I did not know Fr Bob Maguire. I never met him.
But when a State Funeral was offered for him, I immediately made plans to go. I wanted to honour him; and particularly his absolute commitment to the poor and needy.
On the way to St Patrick’s cathedral yesterday morning, the irony of a memorial service in the seat of Melbourne Catholic power did not elude me. Fr Bob, and the photo of him with the boxing gloves around his neck, epitomised the disdain he had for them. And the struggle he fought on behalf of his vision for the needy.
At some traffic lights in the shadow of the cathedral I struck up a conversation with a woman waiting with me. Yes, she was on her way to the service. It turned out that she had been closely associated with Fr Bob for twenty years, ‘making things happen’. What a hero!
When we got to the cathedral I discovered that there was no seat set aside for her at the front. The centre section was ‘booked’ with seats for family (she told me there were really only three immediate family members) and then ‘important’ people like politicians. I explained to the usher that this lady should have a seat at the front. After all, I thought, she had done more than most, and was closer than most to Fr Bob. But there was none. So we made our way to a side section, where we could view what was going on with televisions. Then we noticed two seats near to us on the isle in the central section. We took them and were told that they were for two vision impaired people. I explained who my companion was and quipped that, three quarters of the way back, our missing vision-impaired friends would probably see more on the television. As it was, they didn’t turn up.
The highlights for me: Premier Andrews gave a magnificent speech. John Safran gave us a revealing, typical dialogue of the kind they had together on radio. The Archbishop of Brisbane, a close friend of Fr Bob since they were in seminary together, added to the picture of Fr Bob as a complex paradoxical character beyond the public image. He also gave a big swipe at the controlling conservatism of the Catholic hierarchy.
Fr Bob Maguire, orphaned at 15, is an inspiration for what can be achieved with little or nothing.
He was an angry man – angry that, with impunity, a wealthy society such as ours, is capable of producing the kind of human deprivation he witnessed day in and day out in his local community in South Melbourne. Angry at what he considered the hypocrisy of the church – the gap between piety and righteous rhetoric, and the model embodied in the Life of Jesus that challenges the powers that give rise to exclusion and inequity. He was driven by this anger and employed his considerable political acumen, poetical gifts and deep understanding of the power of symbolism to achieve his vision of compassionate action, bringing immediate and uncalculated relief to the needy. To many, no doubt, he was a bully. But this was how he got his way, not for himself, but the poor.
He turned the idea of church inside-out. People flocked (in) to his church, not because of a strategy for church growth, but because his clear focus was on serving outsiders, whoever they were, in the most basic and radical ways, without judgement and at all costs to himself and those who stood with him. He ‘walked the talk’ and they wanted to be part of it. Fr Bob’s church was not about insiders; his was a church of outsiders as he was – and dare I say, Jesus was!
His conviction was that the lowest of the low in our society are our teachers. I think that is worth taking on board. It starts with ‘being there’ among them.