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James Robert Knox (1914–1983)

by Ian B. Waters

This article was published:

James Robert Knox (1914-1983), Catholic cardinal, was born on 2 March 1914 at Bayswater, Perth, second of three sons of Irish-born parents John Knox, storekeeper, and his wife Alice Emily, née Walsh. James attended Catholic schools at Gooseberry Hill and Midland before becoming a tailor’s assistant. In 1933 he applied to the Perth archdiocese to study for the priesthood. Rejected because it was cheaper to recruit and educate priests in Ireland, he then successfully applied to become a diocesan priest in the territorial abbacy of New Norcia, and in 1934 went to St Ildephonsus’ College, New Norcia, to complete his secondary education. He entered New Norcia Seminary in March 1936 and appeared such a promising student that he was transferred to the Pontifical Urban College of Propaganda Fide, Rome, in September. Ordained priest on 22 December 1941, he pursued postgraduate studies, obtaining doctorates in theology (1944) and canon law (1949), and published De necessitudine deiparum inter et Eucharistiam (1949). Unable to return to Australia during World War II, he had been assigned to Propaganda College staff, becoming a vice-rector in 1945.

From 1948 Knox assisted Monsignor Montini (later Pope Paul VI) in the Vatican Secretariat of State, until sent in 1950 as secretary to the apostolic delegate in Japan. Appointed apostolic delegate in British East and West Africa and the Territories of the Persian Gulf and named titular archbishop of Melitene on 20 July 1953, he received episcopal ordination on 8 November in Rome. After successful work in Africa, implementing the policy of indigenising the colonial Church structures, he was promoted in February 1957 to be apostolic internuncio to India and apostolic delegate to Burma and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). He was involved in much innovation and expansion, which encompassed Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity.

On 13 April 1967 Knox was appointed archbishop of Melbourne. Crowds enthusiastically welcomed him on his installation in St Patrick’s Cathedral on 30 July. They sought decisive leadership, as Archbishop Daniel Mannix had retired from public life by 1950—although governing the archdiocese until his death in 1963—and the episcopate of his successor, Archbishop Justin Simonds, had been largely ineffectual due to his ill health. Moreover, the decrees of the Second Vatican Council (1962­65) were waiting to be implemented.

Although Knox had not lived in Australia for thirty years and had never served as a parish priest, he quickly settled into the application of the council’s directives, the driving force of his time in Melbourne. He unquestioningly accepted the council’s decisions as the will of God, and established the physical and organisational frameworks necessary to put them into practice. In-service training was arranged for priests and the reformed liturgical rites were introduced. The archdiocesan governance structure, in place since the episcopate of Archbishop James Goold, was completely reorganised by the division of the archdiocese into four regions headed by auxiliary bishops, the creation of twelve archdiocesan departments headed by episcopal vicars, and the establishment of a Senate of Priests and other advisory bodies.

Seeing education as pivotal, Knox proposed one central theological college rather than separate seminaries for diocesan priests and those of religious institutes. Although not all the religious institutes joined the dioceses in Victoria and Tasmania to form the Catholic Theological College, the final result was successful and the granting of degrees through the Melbourne College of Divinity brought a new standard to theological education for clergy and laity. He recognised the need for an Institute of Catholic Education to unite the separate small Catholic teacher-training colleges in Victoria. The ICE later became a core part of the Australian Catholic University.

Knox’s initiatives required major building works, with which he proceeded despite much opposition. His construction program included the replacement of the existing seminaries with a new one at Clayton, more suited to the modern training of priests; the bold reordering of the interior of St Patrick’s Cathedral; and the razing of the nineteenth-century St Patrick’s College and cathedral presbytery to enable the construction of imaginative and work-efficient diocesan offices and a cathedral residence. At one stage trade unions declared the cathedral precinct black. Knox was not intimidated and the project was completed.

His vision brought involvement in ecumenism. He established a Commission for Ecumenical Affairs and encouraged participation in the Victorian Council of Churches. In 1968 he founded the Melbourne Overseas Missions to provide assistance by way of personnel, equipment and finance to struggling dioceses in developing countries. When asked whether Melbourne could afford to lend priests to other places, he replied that we could not expect God to be generous to us unless we were generous.

One great achievement was the celebration of the Fortieth International Eucharistic Congress in Melbourne in 1973. The original proposal in 1968 was generally opposed by the clergy who feared a repetition of congresses based on theology predating Vatican II. Knox showed extraordinary tenacity in making `The People’s Congress’ happen. Radically innovative, it was the model for succeeding ones. Knox had the ability to identify priests and laypersons gifted with abilities in certain fields, to give them responsibilities, then to trust and support them.

On 5 March 1973 Pope Paul VI named Knox cardinal with the title of Santa Maria in Vallicella. It was widely believed that the Pope had sent him to Melbourne to have the pastoral experience of governing a diocese before being recalled to a senior Vatican position. Most were not surprised when he was appointed in January 1974 prefect of two congregations, Discipline of the Sacraments and Divine Worship. He left Melbourne for the Vatican in March and on 1 July his resignation as archbishop was accepted. The Church in Melbourne bore little resemblance to the one he had inherited seven years earlier.

In Rome Knox worked in the same methodical way. By mid-1975 the two congregations he headed were united into one, a task requiring sensitivity, tact and firm management. In 1981, to his disappointment, he was made president of the newly established Pontifical Council for the Family. He approached this assignment with his usual commitment and drive. From 1973 he was also president of the Permanent Committee for International Eucharistic Congresses. In 1982 his health declined and in May 1983 he became seriously ill with a circulatory problem. He died on 26 June that year at Gemelli Hospital, Rome, and was buried in the crypt of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne.

Knox had been a hard-working enthusiast rather than a brilliant intellectual. He would research a matter thoroughly, then doggedly defend his position once he had made a decision. He was astute, never devious, decisive, approachable, and willing to take counsel. He abhorred racism. Invariably he was pleasant, patient, courteous and kind; he was a genuinely simple and uncomplicated person. Physically wiry, he was proficient in many sports, and a competent tennis player all his life. He was a man of deep faith and prayer, devoted to the Eucharist and the Virgin Mary, and noted for his fidelity to the Pope; his spirituality was based on trying to discern God’s will and to follow it. Perceived as saintly, he lived simply and had no interest in possessions besides books. Paul Fitzgerald’s portrait (1974) of Knox is held by St Patrick’s Cathedral.

Select Bibliography

  • Advocate (Melbourne), 22 June 1967, p 5, 29 June 1967, p 5, 3 Aug 1967, p 1, 7 Mar 1974, p 1, 14 Mar 1974, p 1, 30 June 1983, p 1, 7 July 1983, p 1, 14 July 1983, p 1
  • Herald (Melbourne), 25 Sept 1972, p 2, 8 Mar 1974, p 4, 27 June 1983, p 3
  • National Times, 22-28 Mar 1974, p 723, 4-9 Aug 1975, p 44
  • L’Osservatore Romano (weekly English edn), 4 July 1983, p 12, 11 July 1983, p 2
  • Knox correspondence (Benedictine Community of New Norcia, Western Australia, Archives)
  • Knox papers (Melbourne Diocesan Historical Commission)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ian B. Waters, 'Knox, James Robert (1914–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


2 March, 1914
Bayswater, Perth, Western Australia, Australia


26 June, 1983 (aged 69)
Rome, Italy

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