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Why revisit the life of Norman Gilroy? For many older Australians Cardinal Gilroy is a key face and image of the Catholic Church of their youth. For three decades after 1945 a mention of 'the Cardinal' would have immediately meant Norman Thomas Gilroy. Many have met him personally or attended ceremonies where he presided. They remember the broad smile, his formal language and they might imitate his intonation. But these memories would likely be of the 1960s only. His actual career and influence as a church leader spans nearly four decades from his appointment as Bishop of Port Augusta in 1935 to his retirement as Archbishop of Sydney in 1971. Only John Bede Polding had a longer term as Archbishop of Sydney.

In thirty-one-years as Archbishop, Gilroy oversaw the life of the largest diocese in Australia. In those decades it more than doubled in population, to over 700,000 Catholics by 1971 - this is 100,000 more than its Catholic population today.' He responded to the growth by creating over seventy new parishes in the archdiocese. This meant new churches and schools to be built and paid for by the local community, and almost weekly blessings of foundations stones and new buildings. Recent archbishops have struggled to maintain these individual parishes as the number of clergy and active church attenders has plummeted.

The large central administration of today's Catholic Church in Sydney owes much to Gilroy. When he became Archbishop much of Catholic life was directed by parish priests or religious congregations. The archdiocesan bureaucracy consisted of a few clerical secretaries at St Mary's Cathedral. Today the multi-storeyed Polding Centre in Sydney houses such major offices as the Chancery, the Catholic Development Fund, the Catholic Weekly newspaper, the Confraternity for Christian Doctrine, Catholic Youth Services and the Catholic Immigration Office. The Catholic Education Office with its central office at Leichhardt and three regional offices employs thousands of teachers and other staff. These and other central organisations began in Gilroy's time, although they were comparatively small when he retired. Nor were they unique to Sydney. His significance lies more in persuading and leading the Catholics of Sydney to accept this increased centralisation, coordination and extension of services at the expense of some autonomy held by parishes and other groups.

From the 1840s most Australian priests had been Irish-born, while Irish bishops led the Archdiocese of Sydney and most other dioceses from the 1880s. Gilroy, as the first Australian-born Archbishop of Sydney was a central figure in the Vatican-promoted 'Australianisation' of the archdiocese and the Australian Church. In 1937 Delegate Giovanni Panico pressured the Irish-born Michael Sheehan to resign as Coadjutor Archbishop of Sydney and Gilroy was quickly installed as Coadjutor to the aged Archbishop Michael Kelly. (2) After Kelly died in 1940 and the number of Irish clergy declined, Gilroy gradually appointed Australians to leadership positions in the diocesan administration, seminaries and parishes.

Indeed, his office at St Mary's Cathedral seemed almost a school for continuing Australianisation, as nine of his former priest secretaries and aides were ordained bishops: Eris O'Brien to Canberra, John Toohey to Maitland, Henry Kennedy to Armidale, James Carroll and Thomas Muldoon as his auxiliaries in Sydney, John Cullinane to Goulburn, Albert Thomas to Bathurst, Edward Kelly to Darwin and James Freeman to Armidale and then as his successor in Sydney. All were Australian-born.

In the international Church before 1945 Australia had been a backwater, especially in the isolation caused by World War II. Immediately after the war Gilroy featured as one of thirty-two new cardinals created by Pope Pius XII. In Catholic understanding of the time cardinals were styled as 'princes' under the papal monarch. They took precedence over bishops. Only cardinals could elect a pope. They could also act as delegate for the pope in a period when popes themselves did not travel outside Italy. Gilroy helped to give Australia a higher profile within the international Church by his many travels as cardinal and papal legate, by his role as leader of the Australian bishops in Vatican II and as a president of its 1962 session, and by his extensive contacts with other leaders reaching back to his days in Rome as a student. He could even bring his cardinal peers to see Australia for themselves--Agagianian from Rome, Gracias from India, Spellman and O'Hara from America, McQuaid from Dublin, Heenan from England, and, finally, Paul VI. One could argue that his international status during his career was at least as high as that of any other Australian church leader before or since. His 'elevation' also meant that from 1946 he presided over meetings of the Australian bishops (including senior Archbishops Mannix and Duhig).

