Sympathy for Father Bob

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Father Bob MaguireThe story of Fr Bob Maguire's retirement can be told in many ways. It has generally been represented as the struggle of a brave battler against a heartless large corporation. Whatever of that, it has a more universal and poignant relevance as the story of the predicament of ageing community workers. These include general practitioners, teachers and religious ministers.

For people whose lives are spent working in communities, the path to retirement is complex and difficult. Historically, the age of retirement has been dictated by failing physical strength or a declining ability to adjust to rapid change. The reluctance of people to retire has come from financial difficulties or from having identified their personal value with their work.

For community workers, the criteria for retirement and the sources of resistance to it are more complex. At the heart of their work is the pattern of relationships which have been built up over time. The effectiveness of their service depends on their competence, but it also relies on their knowledge of the community they serve and on the trust that this familiarity engenders. Because knowledge and trust grow only gradually, continuity is prized. Few people feel blessed, for example, by having to change their doctor every six months.

Nor are the traditional reasons for retirement cogent. Physical strength is not usually essential, and communities and their workers respond organically to change. As community workers age, too, they naturally grow in practical wisdom. General practitioners often say they reach the height of their diagnostic skills only at the age when they contemplate retirement. Nor does age automatically make it difficult for older people to communicate to the young. I doubt if there is an Australian priest who communicates more intuitively with young Australians than Bob Maguire.

The difficulties that community workers may feel in contemplating retirement can cut deep. Because relationships are so important in their professional work, they easily identify themselves with the people whom they serve and with the ways they serve them. If it is true that our identity is shaped by our relationships, then to let go of significant relationships must threaten to diminish us as human beings.

The importance of relationships suggest that it would be best to leave it to the community and its worker to decide when the time for retirement has come. But this proposal also has its difficulties. Communities will not always feel free to tap a much-loved leader on the shoulder against her wishes. Nor will they always be in a position to judge the competence, say, of their general practitioner.

The proposal is even more problematic in communities, like church congregations, which see themselves as enduring through time, as bound to other congregations, and as committed to nurture belief in the next generation. Changing ministers is a normal part of renewal. Communities always tend towards entropy, and it is easy for a congregation with a long-standing and ageing minister to age and die together.

These considerations argue that if a community is to endure, and if the community workers are to remain competent and effective in their service, their tenure must be subject to review. That is why general practitioners submit to appraisal by their peer group. Within the Catholic church, Bishops and parish priests are required to submit their retirement at the age of 75 to the Pope and local bishop respectively. The offer of retirement gives space for reflection and review.

These practices have much to commend them from the point of view of the wider community. They encourage community workers to reflect on their own future and their capacities. But such reflection is always delicate and often fraught with fear and suspicion. Both the workers and those who depend on them naturally fear it, feel powerless in it, and ask whether the process will be fair or simply an opportunity to get rid of people seen as troublemakers.

This argues that where possible people should be able to keep contributing to their communities in less responsible positions. Older teachers can have auxiliary roles in their school, doctors become junior partners in their practice, clergy assist a new parish priest.

But this ideal solution often proves impossible. Where there is conflict, as in this case, the generous will feel sympathy for all those involved: for Fr Bob Maguire, for Archbishop Hart and for the parish community.

LINK:
Fr Bob Maguire's blog


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Father Bob Maguire, Sundan Night Safran, John Safran vs God, Archbishop Denis Hart


 

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Existing comments

I concur with the balanced report supplied by the Author as too often, age does catch up with people in key position at the expense of the specific areas involved eg Parish, finances etc.
John P Keane | 15 September 2009


I liked your observation 'if the community workers are to remain competent and effective in their service, their tenure must be subject to review.' It's a pity that popes do not subject themselves to the same test. It's not difficult to think of a couple who have run past their used-by date.
Richard Olive | 15 September 2009


A wise and gentle review. On a pragmatic note, would it not have been wise and kind to request the review and not anticipate the response in an unheralded visit? In industrial law we might consider that, at first glance, to lack due process.
Moira | 15 September 2009


As statements by Archbishop Hart and Father Bob have revealed over the past two days, age was certainly not at the heart of the controversy...but rather the financial management of Fr Bob's parish.

Fr Bob made a very valid point about the sale of parish assets...that such sales require the approval of the archbishop and thus Fr Bob was not acting without either consultation or approval.

The squabble points up the need for a total re-think on the role of the priest, especially with their numbers dwindling.A whole raft of jobs can and should be lifted from their shoulders.As others have said, seminary training does not cover property or investment management. These are areas in which the laity can assist...if the hierarchy would stop shutting them out.

