a surprise to many who have come to know the eighth Bishop of the Diocese that on his 10th anniversary at the helm, he didn’t want any fanfare.
Reflecting on the transition from parish priest to Bishop, he says at first he was taken aback by the “style” and formalities involved.
“I was always more comfortable with the more relaxed and informal bits of clergy life,” Bishop Bill says.
In fact, before his ordination in 2011 Bishop Bill didn’t even own a black suit and he had lost his black soutane years before.
“Suddenly I entered the foreign world of clerical outfitters and the finer points of mitre design, pectoral crosses, croziers and other bits and pieces I knew little about.”
Shortly after he took on the role from bishop Michael Malone in 2011, a tide of change swept through the Catholic Church across the globe.
In Australia, the media’s attention was firmly squared on our Diocese’s dark history.
“The Diocese experienced an excruciating public examination of its failures and, for the most part, the criticism levelled by media has been warranted,” he says. “Many times in the past decade I have said that the forensic examinations conducted into the Diocese were extraordinarily confronting, entirely justified, and invaluable to our mission as Church.”
Rising to the challenge before him, Bishop Bill has since been commended for his steadfast guidance during the Cunneen Special Commission and the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. He has also confronted the failures and crimes of the past head-on, meeting with many survivors of sexual abuse.
“In the face of their pain and distress, and anger, there’s so little that you can say or do that can actually help. You just have to share the time, listen and respond as honestly as you can.”
As one of several clergy members on the Truth Justice and Healing Council, he helped coordinate the Catholic Church’s response to the royal commission with a commitment to justice and compassion for survivors.
“The Cunneen Commission and the royal commission were necessary for bringing about change, but they were challenging. They have left a reform agenda that continues to challenge us to do better in protecting children, prioritising the needs of survivors, and making lasting cultural changes.”
It is possible to think that by virtue of his position and natural leadership, Bishop Bill covets certain airs and graces, but this could not be further from the truth. He is as down-to-earth as they come.
Given the option of residing in inner-city Newcastle or the aging Bishop’s House at Maitland, Bishop Bill chose the latter. Having graduated from the University of Sydney in the 1970s with a Bachelor of Arts double-majoring in history, Bishop Bill moved in hoping to re-establish the river city’s long-standing tradition within the Diocese.
“At times there would have been four or five priests in this house,” he says, reflecting on the building’s past. “One of them being the bishop, as well as three nuns who cooked and cleaned, and all that sort of thing.”
In 2021, Bishop’s House paints a very different picture. Now, as you enter the heritage-listed residence, rather than being met by a team of household staff, you are far more likely to bump into a tradesperson. Walking through the hallways you are surrounded by dust and scaffolding, something that doesn’t seem to faze Bishop Bill all that much.
Indeed, the current state of Bishop’s House is in many ways more befitting of his character. Self-characterised as being the sort of person who takes things as they come, upon being appointed he quite famously declined the offer to have any help with chores around the home, saying he could manage on his own.
In his limited spare time, Bishop Bill enjoys watching a Monty Python classic, reading the latest Tim Winton novel or taking a stroll through the streets of Maitland.
“I’m very happy on a day off to walk into town, have breakfast at a café, buy a newspaper and do the crossword sitting by the river,” he says.
In that regard, it is a much slower pace than the world in which he grew up. Born in 1952 in Washington DC, Bishop Bill was raised in Sydney, with a brief stint in London in his tween years. His studies for the priesthood began at St Colomba’s College, Springwood, followed by St Patrick’s College in Manly.
Before making the move to Maitland, he served as a priest “in a couple of the big parishes in Sydney”, but also in remote communities out west.
“All these experiences were quite different,” he says, as he explains that he never had any grand aspirations of becoming a bishop, adding that as a general rule, “any priests who want to be bishops probably shouldn’t get the job”.
In conversation, you get the distinct sense that he would be far more comfortable not being the centre of attention. Following the Nuncio offering him the role of Bishop of Maitland-Newcastle he deliberately requested that it be announced on a Sunday evening.
