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Poor man's pioneer

redfern, Flickr image by deepwarrenAt times a single issue defines a group's stance within the wider culture. Today abortion has become such an issue for many Catholics in the United States and Australia. It divides them in the attitudes that they take to the state and to their church.

For many young Catholics in the 1960s the defining issue was poverty. An idealistic social activism was part the contemporary culture, and the Vatican Council had stressed the commitment of the Catholic Church to the poor. But these emphases were sometimes met with scepticism by older Catholics whose approach was more analytical.

Brian Stoney, who was buried last week from St Canice's Church in Kings Cross, was a significant figure in shaping ways of accompanying the poor. For over 40 years he embodied and fought for a commitment to the poor that was based on sharing their lives.

In the 1960s he was a Jesuit, and worked in suburban communities in Melbourne and Adelaide. He later directed Corpus Christi Greenvale and shaped the spirit of its work. In more recent years he lived in communities with marginalised people in Redfern and Surry Hills. During this time he left the Jesuits.

In his life and work he represented many of the tensions that faced Catholics generally, and particularly Jesuits, in the 1960s. By then, in a Catholic community that had become more affluent, Jesuit engagement with the poor was less direct than it had been.

It was easy for the poor to become the object of analysis, of assistance, of pastoral strategies, of theological reflection. This was consistent with a use of mind that privileged analysis over intuition, detachment over involvement, reflection over experience, the lasting over the transient, and general principles over the demands of particular situations.

The second Vatican Council provided a more concrete image of human needs. It coincided with the Romanticism of the 1960s, which emphasised the claims of experience, of the immediate, the affective and the experimental. Together these movements in church and society shaped a powerful spiritual rhetoric whose stories were dramatic, claims unbounded, and promises high. It also provoked a sceptical and often anxious response.

The Council invited Catholic religious congregations to re-examine their way of living and their pastoral priorities. Often their deliberations focused on poverty and on how they should address the poor in their works.

Brian Stoney was naturally at home in the rhetoric of the 1960s. Among his heroes were Robert Kennedy and Sally Trench, the young English woman who lived close to the streets. In his conversion to the poor through contact with the Matthew Talbot Hostel he recognised that reflection on the plight of the poor must begin in accompaniment, and that the poor are teachers, not topics.

He also discovered that accompanying the poor could reveal, and perhaps heal, personal anguish.

As he explored ways of engaging personally with the poor he attracted many young people who instinctively resonated with his vision. They found him a compelling spiritual teacher.

But when he represented his vision among Jesuits and other religious groups, he often felt marginalised. He relied on experience and intuition and was constrained by the disciplines of discursive argument. He was passionate but not articulate. He resorted to the rhetoric of gesture and of silence.

These often shut down conversation, but his presence and the quality of his life ensured that others could not evade the claim that the poor made on them.

Both the strength and the dangers of Brian's vision lay in the blurring of boundaries. He challenged and crossed boundaries between subjective and objective, between the reputable and disreputable, between the religious and the secular, between sinfulness and goodness, between the self and the other.

Those wishing to share the lives of people who are marginalised in society, as Brian did, have no choice but to test these boundaries. It also placed him in a position from which he could invite people to go beyond the boundaries that protected their comfort but threatened their happiness.

But an older wisdom also held that people need boundaries if they are to nurture the springs of the self and to protect the health and balance necessary for living. Brian had discovered that if we enter the lives of the poor and marginalised on their own terms we shall discover our own weakness and come to accept it.

That demands a strong sense of self. Traditional wisdom would insist that if we blur the boundaries between the self and the other, we shall cease to engage with others as persons. We project our own weaknesses on to them. We find, not healing but enervation and depression, and we neglect the ordinary disciplines that protect others from the consequences of our weakness.

Brian necessarily lived in the no-man's land between the received wisdom and what he had discovered. It is understandable that he showed little care for his health, and felt estranged from many people who cared for him. His leaving the Jesuits was one part of this story. But even in his leaving, the boundaries remained blurred, so that strong bonds remained on both sides.

His funeral revealed the depth of connection he had enabled deeply vulnerable and isolated people to make. It spoke of his affectionate and quirky personality. It also pointed to unfinished business: the shaping of a Jesuit and Catholic presence with the poor that corresponds to the harshnesses of our society.

Andrew Hamilton SJAndrew Hamilton SJ is Eureka Street's consulting editor. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology, Melbourne.

