Father Bob, dissident prophet

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In Bob We Trust (PG). Director: Lynn-Maree Milburn. Starring: Bob Maguire, John Safran. 102 minutes

Pope Francis notwithstanding, Father Bob Maguire is the closest thing the Catholic Church in Australia has to a celebrity. His authentic manner and dedicated work with the homeless in the community surrounding his former parish, Saints Peter and Paul's in South Melbourne, over the course of decades, have earned him many admirers both within and outside the Church. His aptitude at engaging with the media and in recent years his regular Triple J radio show with John Safran, has earned him a deeply committed fanbase, especially among young Australians.

The cult-like nature of his following is acknowledged in the title of this documentary by Melbourne filmmaker Milburn, which follows Bob during the years following his forced retirement from Saint Peter and Paul's, and captures some of the community outrage at the decision, and Bob's own ultimately unsuccessful resistance to it.

Senior members of the hierarchy, including Denis Hart, the Archbishop of Melbourne who requested Fr Maguire's retirement, and George Pell, Archbishop of Sydney, with whom Bob has had run-ins related to the clergy sexual abuse crisis, are cast as authoritarian villains against whom Bob the cage-rattling hero must rage. Hart and Pell are all but absent from the film, having declined to be interviewed, which frees Milburn to frame this as an unequivocal tribute to a man whom she clearly admires. She casts Bob as a prophet, and presents a compelling case for that description.

The film opens with a monologue in which Bob distills thousands of years of Judeo-Christian tradition into a single, gripping manifesto, explaining in profoundly casual language how Christianity grew from a grassroots movement based in grace and self-sacrifice into an institution concerned with power and wealth, steeped in clericalism, and susceptible to corruption. He recalls the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s as nothing less than a revolution, which sought to even out the Church's power structures and to open up a Church that had become stodgy and self-referential. The revolution, though, has since been stymied.

This monologue sets the tone for the film, as Bob takes the 'invitation' to retire as an example of the over-extension of power by the hierarchy, and a rejection of his outspoken manner and unconventional methods, regardless of his pastoral intentions. Bob here is cast in a similar mould to Peter Kennedy and Bill Morris, those other earthy Australian clerics who according to the popular narrative were suppressed by the hierarchy for flouting outdated practices while attempting to find ways to be more inclusive. This is an appealing narrative for a secular public that has become disillusioned with institutional religion, especially due to the sexual abuse crisis and inequitable practices regarding marriage and the role of women within the hierarchy.

Whatever the rightness or otherwise of the Church's treatment of Bob, there is no questioning his passion for the poor, and his unshakeable belief that it is for the poor that Christians are called to work. He reflects at length on these matters, in his utterly compelling, laconic fashion, his monologues laced with irreverance, razor wit, and the kind of pithy, profound hyperbole that sits well with the 'prophet' label: 'You don't want to mess with the Roman Church ... You've got this clash of cultures between, "What would Jesus do?", and "What would the Roman Pope do?" ... It's a Roman phenomenon. They've got to find some mechanism for dealing with dissidence.'

A framing device in which Bob sits on a monochromatic beach, engaging in scripted conversation with a black-cowled Safran over a game of chess, is too contrived to be entirely successful. In one instance Bob recoils from the vision of a cross that appears in the sky above the horizon, gasping 'The devil!' The point, that he might associate this stylised, clean and straight-lined icon with the 'evils' of clericalism and power within the capital-C Church, is perhaps hammered home a little too heavily here.

But this moment does help to illuminate by contrast the ostensibly less pristine symbols that Bob discovers through his interactions with society's downtrodden; notably with Costas, a former street kid who wanders in and out of Bob's home and with whom Bob shares an easy, conversational intimacy, as fatherly as it is friendly. This subplot produces what are easily the film's most touching and profound moments, and reveal the depths of Bob's authenticity and compassion even more so than any of his compelling speeches.

For Bob, the clean, straight edges of that looming, luminous cross don't accurately reflect the authentic role of the church in this world. For him being a priest entails getting his hands dirty, giving everything of himself, and doing what he thinks is right, even if doing so upsets power structures; especially if it upsets power structures, if they have contributed to the plight of the downtrodden. That certainly sounds prophetic to me.


 

Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is the assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Father Bob Maguire, John Safran, Peter Kennedy, Bill Morris, Denis Hart, George Pell

 

 

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It’s worth observing that the B&W chess game is clearly a deliberate spoof of Ingmar Bergman’s film set in medieval Sweden, ‘The Seventh Seal’ (1957). Safran plays Death and Fr Bob is a rather portly Max Von Sydow, playing the Knight. Although a classic of cinema, Bergman (like Safran and Maguire) has been criticised for indulging in heavy-handed symbolism at times. The spoof reminds us that Fr Bob knows how to play a part. Fr Bob’s compressed view of church history could detain us for weeks, and entertain us. Although the religion was a grassroots movement, the concept that Christianity overnight became some monolithic structure really does need to be tested against the evidence. Some would say Christianity has always succeeded where it worked at the grassroots and that that is the main history, not what is happening at the bishop’s house. His view of history does however explain why he thinks Vatican Two was a revolution. But wasn’t it a revolution to help modernise a monolith? These chess games could go on for days.
Antonius Block | 16 October 2013


