The Bish

19:23, Oct 05 2012
RESPECTED PRIEST: Bishop Denis Browne was honoured in Hamilton at a Mass to mark his 75th birthday. The bishop holds a carved staff presented to the first Bishop of Hamilton, Edward Gaines, by the later Maori Queen Dame Te Atairangikaahu.
RESPECTED PRIEST: Bishop Denis Browne was honoured in Hamilton at a Mass to mark his 75th birthday. The bishop holds a carved staff presented to the first Bishop of Hamilton, Edward Gaines, by the later Maori Queen Dame Te Atairangikaahu.

Denise Irvine talks to Bishop Denis Browne as he celebrates his 75th birthday.

Bishop Denis Browne reckons he slipped into retirement mode after his 75th birthday on September 21, and it may already be having a good effect, because a few days later he played his best game of golf in a while. "Two pars," he says happily.

Not that he thinks he's any great shakes at golf: "I go out on the course."

SERVING THE FLOCK: Bishop Denis Browne celebrates Mass at his birthday service at the Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Hamilton.
SERVING THE FLOCK: Bishop Denis Browne celebrates Mass at his birthday service at the Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Hamilton.

On the Monday in question, he was with his regular golfing buddies, Matamata racing man Dave O'Sullivan, retired priest Frank O'Regan and Adrian de Haas, and it was a day of good friendship as well as good golf. O'Sullivan and de Haas were joined by their wives for an after-match get-together.

Bishop Denis sometimes feels the lack of a wife, possibly on occasions such as this. "You feel envious at times, lonely at times," he says. "I'd love to have had kids, but [as a Catholic priest] that's the sacrifice you make."

The Most Reverend Denis Browne is the Catholic Bishop of Hamilton, and for the past 18 years he's overseen a far-flung diocese of about 64,000 people in 34 parishes. The diocese includes 34 schools. Now he's waiting for a replacement to be announced from the Vatican so he can slip officially into retirement, and plan for a new future.


He's already got one adventure in mind: a South Island road trip next year with a posse that will include five retired bishops and three priests. Bishop Denis says he had a mind to see something of his own country when he retired. He mentioned it to a few people; the next thing you know the numbers are growing and they'll now need a people-mover to transport them all.

You could say Bishop Denis is due for a decent break. He's been 50 years a priest, 35 years a bishop, and his 75th birthday was marked by a colourful celebratory Mass at Hamilton's handsomely refurbished Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary, attended by about 400 people.

Bishop Denis's work, his people, make up for the wife and family he never had - "you give up one thing for another" - and he cherishes the respect, honour and love that Catholic communities have for their priests. "They know you are committed fully to their service."

Bishop Denis doesn't hold back on such personal topics, making no attempt to duck during a later interview at his office.

Same thing at his birthday Mass, where he thanks the congregation for its "faith, hope and love," telling them that he thanks God "for the way I have been blessed by amazing people in this beautiful diocese", and then speaks with disarming honesty of the challenges he's dealt with, particularly the sexual abuse perpetrated by Catholic clergy which received wide attention during the 1990s and early 2000s.

"All of us bear this shame," Bishop Denis said in his homily. "Priests bear it the most." He thanked people for the way they supported their priests during this time. He has been deeply moved by this.

After he was appointed to the Hamilton diocese in the mid-1990s, Bishop Denis set up an advisory committee to assist him to process sexual abuse complaints on his patch, and the challenge and tragedy of this has clearly remained with him.

"In interviews with the victims you learn the effect that it has had on them," he says. "They never, ever get over it. The bruises stay there for the rest of their lives."

It is horrible, he adds, that such abuse was committed by men put in a position of great trust. "Parents would have put all their trust in their priest. You never doubted the priest; it was the culture of its time."

He mentions that he visited Ireland in June for the International Eucharistic Congress, attending with bishops and pilgrims from throughout the world. He says Irish Catholics continue to feel the fall-out from sexual abuse scandals. "You couldn't help but feel that it has weakened the Church there. Lots of people no longer trust their bishops. Something happened on their watch; the Church is going to take a long time to recover."

There have been other big issues: Bishop Denis was a strong opponent of Hamilton's casino, he supported the controversial Te Hurihanga, the former youth justice facility in Hillcrest, he is concerned about the culture of binge-drinking among young people, and he believes the Government has fallen victim to the liquor industry.

Bishop Denis and fellow Catholic bishops have recently weighed in against Labour MP Louisa Wall's Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill.

Their view is that while they affirm love, fidelity and commitment in all relationships, they believe marriage should be defined as being between a man and a woman; they have pointed out that there are already legal avenues for same sex couples to publicly declare their love and commitment to each other.

Bishop Denis says the bishops regard the bill as being an effort to change the definition of marriage. It would be a radical change that may throw up potentially difficult situations for the church. "We're nervous about it."

He's optimistic, though, about another challenge, a longer-running one close to home: the decline in the numbers of priests as men have got older, and retired - and the subsequent combining of parishes in his diocese.

Bishop Denis is delighted to report a blossoming of new priests. Three men from the Hamilton diocese are currently studying for the priesthood and four more are due to start next year. Currently there are about 24 students nationwide, after a dip to 14 at one stage. "This is good news."