Topic tags: andrew hamilton, euology, obituary, brian stoney, poor, vatican II, king's cross, redfern



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Existing comments

Thanks, Andy. A very insightful, honest and loving reflection on a very lovable and admirable man, who only partly through his own choice did not at all have an easy life.

john fox | 28 November 2008  

Brian Stoney's witness is an example of 'lived' theology. Andrew Hamilton’s article about Brian’s life shows us how those who walk with the poor and marginalized necessarily cross and test boundaries particulary between communities and institutions. It is often a lonely walk because people like Brian tend to be misunderstood by their peers. Bridge building between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ is a risky business. His ‘option for the poor’ meant he was more than willing to be poor, not just ‘in spirit’. For his flock, it was also a litmus test of the authenticity of his walk. Hence Brian’s practice created a contrast between engaged social activism and activism from a relatively safe distance. I don’t know the particular circumstances. But leaving the Jesuits might have been a choice he had to make to remain authentic.

Just like tourism. A quick trip, a quick survey, a brief interview could provide rich material for social analysis or theological reflection. But would this result in social change or change in the heart of hearts?

Deborah Ruiz Wall | 28 November 2008  

I often find Andrew's words to my liking. This article on Brian Stoney struck an especial cord. I remember Brian Stoney from many years ago when I was a Christian Brother and seeking inspiration for alternative ways of being. His work at Greenvale was a real source of inspiration to me and many others. Andrew's very insightful comments of Brian's life, with all its ups and downs was an honest and reflective piece that does justice to the life of Brian Stoney and the many others like him.

Tom Kingston | 28 November 2008  

Andrew, a wonderful article!Didn't know Brian had died. Had a little to do with him when Greenvale was either being set-up or refurbished in the late 70/80's(?).

Jack Bowen | 28 November 2008  

I didn't really know Brian face to face but I did know him through his reputation and through some of his good works. Andy's tribute is quite superb. Judging from some of his recent writings, he is in scintillating form. May Brian Stoney's influence persist and continue to bear fruit.

Michael Costigan | 28 November 2008  

Dear Andy, thanks for this insightful and compassionate article on Brian Stoney. Others have told me about him, his visions and, now, his death. Thank you for honoring him.

Donna Dening | 28 November 2008  

Thank you, Andrew. Your tribute to Brian Stoney captured so well the spirit/person of this inspiring, complex, compassionate man and priest. I was blessed to have witnessed how he influenced young people and I feel sure that he is rememberd by many for his generosity and understanding.

Maryrose Dennehy | 28 November 2008  

I am moved by what Andy writes about Brian whom I remember well as a schoolboy and as a young Jesuit. Even then he gently challenged conventional wisdom. He had a passionate dedication to the Demons [Melbourne Football Club] and showed real grief when JFK was shot.

Andy's eloquent article brings me news of Brian's death. I thought of Brian when I heard the start of Margaret Throsby's interview with Rolf Harris on 25/11, available on the ABC Web Site. She started by playing Rolf's powerful recording of the round: "Ego sum pauper, Nihil habeo, Cor meum tibi dono" [I am a poor man, I have nothing, I give you my heart]. With digeridoo backing, symbolic of our poorest poor, this would be great music to play at any memorial service for Brian - or at other times.

GERRY COSTIGAN | 28 November 2008  

A superb tribute to a man who had the courage to put his faith into practice. I never knew the man - but reading this brought tears to my eyes. Go, valiant soul - enjoy the rewards of the just.

Mary Trainor rsm | 28 November 2008  

Thanks Andrew. As one who knew and admired Brian in his Melbourne days I am truly thankful for your words. I was one of the many who admired but could not emulate the depth of his commitment to the poor.

Ern Azzopardi | 28 November 2008  

Brian's funeral Mass was amazing. I was one of the celebrants and I loved the way it was left for us to find a seat. I sat next to a woman who must have loved Brian. Big, bent, full of wild hair, without teeth, heavy shod, I turned the pages for her and watched as she wrote in the booklet. Surprised - should I have been? At the end of the sign of peace and she was well gone from the Church--more at ease outside--I found her booklet and found what she had written. It was the numerals from 1 to 10 twice and that's all. I like to think that she was one of the many whom Brian loved, cared for, and learnt from. She honoured him by her presence and by her numerals she was giving him :10 out 10. Well that's what i like to think.

peter carrucan | 29 November 2008  

Vale Brian and thank you Andy for a wonderful and incisive piece. Brian was an inspiration and a contradiction like another leader. If Jesuits train leaders there are far fewer like Brian on the left than the right.

Michael Breen | 29 November 2008  

Thanks to Andy for his lucid words. The thing I admired about Brian was that he put his money where his mouth was. He talked about the Gospel and its message and he tried with all his capacity to put it into practice. His efforts brought into extraordinary development his gifts: the capacity to reach people, his ability to sniff out those interior points where they needed help, his clarity about the gospel message. It also made his weaknesses very exposed. But he didn't think it should be any other way.

Brian was extremely frustrated with the Jesuits who as an institution carry an important religious, spiritual and intellectual heritage, but, as he saw it, preferred the security of the wealthier segments of society and orderliness of academic pursuits over the rough and tumble, the mistakes, the sweat, the humiliation and the blood that are so deeply interwoven into the Gospel story. As Andy speaks of “older wisdoms” I can't help thinking of the orderliness of Plato's Academy rather than the incarnation's messier demands for love and justice.