Gilroy embraced the elevated concept of'cardinal'. He accepted that the Catholic Church had a hierarchy of pope, cardinals, bishops, and clergy with religious authority over the lay faithful. In his first decade as cardinal he was lauded as 'prince of the Church' as he visited other dioceses in Australia and Asia, often wearing the 'cappa magna' (scarlet cloak with metres of train) and holding out his hand for kneeling Catholics to kiss the cardinatial ring. He also used his status as cardinal to good effect in dealing with church bureaucracy. A prime example was in having Vatican officials locate a document which proved crucial for the cause of canonisation of Mary MacKillop--a document which his predecessor, Archbishop Kelly, had been unable to obtain.

Whether he was seduced into enjoying the trappings of hierarchical authority, I cannot say. My general belief is that he did not seek status and authority. In retirement he reflected that 'All I ever wanted was to be a priest'. (3) It was not just rhetoric because, when newly ordained as a priest in 1924 and asked to be secretary to the papal delegation in Australia, he wrote to his bishop in Lismore that he would much rather be a priest in the diocese. Ten years later when Apostolic Delegate Bernardini informed him that Pope Pius XI had chosen him to be Bishop of Port Augusta in South Australia he wrote in reply:
'Your terrifying ltr of the 19* has filled me with awe. My ambition was
a complete annihilation in the Society of Jesus by the superiors of
which I was accepted. It was my ambition to be a Jesuit because I
thought that was God's will in my regard. My ambition is still to do
His will. If the Holy Father indicates Pt Augusta as God's will for me
I submit with my whole heart...
Yr Obed Serv. (4)

Ever after he was scrupulously loyal and obedient to the four popes of his career as bishop and cardinal.

All the above suggests that he did not pursue high office, but rather accepted it when invited. My biography of Gilroy is subtitled 'An obedient life'--obedient to a sense of call to the priesthood and then to the invitations and demands that followed. When it was all over he did not flaunt his status as cardinal. He retired to live with other retired priests and lay people in the nursing home run by the Little Sisters of the Poor at Randwick. A main interest then was to accompany Sisters of the Brown Nurses congregation in visiting poor people in Sydney.

All the above should demonstrate Gilroy's importance as an Australian churchman and perhaps indicate a more complex personality behind the public persona. It took me some time to come to this appreciation.

Some background to the biography

For doctoral studies in the 1990s I chose Norman Gilroy's role as Archbishop of Sydney. As a thesis topic this had the advantages of being largely unexplored in Australian religious history and hopefully could be researched through local primary sources. In the beginning it was primarily an examination of his administration of the Archdiocese.

Inevitably, the life of Gilroy and its broader context took my attention. Even if one were to accept a fairly common view that Norman Gilroy was a competent but conventional and unattractive churchman, his life was interesting and varied. There was young Norman in a poor, struggling family in Glebe in 1900, a decade later at Gallipoli for the Anzac landings, in 1922 studying in Rome as Mussolini took over Italy, a brief period as a priest in Lismore, then parachuted into the Apostolic Delegation at North Sydney (where he first became involved in the movement for canonising Mary MacKillop). Next he is a young bishop in depressed rural South Australia in the mid 1930s. Finally, his three decades in Sydney gave great insight into how the Australian Church reacted to World War II, the Cold War, the Labor Split, Vatican II, and upheavals of the 1960s. And then there was the company he mixed with: five popes and many religious leaders of various faiths, King George VI, Queen Elizabeth II, Emperor Hirohito, President Diem of Vietnam, Australian prime ministers and other political leaders. Even his retirement was in company with Bea Miles, colourful Sydney identity and scourge of taxi drivers, at the Little Sisters of the Poor home in Randwick. He lived in interesting times and dealt with interesting people.

