Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

The father of my soul


On 12 November this year, Brian Stoney, a former Jesuit priest, died in the Sacred Heart Hospice, Darlinghurst. One of the most influential people in my life, Brian was both spiritual guide and close friend. It was a privilege knowing him and being involved in Cana Communities, an inner Sydney non-government organisation that works with street people, the homeless and mentally ill.

A packed house at his funeral service at the famous St Canice's Church in Kings Cross on the Tuesday after his death was testimony to the love inspired by this man among all facets of the community. Brian had an enormous influence on the lives of an extraordinary cross-section of people. It was no coincidence that the large screen image of Brian was draped over the crucifix in the base of the church. His spiritual presence was larger than life.

I first met Brian about 12 or 13 years ago when I was working as a pastoral carer at St Vincent's Hospital. I approached a colleague about a suitable person to have as spiritual director and she recommended Brian. I first went to meet him in Redfern, in what was then De Porres House, a rambling terrace full of odds and sodds of human beings, a colourful assortment of Sydney's characters. At that time Brian was not in the greatest of health but I spotted him straight away as a kindred spirit: a deep thinker and a complex, eccentric human being in possession of an enormous spiritual presence.

Always on for a challenge, one of the first things Brian said to me that day was 'Who's your favourite character in the Bible?' and then 'We need women priests.'

It is no surprise to me that if you do an anagram of Brian's name you get the words 'saint' and 'sinner'. Brian was a complex mix of spirituality, ideas, and held a passion for being present in the full raw spectrum of life, especially where sport and interesting people were concerned.

A good looking man and a charmer with both men and women, to me he always seemed wounded but real, and with an extraordinary capacity to see the truth of who a person really was, in an unconditionally loving and reassuring way. I cannot tell you how many times I went to see him and started making small talk, yet he would always guess what it really was I had come to talk to him about. He understood me better than anyone and always had the right spiritual message for me.

I cannot remember exactly why he chose to become a Jesuit but I know he received 'the call' as a young student. He had taught Latin at St Ignatius Review and was loved by his students. They often speak of his kindness. After he left the Jesuits in the early 90s and lived with street people, he became what I would call the epitome of the 'free range' priest — not really here, not really there, but everywhere.

For many so called saints, maintaining faith can be a struggle. Brian was no different from anyone else in that regard, he struggled; he was a depressive. A number 'four' on the Enneagram like me, he could wallow in self pity, but could come alive when interesting people crossed his path or made him laugh. He was a die hard sports fanatic, and like a true former Melburnian, took his sport very seriously. Following the Melbourne Storm, and the Demons were amongst his passions.

As a younger priest, Brian had briefly worked with Mother Teresa in India. He once told me that she had called out to him one day: 'Pray for me Father, because I'm the worst sinner in the world!' He understood her experience of the silence of God, something that is only just now being spoken about with the publication of her diaries. He espoused the silent promise of being understood, the famous Jesuit Karl Rahner's prayer 'into a silent darkness' where one 'knows that one is heard, although no answer seems to come back'.

He lived with street people in Sydney, not just worked with them, a tall order in anyone's book. He lacked boundaries needless to say. I remember one house colleague, Michael, now deceased, a volatile handful, and like many street or marginalised people and indeed some of the general population, beset with the usual cocktail of alcohol and mental health problems, on the odd occasion used to wander into Brian's bedroom in the early hours of the morning, bludging yet another cigarette.

Brian of course, would sleepily oblige, and sometimes chat to him. Many years previously Brian had worked at Greenvale, a hostel for homeless men in Melbourne. He was definite in his belief in the mysticism of the broken and always said to me: 'The more violent the alcoholic, the greater the hunger for spirituality.'

Of the things I learnt from Brian one of the most important was to embrace the wounded messiness of life, to embrace who I am, and to take all my concerns to the foot of the Cross, not try and fix them. This philosophy of Brian's was borne out in many of his eccentric, challenging and provocative ideas — including classics to the effect of: 'We should scrap all royal commissions and let police take bribes so they can stay in the pubs with ordinary people and be in touch with the realities of life!'