Brian didn't think boundaries unimportant. There were important principles: hospitality, the centrality of the most “difficult” person, how forgiveness is the life-blood of humanity, being inclusive, seeing the person not just the idea. They established types of boundaries that maybe sit uneasily with most of us. But that says more about us than anything else.

I am glad I knew him. I am also convinced that his life cannot be successfully and neatly wrapped up in a tidy little bundle and filed away under “good effort, deeply flawed”.

John Sweeney | 30 November 2008  

What an honour to be able to join this litany of remembrance for Brian and gratitude for Andy's insights.

I too was nurtured and challenged by Brian when we worked together in Fitzroy with the likes of Peter Hart, Len Thomas, Julie Edwards and others.

The years have passed into decades now and Fitzroy's characters including "The Captain" and "Belfast" have passed away and a new generation of dis-possessed and isolated people sit in the bustops of Brusnwick Street.

Perhaps we need to claim boundary crossing as a valid detour on the spiritual journey!

I have just finished a week of immersion experience with Year 11 students from one of our Catholic High Schools in Brisbane.One piece of feedback was that the young people listening to me talk of the outreach from St Mary's South Brisbane had never heard such a positive and enthusiastic presentation of Church. I was introduced to the group as an 'Eccentric Wizard" I think Brian would approve of the model.

I grieve for the loss of the romanticism and daring of the Brian's of our communities. I mourn the isolation of so much of our Church from the joys and hopes,grief and anguish of those who are poor and afflicted in so many ways.

I believe that Brain leaves us more than a legacy and a memory. He leaves us a prophetic call to act justly love tenderly and walk humbly on the earth. And perhaps like other great spiritual leaders he reminds us that if we dare we can become wounded healers of our fragile human family

Tony Robertson | 30 November 2008  

thanks Andy. I really appreciate your insights about Brian who was a great friend and example to me for many years. His memory will live on in the many poor for who he gave his life.

Anne | 02 December 2008  

Thank you, Andy. A just tribute to an inspiring priest. No salvation without the poor. Gerry Costigan's quote sums it up best: Ego sum pauper, Nihil habeo, Cor meo tibi dono.

Michael Taveira | 02 December 2008  

Andy - thanks. As a young Jesuit from the right side of the tracks, Brian challenged me enormously. I never quite managed to meet his direct but gentle gaze, but through him was introduced to The Way in Gertrude St, and St Mary's House of Welcome. He was a true spiritual teacher, and lived solidarity and broken-ness. Vale Brian.

David de Carvalho | 03 December 2008  

Thanks Andy for your reflection on Brian's life and for providing a forum in which to pay tribute to him. I am profoundly grateful that Meg and I, like many others, were able to travel some distance to attend his requiem; and that after a gap of 24 years to have met with him in May and spent some hours in conversation - and a counter dinner before he headed into the night to catch a bus home, having firmly declined my offer of a lift. My last and lasting memory of him.

The requiem liturgy was magnificent - the solo rendition of 'Panis Angelicus' a testimony to his priestly character, the stories and funeral dirge to his capacity to touch people and create community. It is impossible to speak of Brian without speaking of the people he loved and moved ('the father of my soul"!).

I remember him especially from our days together in the Stephenson Street community in Richmond, his capacity to extend ministry into the urban byways and his capacity to elict in others a radical commitment in faith and to the poor. Whatever of the contradictions it is Brian's love of his Lord and of his fellow man that has prevailed.

Denis Quinn | 06 December 2008  

Great article thank you Andrew. You really caught Brian's vision. I worked with Brian on street retreats. I often didn't 'get it' but always believed that most times Brian did. I have lived and worked for 11 years in the Kimberley together with Aboriginal people - learned so much from them - loved them. Now I am a migration agent pro bono working with refugees. I often need to hear Brian saying to me are you on about Pat and doing or are you on about Jesus. Maybe now he is with God in the fullness of life he can help me to keep focused on what it is about. Thanks again.

Pat Sealey RSJ | 09 December 2008  

Thanks you for this article, once in a while, there walks among us some who are truly worthy to be called followers of Jesus.

Thank you Brian for your life, and Andrew for your article.

Wonderful, and Challenging to me, much food for the journey (and not just for thought!)

Jon Owen | 05 February 2010  

I only met Brian Stoney once, when he led our Year 11 retreat in Melbourne in 1971. I have never forgotten him and how he spoke to each & every one of us. He challenged us then to recognise our own gifts and talents, and to use them to assist those less fortunate than ourselves. I was very sad to read of his death some time ago, and on reflection, decided I wanted to record just these few words in his memory. “A man with an extraordinary capacity to see the truth of who a person really was, in an unconditionally loving and reassuring way.“

Monique Waring | 20 February 2011