There are two sides to this story and you have seen only side, though the reviewer does hint at a different take on the subject. Yes, the film appeals to a secular audience and probably to the anti-Catholic elements in that audience. It does a disservice to the many dedicated, selfless clergy who do the same work but don't crave the attention. Not worthy of a publication of your usual depth...
Annita | 16 October 2013


The Official Trailer's first musical theme, after those crashing waves, immediately brought into my mind its similarly pungent use in Stanley Kubrick's 1971 film of Burgess's "A Clockwork Orange". It was Beethoven's 9th, 4th movement, as synthesised by the then Walter Carlos (who went on to be socially reassigned). Plot-Spoiler warning - After the vile 'Uber-Droog' Alex has been 'cured' of his anti-social behaviour through aversion therapy, it was the Chaplain who alone protested Alex's psychological neutering by the vengeful reassigning Authorities. I suppose that's another oblique film-score homage toward 'dissident' Father Bob's treatment by his 'headquarters'. Indeed, in Bob the 'loyalist', we do still trust.
Official Trailer | 17 October 2013


The theme of this film is very similar to that of Sue Williams in her book "Father Bob: The Larrikin Priest". Bob Maguire, possibly due to his own impoverished upbringing and his mother's deep Catholic religiosity, seems to be able to connect with a wide cross section of people and bring them together. Bob does himself have a very deep, soundly based, quite orthodox Catholic spirituality, although he is able to express it in a striking, non-conventional way. This sort of spirituality is the hallmark of every genuine Catholic re-energiser of Tradition, from Francis of Assisi; through Ignatius of Loyola and the Early Jesuits to the current time. It is a case of putting Christ's message, the perpetually New Wine, in a new wineskin. Forget the likes of Peter Kennedy, who, basically has gone off on his own way. I think the Church needs to stay on message. The current Pope seems very much like Father Bob: orthodox but open. The likes of Dennis Hart, a good man but a conventional ecclesiastical administrator, probably need a good spiritual shaking up. Vatican Two, seen in its true light and restored in its true spirit, might accomplish this.
Edward F | 17 October 2013


The trouble with dissident clergy within the Church, is that their originally promised obedience to their bishop is cast aside because in their ministry they have come to believe that they know better than the authority over them. They as clergy know better than most the full meaning of Christian love. Trained to teach others how to live it, they seem unable themselves to practice it with due humility seeking rather the limelight of a public platform ultimately to little or no advantage perhaps.
Tony Knight | 17 October 2013


Watch the two minute promo for this film.... You'll definitely want to see the rest... :-) Good bloke.... No towering "intellectual. Not a 'theologian". Not an academic (thanks god!). But a man filled full of care for the poor and the downtrodden. A man with a heart and a conscience. What a treasure! No wonder the hierarchy are against him... oh, if only there were more like him!
Yuri Koszarycz | 17 October 2013


Tony Knight hits the nail on the head. Media adulation is a deadly temptation and often leads well-intentioned people astray. I repeat: there are countless humble, dedicated priests out there, working hard among the marginalised (spiritually and materially marginalised) without seeking fame or praise in the media. They are the ones I admire..Fame is its own reward, as I believe the Gospel tells us...
Annita | 17 October 2013


I think there are two things the anti-Father Bob league need to realise: (1) He is not a rebel without a cause. He is a renewer of the system from within. Many of the great renewers of the Church such as Francis of Assisi and the Early Jesuits were regarded as possibly dangerous innovators at first. Whether he is quite in their league only time will tell. At the moment I see him as a good exemplar of what it is to be a Catholic in Australia at the present time. (2) He is not narcissistic, nor, I believe, a blatant attention seeker to himself. It is The Cause (the Church) and causes (social action as the outgrowth of genuine spirituality) he draws attention to.
Edward F | 17 October 2013


Tony Knight, is the role of clergy really "to teach others" to practice Christian love? Even if this was the case, "seeking due humility" is not necessarily the only way to do this - and I suspect that "humility" in many cases really means - toe the line, pull your head in and do nothing. Good on you Father Bob - being in the limelight is the best form of humility because he is taking the risk of being exposed to "humiliation".
AURELIUS | 17 October 2013


well written. However, one must remember whilst Fr Bob is a great bloke, he is not for everyone. I remember him saying mass for a group of cadets just over 40 years ago. It took 15 minutes. It was rough and did not give proper meaning to the eucharist and to those attending. It was hurtful. But apart from that Fr Bob is Jesus on earth cleaning out temples and setting the downtrodden free. God bless you
phil | 17 October 2013