Timely to ponder the willingness of the early day Christians to happily give away their properties to meet the needs of the community...but then they all thought Jesus would be back in no time.Would they be regretful if they were brought back to life now to find a world still waiting..and a church reluctant to turns its assets into cash.

But then there are those who believe the church's real assets are its faith and its people...none of which can be converted into money.Last Sunday's readings reflected on faith and good works. Some might want to reflect on Cardinal Pell's homily...he claims good works can quickly run out of puff..thus giving faith a better sounding ring.

Brian Haill | 15 September 2009


Thank God for the Andrew Hamiltons who put these controverial developments in the Church into perspective.

What about the property issue ? A suggestion has been made that the ecclesiastical powers that be have an eye on some valuable property which might be easier to deal with in the absence of the long time pastor who would be more in tune with the local situation and also the visible link with the many generations of worshipping parishioners whose contributions helped its acquisition ?
Denis O'Leary | 15 September 2009


At the end of the day it's all a sad commentary on what we seem to value most highly in priests (and archbishops come to that).

For God's sake trust some one else to be responsible for financial assets.The Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head and his apostle made tents and lodged with other people.
Margaret | 15 September 2009


Father Bob is a beacon for young people searching for role-models of and in the church,when there are precious few willing to talk about Christ, the forgotten and abused.

He has shown a way to live authentically,in this wealthy city,as a Christian,doing and speaking about unpopular and uncomfortable issues.The middle classes, now living in vacuous affluence and so many young men finding alcohol and violence the solution to personal crisis, shows self worth and integrity is always ellusive.Self interest is held to be the most valuable commodity,it seems.
Fr.Bob is someone upholding a foundation and a cause to fight on for above the greed and self-interest.

He's an example of courage,defending those who have no voice and a saving grace to the tattered reputation of the Catholic Church.

My children have travelled over an hour to do work experience with his workers and hear him speak about the most urgent issues today.The church will lose this next generation if it does not embrace Fr.Bob.
Catherine | 15 September 2009


As is usual, Father Hamilton presents a clear discussion of an important issue that has reached and been reported in the media. This time it is about an issue which can be a very emotional time in people's lives: retirement, forced or otherwise and in this particular case that of Father Bob Macguire.

One can understand Father Maguire's positon. Yet, as Father Hamilton comments, there is also the other side, such as that as expressed by Archbishop Hart.

Father Hamilton discusses the role that older people may play when they begin to retire from work. This is very sound. I am reminded of George Vaillant's book 'Ageing Well' -- which I had the privilege of reviewing in Eureka Street some years ago -- and his development of Erikson's stages of growth and formation of identity. Professor Vaillant refers to a stage he describes as 'Keeper of the Meaning' (@pg 48ff).

The focus of the keeper of the meaning, Vaillant says,is on the conservation and preservation of the collective products of humankind. That seems to me to be about what Father Hamilton is writing, when he refers to the roles that older people can carry out as they begin retiring and reflecting on what they have done. The keeper of the meaning encourages younger people to maintain and develop that meaning. That is to the benefit of us all.

If discussions about retirement could be put in these terms, in much the way that Father Hamilton sensitively argues his position here, then maybe the hurt and rancour that often surrounds discussions related to retirement would disappear and be replaced by a focus on a person's new and important role: explaining, maintaining and assisting "newcomers" to develop further the meaning of the contribution that he and others have made to bettering the lives of others who because of their circumstances may not have been able to comprehend any positive meaning in their lives, but who have become able to do so because of for example, their encounter with people like Father Maguire.









Peter Gaughwin | 15 September 2009


Once again Andrew has presented a clear and compelling response to a growing difficult situation in our community, not only to the Father Bob /Archbishop Hart discussions but to the dilemma of facing retirement to competent specialists as to whether they should remain in their professions or hand over the reins to a younger up and coming generation, provided such a generation is both available and willing.

As to Father Bob and his Archbishop it is for them to come to a satifactory consensus and to heal a growing divisiveness in the Melbourne Church.
Anthony K. Toms | 15 September 2009


I have not one jot of time for Arch. Hart and his *reasoning* - whose poor judgment seemingly fails to realise the Catholic Church needs Father Bob more than Father Bob needs them. Father Bob as we all know has been tirelessly serving the Melbourne community for decades and clearly should be encouraged to stay - Aside from that the church goes on about falling vocations [i wonder why!] - Who btw could fill Fr. Bobs shoes? - Will Hart have some heart? Lets hope so.
Nathan of Adelaide | 15 September 2009


And the Roman church wonders why it is losing its growth thru new clergy and a reduced number of new younger members [I gather from what i read]!
Health lasts longer these days, but the minds of the church fathers haven't kept pace. How old are the bishops and archbishops that are enforcing this stupidity?

