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Friday, 05 August 2011 00:23

The ‘blue collar’ outback priest

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I grew up on a dairy farm where no one considered manual work to be in some way inferior to white collar work.  An elder brother and I went on to be priests but have never lost touch with our rural roots and our brothers and sisters.

After a number of years working in Chile, six years ago I came to live in Cunnamulla, a town of about 1,500 inhabitants, 900 kilometres west of Brisbane.  As from the 1950s and 1960s the bottom fell out of the international wool market due mainly to the impact of synthetic fibres.  This drove major changes in the parts of Australia where the main marketable product was wool.  Some sheep farmers moved into sheep for meat (Dopplers); some into cattle; some into crops, such as cotton or wheat; some into all three and others too.  For Cunnamulla, which genuinely lived off the sheep's back, it meant decline in wealth and population.

I have pastoral responsibility for people living in an area of about 160,000 square kilometres.  The area extends to the South Australian and NSW borders, to an east-west line roughly 130 kilometres north of Cunnamulla and a north-south line 180 kilometres east of Cunnamulla.  The area is sparsely populated and I don't go regularly to other parts of the parish but have told parishioners in various communities that if they contact me I will respond as soon as possible.

I am an extrovert who draws energy from contact with others but I'm not here to impose my presence on my parishioners.  I have found that most Australian Catholics, maybe most Australians, are quite happy to limit their church going to three or four times a year.  They like the priest to be around but are slow to invite him into their lives.  They are grateful for what the priest does at funerals and baptisms, and now and then there is a wedding in the church.

One might say that I could do lots of pastoral work with teachers, parents and children at our parish primary school.  I do what I can but it's not so easy because, of the 90 children at our school, only one sometimes attends Mass with her parents.  Most are not Catholics and if they are they don't practice — beyond the three or four times a year I mentioned above.

Civic institutions and the local supermarket are, for me, two significant entries into the life of the Cunnamulla community.  The former welcome me as a member and, as such, I am not the local priest but one more member of the Cunnamulla community.  I work in the supermarket one day a week, my main job being restocking the shelves, which we do during the day, not at night as is the custom in supermarkets in major urban centres.  This also gives me the chance to meet the people of Cunnamulla as one more resident of the town.  They know I'm the local priest and some refer to me as Father Rod, no matter what I may be doing, but all are aware that I'm doing what I can to avoid setting myself apart from them.

In this small town walking the streets and riding a bicycle also help me keep in touch.  I greet all whom I meet and most respond in a friendly way.  If I drove around town in my car all the time I'd definitely meet fewer residents.  I visit people in their homes, this especially in the case of the elderly who usually enjoy an informal and spontaneous chat.

Indigenous people make up about half the town's population.  They once had their own space and thrived but so much has been taken from them.  They used to have a lifestyle developed over millennia, which, within the space of a few generations has been wrested from them.  They have no choice but to discover ways of recreating their lives.  It will never be the same for them.  They are struggling to find their way.  We may be able to help, but on their terms.  Well-intentioned assistance from whites and a white-run government does not seem to be doing them much good.  So, I ask myself, how might we move beyond such good intentions that so often do their intended beneficiaries little good whatsoever?

Ironically, I may have glimpsed a hint of a way forward (at least, as regards how we whites might relate with the indigenous) in funerals of a deceased indigenous person, whose families have asked me a number of times to organise and officiate at the funeral in the town's Catholic church.  These families are not necessarily active in the Catholic Church but I welcome them and ask them what they would like me to do.  They seem to have an idea of my specific role and explicitly assign the tasks of that role to me.  They then choose music and a variety of symbols, and see to the participation of various family members (extended).  The basic style of the celebration is theirs; they prepare it with me; they run it; they definitely feel it is theirs.  Of course, an attitude of friendly openness on my part would be a prerequisite for indigenous people being willing to approach me for anything.  However, I ask myself, what else, beyond this, might we do together that might allow the indigenous people of our town be who they are?

In all this, a major Gospel motivation for me is Jesus' statement, "I have come that you may have life and live it to the full".  I see anything I can do to enable this to happen in the lives of my parishioners as living out my priesthood.

Fr Rod MacGinley SSC previously worked on mission in Chile and has been in Cunnamulla for six years.