Consequently, post-thesis I contemplated a biography and researched some biographical gaps, such as Gilroy's student years in Rome and his time as Bishop of Port Augusta. Surprisingly, sources were a problem. Gilroy himself showed little interest in having his life recorded; his few writings and his speeches were very formal, even laboured, and lacked the wit and sharpness of leaders like Archbishop Mannix. Most problematic was the policy of Cardinal Edward Clancy, Archbishop of Sydney 1983-2001, that personal papers of a deceased Archbishop of Sydney would not be available for research until fifty years after his death--in Gilroy's case it would be 2027. The biography seemed to be out of the question.

After Archbishop Pell arrived in Sydney I noted that his biography was written by Tess Livingstone in 2002. So, in 20111 informed him that I wished to embark on a biography of Gilroy and would like his support. He readily agreed and provided me with a letter of recommendation. That letter led to extensive access to the Sydney Archdiocesan Archives and was helpful in my approaching other archivists.

I was most anxious that the biography not be characterised as hagiography or a propaganda piece commissioned by the Catholic Church. It was a personal initiative intended as contributing to Australian religious history. It was not commissioned or financed by either the Catholic Church or by the Gilroy family, although I had approval and cooperation from both groups. Nor did Cardinal Pell or his successor Archbishop Fisher see the text before it was published. I did send individual chapters to people or groups who may have featured in a chapter, asking for their comments. None of those consulted asked for substantial revision. The great blessing was that I could research and write independently with no undue constraints.

End of story?

The biography is there to be read. Hopefully, it will encourage new interest in Gilroy and his times. And it certainly doesn't close off the study. Readers' comments and my own further reflection suggest that there are still puzzle points and gaps in the story. Here are a few post-biography reflections.

The first reflection point concerns his public persona and style. Prevailing understandings of Gilroy have been limited, partial and superficial. People remember his formal public image and style of leadership. Most writing about him has focused on a few issues: his roles in the State Aid debate, his clashes with B. A. Santamaria and Daniel Mannix over the Movement, his welcoming Pope Paul VI to Sydney. Critics have handed down stories of harshness and inflexibility and thrift--particularly in his dealings with diocesan clergy and religious congregations.

Edmund Campion once touched on this issue of the extreme formality and frequent aloofness of Gilroy as a bishop. He wondered what had happened to the young man whose 1915 diary recounts his climbing the Sphinx in Egypt and avidly attending plays and music halls in London. Campion answered his own question in the title of his article--'A Necessary Isolation'--implying that Gilroy consciously chose this aloof detachment as being appropriate to his roles as priest and bishop. (5) His seminary diaries suggest to me that seminary formation may have led him to this choice of behaviour. A few stories of his retirement years indicate that he was later able to shed some of the formality.

Gilroy's application to enter the Jesuit order in 1933 raises tantalising questions which I have not managed to explore. Was he disillusioned with the bureaucratic roles he had been given in his first decade as priest? Was he trying to avoid becoming a bishop? He most likely knew that in 1931 he had been considered for the role of Bishop of Rockhampton and so would likely be an appointee in the future. Did he tell his bishop, John Carroll, about his 'ambition' to seek 'annihilation in the Society of Jesus'? One would presume so, but I haven't seen documentation.

There are also questions about his appointment as Coadjutor Archbishop of Sydney in 1937 and his elevation to the cardinalate in 1946. Brenda Niall, in her recent biography of Archbishop Mannix, elaborates a 'Vatican Chess Game' whereby Propaganda Fide officials in Rome and the new Apostolic Delegate Panico in Australia sought to replace Irish bishops with Australian-born clergy and particularly to undermine the influence of Archbishop Mannix in the Australian Church. (0) Patrick Morgan took a similar view in a paper presented to the Australian Catholic Historical Society in 2017, which includes a sub-section entitled 'Panico's Plan'. (7) Their view is confirmed by the documents relating to the resignation of Archbishop Sheehan and the speedy appointment of Gilroy to Sydney. (8) Niall, however, further implies that Gilroy had been cultivating Panico. In 1936 all the bishops and Panico were in Adelaide for an education conference. After the conference Gilroy invited Panico to his Diocese of Port Augusta and drove him on a road tour of the vast rural diocese. Niall's description of Gilroy's invitation as 'a shrewd diplomatic move' is plausible but could hardly apply to his appointment to Sydney because in 1936 Archbishop Sheehan was the designated successor to Archbishop Kelly.