Indeed Brian loathed perfectionism, obsessive political correctness and society's attempts to 'fix' many human problems, or to deny what he always termed the 'primal' essence of human existence. A fan of the lessons of Greek mythology he believed we needed to be reminded of our own human frailty on a regular basis. Human nature may like to pretend it can 'clean itself up', but in fact it never really changes. We are who we are.

Brian was however in denial about some things including self care and I will never forget when I was working at St Vincent's Hospital in Pastoral Care and had to ring and remind him he was on the operation list for a heart bypass the next day. Lying in bed nonchalantly with the eternal cigarette in hand, he casually remarked, 'Oh am I?'

Brian had an enormous effect on anyone I introduced him to. My boyfriend who died recently was tremendously struck by his spiritual presence and gentleness, yet his profound ability to be a bloke, unphased by anything one might tell him. I expect they are both up in heaven exchanging jokes and talking about sport this very minute.

There are many other spiritual gifts I received from Brian, such as becoming enlightened by the spirituality of Karl Rahner, another devotee of the 'mysticism of everyday life.' Indeed Brian saw this mysticism often, especially the wandering mystic in many a disturbed human being — the inner cry to be at one with God; the immense hunger and longing for the God who longs for us too. Like Rahner, he always emphasized the importance of a direct, personal relationship with God, and the incomprehensibility of God, despite what Church or society might say.

For me a great gift from Brian's spiritual guidance was the bearing out of the prophesy of Hosea in the Bible: where the Lord says "But look, I am going to seduce her and lead her into the desert and speak to her heart." Many times Brian helped me see where God was speaking to my heart and how sometimes I needed to go into the desert to hear that message.

Why does anyone need a spiritual director? The value of love is emotional presence, because there Christ is present no matter how messy the situations and relationships we get ourselves into. Brian understood that about me; he understood that about everybody.

Brian was an odd mixture of love and passion, cynicism about the world, yet finding the sense of wonder of God in it still.

Was he the atypical spiritual director — full of calm words of wisdom when my world appeared under threat? Yes but his unconditional love always came from an unexpected place - the broken Christ, not the clean, calm measured icon, but a bloodied broken human being.

I cannot fully describe what Brian has meant to me, but perhaps the description by Teresa of Avila of her spiritual director, St John of the Cross says it all:

'You are the Father of My Soul.'

Thank you Brian for being a part of my life.




submit a comment

Existing comments

I loved this article by Joanna Thyer and related to what she so lovingly and articulately expressed about Brian. I was lucky enough to know Brian from the age of 15/16 in 1974, at Vaucluse College in Richmond. I loved what he saw in people and in particular what he sensed was in their hearts. Though not officially, he was, for me, along with a couple of other Jesuits, also a spiritual leader and we kept contact over the years. We would visit him at Greenvale and interact with the men who lived there. He performed my marriage service in 1981 and we would try to catch up when he visited Melbourne, once he'd moved to Sydney. The last time I saw him was when he was here recuperating,at The Way, in Fitzroy. His death was a great shock and although I attended a memorial sevice in Melbourne, I regret not flying to Sydney for his funeral. Denis Quinn, a former Jesuit friend of Brian, described it as incredibly beautiful and moving, and a deserving tribute.

I'd like to thank you Joanna, for such an insight to a truly wonderful human being. I feel somehow that it has helped me in my grief.

Sincere regards and love

Brenda Kovacevic

Brenda Kovacevic | 22 May 2009  

Thanks Brenda for your comments. I still miss Brian very much. He was such a unique person and I don't know of any other person who could match him in terms of spiritual intuition and giftedness in understanding others. Please feel free to contact me if you're ever in Sydney.

Joanna Thyer | 26 July 2009  

Similar Articles

Back on board

  • 13 July 2007


Moving the goalposts in the Hicks case

  • 18 April 2007

Shuman Partoredjo writes in the on the Hicks guilty plea.