Spotlight on: Bishop Richard Umbers

Spotlight on: Bishop Richard Umbers

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In this Spotlight edition, we talk to Bishop Umbers from the Archdiocese of Sydney about what to do when receiving an offer from the Pope, how to avoid the ‘Blues Brothers’ effect when involving faith in your role, and using memes for the greater good.

What do you do? 

Some people would think that any kind of cleric, be it Priest or Bishop, does a Mass on a Sunday morning and then spends the rest of their time seated on a chair – maybe in the Bishops case, with a crozier and mitre and waiting for someone to call.

Normally during the week when I wake up, I do a little bit of exercise – I’ve got a rowing machine. I do my prayer and grab breakfast on the run as I join the traffic in Sydney. I make my way into the Polding Centre where I often have back to back meetings – all sorts of different initiatives that are undertaken by the Archdiocese. I’ll usually get back home late for more prayer and then to bed after some sort of evening engagement in one of the parishes. . On weekends I spend my time in one of the 45 different parishes, catching up with Priests and parishioners.

Is there anything in particular that you look forward to?

My favourite part of the day would be when I get to clock off from administration and celebrate Holy Mass, without needing to get to the next thing. If I can do anything religious I always look forward to that.

What is a great day?

A great day for me is when I see a lot of people get closer to Jesus Christ. Through sacraments,  and discovering the goods that are available to them in the spiritual treasury of the Church. It’s always wonderful when people get to really follow Jesus Christ in very particular ways.

What is a challenging day?

When there’s division and people are squabbling; so sorting out disputes between all sorts of people. We’re human beings and we make comparisons. We get upset; ‘he said’, ‘she said’, ‘why did they have one of those’, ‘it’s not fair’. We have to deal with those very human difficulties.

Why did you choose this kind of work? 

The Pope asked me! I got a phone call from the Nuncio saying the Holy Father has appointed me as an Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney. I said ‘Can I talk to my spiritual director about it? He said ‘Yes, but get back to me tonight as the Holy Father is waiting on your reply’. When the Pope asks you generally tend to say yes!

What was the key moment that made you decide on joining the priesthood?

The key moment was when I was 19 and at university. I had always been asking myself questions about the Catholic Church. I was raised Catholic and went to Sunday Mass, but always wanted to know more.

I reached a stage where I decided ‘Yes God exists and the Catholic Church is true’. I asked myself the fateful question ‘God, what do You want from me?’ I asked that in prayer and my heart was open and then He showed me. He wanted me to be dedicated to Him in a single way and to be single minded.

What advice would you give to others interested in this line of work? 

People often ask ‘Do you enjoy being a Bishop?’ I think it’s like fatherhood or when someone becomes a parent. I’m sure you do (enjoy it) but there are many days when there’s a lot of work to be done, sleepless nights or whatever it might be. But there’s no going back. You can’t not be a father anymore and I think it’s true for a lot of people with any sort of responsibility. It can be scary at times, but someone’s got to do it!

What kinds of skills or talent does someone need for this job? 

As Bishop, you need wisdom – practical wisdom. So you need to be prudent. You need all the cardinal virtues; temperance, justice, and fortitude. A lot of stamina is required. On many occasions, it’s about endurance. It’s turning up the next day a bit like Rocky in the ring – smashed in round 1, but still there for round 2 to get smashed again.

If you could say a sentence to convince someone to join Priesthood, what would that be?

Everything you do as a Priest is meaningful.

What is something only those in your industry would know?

One of the funny things is what goes on in the sacristy before mass starts. Generally you turn up to mass and you see the service taking place. You might be impressed, but it’s the little details that the Priest or Bishop is very aware of – what should be happening and what hasn’t been happening. Generally you wouldn’t know that something has been forgotten but as Priests and Bishops we are very aware. I think one of the funniest things is when we profess out from the Sacristy through the Church and to the Altar. There’s a pecking order and we’re very aware which Bishop should be standing where. That’s something we all know and others wouldn’t be aware of.

What role does faith play in your work? 

This is something that’s a bit surprising – faith helps me to not be a cynic because when you’re involved in leadership you can see the very human side to how we respond, even though we might say that we are trying to do the will of God.

We can end up a bit like The Blues Brothers – on a mission from God and whatever suits me, suits God. So you do need to be very aware of human defects including your own at times. It does require not only human prudence to see what is actually happening under the surface, but also to continue with faith and with vision and confiding in the grace of God.

You have a very popular Facebook page, not sure how many Priests can boast about their 10,000 or so followers. How do you deal with the fame?

It’s quite funny actually. In Australia it’s not a big issue it was more when I was in the United States for the very first time and I was well known there. It was bizarre that people recognised me but I think that no one’s a prophet in their own home. It’s quite funny but in the end I’m just having a good time.

What is the purpose of managing that Facebook page, why put in so much effort?

I don’t have to put in much effort; very little effort actually! That’s in my downtime. It’s how I work out my difficulties with bureaucracy. At the end of the day, you get frustrated with back to back meetings so it’s a place for creativity and making memes.

Let’s just talk more about the memes…

I’ve always worked with high school and university students and that’s the area I’m most familiar. I’m in touch with popular culture at that age group, especially in their early twenties. I guess it’s the language of people  of that age  which I am more familiar with.

What’s one important thing that you’ve learnt about social media?

You do need to exercise restraint. I have made mistakes at times where I’ve been too quick to post, especially at times where I’ve either been tired or frustrated, perhaps with some particular issue. It is advisable not being the first one on the scene with a meme or a post. Sometimes the better side of valour is to stay out of the situation.

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