Fr Bob seems to be fit, leave it to him and his congregation. [I don't live in Vic, so I can't go and observe for myself]
jaymz | 15 September 2009


Succession Planning, despite the lack of Priests, should be part of the process. Fr. Bob, knowing he had to submit his retirement at 75, should have 'groomed' someone to (possibly) take his place, plus Archbishop Hart should have been more sensitive (and aware) of Fr. Bob's popularity and the need to have a worthy replacement. The Church should have handled this better, starting 2 or 3 years ago.
Jack Bowen | 15 September 2009


I am 5 years younger than Fr Bob, but still feel fit and devoted to my life's work.I have admire fr Bob for many years, seen him in action, tried to imitate him but failed. I have a nephew whom I baptised, however it is Fr Bob who inspires him. If I were the archbishop I would be thanking and encouraging him. If it is only finances,why not ask people to support him, dollars would come tumbling in from the little battlers to whom he speaks the Gospel values - people like me and Ashleigh my nephew
fr Nick Punch | 15 September 2009


Thank God for the Andrew Hamiltons who put these controversial developments in the Church into perspective.

What about the property issue? A suggestion has been made that the ecclesiastical powers that be have an eye on some valuable property which might be easier to deal with in the absence of the long time pastor who would be more in tune withthe local situation and also the visible link with the many generations of worshipping parishioners whose contributions helped its acquisition?
Denis O'Leary | 15 September 2009


Andrew, are you just pouring oil on troubled waters? No one can object to anythying you have said, but I think the point at issue here is the suspicion many people have that the Church rule is being used here to clip the wings of someone who at times seems to be a thorn in the side of the bishop.
Pat Lynch | 15 September 2009


A good article indeed, but not really about Fr Bob Maguire. Clearly he is a charismatic and caring pastor, a very Australian priest.

I would like to know what are his rights in civil law? In canon law? Could the situation have been handled better? And how?

Why does his kind of ministry resonate so well with Australians, especially the young? Tell us about his work for the homeless. What could other priests learn from him? And have there been things going on in the background - tales from people with their own agenda? Why is the Archbishop made out to be the bad guy?

What is the real story? We cannot let the tabloids take the running on this story.

I hope this is not taken wrongly, but I detect a subtle self-censorship at work here.
Frank | 15 September 2009


A good article indeed, but not really about Fr Bob Maguire. Clearly he is a charismatic and caring pastor, a very Australian priest.

I would like to know what are his rights in civil law? In canon law? Could the situation have been handled better? And how?

Why does his kind of ministry resonate so well with Australians, especially the young? Tell us about his work for the homeless. What could other priests learn from him? And have there been things going on in the background - tales from people with their own agenda? Why is the Archbishop made out to be the bad guy?

What is the real story? We cannot let the tabloids take the running on this story.

I hope this is not taken wrongly, but I detect a subtle self-censorship at work here.


Frank | 15 September 2009


In spite of the belief that it was time for me to make room for new ideas and younger people, my retirement has been difficult because I lost the daily contact with young people. It would be very good if the 'position description' could be adjusted to take away those things that cause difficulty and leave room for the gifts to continue their good work.
Margaret McDonald | 15 September 2009


Surely a system to protect an individual (Fr Bob) from squandering money could be set up as in any business (eg) a number of signatories. Even have a group take over the finances perhaps a Parish Council. I think there is more to it than we know.
Mark Meade | 15 September 2009


As someone who has no knowledge of the issues or the personalities involved, I read your article and kept asking myself what, exactly, is Andrew's position here.I hear him canvassing all these perspectives and kept waiting to hear what Andrew thought applied to the specific case that gave rise to his article.I didn't hear one.

From many of the responses that I read here, it would appear that my bewilderment is not shared by many of the respondents. At the same time, I ask you, Andrew, what exactly were you attempting to do with your article ?
Noel Will | 15 September 2009


Bob Maguire has a big problem. He is a bit too much like the radical Carpenter of Nazareth, and we can't have that kind of thing all over again, can we now?
Peter Downie | 15 September 2009


If Mick Malthouse has two years to hand over the coaching job at Collingwood to Nathan Buckley, why couldn't a similar deal be done for Fr Bob. An assistant could be appointed now who would progressively acquire Fr Bob's responsibilities over the next two years, becoming parish priest in 2011. That way, the community would be accepting of the incoming parish priest, and the parting of Fr Bob done with dignity. As Andrew' article argues well, everyone has a stake in a good outcome.