“I hoped that by the following weekend the news would have spread, and there would be no need to formally announce it to my then parishioners in Sydney.”
He believes the most unexpected part of the transition from priesthood to Bishop was the appointment itself.
“Sometimes down the years people would say things like ‘you’ll be a bishop someday’ – especially when I’d been a very young vice-rector of the seminary or assistant secretary to the Bishops Conference – but I always thought it unlikely.”
However, in the 18 months before he was offered the position, Bishop Bill started to hear more substantial murmurings that his name was in contention for the role. Then, seemingly out of the blue, he was appointed chair of the Sydney Catholic Schools Board. Bishop Bill was also given the opportunity to cut his teeth on a few “trouble-shooting jobs.”
One thing he makes clear though is that the day-to-day reality of being a bishop is far different than what the public perception may be.
“Many of the people who write to me imagine that a bishop can snap his fingers and make things happen,” he says. “What you learn is that church law and practice combine to make sure that everyone is consulted, [and] everyone is protected from arbitrary authority. Almost everything is a negotiation.”
Over the past decade, a humble Bishop Bill has not only exceeded everyone’s expectations, but also experienced significantly more milestones than most bishops do in their entire careers.
Under Bishop Bill’s leadership, the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle has
developed three new schools: St Aloysius Catholic Primary School and St Bede's Catholic College, both in Chisholm, and most recently, Catherine McAuley Catholic College in Medowie.
Bishop Bill has also overseen the introduction of the Diocese’s newest agency, St Nicholas Early Education. Launched in 2015, the agency has now expanded to also include St Nicholas OOSH and St Nicholas Pathways.
“I’m also glad we’ve been able to provide quite a lot of affordable housing and open CatholicCare centres and grassroots programs in more towns and regions,” he says.
“We have certainly stretched the resources of the Diocese, but the option of standing still, looking inwards, was not palatable,” he says as he reflects on the Diocese’s commitment to serve the community in spite of, and perhaps more importantly because of, the Church’s past failures.
Most significant to the life of the Church in our Diocese was Bishop Bill’s 2019 announcement that he would convene a synod, the first held locally in three decades.
The synod, he said at the time, is not an event or simply an assembly of people.
"It is a process by which we examine and reflect on the state of the Church, drawing on our faith to find ways to fulfil our calling to be the body of Christ and to witness His gospel and His salvation in our community."
Now that two of the three sessions of the synod have occurred, he projects that over the next decade the Church in Australia will struggle in an uphill battle against an increasingly non-religious society.
However, he is still hope-filled.
“We have a very small proportion of Catholics who actually go to church or are involved in the religious side of our religion,” Bishop Bill says.
“An outcome I hope for from this synod is that people value the presence of Christ in the sacraments and in the community. I also expect the Holy Spirit to surprise me in a few ways. If there are to be really great things that come from the synod, I think they’re going to be the unexpected ones.”
Despite the significant achievements that have occurred while he has been at the helm, it is the person-centred activities that bring Bishop Bill the most happiness.
“I’m regularly asked by schoolkids what’s the best part of being a bishop, and I tell them ‘the priest parts’. Celebrating Mass gloriously on the great festivals, or more intimately with a small rural congregation – these can be great joys.
“Spending time with young people or in community gatherings. These are the good things,” he says.
And while schoolchildren will often give him a rockstar reception, he too has a few people he looks up to.
Pope Francis, he says, is an obvious choice. “At the time he was elected, I was asked what might distinguish a Jesuit pope and I responded that a Jesuit should know what is really not important. I think his clear focus on what is fundamental to Christian living, and his abandonment of some of the conventions of papacy, have borne this out.”
Three priests from Bishop Bill’s youth and early ministry also continue to influence him.
“I find myself wondering ‘what would he do?’ The common ground between these three quite different characters was that it was never about them. They all did what was best for the people.”
Finally, he says his late parents inspire him.
“My father in particular, he was a man of integrity, which really stuck with me,” he says.
The apple, it would seem, doesn’t fall from the tree.