The life of the first Bishop of the Diocese of Parramatta, Most Rev Bede Heather, was celebrated on 4 March 2021 in a Mass of Christian Burial at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Parramatta.
Bishop Bede served the Diocese of Parramatta until 10 July 1997. In his retirement, he lived on the Central Coast of NSW. He passed away on 25 February 2021 at the age of 92.
Fr Rod Bower, the Anglican Archdeacon for Justice in the Diocese of Newcastle, wrote this tribute to Bishop Bede, which was read at his Vigil Mass at St Michael’s Baulkham Hills, on 3 March 2021.
In the 8th Century, the Venerable Bede of Jarrow said, “He alone loves the Creator perfectly who manifests a pure love for his neighbour.”
He could well have been describing his namesake Bede Heather.
Our presence tonight pays tribute to a family member, a friend, a scholar and pastor.
As the 8th Century monk indicated, our Bede’s love of the Creator was made manifest in his love of neighbour, whether that be the closest of friend or a casual acquaintance. Bede’s manner always exuded quiet gentle decency, kindness and care. There was something about his presence that somehow raised the bar on our own way of being. When I was with him, I wanted to be just a little less judgemental, and just a little more forgiving and understanding.
I first became aware of Bede Heather over 40 years ago through a mutual friend. For me, in those days, Bishops were remote and foreboding figures, my friend Col would speak of this bishop who insisted that you “call me Bede”. 20 years later, I met Bede and saw what Col saw; a friend. It is not possible to honour Bede as a friend without acknowledging Leona (Leona Sweeny was a close friend of Bede who spoke at his funeral), their friendship has been the deepest of blessing to them both.
I don’t know that it is accurate to say that Bede was a true child of Vatican II, as I suspect he was probably ahead of the curve there, and that the Council reflected some of Bede’s views rather than the other way around. Certainly, his time in Rome in the early 1960’s afforded him the opportunity to sit down with the great scholars of the day, and this was ultimately a deeply formative time for him. I do think, however, that it is accurate to say that Bede was a true embodiment of the Second Vatican Council.
This embodiment took form for Bede most manifestly in the ecumenical movement, formally in dialogue with the Baptist Church, and informally across the denominations. In retirement on the Central Coast, Bede was determined not only to believe in ecumenism, but to practise it. So, it would be one Sunday in the Catholic Church, the next in the Uniting Church, and another with the Anglicans. He was an active participant in, and supporter of, ecumenism in the local church, attending and contributing to various ecumenical study groups.
Bede was known for being somewhat of a progressive, so I was often surprised at how theologically orthodox he really was, but it was always a generous orthodoxy that left room for people to be accompanied on the journey into truth. I must confess to feeling just a little intellectually intimidated when around Bede, especially when preaching on John’s Gospel. But I know that says more about my insecurities than it does about Bede’s manner.
In fact, he was always incredibly affirming. At the church door after Mass, he would invariably echo a phrase from the sermon, and voicing his reasons for appreciating it. Occasionally he would add “such and such a scholar is very good on this subject”. I eventually worked out that this was Bede’s code for saying that I still had more to discover in the text, and his gentle way of guiding me into a deeper understanding. He was a passionate biblical scholar with the rare gift of being able to translate deep scriptural truths into a form that was food for everyone’s soul.
It is sometimes a shock to discover that those we consider to be great among us have their own vulnerabilities, wounds and hurts. This was certainly true for Bede and was perhaps his greatest gift. I am sure the pain of his own journey contributed to his deep understanding of, and compassion for, all of humanity.
I simply want to say, Bede, friend, scholar and pastor, we love you, we will miss you, we give thanks to God for you.
I want to give Bede the last word, and these are literally some of the last words he wrote, only days ago, in his study on Revelation.
“The Day of the Lord is actually every day in which we are challenged to live by faith. The second coming is to me, now, in love and faithfulness. When I pray Maranatha, Come Lord, I am not asking that he come in some distant age when the earth as we know it is dissolving, but that he come now in truth and love.”