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Requiem for a 'gentle, good man'

The Church farewelled Bishop John Heaps, a former Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Sydney, in a Funeral Mass last Tuesday 29th of June, at St Mary's Cathedral.

His oldest friend, Bishop David Cremin, gave the homily at the celebration, which was presided over by George Cardinal Pell.

The great affection in which Bp Heaps was held shone forth in his old friend's words: "John was first and last a human being. He looked for the humanity in others," said Bishop Cremin. "Whenever he found it, he responded with compassion and generosity. He found the model of true humanity in Jesus Christ. When he read the Gospels he found there a straightforward story of God seeking to love the world into freedom. When he spoke of the Gospels he brought them alive. He got angry with people who misused the Good News story to support ends that were the very antithesis of love and freedom."

John Heaps was born on 25 February 1927 in the Newcastle suburb of Hamilton. His family's background included Anglicans and Presbyterians, and yet the influence of his Catholic maternal grandmother was profound, producing in young John's family two priests and two lay Catholics of conviction. Tragedy struck early, when his brother Bruce was killed in a car accident just two years after his ordination.

After working in newspapers and studying accountancy, John Heaps joined the Australian Army and served for two years. In 1950, he entered the seminary at Springwood.

Fr John Heaps served in the Sydney parishes of Harris Park, Waitara, Guildford, Woollahra and Malabar. In 1972 he became director of the Catholic Immigration Office, and was ordained bishop on the 31 October, 1981 by Cardinal James Freeman.

Bishop Cremin also alluded to a controversy which remains unresolved. "He took a very brave step in writing his now well known book, A Love That Dares to Question. This was published in Australia, the US, England and Ireland. Bishop John was himself amazed at the big response to this book. Over 600 people wrote positively to him. He responded to each of them by hand. He was honoured with a book award in the US."

Veteran Catholic journalist Cliff Baxter went further and said that the Bishops should say a belated 'sorry' to Bishop Heaps, and rehabilitate his book.

On November 8 1998, the Catholic Weekly reported the Bishops as saying: "From a strictly doctrinal point of view, it [The Love that Dares to Question] cannot be accused of explicitly deviating from any of the teachings of the Church. It is, however, ambiguous on a number of issues and runs the risk of misleading its readers. For this reason, it is not a book that we can recommend."

Baxter responds, "Surely the bishops had the right to be watchful. But they do not have the right to think for us. Put it this way, if someone said there was nothing wrong with a book I had written but people should not read it because they might come to the wrong conclusions, I would sue. The bishops knew there was no danger of that, no threat to their power game from a gentle and good man preoccupied with pastoral matters, the practice of charity.

"Bishop Heaps devoted his life to the rescue of souls, justice for refugees and indigenous people. He was a man who would get down on the carpet with small children and read them stories of the saints. He was not hard to understand: his quick, ready smile; compassionate manner. In short, a man with the gentle touch. Gentle men are not weak. They are people of strength and enduring faith.

"Someone should do the right thing by Bp Heaps and rehabilitate his book."

It is believed that part of the controversy stemmed from Bishop Heaps' view that authority should be vested in the Bishops of Australia, and not in the 'Curia', the Roman 'civil service'. This occurred at a time when Rome was asserting its authority with a heavy hand. Refering to the meeting of Australian Bishops in Rome with officials from the Curia, the Weekly had refered to 'the meeting between the Church in Australia and the primary collaborators of the Roman Pontiff." Bishop Heaps responded with some heat that according to canon law the Bishops of the world were the primary collaborators of the Pope, and not the Curia. "I hope someone with more influence than I have will take up this matter with the appropriate authority," he wrote.

But old tensions were not in evidence last Tuesday. Bishop Heaps was praised for his 'groundedness', his ability to remain upright under pressure. "Good humour is a sign of good faith. If Martin Luther had known how to take his stand like John, the history of the Western world would have been different!" said Bishop Cremin. "Bishop John Heaps was a faithful son of the Catholic Church who felt so passionately about certain matters in the Church that he had to express it."

In his battle with death through cancer, Bishop Heaps reflected on ideas of light and darkness which spoke eloquently to him, Bishop Cremin reported. "He died at the Winter solstice, the shortest day of the year at the depth of darkness but already turning towards the light." The words from Praise, by Graham Goble, were important to Bishop Heaps in his final days:

   Summer, winter, spring and fall
   Experience each season
   Resist not when the darkness calls
   To shine upon your reason

Bishop Cremin reported that Bishop Heaps was overwhelmed by all the messages of good will and prayers he received and thanked Australian Catholics on his behalf: "I'm sure he commissions me to thank every one of you from his great heart."

The night before he died he was taken to Calvary Hospital. On the way in, he was told "We are now going up in the lift". His reply was "That's OK. I'm a frequent flier." He lapsed into a coma next day only to open his eyes wide for a last time as Bishop Pat Power was saying the prayers for the dying over him.

Bishop John Heaps Retired Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney (1981-1992)

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