Bishop Denis says the transition for parishes in the Hamilton diocese to share priests rather than monopolise their own, has been hard for some congregations. Parochialism and longtime histories had to be addressed as communities were put together to share resources.

Lay people now take a much more active role, and in Bishop Denis's view, a parish priest can be relieved of many unnecessary responsibilities.

He recalls the situation five decades earlier: "When I was ordained, all the power and teaching belonged to the priest. People sat in a pew and listened. After Vatican II [the second Vatican Council, in the 1960s, which changed the way the Catholic faith engaged with the modern world], we became more of a community."

Bishop Denis says parishioners are very keen to help, but sometimes priests resist; they don't want to let go. "They still want to keep the cheque book. Then it's difficult for the community."

Younger priests, he says, will be trained more in sharing, and he is upbeat about the future of his parishes. New people, new cultures, and new ideas are percolating. "I'm the luckiest bishop in the country, and numbers here aren't decreasing. They're increasing."

In the past few years, he says, new parishioners have come from the Indian and Philippines communities, bringing their own "flavour of the faith" with them.

There is a glimpse of this at the celebratory Mass, where young and old crowd into the cathedral, a mix of different ethnic groups, some clad in jeans and polar fleece, others in formal suits and designer outfits. They are united in honouring the man who has led them for the past 18 years, who seems to have the knack of engaging with his people.

From the imposing carved oak cathedra [bishop's chair] on Friday night Bishop Denis delivers his homily in conversational style - sincere, thoughtful, no nonsense.

And at the after-match function, held at nearby Sacred Heart Girls' College, people get their turn to say a few words about him.

Archbishop John Dew, president of the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference, talks about the wisdom, gentlemanly style and calm approach that Bishop Denis brings to his life and faith, and describes his "remarkable presence" in the Church as a bishop. "His great interest in people is a natural gift," he says. "He always puts people first."

Cardinal Tom Williams, of Wellington, praises the bishop's superb leadership, and representatives from other churches described his inclusive style. Bishop Denis's long friendship and religious partnership with his Anglican counterpart, Bishop of Waikato David Moxon, is recounted.

There is also mention of his reputation as an excellent host.

Yes, the bishop explains, he delights in sharing his table with others. He lives on a property in rural Matangi, and when he's home alone he likes "scrounging around [in the kitchen] for myself".

When he entertains, he says he's blessed to have the help of his wonderful secretary, Colleen Graham, and her husband Kevin. They assist with catering. Kevin is excellent on the barbecue. "They spoil me."

Hospitality is quite possibly in Bishop Denis's DNA. He is the fifth of six children from an Auckland Irish Catholic family, reared by generous and hospitable parents.

"The Irish are great at hospitality," he says, "and my mother had a great love for it." The family lived close to their church in Remuera, and hardly a week went by when there wasn't a priest sharing their table. "They became close friends."

The priests and religious associations clearly inspired the Browne siblings, because five of the six went into the Church. Bishop Denis and brothers Michael and Neville became priests, and sisters Agnes and Margaret joined the Sisters of Mercy. Mary was the only one to marry, and she has five children.

Bishop Denis was ordained as a priest at St Patrick's Cathedral, Auckland, in 1962, became Bishop of Rarotonga and Niue in 1977, Bishop of Auckland in 1983, then moved to the Hamilton post just over 10 years later.

He has served as bishop under four popes, and his five-yearly visits to the Vatican to report to the pontiff on the life of his diocese are among career highlights. Photographs of Bishop Denis with the late Pope John Paul II and current Pope Benedict hang in his office. One of the photos with "JP II" was taken only six months before the pope's death in 2005.

Bishop Denis says his father never lived to see any of his children ordained, although his mother did. In hindsight he says his parents' sacrifice as the five entered religious life was quite amazing. Their support was enormous.

Bishop Denis's mother was a Moroney, and Matamata horse-racing men Mike and Paul Moroney, and Labour MP Sue Moroney, are his second cousins. He likes to follow the Moroney horses, and if he's got nothing else to do he watches Trackside.

In his retirement, he plans to live in Matamata. Not that he knows when he'll actually get the nod to do this - when his replacement will actually be announced.

The Hamilton diocese feel the loss of the man who has led them for so long. Carole Fleming, chair of the diocesan pastoral council, says she'll miss his wisdom and support.

"I can sum it up in those two words. He is such a compassionate and deeply supportive person. It's been a pleasure to work alongside him and see that in action. He is very affirming of people and has empowered and encouraged them."

Bishop Denis in turn cherishes the support he's had from his excellent staff, his advisory councils, and communities. He knows each of his communities, and gets out into all corners of the diocese. He started the practice of a cycle of visits to parishes when he was bishop in the Cook Islands and Niue, continuing it in Auckland and Hamilton.

Everything, he says, comes back to the people, the pleasure of long friendships and associations.

Speaking of which, the friendly bishop - in a year of significant anniversaries - has another important commitment today. After this interview he headed to Okoroire Hotel for a 50th reunion with fellow priests who were ordained in his year, 1962. Thirteen of the 17 were to get together for a couple of convivial days.

"Not a bad turnout," he says. "We haven't planned too much. We'll have a great time."

Waikato Times