09/04/2014 16:54

My memories of Archbishop George Bernarding

There are many other confreres who will have known Archbishop George Bernarding better, and for a longer time, than I knew him. These few words of appreciation are based on the time I knew him from 1970 to 1987. This is how I saw him.

In common with other priests in the Hagen diocese I had my share of disagreements with Archbishop Bernarding, Yet after each disagreement one felt that one had in some way got to understand the man better. Sometime after a heated argument he could be surprisingly frank  about the difficulties he faced, and it was clear that he privately agonized over many diocesan problems.

Archbishop Bernarding could seem to be abrupt, even rude, in public, yet if one went to him with a personal problem he was very understanding and never condemnatory.

He might not forget a disagreement, but in my experience he did not hold a grudge against one. I remember well in 1976 I asked for a private meeting with him and criticized - him perhaps harshly - on some matters. Shortly afterwards I ended up in some trouble of my own making and went to see him. He was very understanding, even kind, and never once referred to my  previous 'attack' on himself. 

From listening to him reminiscing, I would speculate thatA~, his happiest times in PNG were in the years before he became bishop, first - his years together with Willie Ross in Hagen in the 40s, and later his brief time in Lae as parish priest there. He could tell stories against himself, e.g. how two pigs chased him all the way from Bibelpeng down the mountain to Wilya.

His gruff exterior hid a more flexible private attitude. In dealing with marriage cases at a personal level he was very pastoral, even 'liberal' - but in public he took a hard line.         

He certainly allowed his priests to use their initiative in their pastoral work, and encouraged financial self-reliance. One could never say that he was over-paternalistic.

While no doubt wishing at times that he would be more supportive, many confreres relished the pastoral latitude allowed them and found satisfaction in their work. I remember in 1974/5 when Fr. Karl Mueller was on visitation he remarked to me that despite controversies in the Hagen diocese, he did not meet any SVD missionary who wanted to transfer out of the diocese.

His policy of allowing pastoral initiative and encouraging self-reliance had its weaknesses (and its critics!). But the Spirit works through us and where a more paternalistic policy might have resulted in a 'spoon-fed' subdued faithful, his policy certainly contributed to the fact that

 he has left behind him a diocese that perhaps looks a bit 'disorganized', but at the same time is very active, lively and energetic.

Archbishop George Bernarding suffered through many a crisis. One could sense that he agonized over many of the problems. But before he died he found peace of mind. May he have eternal peace.

Garry Roche, SVD