To avoid such situations arising in other parishes in the future, one solution would be for the diocese to make a call when a priest is 73 years of age on the likelihood of his resignation at 75 being accepted. This would allow for a 'Collingwood coach' solution or other solution acceptable to all parties to be adopted as necessary.
Vince | 15 September 2009


Frank, Pat and Noel – and, I am sure, many others – have very courteously implied that I was a little evasive in not addressing the legal and factual aspects of the dispute between Fr Bob Maguire and Archbishop Denis Hart, and in failing to say where right lies in the dispute.

If this failure was evasive, it was deliberately so. I have no insight into the facts that are dispute. Nor, although I have admired what I have heard, have I been familiar at first hand with Bob’s ministry to the poor. Nor am I an expert in church legal processes. So it would be presumptuous and disrespectful for me to make a judgment on the conflict.

My purpose in the article was simply to say that there are deeper human issues in this conflict, and these we can enter and try to understand. And the more we reflect on them, the more I suspect we shall refrain from making judgments. That, at least, has been the case when I have listened to people speak of a different but analogous situation, in which they must respond to aged relatives who are reaching the point of needing care but resist it. Preoccupation with the facts and the legalities often distract from the human reality of the situation and the poignancy of the predicaments of those involved. And there often seems to be a period of time in which there is no possibility of negotiation between good people. But that is not to deny that it may come to a point when someone has a duty to intervene.
At all events, I don’t find it helpful to ask the question, ‘who is to blame?’

I cannot answer most questions to which Frank would like an answer. But I have spoken with many young people, mainly young men, on whom Fr Bob’s conversation or radio and TV sessions have made a deep impression. His appeal seems to lie in his insistence on talking in everyday, earthy language and images, and refusing to use words that have no purchase in popular culture today. In words that I suspect he would think too refined, he takes seriously the Christian belief that in Jesus took on the complete messiness and poverty of our human condition, and that it is in poverty and messiness that we should seek God. And young people see that his manner of life is consistent with his words.


andy hamilton | 15 September 2009


What do Peter Kennedy (Brisbane) and Bob Maguire have in common? Perhaps, as Peter suggests, they are both 'a bit too much like the radical Carpenter of Nazareth, and we can't have that kind of thing all over again, can we now?'
Tom Jones | 15 September 2009


Archbishop Hart was himself a parish priest years ago. I had the pleasure and honour of being one of his flock.
He was a kind, true and honourable man and priest. Father Bob is using the media to garner sympathy. Archbishop Hart is behaving with dignity.
There is much more to this story.
Katherine | 16 September 2009


Andrew, your article over the years have always been a great resource for me. Thank you in particulare for this one about Father Bob and previous ones about Ted Kennedy and Peter Kennedy. You are always measured yet compassionate in writing about these wonderful priests who stick their neck out for the sake of the kingdom. May we see more understanding in this Year of Priests.
Mary Long | 16 September 2009


Fr Bob Maguire has a reason to get up every morning, his parish community. He is an asset to the church and an elder. he has contributed much and has much to give, no symphathy from me but I cheer him on .. Go father Bob, follow your heart, you are truly Christ's servant. peace be with you.
betty Kosanovic. de Vries. | 18 September 2009


I agree with Andy that those of good will ought feel sympathy for all involved. What I must admit I find difficult however is how this dispute has been played out through the media.

I guess Father Maguire feels he has no choice but I have less sympathy for him each time I hear or see him conducting his campaign through 3AW or the 7:30 report etc.

At the same time I personally found it pretty disappointing to see an Archbishop issue a press release essentially to denigrate the reputation of a man who has served the church and the people generously for 50 odd years.

The relationship Andy doesn't refer to in his very well written and balanced piece is the relationship between Fr Maguire and his local bishop. I would have thought that the media campaign I refer to above will make it even more difficult for that relationship to be truly reconciled.

I also find it difficult to have sympathy for the view that priests ought to be running off to civil lawyers to clarify what their rights are under civil laws for what is an ecclesiastical matter between a priest and his local bishop.
Nick Dunstan | 18 September 2009


Pretty balanced article, I'd say, raising some very pertinent points. Congratulations Fr Hamilton.

I've only recently had immediate contact with Fr Bob's social work - it's just great & God willing it will prosper.

I've also had experience of the once-Fr Hart's parish in West Brunswick. It was a hive of enthusiasm and activity, an obviously happy community. The Archbishop may not have the personal charisma of Fr Bob, but from my limited experience, he was a great pastor. Not all of us have the same gifts.

We should pray for both these labourers in the vineyard. Nothing worthwhile is easy.
HH | 24 September 2009


Forgive me if I'm wrong.... I was under the impression there was a shortage of priests?
Val | 31 October 2013


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