After a six-hour drive, I motored into Rockhampton with only 20 minutes to spare. At 7.30pm, there was to be a paraliturgy in St Joseph's Cathedral celebrating the life of Michael Hayes, who had been a priest for 61 years. I headed straight for the drive-through, picked up a burger, and found a bench in the park opposite the cathedral.
I was approached by four young Aboriginal people. They had come in from the Woorabinda community, and were just hanging out in the park. We talked. I told them I had come for a funeral. They immediately expressed sympathy. I said, 'You might have known him, Father Mick Hayes?'
'He, that tall grey one? He knew me when I was a little fella.' Another said, 'He knew my family when I was just a little baby.' This is typical of the pastoral legend of Mick.
In the church a few minutes later, Fr Grove Johnson reflected that Mick was admired by all the priests of the diocese and loved for his fair dinkum integrity.
He blossomed once he started organising the youth dances back in the '60s. Then Bishop Frank Rush asked him to reconcile the Aborigines and those of us who were descendants of migrants. 'It was as if we owned the place and they were the strangers. It is so good to see so many of you the Aboriginal people here tonight to honour him.'
Then came the tribute from Carol Willie, a respected Aboriginal elder.
'Fr Mick gave our parents back their respect and their hope in their land where it had all been taken from them. He gave it to them and then they were able to give it to us. And just look at us now!
'He told our parents they were as good as anyone. He told us we were worthy. He believed in us. We had lots of meetings and decided that better houses, better jobs and better education were the key. We laughed at our parents and said it would never happen. Now we have houses, jobs and education.
'Fr Mick organised the dances and the basketball, telling us we were just like anyone else. He would come to our homes and we were ashamed but he did not care about the state of the house. He just looked at us and asked, "What are you doing? What are your plans?"
'We came to church and he told us this is God's house and we belong. "Come down the front here! You are worthy." We were shaking in our boots, nervous, a big shame job. But he prepared us for all the ministries — distributing the cup and the Eucharist, and reading. He was so proud of all we did.'
There were also tributes from family and the Filipino community to whom Mick ministered faithfully when he encountered (often lonely) Filipino brides in mining towns.
The coffin lay open and I looked upon the serene and emaciated corpse of one whose every sinew and muscle had been spent on love and service of others without a thought for self-aggrandisement or comfort. Mick was the epitome of the Aussie country priest hoping beyond hope that the 'poor little buggers' would get a break in life.
Liturgy and sacraments underpinned and expressed all he thought and believed. He was never hassled by church shortcomings and shortages — no theological doubts, no time for ecclesiastical politics. Just get them to line up with the poor, and do something practical in love and service.
Next morning, the ever gracious Bishop Brian Heenan presided once again at the mass of Christian burial. The cathedral was packed to the rafters. Every imaginable group was there, including the Baha'i community whose homes Mick would visit periodically. The leader of the Baha'i community showed me photos to prove it.
Aborigines enjoyed pride of place in the congregation. There was Phyllis Toby, aged 81, looking so gracious in her hat, and boasting 144 direct descendants. Her late husband Bill had worked alongside Mick for years as an Aboriginal pastoral worker.
John Grace, the Vicar General, preached. He pointed out that the funeral liturgy had commenced with surfacing symbols expressive of the Christian status which belongs to every baptised person. 'All other callings in life build on this solid foundation, neither displacing nor abandoning it.'
He spoke with the love of a brother priest, observing: 'His prophetic nature inclined him towards all who struggled. This trait surfaced at a period in Australian history when it was unfashionable and unacceptable to associate with people unrecognised at the core of civilian life. Mick broke through that distasteful barrier.'
Mick embodied the words of Mary MacKillop, 'Never see a need without doing something about it.' The diversity of the congregation was testament to Mick's outreach. He always had an eye for those on the edges, but especially for the first Australians.
Grace recalled that Mick, when once asked about his involvement with the Aboriginal struggles, replied, 'I love buckjumping and they excelled in it. We formed a friendship on the rough field of life and have been mates ever since'.
Grace surmised that the friendship 'began on a basis of practical, hardly polished theology, which may be termed 'The Theology of the Scrub' — an unsuspecting kind of forebear to 'The Theology of the Pub', the contemporary respectable launching pad for religion into the market place.'
No doubt Mick's no-nonsense, pushy style offended some who thought him not sufficiently attentive to Aboriginal self-determination. But one grateful Aboriginal leader expressed her appreciation by saying, 'We have moved forward to where we are because he pushed us. We are the better for it.'
As a priest, he reversed Jesus' command 'to practise what you preach' to 'preach what you practise'. As Grace said, 'There were no cracks in Mick's convictions. He was indeed a diocesan treasure.'
Many of the congregation had their first encounter with the new translation of the Mass. It was augmented by the Aboriginal Our Father composed for the 1973 Eucharistic Congress in Melbourne where Mick had been involved. After it was sung with great feeling, the bishop observed that Mick would be well pleased.
Mick's passing marks the end of an era — there will never be another like him. But the congregation left St Joseph's Cathedral confident that all God's people can sacramentalise the movements in everyone's lives, if only they are attentive to those on the edges.
It was fitting that the Mass concluded with an ecumenical tribute by Bishop Godfrey Fryer, the Anglican bishop of Rockhampton, who reflected how Mick embodied all that was best in Vatican II.
Mick was no theologian, but he was a priest to all people. Grace had observed: 'For years Mick walked the streets of the city — the mid afternoons, greeting and welcoming all who responded to his priestly outreach. He met everyone with equal ease and on their level. He possessed a hidden capacity to reduce to size anyone who sought to rise above their proper status.
'To the townspeople, this was Father Mick on patrol, reaching out often where angels feared to tread. He was the angel, the medium of God's loving presence.'
I drove back south inspired by the people of God who are the Church of Central Queensland, grateful for the life and witness of the 'Theodore Grey' who now treads with the angels.
Fr Frank Brennan SJ is professor of law at the Public Policy Institute, Australian Catholic University and adjunct professor at the College of Law and the National Centre for Indigenous Studies, Australian National University.