Exclusive PANORAMA interview with Father Ralph Heskett Bishop-Elect of Gibraltar

by Brian McCann
Did you ask to be considered for the post of Bishop of Gibraltar, or did it come as a complete surprise?

Well, I didnít ask - thatís not how it works. Thereís a process of consultation with the priests and people of the diocese; and also, I think, amongst people who know those whose names have been put forward. A decision is then made, based on the information received.

But no, I certainly didnít ask to be considered.

So, did it come as complete surprise?

It was a surprise but not a complete surprise as I had heard a good twelve to eighteen months ago that my name was being mentioned; and also, when Iíve been out here on supply, people would say, ďOh, youíll have to come back as the next bishop.Ē

So, to that extent, it wasnít a surprise; but when you are actually asked officially to become the bishop then it is a surprise because I know my name wasnít the only one being considered, and my theory always was that there were people better placed than me; so I suppose itís a surprise in that sense, yes.

Is becoming a bishop a position you have, in all due modesty, hoped to achieve one day?

No, I never considered the possibility at all.

Partly because I belong to a religious order, the Congregation of the Redemptorists, and thatís not part of our way of thinking.

We wouldnít consider it as a kind of further step on the ladder, as it were.

Where in Britain did you grow up?

I grew up in the north-east, in a place called Sunderland, in a parish run by the Redemptorists; so as a youngster I was thinking about the priesthood. I suppose it was the Redemptorists I was attracted towards.

In which year did you become a priest?

In 1976, in my home parish - St Bennetís of Sunderland.

Youíve been connected with Gibraltar for over a quarter of a century. How did that come about originally?

Well, Bishop Rapallo wrote to the Redemptorists of the London Province, asking if we gave Youth Missions. One of our priests, Father John Brookes, who was to die tragically young at the age of 49, replied to Bishop Rapallo that we did give Youth Missions - which we didnít at that time! I think John wanted a trip to Gibraltar!

We had given Youth Missions way back in the sixties but it had fallen away, really. So we agreed to give Bishop Rapallo a Youth Mission in 1981 - and that was my first contact with Gibraltar.

How did it strike you?

It was an extraordinary experience, I think, an experience of a graceful kind; and Iíve since spoken to people who took part, middle-aged now, who have said theyíd gained a great deal from it.

So that was my first contact with Gibraltar; then we gave a mission in 1983 to all the parishes on the Rock, and after that I began coming out on supply and giving occasional talks, so from then on the contact was on-going.

Do you start work as the new bishop straight away, in practice, or do you have to wait until you are installed?

I think I have to wait until Iím installed, yes. But I hope to be in Gibraltar at the end of Easter week for a few days.

Will you be here for the Easter celebrations?

No, I wonít be here for the Easter celebrations, just a few days at the end of the week

Do you receive any training from the Vatican before taking up your position as bishop, or is it up to you to learn the procedures and protocols?

I believe there is a course for new bishops. I havenít had any details but I believe that at some point early on Iím going to have to go to Rome for a course, though I donít know how long it lasts for.

Have you any Ďnew broom sweeps cleaní plans for the Gibraltar diocese?

Well, not really, not at this stage; but inevitably when you go to a new situation you arrive with a fresh pair of eyes, donít you, and inevitably you begin to look at things and see how we can do some good.

But it isnít a matter of coming to sweep everything away. I think itís important to affirm all the good things that are already happening in the church in Gibraltar; and secondly to look for opportunities for growth in different areas of the church. Any organisation that stands still dies, basically.

So inevitably we have to look at things to grow and change - but itís not my style to come charging in on a white stallion, changing all before me!

What do you see as the main strengths of Gibraltar as a community?

Certainly one of the strengths of Gibraltar is that there is still a strong sense of community and family, including the extended family; something that we have lost in England.

In an increasingly fragmented society we need to hold on to that, that sense of community and family. It will be a privilege to help promote that message.

Will you move into Bishop Caruanaís current residence?

I suppose so, unless theyíve got somewhere else for me.

As long as Iíve got a roof over my head on the Rock Iíll be very happy.

If that is the case, and the church has to find him a new home, do you know where that might be?

No, I donít; except that I know that the house at the back of the cathedral, Artillery House, was bought some time ago for retired clergy, but I donít know if Bishop Caruana is going there - I havenít heard.

Would you like to make any final comment?

Gibraltar has been very good to me these last 20 years or more, and this is a wonderful opportunity to give something back to the people of Gibraltar and the ministry that Iíve been called to.

I know that there are going to be difficulties, inevitably, but Iím sure there are going to be lots of consolations as well - and I look forward to that.