When a soon-to-be auxiliary bishop of Sydney was growing up in Papatoetoe in south Auckland, his mother used to pray that her son would do whatever God wanted him to do. Now, Mary Umbers thinks her son Richard will make a very good bishop.

“He will bring a sense of humour and he is very sincere, you know,” Mrs Umbers told NZ Catholic.

Sydney Auxillary Bishop Richard Umbers
Sydney Auxillary Bishop Richard Umbers

On June 24, Pope Francis appointed Fr Richard Umbers and former Brisbane seminary rector Msgr Anthony Randazzo as auxiliary bishops of Sydney.

Fr Umbers, 45, who is based in Sydney, was the first Kiwi to become a numerary of Opus Dei and was also the first New Zealander to become a priest of the prelature, The Catholic Weekly reported.

He was ordained as a priest at the Marian Shrine in Torrecuidad in Spain in 2001.

Half a world away, at the Howick Baptist Home in Auckland where she lives, Mrs Umbers, 82, said she was “shocked” when she was told her son had been appointed as a bishop.

NZ Catholic understands she was told about it by an Opus Dei priest who visited her in person to deliver the news.

Mrs Umbers remembers her son as having a gift with words and for being a “deep thinker”.

“They were always wonderful with words, my kids,” she said.

One recollection Mrs Umbers had of her bishop-to-be son is of his praying the Rosary after finishing his boyhood newspaper run.

“He used to play rugby and tennis and was always in for what the boys wanted to do.”

But she also remembers times when he “would go to his room and be meditative”.

Richard has three living siblings, two brothers and a sister, and another brother who died of cancer several years ago.

Mrs Umbers, who is paralysed on one side after a stroke, said her late husband, Declan, would have been proud of Richard.

But, like her, he would have been “shocked” at the bishop appointment news.

When asked what she would pray for her son Richard now, Mrs Umbers said “that he would be happy in what he is doing”.

The ordinations of Bishops-elect Umbers and Randazzo are scheduled for August 24 in Sydney.

Mrs Umbers hopes to be able to watch the ceremony on a live-streamed video, which her family will help her to get to.

Bishop-elect Umbers is a former lecturer in the University of Notre Dame Australia School of Philosophy and Theology and he still tutors there.

He is a chaplain at the University of New South Wales’s Warrane College.

According to The Catholic Weekly, he has graduate and post-graduate qualifications in several fields, including management and environmental economics.

He has an uncle and a cousin who are also priests. The uncle is Fr Robert Lee, SM, who lives in retirement in Palmerston North diocese.

Again, The Catholic Weekly article noted a younger Richard initially rejected the idea of religious life.

But he credits fellow Opus Dei priest Fr Max Polak – a former Waikato University chaplain – with changing his understanding of faith and priesthood and paving the way forward for his vocation.

Bishop-elect Umbers is noted for his rapport with young people in Sydney and has inspired young people to work as catechists.

He reportedly said he was stunned to hear of his appointment, but said he is eager to learn “the art of shepherding” from Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher, OP, and current auxiliary Bishop Terence Brady.

“I bring with me a love for people and ideas which often finds expression in my preaching on the Gospel,” Fr Umbers said.

Two of Sydney’s recent auxiliary bishops have taken up appointments in other dioceses and Archbishop Fisher was absent from duties for five months recently because of illness.

Msgr Randazzo worked at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 2004-08.