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Sympathy for Father Bob

  • 15 September 2009
The 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