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From Pauper to Prince

By: 'John de Luca' - 4th of April 2018

Reviewed in The Swag:

The first major biography of Sydney’s fifth Catholic Archbishop has recently been published some forty years after his death. Marist Brother Dr John Luttrell’s long overdue study, Norman Thomas Gilroy: An Obedient Life, is more than just a record of an individual life: it puts into context post World War Two development in the Archdiocese of Sydney through its undisputed leader over thirty years of upheaval and growth. The challenges of post-war migration, Catholic education, and the changing place of the Catholic community in the wider world of Australian civil society are but some of the topics considered in this very fine work in which clergy everywhere will find a resonance for many of the contemporary issues facing Australian Catholics to-day.

In some quarters it is fashionable to descry the “dead white male” perspective of writing history. But within the more homogeneous (not to say tribal) world of Australian Catholics that Norman Gilroy grew up in, the bishop of a diocese occupied a place in the esteem of his people that many would find it hard to identify with now. This is not to say that John Luttrell has written hagiography. Although generous in his judgments of the man, Luttrell is not afraid to record negative as well as positive aspects of Gilroy’s quirks and strengths. The myriad interviews that were conducted with many who knew Gilroy well, (all too many of whom are now deceased), his family, collaborators, subjects and opponents, are testimony to the care and painstaking research that has gone into the writing of this book. This is a timely place for a disclosure from the writer of this review. As a member of Norman Gilroy’s family (my mother’s father was the brother of Norman’s mother) I grew up as Norman’s first cousin once-removed (or as those who can still remember the Canon Law lecture on the degrees of consanguinity and affinity will recall: the first degree mixed with the second!). Being well acquainted with the family folklore, as well as having served as a very junior priest under Norman Gilroy in St Mary’s Cathedral presbytery, I have had to resist judging this book on the stories that I might have liked to have seen told, instead confining myself to the actual book that John Luttrell has given us.

John Luttrell’s research began as a doctoral thesis, maturing into the finished product that was launched into the world in October 2017 by Norman Gilroy’s successor, the ninth Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher. Neither Fisher nor Luttrell had actually ever met Gilroy, something not surprising, given the forty six years that have passed since Gilroy, in obedience to the decisions made concerning Episcopal use-by dates at the Second Vatican Council, tendered his resignation from the See in 1971. The academic origins of this book, therefore, are very evident in the copious references and footnotes which give it a validity beyond that of mere gossip retailed by those who have an axe to grind, or a cause to promote. John Luttrell’s research has been made more relevant in that he seems to have been given full access to the Sydney Archdiocesan Archives, bypassing the usual embargo on the early release of confidential material. We are indebted to him for having secured this access, particularly since the iron-curtain on the release of archival clerical information seems to have descended firmly indeed in recent months. Some of the more human glimpses into Norman Gilroy’s personal life that derive from these sources (such as his complaint that he was receiving far less by way of a stipend when he was a secretary to the Apostolic Delegate than the lowest-paid curate in Australia; or that he had been accepted as a candidate for the Jesuits before his promotion to Episcopal office put an end to that particular ambition) would these days be unlikely to surface.

The theme of Gilroy’s parsimony features throughout John Luttrell’s book. Cogently, Luttrell links this to the reduced circumstances of Gilroy’s early life when thrift was a necessity before it was a virtue. To those who are familiar with the obvious expansion of offices and personnel serving the Archdiocese of Sydney (and largely replicated in the Dioceses of Broken Bay, Parramatta and Wollongong which have been carved from the Archdiocese in recent decades), it would be almost unimaginable to realise that the church that Norman Gilroy administered was staffed by so few, and at such a minimal cost. The corporate entity that is to-day’s Archdiocese of Sydney has benefited from Gilroy’s careful husbanding of resources in what was a more clerically oriented age when it was cheaper to have a priest do the work than to pay a lay person. One man saves, the next spends. Ironically Norman Gilroy’s reluctance to dip into the patrimony of the Archdiocese, and indeed his efforts to augment it, have laid the foundations for the expansion that has occurred under his more free-spending successors.

Those old enough to remember, or politically concerned enough to care, will want to see how John Luttrell treats of Gilroy’s involvement in the anti-Communist movement and Labor party split of the 1950s. Although this topic has been well researched and widely written about elsewhere, nevertheless it is refreshing to have the opportunity of looking at it again from the perspective of one who has had access to archival material not generally available. References to Gilroy from south of the Murray as ‘the smiling assassin’ remind us that even within the Catholic community nationwide there were many who despised him. John Luttrell’s researches will contribute to a timely reassessment of Gilroy’s stance in this matter.

This book deserves a wider readership than, unfortunately, it seems likely to receive. Older clergy and parishioners interested in the inner-workings of official ecclesiastical life are not thick on the ground these days. It would be a rewarding enterprise for younger priests, including those who have recently come into the ranks of the Australian priesthood from overseas, to give this book more than a cursory glance, and, indeed, to recommend its sale amongst their parishioners. This is part of our story, and should be promoted. The physical volume (particularly in its hard-cover format) is beautifully presented and easy to read. The font is large, the lay-out beyond reproach. John Luttrell has been fortunate in securing the generous co-operation of St Paul Publications in bringing his labours to a successful delivery after such a long gestation. May it have a long and fruitful after-life.


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