By Paul Dobbyn
BISHOP John Gerry’s rolled-up-sleeves approach to ministry is captured in a photo taken of him washing up with some young chaps at Boystown in 1989.
“I was very happy to have that as my image in a history of the archdiocese,” he said, smiling at the memory as he surveyed the view from the balcony of his retirement unit in Carseldine’s Holy Spirit community recently.
And with 65 years as a priest under his belt and 40 years since his ordination as a bishop to Brisbane archdiocese, John Gerry has certainly seen quite a bit of Church history.
For over an hour, the retired bishop discussed life in the 1940s as a seminarian at Rome’s Propaganda Fidei College including “captaining Australia against England”; the ferment and excitement of the post- Second Vatican Council 1960s and of the formative influence of his time as chairman of Australian Catholic Relief when he visited Cambodia, then Kampuchea, in the mid-1970s.
Clearly he treasured his time as Stafford parish priest when a “grassroots” decision of parishioners kicked off an early version of a parish council.
Bishop Gerry also had fond memories of being vicar for social welfare under the late Archbishop Francis Rush.
Information was filed away in his memory, with other prompts coming from a scrapbook prepared by his niece Jennifer, started by her at age 12. Clippings included one from The Catholic Leader on the day of his episcopal ordination in St Stephen’s Cathedral on July 29, 1975. Information was also from a speech he presented at an event to celebrate his jubilee during the annual clergy convocation a week before Easter.
Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge and Vicar General Monsignor Peter Meneely organised the gathering as an opportunity to honour the many milestones in the bishop’s long and remarkable ministry of service.
Bishop Gerry, now 88, spoke of the latest phase in his life, which has brought in “a new era of dependency” since a torn knee muscle has meant he’s no longer able to drive.
He spoke too of “being able to savour more fully the wonderful mystery of the Eucharist” as he celebrates Mass, sometimes on his own although always “with the whole Communion of Saints”, at his unit.
“This is the Last Supper, Calvary, Easter all over again – I offer it for the people of God,” he said.
So when in his long ministry did he feel most energised and alive?
“Stafford was a special joy to my heart,” he said. “It was a new parish, ‘virgin territory’, excised from Kedron and Enoggera parishes.
“I was appointed parish priest in 1962, the year of the first session of the Second Vatican Council.
“The ever-energetic Archbishop (James) Duhig was still around back then too …
“The way the people there responded was wonderful … the Vatican Council enthusiasm was in the air; lay people were being encouraged not just to be members of the Church but to be the Church.
“We talked about whether we should have a parish council – this was before parish councils became common.
“We had a six-week program with dozens of neighbourhood groups around the Queen of the Apostles Parish talking about the role of the laity – each week reports were sent to a central group.
“After six weeks, local groups called the whole parish together and the church was packed for a meeting to form a parish council.”
Bishop Gerry was delighted then that “the whole parish made the decision together”.
“This was not something imposed from the top but grew out of the interest of the parishioners,” he said. “Stafford became a parish alive and flourishing with groups such as liturgy, education, sacramental preparation, finance, ecumenism and social justice.”
All of this was the forerunner to his cherished role of vicar for social welfare, which came about in rather awkward circumstances in 1974 not long after Archbishop Rush’s arrival in Brisbane.
“Out of the blue, two religious congregations shut down government-funded residential projects within a month,” he said.
“An angry government minister let us know of his displeasure. The Archbishop did not want such an imbroglio again, hence my appointment the following year.”
Bishop Gerry’s episcopal ordination in 1975 meant the archdiocese had a bishop at the helm of its social welfare vicariate.
“I have real pride in the pioneer team from that period that developed what eventually became Centacare,” he said.
“Peter Hollingsworth, the Anglican Archbishop once said to me how envious he was of the arrangement. He wished he had a bishop to oversee Anglicare.”
The responsibilities built on solid foundations started in 1946 when a young John Gerry arrived in Rome, one of 18 candidates selected by Australian bishops to do his studies for the priesthood at the Propaganda Fidei College in Rome.
