Just call me Bishop Joe

INSPIRATIONAL: Bishop Joseph Grech during a Pilgrims’ Mass at Sacred Heart Cathedral in July 2008.
INSPIRATIONAL: Bishop Joseph Grech during a Pilgrims’ Mass at Sacred Heart Cathedral in July 2008.

BISHOPS and members of the royal family have one thing in common: they must never be surprised.I went to the office of the Bishop of Sandhurst, Joseph Grech, last September to ask if I could join the Sandhurst Diocesan pilgrimage he led to Rome for the canonisation of St Mary of the Cross, then travelling on through Greece, Turkey and Malta, following in the steps of St Paul.I explained to his secretary: “I would love to join you, but I’m not a Catholic, I’m an Anglican.”“Wait here,” she said.She obviously knew her boss better than I did.An instant later, Bishop Joe bounced into the room, bursting with enthusiasm.“Yes, you come with us. You’ll have a great time. We’d love to have you. You don’t have to go to Mass if you don’t want to (I did want to). We’ll have some wonderful experiences.”He was right. We did.As I floated out of the Diocesan Chancery, I thought: “Wow! Bishop Joe must really like me. I’ve only met him briefly, but I must have made a terrific impression on him.”I am embarrassed to admit it took about a week for the penny to drop — Bishop Joe would have reacted in exactly the same way if an atheist had asked to join the pilgrimage.His admirers are entering risky territory when they say Bishop Joe had a special interest in youth, the Charismatic Renewal movement, the Maltese community, etc. Bishop Joe had a special interest in everyone.He always upheld the dignity of the office of bishop and he expected, and received, the respect to which he was entitled.But he was also a remarkably modest man. He had taken to heart the old saying that praise is like chewing gum. Enjoy it, but don’t swallow it.His Melbourne friends insist his promotion to bishop did not change him in the least.He always said, “Just call me Bishop Joe”, but there was one occasion when this did not happen.I treasure the memory of an incident that occurred during the pilgrimage, when we visited the Greek island of Patmos.On the highest point of the island is a Byzantine fortress, at least 1000 years old, that houses a Greek Orthodox Monastery. The treasury has a stunning collection of priceless religious works of art and historical documents.I explained to one of the Greek monks that we were Catholic pilgrims following in the steps of St Paul.When I told him the spiritual director of our pilgrimage was a bishop, he reacted with astonishment.“A bishop? What bishop?” he asked.“Bishop Joseph Grech, Catholic Bishop of Sandhurst, Australia,” I replied.“A bishop? In our treasury? Where is he? Point him out to me?” the monk demanded.“OK, well, you see that man over there with the glasses.......”He was off after Bishop Joe like a rocket, latched on to him like an oyster to a rock, and insisted on giving a personal tour of the finest exhibits in the treasury, with full details of their history.The monk asked Bishop Joe: “What is your title? How do I address you?”He received the typical reply: “Ah, just call me Bishop Joe.”The monk was appalled.“I can’t do that! We call our bishops ‘Your Highness’,” he said.It was Bishop Joe’s turn to be appalled. “No, no, no, don’t call me that. Just call me Bishop Joe.”For the rest of the treasury tour, Bishop Joe was addressed as “Your Excellency”.Not once did I hear him complain.- Hugh Elphinstone presented a two-hour radio tribute on the life and times of the late Bishop Joseph Grech on community radio station Phoenix FM Bendigo last Sunday.The program can be downloaded at www.phoenixfm.org