Gilroy's elevation to be cardinal in 1946 is characterised by Morgan and Niall as a 'last move' by Panico in the chess game and a final snub to Mannix, widely seen in Australia as having a greater claim to be cardinal. Again this is plausible, but difficult to substantiate. The final decision was with the Vatican rather than Panico, and it could be counter argued that the status of Sydney as the foundational archdiocese in Australia influenced the Roman choice (as it has done for the appointment of most Australian cardinals after Gilroy). (9) The same might be said of the simultaneous elevation in 1946 of Archbishop Bernard Griffin of Westminster in England. Roger Pryke, who was Panico's secretary in 1945-46, maintained that Panico had no prior knowledge of the appointment. (10) John O'Brien examined Panico's involvement in an article entitled 'The Australianisation of the Australian Catholic Church: Panico--Culprit or Victim?'. He concluded that 'until the Vatican Archives are opened, one can only speculate'."

In recent times there has been widespread discussion and criticism of clericalism in the Catholic Church, including by Pope Francis. It is a pejorative term which has various degrees and nuances. Clericalism presupposes a hierarchical model of the Church in which ordained clergy assert control over lay Catholics in regard to beliefs, public worship and religious practice. (12) It has been seen as part of the culture which facilitated child sexual abuse by clergy and religious and the covering-up of that abuse. A recent book, Where Did All the Young Men Go?, contains life stories of twenty-three men who were seminarians at Springwood and/or Manly seminaries in Sydney in the 1960s. The editor, Paul Casey, comments that half of the group reflected on clericalism as a problem affecting the Church then and now. (13)

Where was Gilroy on the clericalist spectrum? In 1940, his first year as Archbishop of Sydney, he told a large crowd of laity at Sydney Town Hall that
Without your cooperation, loyal and wholehearted, my mission must
A bishop works principally through his priests. They are the captains
of the army of which he is the general. The bishop rules the diocese,
the priest rules the parish. You live in a parish, you are subjects of
your parish priests. Be exact, scrupulously exact, in fulfilling your
obligations as parishioners. (14)

This was wartime and a period when authority, obedience to authority and loyalty to organisations were very much accepted as important in society.

By the 1960s such views were being questioned, especially in the four years of reflection and debate during the Second Vatican Council. In Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, the Council Fathers affirmed the Church as a community, ahead of its being a hierarchy, and gave new emphasis to the lay faithful as all called to holiness, and all sharing in the priesthood of Christ and the 'salvific mission of the Church'. How this would be developed in institutional terms was still to be worked out, but it promised broader and more responsible roles for lay Catholics and modified the earlier emphasis on clerical hierarchy and authority.

Gilroy was a participant in the Council and he began some implementation of its recommendations in the Archdiocese of Sydney. Most obvious was his acceptance of liturgical change (as sanctioned by the Australian bishops) and of ecumenical relations with other Christian denominations. Nevertheless, authority and power in religious matters remained with the Archbishop and clergy. In 1967 he appointed an Archdiocesan Pastoral Council with lay and clergy members to advise him on important issues affecting the Archdiocese, but his interest in the council was apparently very limited, because in 1971 the council wrote to him, regretting his inability to attend meetings and reminding him that 'The Council meets on the 3rd Tuesday of each month at 7.30 p.m'. (15) His behaviour in this time indicates that he was not enthusiastic about broad institutional change. Interestingly, very few of the twenty-three seminarians mentioned earlier singled him out for criticism as an example of that clericalism. (16)

Clearly, Gilroy was a theological conservative and many see this as his overall approach to life. However, a final impression not covered in my biography is that in his administrative role as a bishop he was prepared to utilise the means of the period, particularly in the earlier decades and in regard to mass media. When appointed bishop he undertook a course in accountancy and thereafter was a careful supervisor of church finances. As Archbishop of Sydney he utilised the Catholic radio station 2SM, established his own newspaper The Catholic Weekly, and applied for a television licence for the Archdiocese of Sydney in 1952 when television was in its formative stage in Australia.

