From 9-15 December last, I experienced the expanse and diversity across the Diocese of Wilcannia–Forbes. Not too mention the friendliness of the local people. Bishop Columba Macbeth-Green hosted me for a week in the Western part of his Diocese, centring in Broken Hill.
Flying into the Diocese of Wilcannia-Forbes is quite a different experience. The REX plane seated 33 passengers and flies lower than interstate commercial aircraft, thus, less pressure on your eardrums, which is pleasant and you see more. My flight also experienced some interesting turbulence.
Distances are immense. Wilcannia-Forbes covers 51% of NSW, broken into 20 parishes with 14 priests. While the chancery and the bishop’s house are based in Forbes, the Cathedral is a nine hour drive to Broken Hill. Bishop Columba, like other locals, seems to think nothing of a two hour drive.
Heat is also a reality. At 7.00pm, it had cooled to a pleasant 35 degrees!
Wilcannia, the original proposal for the seat of the diocese, now has a population of approximately 600 people and is two hours east of Broken Hill. Bishop Columba and I travelled there one day to visit the local Catholic primary school, which has about 30 students across the grades prep, one and two. The students, like the town, seemed to be largely populated by aboriginal people who were very friendly.
Bishop Columba, playing his bagpipes, led the school children in a merry dance. Laughter radiated from the locals as they marched to the pipes, following the bishop and all walking slowly when the music was slow, and racing when it was faster, in patterns set by the bishop. We asked the grade one students to spell bishop and cathedral. The teachers, police, hospital staff, pharmacist and Sister in this remote place make a real difference.
Visiting Tibooburra, four hours north of Broken Hill, was a highlight. This town of 80 is located in ‘Corner Country’, only two hours from Cameron’s Corner where New South Wales, South Australia and Queensland meet. There is one primary school, which has eight students. The presentation evening at the school included performances and student speeches; nothing was missing. Bishop Columba and I had travelled here specially as three of those students, Jill, Kim and Thomas, were to receive their first Holy Communion during the Saturday evening Mass. As there is no regular Mass in Tibooburra, our 12 December Mass was also the Christmas Mass for the Catholic community.
On a hot Saturday evening, 25 people gathered from large distances and the children were in traditional formal clothes for their big day. It was a great country Mass followed by another generous country barbecue.
An historical first: we’ve discovered that two bishops have never concelebrated in Tibooburra before. Indeed, quite possibly, there wasn’t two bishops present in Tibooburra at the same time before.
Bishop Columba is committed to getting out to visit even the small places and meeting his people. I love how he and his clergy and people make the Church present in this extensive and sparsely populated area. It was a joy to witness how committed to, and proud of, the diocese the bishop and clergy are.
This opportunity to visit the Diocese of Wilcannia-Forbes was unique and I would encourage all of my brother bishops to make a trip to this unique and special place. I thank Bishop Columba and the people of the diocese for their kindness and warm welcome during my time there.
I returned to my metropolitan diocese deeply moved by the Church in Wilcannia-Forbes and wanting to do what I can for the people and clergy here. I understand why a man would want to be a priest for this diocese and, if I was a priest, I would like to serve here.