ANDREW O’Brien’s had 57 Christmases in his lifetime, but his 58th will be different – the Holy Spirit is making sure of that.
Married and the father of three sons, he was ordained a permanent deacon for Brisbane archdiocese only last month so he and everyone around him are still getting used to that.
He’s still the same Andrew but the power of the Holy Spirit has caught him by surprise.
“There’s no doubt that the grace, the power of the Holy Spirit was incredibly evident,” he said of the day he was ordained by Archbishop Mark Coleridge at St Stephen’s Cathedral on November 11.
“And that really surprised me – maybe it shouldn’t have but it did – how tangible that was, particularly the joy of the occasion – and not just the ordination liturgy but the days before and after that.”
At a recent weekend Mass, a parishioner asked him, “Have things changed?”
“And I said, ‘Look, the routine of my life is pretty much the same but I do find that there are more promptings from the Holy Spirit (for me) to fire up’,” Deacon Andrew said with a laugh.
“So, a bit like the cricketers, (the question is) ‘How intense are you playing the game? Are you just going through the motions or are you actually fired up to …’
“That’s probably the best way I could describe it.”
Some things won’t change.
His marriage to Colleen, his wife of 34 years, is one, and he’s still Queensland general manager of Rosies – Friends on the Street.
He’s still out and about among the Rosies volunteers with people who are homeless, especially in the lead-up to Christmas.
“I still wear the same Rosies shirt that I normally wear,” he said.
His job of leading 1200 volunteers in 11 Rosies branches around Queensland is at the heart of the mission Archbishop Coleridge has given him.
The Archbishop has appointed him to serving the marginalised and homeless through organised charitable activity.
It’s a mission Deacon Andrew has chosen for himself and one the Archbishop supports.
After his ordination, Deacon Andrew said Christians should not be afraid to encounter those on the margins, particularly those who lived on the streets.
“Our purpose as Christians is to go out to meet Jesus and we know we will find him among the poor,” he said.
He’s “always been influenced to some degree by people who’d worked at the margins” and that started from his days as a high school student at Downlands College in Toowoomba.
He was influenced there by someone studying to become a Missionaries of the Sacred Heart priest, who introduced him to Blessed Charles de Foucauld.
The French-born priest wrote: “The love of God, the love for one’s neighbour… All religion is found there…”
“So I read a fair bit of that sort of material, and really around the whole poverty issue – poverty of spirit as well as material poverty,” Deacon Andrew said.
“So, I’ve always had that sort of rumbling in me somewhere.”
Life took a turn for Andrew when he began studying theology about six or seven years ago.
“I was about fifty at the time, and I thought, ‘You know, I’ve had a pretty reasonable career’,” he said.
“I’d satisfied that dimension of myself, and the ability for us to live comfortably as a family, so I was keen to work for the Church in some capacity but I had no idea what that capacity might be.
“And I thought, well, the best thing to do is to know a little bit more about what I might be talking about.”
What he was talking about was a deep-seated conviction about God at the centre of life.
“Fundamentally, I suppose, what my motivation was, and is, that I just think that the Trinitarian God – Father, Son and Spirit – is fundamental to humanity, so whatever I can do to actually spread that Word is what I’ll do,” he said.
“And I thought there was an opportunity for me at that point of my life to do that in a more direct sense than what I’d been doing.
“I was just motivated by preaching the Gospel. It’s as simple as that.”
Andrew could not have imagined where that was leading.
“The vicar general (Monsignor Peter Meneely) and I went to school together and I contacted him and told him that I was interested in working for the Church and did he have any ideas?” he said.
That eventually led to him completing the archdiocese’s formation program for permanent deacons, working with Centacare Employment Services in Brisbane and then Rosies.
“I wasn’t necessarily looking for administrative or managerial work; I was thinking more pastoral or spiritual, but thankfully somebody realised that ‘Well, actually, why don’t you use the skills you’ve got, rather than trying to do something that you’re not particularly trained for?’” Deacon Andrew said.
“So I took on that managerial role, and with Rosies that’s similar but, of course, it all overlaps or integrates with the pastoral dimension and the spiritual dimension.
“It’s worked out better than I could have ever planned it.”
He adopts a hands-on approach at Rosies.
He said that wasn’t because he was needed by the volunteers “but it’s important that I understand what’s going on … to be grounded”.
“So I go on outreach, as we call it, on average a couple of times a month and attend various groupings of volunteers …, as well as speak to groups about Rosies – to try and cover the whole gamut of what we do on a regular basis,” Deacon Andrew said.
He said being on the streets was always an eye-opener.
“The biggest surprise is how simple it is and how appreciative people are of just being connected to other human beings,” he said.
“That’s what Rosies does, and it’s so simple, and most people, irrespective of their circumstances, are fairly upbeat – not so much that life’s going to be easy – but just simply it’s good to be a human being and it’s particularly good to be with other human beings.
“That’s really what it’s about.”
It’s also at the heart of the deacon’s faith.
“And, for me, it’s then, well, … the really good bit of it’s when you recognise Jesus is the centre of that,” he said.
“That’s, as the Archbishop is fond of saying, ‘there’s always more’.
“So, at the human level it’s great, but if you add the divine it’s greater.”
Christmas will mean being at a few extra Masses as a new deacon, but he’ll be carrying the people of Rosies with him.
“We pretty much keep the routine going and that’s really one of the core things about what we do – it doesn’t matter what day of the year, we do the same thing week in, week out, fifty-two weeks of the year,” Deacon Andrew said.
“My wife’s a volunteer, and her team are out on Boxing Day night, so I’ll got out with them.”
“Joy of spirit and humble in action” is how Deacon Andrew describes the Rosies volunteers.
He said they were a key inspiration for him, “just (for) the sheer joy of their volunteering”.
And he’s keen to be with them and their friends this Christmas.