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Adelaide's 'pivotal' bishop

  • 13 March 2009
Josephine Laffin: Matthew Beovich — A Biography. Wakefield Press, Adelaide, 2008. ISBN: 9781862548176

Edmund Campion once described Adelaide Bishop Matthew Beovich as 'a pivotal bishop in Australia's history'.

This richly researched and readable work describes a man much loved in his archdiocese. It brings to life his times. The five decades spanning the 1920s and 1970s were times of intense change for Australia and the Church.

Josephine Laffin has risen superbly to a challenge of grasping and communicating lucidly the inner workings of the Australian Catholic Church. She was also able to draw on a precious resource in Beovich's personal diary of reflections throughout this period.

Adelaide Catholics who know that 'Matty' was the longest serving Archbishop of Adelaide (from 1939 to 1971), are often astounded to hear what he accomplished as a young priest and protegé of Daniel Mannix in Melbourne.

There he was the first Director of Catholic Education, the writer of the Red Catechism and its Companion, a principal broadcaster in the Catholic Hour and editor of the Australian Catholic Truth Society (ACTS) pamphlets on matters devotional and doctrinal.

He was clearly favoured by Dr Mannix. His appointment as Archbishop of Adelaide without reference to Dr Mannix may have reflected the uncomfortable relationship between Dr Mannix and Archbishop Panico, the Apostolic Delegate.

The significance of Beovich's Melbourne work can be seen in statistics. The Catechism (red in Victoria; green in New South Wales) was in the hands of every child in Catholic schools in Australia. In 1925 alone 62,000 of the Red Catechism were sold. In the same year 360,000 ACTS pamphlets, displayed in all Catholic churches, were sold.

Five years before Beovich's arrival there, the Catholic population of South Australia was 12 per cent; by 1971, when he retired, it was 27 per cent.

In contrast to Melbourne, Catholics suffered from discrimination and were little represented in civic leadership or in the professions. Premier Thomas Playford, Baptist and Freemason, had no Catholic in his government until 1953. The first Catholic Judge in South Australia was not appointed until 1959. The first Catholic Premier took up office some years later.

In Adelaide, too, previous bishops had preferred to recruit Irish priests rather than train local men. As late as 1955 two thirds of the clergy of the archdiocese were Irish. Even before he arrived in Adelaide Dr Beovich planned a new seminary. He received ten or so new students there each year.

Through the colleges that he invited Religious