Biographers can easily become cheer-leaders for their subjects. My biography takes quite a favourable view of Gilroy, although I hope it is not taken as hagiography. I am aware of his many critics, particularly clergy and members of religious congregations. Let me just repeat the conclusion in the biography:
[There is] a kaleidoscope of views about Gilroy: from aristocratic,
patriarchal, sarcastic, remote and rigidly conservative to humble,
spiritual, caring, pastoral, whimsical, wise and efficient. There is
probably truth in all these memories, but they are generally limited
and partial. It is to be hoped that this and further biographical study
will provide a more complete understanding of a man who did not seek
the major roles he was given, but undertook them in obedience and
loyalty and to the best of his ability. (17)


(1) Australian Catholic Directory, 1940, 1972. 2016.

(2) Panico to Cardinal Fumasoni-Biondi, 6 June 1937. Archivo Storico di Propaganda Fide, vol. 1329 (Sydney file, 1937), 467-70.

(3) In TV documentary 'Cardinal Gilroy' (1974), National Film and Sound Archive. Item 14856.

(4) Gilroy to Bernardini, 20 December 1934, Sydney Archdiocesan Archives. Series 43/11.

(5) Edmund Campion, Great Australian Catholics (Melbourne: Viking, 1987), 69.

(6) BrendaNiall, Mannix (Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2015), 226-40.

(7) Patrick Morgan, 'The parallel careers of Arthur Calwell and Archbishop Simonds', Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society, vol. 38 (2017), 76-78.

(8) Panico to Cardinal Fumasoni-Biondi, 6 June 1937, Archivo Storico di Propaganda Fide, vol. 1329 (Sydney file, 1937), 467-70.

(9) Cardinal James ICnox is the only other Australian residential archbishop to be made cardinal. He had been a Vatican diplomat and Apostolic Delegate with close ties to Monsignor Montini in the Vatican Secretariat of State. Montini, as Paul VI, appointed him Archbishop of Melbourne in 1967 and elevated him to cardinal in March 1973. Within a year he had recalled him to Rome to be Prefect of the Congregation of the Sacraments and Divine Worship. See accessed 13 June 2018.

(10) Roger Pryke interviewed by the author, 23 April 1997. Also, see profile on Gilroy in Woman's Day, 15 June 1970.

(11) John O'Brien. 'The Australianisation of the Australian Catholic Church: Panico-Culprit or Victim?', in Philip Bull and others, ed., Ireland and Australia. 1798-1998 (Sydney: Crossing Press. 2000), 183.

(12) See discussion in Andrew Hamilton, 'Why Clericalism Matters', Eureka Street, 27 February 2018 at, accessed 21 May 2018.

(13) Paul Casey, ed., Where Did All the Young Men Go? ( Publishing. 2015), 561

(14) Freeman's Journal, 14 November 1940, p.25. The occasion was a conversazione', attended by several thousand guests at Sydney Town Hall, to give a formal welcome to Gilroy as the new Archbishop.

(15) Archdiocesan Pastoral Council Minutes, 1 April 1971, in file D2422, Sydney Archdiocesan Archives.

(16) Tom Moore was disappointed that 'Gilroy, alarmed by reports from Madden and religious superiors, sacked Roger [Pryke] both from the university and the theology and formation courses [at Manly]'. Casey, Where Did All the Young Men Go?, 281.

(17) Luttrell, Norman Thomas Gilroy, 401.

John Luttrell (*)

John Luttrell fms taught religious history at the Catholic Institute of Sydney and BBI --the Australian Institute of Theological Education. This article is a slightly revised version of a paper delivered to the Australian Catholic Historical Society on 17 June 2018, following the publication of his Norman Thomas Gilroy: An obedient life (Sydney: St Pauls Publications. 2017).
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Title Annotation:Norman Gilroy
Author:Luttrell, John
Publication:Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jan 1, 2018

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