“However, there has never been any sense of rivalry with the Banyo priests,” Bishop Gerry said. “They’re great priests and I just happened to have a different experience.”
Part of this experience was a chance to captain a cricket team of Australian seminarians against an English team in Rome.
Who came out on top?
“Ha, ha … well, in the year of the ‘Invincibles’, we did of course,” Bishop Gerry said.
The years in Rome were formative in other ways.
“Going to Rome made me aware of the whole world,” he said.
“We had about 30 nationalities in the college, so college life was an education in itself.
“I was also there right in the stirrings leading up to Vatican II … it was a blessed time.”
Family, both his own biological one and his various parishes, have also played a major part in Bishop Gerry’s life.
“My own family has been really special; we rejoiced in this when we gathered to celebrate my birthday the other day,” he said.
“I was born in 1927 so grew up in the Depression and post-Depression years.
“I had eight siblings, but Mum and Dad made sure we got a hot breakfast each day.
“We were all helped towards high school, something not common in those days – Dad was content to be head clerk in Castlemaine Perkins for some 60 years with Mum’s encouragement.
“These were very straitened times for family and then the two eldest boys, myself and Francis (Divine Word Missionaries), did nothing to help the family financially – we both went off to the seminary but they encouraged us, despite the help they would have got if we’d been earning wages.”
Bishop Gerry said he was pleased to say he enjoyed “a sense of family” in each and every parish in which he served.
“Also I never felt my priesthood was a private possession,” he said. “I always felt I was a priest for people; I like Pope Francis’ saying, the shepherd should have the smell of the sheep about him.
“When I was in Stafford, I lived in a little room attached to the church and I let it be known I was willing to accept invites to dinners; so about three nights a week I’d be eating out with families in the parish.
“I let it known I had to be home by 7.30 for all the parish meetings. This meant I missed out on all the washing up … I had to wait till Boys’ Town for that.”
Archbishop Rush was another major influence.
“Frank Rush was an inspirational leader … he had an aura about him and made a big impression on me as did fellow Auxiliary Bishop, the incomparable James Cuskelly,” he said.
“The archbishop had a very collaborative style – he’d say, in Brisbane there is one bishop his name is Frank, James and John.”
Bishop Gerry also took on the role of Australian Catholic Relief chairman in the 1970s and ’80s.
“The period of my involvement with Cambodia was a big thing for me,” he said.
“In 1975, the Vietnamese were coming over the border into Cambodia, Kampuchea as it was known then, and Pol Pot was on the run.
“The people were catatonic from the horrors they’d witnessed, even kids were just staring into space – but people I met in the border camp in Kho-i-dang, their faith just blew my mind.
“One morning I was going through the tent set up as a hospital ward for nursing mothers and other women.
“I passed a woman brought in the night before who was lying on a low stretcher.
“I was going round the ward with a medical missionary; she bent down to touch the forehead of this lady and as she did her crucifix fell forward … the woman took it and kissed it.
“I thought: how do I respond, and I gave her a blessing in Latin, and she said Amen … after five years of going through hell, her faith was still going strong.”
As Bishop Gerry looked back on his long and active ministry, he remains optimistic about the Church’s future although concerned about some aspects.
“We have the shocking scandal of sexual abuse which has affected the morale of a lot of people, not just priests … the Church doesn’t have status in the community it used to have,” he said. “We need to listen better and be more humble. Providentially, Pope Francis has come as the humble, listening pope throwing the Church more open to the world in so many ways.
“Archbishop Mark (Coleridge) here has the same enthusiasm for the joy of the gospel – he has a charism of joy and is a great teacher with a strong presence in the media.
“We have a great crowd of young priests leading multiple parishes doing amazing jobs in very demanding styles of ministry. More lay people than ever are active in ministry. I continue to remain very hopeful for the Church’s future.”
Bishop Gerry will celebrate the 40th anniversary of his episcopal ordination with a Mass in St Stephen’s Cathedral on July 5.
“Mary MacKillop’s words that ‘gratitude is the memory of the heart’ often come to me,” he said. “I am filled with joy and gratitude for my ministry as a priest to God’s people as I reflect back on what has been a life of many blessings.”