Chatting to Tim, one is regularly interrupted by people who recognise him and want to say hello. He was even asked if the train he was shortly catching, a special heritage tour aboard the Southern Aurora, was ready to board! Luckily he knew the answer.
Tim Fischer AC will be visiting Newcastle in November to launch his latest book, Holy See, Unholy Me, documenting his three years in Rome as the first resident Australian Ambassador to the Holy See (the Catholic Church’s ‘HQ’, Vatican City in Rome).
Newcastle has a particular attraction for Tim, because it’s where Cardinal Edward Cassidy now lives in retirement. He has nothing but praise for Cardinal Cassidy, whom he calls, “a giant of a man. Google the countries he's served and the languages he speaks, coming from being assistant parish priest in Griffith, to take on Bangladesh, Southern Africa and a whole host of other countries, and right up to the senior echelons of Christian unity.”
Cardinal Cassidy was appointed President of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity and the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jewish People by Pope John Paul II in 1990.
“I'll be interested to hear if my book gets an admonition or a salutation,” said Tim.
Holy See, Unholy Me is a grand mix of diplomatic insights, an insider’s glimpses of what is in many ways a closed world and plenty of yarns. Tim is able to identify six significant turning points in a life of public service: his Jesuit education at Xavier College, Kew (courtesy of the Korean wool boom); national service in Australia and Vietnam; serving as a NSW MP for the (then) Country Party, then in Federal Parliament, rising to the position of Deputy PM under John Howard; marriage to Judy Brewer and the unexpected appointment to Rome by former PM Kevin Rudd.
Being what he calls “a less-than-perfect practising Catholic” undoubtedly helped Tim feel quite at home in Rome. He shares his key role in the canonisation of Australia’s first saint, Mary of the Cross MacKillop, in 2010, including his joy in being able to enhance the celebrations with a generous supply of Australian wines!
Of his marriage Tim writes tellingly, “marriage to Judy has made me a softer and more connected person”, andhe is inclined to think there is scope for women to have greater influence, so the Church might be “more responsive and sensitive without walking away from core beliefs – I think that's a fair comment. [Pope] Francis has already made some comments to that end and if his health stands up, he will push the reform agenda along.”
There is scope for a “reform agenda” in many areas, and former Ambassador Tim has confidence in Pope Francis’ ability to address these, while not discounting Pope Benedict’s contribution. “For Francis, it’s going to be a tough job, he’s up against a lot of inertia in the Curia. Pope Benedict said there was filth in the church and he wanted it dealt with, but too many people sat on their hands for too long. Others stepped up and got busy. There are some very impressive cardinals, archbishops, bishops and monsignors in the Vatican, but also a degree of inertia and ‘status quo-ism’.”
Tim hasn't met Pope Francis, but is impressed; “He came to Rome with a return ticket, paid his hotel bill and moved into the Vatican, as you do. He’s the first Argentinian pope, the first Jesuit pope, the first Southern Hemisphere pope, for God's sake! He’s made a very impressive start and we'll see a lot more action in the last quarter of the year.”
Tim is happy to reflect on the global Church and equally comfortable reflecting on his personal faith. “Being in Rome reinforced my faith in many ways; there you were attending the most magnificent Easter services in the world, celebrated by the pope! In a very special sort of way, I got close to my faith in a church at Caravita, near St Ignatius'. Every Sunday at 11am, there was Mass ‘in the round’, in English and prosecco afterwards! It was not unlike a parish church in Australia. There were Jesuits and a few other priests, almost competing with each other to deliver homilies of extraordinary dimension and depth. I felt renewed by the Vatican at a formal level and by Caravita at a very direct personal level.”
Trains feature often in Holy See, Unholy Me! Tim’s passion for trains and rail services generally is well known, and he tells a great tale of the Caritas Express, a one-day Roman wonder. “Caritas Internationalis does a very good job in Africa as well as other places, addressing the needs of the poor and the demands of justice,” said Tim. Caritas’ 60th anniversary conference was held in Rome in May 2011 and so Tim set about organising the Caritas Express to depart the Pope's platform and travel to Orvieto and back. “It took a lot of work, but I persuaded a key contact, the Vatican's chief station master, to agree, found someone in Italian railways who could produce the steam engine and various carriages, and away we went. It was terrific, all the way.”
On the subject of trains in Newcastle, Tim, ever the diplomat, said, “I'm not too keen on what they're proposing up there – but I wish them luck!”
To hear Tim speak and have the opportunity to purchase his book and have it signed, you are invited to lunch at the Victor Peters Suite, 843 Hunter Street, Newcastle West, on Thursday 28 November. For details and to RSVP, P Mark Lees, 4979 1124 or email.