Media adulation? Hardly. Bob simply attempts to offset the abuse footprint, the damage done by a corporate body of clerics answerable to nobody. He has never sought media attention, he is simply popular for being prepared to put himself in harms way: to be vocal and express his faith in secular terms. Father Bob Maguire bears witness to the world whilst the cardigan-set retreat into a pious and mediaevel fantasy, obsessed with devotional convention and laminated instruction. His irreverance, his larrikinism masks unswerving devotion, not to the senior officers, nor lavish apartments in Rome but to people. Us. The locals of St Peters and Pauls and the broader community in TV land. Watch the film's flickbook version of his workload. He reassures, he lends a hand, he's a blood, sweat and tears man. A digger. An Aussie priest whose cardinal crime is is to rail against the primacy of the cleric and spread his message of fairness and justice. "Who cares wins". Oh and don't forget the big one, at which the tea-cosy palatines glare with envy, he's funny. He laughs in church. And that unripe comedy, that tragedy of the catholic story is captured in this masterful film portrait. Compulsory viewing.
AL Stewart | 17 October 2013


I'm with Annita in this. I'm not 'anti-Father Bob' - he's a good man and a good priest. I wonder, though, whether the word 'prophet' really applies. He doesn't really take risks, he's still and accredited priest and popular with most people. The rumour went around, and I didn't see him refute it, that he'd been retired from the parish because of his service of the marginalized. This is rubbish - with all its faults and failings, the Catholic hierarchy doesn't marginalize people for serving the poor! If you're looking for a prophet, look at Peter Kennedy or Greg Reynolds, not Bob Maguire. Again - a good man, a good priest, but not a prophet.
Joan Seymour | 17 October 2013


Why are young people (of all ages?) so turned off by the establishment in the Church? Because they can smell sanctimonious bull-sh** a mile off. And our bishops are full of it. When they stop taking on medieval honorifics, stop dressing in camp pincely renaissance-period finery, stop wagging their fingers so much, and making anything sexual the centre of their moral compasses, then they will be as effective as Father Bob undoubtedly is. Have they wondered WHY they attract such different responses? Always somebody else`s fault; the Devil perhaps?
Eugene | 17 October 2013


I have to say it again, though it's been said. Fr. Bob is certainly not the only priest in Melbourne who laughs in church, doesn't carry on about sexual morality and doesn't preach about the authority of the Pope. There are plenty of them - admittedly mainly of Fr. Bob's age, which is a problem, but they do exist and are working away for the people just as Bob is. (I'm sure he'd say so himself).
Joan Seymour | 17 October 2013


It seems to me that Bob has long been doing what our new pope Francis has been telling us - to be a church for the poor. People are drawn to both men because of their authenticity to Jesus' message. I think they could form a great friendship if given the chance.
Frank S | 17 October 2013


The word "prophet" in the Old Testament context was pretty specific. That particular office died out with John the Baptist. With the coming of the Messiah there was no further need for prophets. I think you can speak of someone performing a "prophetic" function but that is purely metaphorical. However, there will always be living exemplars of Christianity. All exemplars have their limitations. It sometimes takes grace and discernment to sort out who is authentic. There will be no agreement on controversial figures such as Bob. I suppose the only "answer", which is an individual one, is whether you feel a person like him is attracting you to the Fullness of Christ. One man or woman's exemplar may not be another's. Christianity has more than one exemplar.
Edward F | 18 October 2013


Fulton J. Sheen for Gen X? Well he certainly is king of the kids. It's a pity his media image equates to something more like Zig and Zag. He deserves better than that.
DavidSt | 18 October 2013


It's little known that, for all his statements about Rome vs. others, Fr Bob without the slightest hesitation consented to regularly celebrate the Traditional Mass for a local group until his recent ailments. Moreover, he attended the Christus Rex Pilgrimage last year (2012) and assisted (in choir) at the final Mass. That's "liberal" in the finest sense of the word! Fr Bob has also been a prominent pro-life priest amongst his many worthy charitable projects. (Does the movie pick up on these rather uncomfortable facts?) Fr Bob - we might disagree on important things, but no-one can doubt where your heart is. God bless you and His Grace.
HH | 22 October 2013


I think whatever doubts readers here or viewers of the film may have on Fr. Bob Maguire regarding his presentation of the Catholic Faith, there is no doubt that his theology is perfectly orthodox and that he, personally, is able to cope with Catholics who prefer a Pre-Vatican Two approach to the liturgy, even though his preferred rite is completely valid and approved, as well as being the norm in contemporary Australia. There seems to be a recurring theme amongst some posters on this website, which I would term a "Back to the Past" one, which sees the traditional Irish-Australian approach to Catholicism as the epitome of religion: a vanished Golden Age which was destroyed by the evil wreckers behind Vatican Two. This view is both nonsensical and potentially leads to schism and division from the Church as with the highly controversial Society of St. Pius X. It is not a road I would advise anyone to go down.
Edward F | 22 October 2013


Fr. Bob Is An Extremely Feeling Hearted & Just Man . He Cuts Through The Red Tape To Help Justified Catholic Move On With Their Lives . I Wish More Priests Could Be Like Fr . Bob . Txu . Richard .J.
Richard Jennings | 27 December 2015


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