I am the classic lapsed Catholic. Weekly trips to mass and Catholic schooling as a kid have given way to indifference, and now the only time I set foot in a church is for weddings and funerals. But perhaps if Father Bob Maguire (simply Father Bob to most Aussies) was my priest growing up, I may have thought twice about leaving the flock, or at least I would have had more of a laugh at mass.
I meet the octogenarian Catholic priest – retired since 2011 – to talk about his insatiable appetite for life as he ages. He is short but looks solid despite his 85 years and he instantly takes to you as if you were an old friend. The only hint to his past as a parish priest are occasional refrains of “oh, God love him” when you mention someone in conversation, or how he describes society as “the secular” society.
Otherwise, the only proselytising Father Bob does, in his effervescent and irrepressible style, is for a message of an ‘everyone-love-everyone’ type philosophy.
The man does still love to give sermon though. His mind is sharp and full of ideas and trying to keep him to the question at hand is difficult, but in the tradition of the best sermons he has a knack of bringing his story back to a fine point.
I want to know what he thinks of recent calls by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg for us to work longer, considering he himself was forced to retire.
“Yes, God love him,” he says of Frydenberg. “It’s confusing. The secular society has not yet worked out itself and now it’s got a group within secular society, the elders.”
He says that we would do well to look to the example Indigenous Australians set in regard to their elders.
“They pay their respects to their elders, past, present and emerging,” he says before then diverting to some Martin Luther King Jr quotes. But I’m hooked and I sense a point building.
“Now I’m saying to myself, poor old Bob … you’ve been to the top of the mountain, because you’re old, and you’ve seen the promised bloody land, you see? Which is when the Australian Commonwealth becomes … you ready? The Australian ‘Cobberwealth’. You see?”
The Cobberwealth – a term he has coined – is about leaving no person behind. He got the idea from a statue in Melbourne depicting a solider carrying a wounded comrade across his shoulder, and he feels we’re leaving our elders behind.
“Don’t forget me, cobber!” he booms.
He does that every so often: puts a fine point on an idea with a loud exclamation. Or at times he’ll break into song, shiny eyed and full of devilment. He’s enjoying himself.
Since retirement, Father Bob hasn’t stopped. He runs the Father Bob Foundation whose mission is “to provide material, emotional and social support to whomever, whenever and wherever necessary”. He is out giving food four nights a week, gives mass at aged care homes, talks at countless events and has a camel sanctuary which is a place of education and nature for the underprivileged.
I’m tired just thinking about his schedule, I tell him, and I wonder aloud how he keeps his energy and drive to live well as he gets older.
“I’ve got another line to write in the poem, you see? It’s a poem. I get out of bed in the morning with the intention of writing another line,” he says.
He has a lifetimes-worth of these small nuggets of wisdom. They often punctuate long stanzas of history, thoughts and jokes. Like the way he refers to the Catholic religion as the “firm” and Jesus as the “founder”, he certainly lives up to his ‘Larrikin priest’ sobriquet.
“You’ve got to be creative and innovative, otherwise you’ll end up just comatose,” he says. And with that we divert to Rome circa 500 BC for some history and then on to the view of some that he is a communist, which eventually leads to more singing.
“Solidarity forever,” he bellows. It turns out he had a sing-song with the trade unions last week, the reason for which I forgot to ask among all the commotion.
Father Bob is an enthralling character and he is a fine example of the point he is trying to make. Our elders have wisdom and knowledge that we ignore. As I listen to his stories I hang on his every word, waiting for the eventual lesson to come, but in no hurry for it.
Sitting with Father Bob for half an hour has given me a sense of ease about ageing. We finish our conversation as he must get ready: tonight, he is heading off to the ARIA music awards and as I’m packing up my things Father Bob is still going (I don’t think his sermons ever really finish).
He is a poster child for healthy ageing and a healthy outlook on life, I tell him. But he’s having none of it and diverts to telling me about the work of the local homeless shelters he spotted around his hotel here in Sydney.
“If there’s one thing we need today in the Cobberwealth it’s to use logic and reason,” he says.
“Community is based on… are you ready?” He pauses often for dramatic effect. “Care, communication, concern, common sense and compassion.”
The Cobberwealth sounds like a good place to me.Do you have an idea for a story?
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