Sydney born and bred, Bishop Robert McGuckin was a long-time priest of the Diocese of Parramatta, having served as Episcopal Vicar for Religious, Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia. On 11 July 2012 his episcopal ordination as the sixth Bishop of the Diocese of Toowoomba took place at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Toowoomba.
Now in his 6th year as Bishop of Toowoomba since his appointment by Pope Benedict XVI, his ministry has taken on a rural flavour in the vast outback diocese.
“It’s bigger than the territory of Germany or Poland,” Bishop McGuckin said. “The European bishops think I’m mad.”
Kangaroos are a serious danger when he drives long stretches to visit parishes around the diocese. It takes over twenty hours if he was to drive from Toowoomba to Birdsville. He often drives 9 or 10 hours out of town, and yet, is still in the Diocese of Toowoomba.
When driving, Bishop McGuckin uses a “ShuRoo” device to broadcast an electronic signal 400m from the car that alerts Kangaroos of his approach, prompting them to stand up or steer clear.
“It gives you a vision of them. One day I might meet a deaf roo,” he said.
“For many of the towns, the population has dwindled. They have their churches. There used to be small farms with big families. Now there are mostly bigger farms with fewer families in places like Charleville, Cunnamulla,” he said.
Another major difference for Bishop McGuckin is the vastness of the areas his priests cover.
“A lot of these places are not used to having Masses once a week,” he said.
It’s a striking contrast from Bishop McGuckin’s Sydney childhood and Diocese of Parramatta ministry.
The Catholic Youth Organisation (CYO) was the thriving centre of his social life in the 1960s.
CYO sports, dances, picnics, volunteering and Masses were hosted at parishes around the Archdiocese of Sydney every month.
CYO events occupied a few nights every week for young Bob.
“One night a week would be tennis; on weekends you might have a particular Mass that the CYO went to, picnics at the Royal National Park and Woronora River. Once, twice a month you’d have a dance.”
“People have part-time jobs now – in the past they were full-time uni students.”
“I think part-time work has limited these abilities.”
“A lot of it worked around the priest chaplain.”
In his new context, the parishioners are very dedicated despite the challenges of distance and financial struggle.
“There’s a lot of ownership by parishioners of the churches. They certainly look after their churches. They’re very dear to them,” he said.
The Diocese of Toowoomba has had a Diocesan Pastoral Council for some time, hearing the voices of these far-flung and dedicated parishioners.
“It’s quite effective and is working well,” Bishop McGuckin said. The pastoral council members are looking forward to sharing their contribution at the Australian Bishops’ Plenary Council in 2020.
“The relatively new airport developed by the Wagner family has connected things as well,” Bishop McGuckin said.
Regional Express Airline flies to Birdsville, the far West of the Diocese.
Bishop McGuckin is himself is a point of connection across the region and he continues national and international leadership roles, such as Chair of the Canon Law Commission for the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, a Director of Catholic Health Australia, a Director of the Broken Bay Institute and was until recently Vice-President of the Federation of Catholic Bishops of Oceania.