PAUL Hodgkinson, approaching 83 and aware it might be time to call it a day as a teacher, turned to God for guidance. He was bowled over by what happened next.
He’d been a teacher in Christian Brothers schools all around Queensland and for the past 20 years has been a Religious Instruction volunteer in state schools near where he lives at Collingwood Park, west of Brisbane.
“I was going to school one day towards the end of last year and I said, ‘Look, Lord, I’ll be 83 next year, I’m not sure if you want me to keep going.’ I said, ‘Will you give me a sign?’,” Paul said.
“I had four (Religious Instruction) classes that day, and at the end of the fourth class, a girl came out with a whole page written out.”
Paul got the message loud and clear from what the student had written – “God wants you to keep going … You’re not to give up”.
“And I hadn’t told the kids anything,” he said.
“And then the next day another class came along and they said, ‘We’ve formed a prayer group at our place with so-and-so’s parents in charge, we’ve watched you praying, we want you to teach us how you do it’.
“They were kids from Grade 6.”
The written message from the girl who wanted him to stick with Religious Instruction said: “Thank you for teaching us RI. We all want to say thank you. You’re a good RI teacher. I hope you can teach RI more in your life, because Jesus is listening …”
She wrote a similar message in a poem: “Keep teaching … Never give up because Jesus is believing in you.”
Paul had no choice but to keep going, and he’s loving it, but the way his life has unfolded he should be used to God’s surprises.
He first heard God’s call to service when he was a schoolboy, and he joined the Christian Brothers as a 13-year-old.
After many years as a teacher and principal, his life took a different turn.
“I was 40 years in the Brothers … with no intention of leaving,” he said.
“But the Lord had different plans.”
He and a Sister of Mercy, Christine, happened to be working together with renewal of religious life and in Charismatic retreats for religious, and then later in supporting the victims of incest.
“And the Lord was healing them,” Paul said.
“And one of them said to me, ‘Why aren’t you two working together full-time?’
“So I got permission from (Christian Brothers) headquarters to work with Christine at the convent at Keera Street, Coorparoo, and the Lord was healing a lot of these women who were abused.
“Halfway through that year I was on retreat and I felt the Lord calling me to marry Christine, which surprised me.
“I had no intention of leaving the Brothers. I had no intention of leaving religious life.
“(But) I put it to Christine, and she said, ‘Well, we better get this discerned, hey?’
“And, well, it was discerned (with our religious superiors), and Rome gave the okay, really a blessing.”
Christine, a Sister of Mercy for 25 years, was facing the same decision as Paul.
“As time went by … and we were still working together, the Lord seemed to be calling us into a new life together,” she said.
“It was like he gave us a choice.
“He opened a door and we could go through that door into a new vocation of marriage or we didn’t, and we felt that it was the Lord’s call, and it was discerned by our superiors and by Rome, writing to the Congregation for Religious Life, and receiving the dispensation from our order.
“I never went back to teaching since we got married, except to do the Religious Instruction.”
They joined Brisbane’s Emmanuel Community, and they’ve been together ever since.
That’s 29 years out of religious life, but not at all away from Christian service.
Taking the decision to live by divine providence, they haven’t taken on paid employment but made their way from the sale of religious icons Paul has created and religious resource videos Christine has produced, and from selling books and distributing evangelisation videos.
“We were doing many other things – (like) looking after people living with us,” Christine said.
“We were involved with the renewal of the Church, Evangelisation 2000, preparing for the Jubilee Year 2000, as part of a team we co-ordinated a prayer campaign for the whole of Australia, I worked with videos, made videos, and (we’ve) done a whole heap of stuff.”
That’s included caring for the poor, welcoming them into their home, and producing an international magazine on spiritual renewal, called Renewal in Hope, with Christine as editor.
“But the Lord’s called us into school again,” Christine said.
She’s co-ordinating Religious Instruction at Collingwood Park and Redbank state schools as a volunteer and taking five Year 1 classes, and Paul volunteers for RI for seven Years 5 and 6 at Collingwood Park and Redbank.
That’s another twist that took Paul by surprise.
A year after Christine began volunteering in RI, it was Paul’s turn to make a decision.
“Christine was at me, saying, ‘Hey, you should do this’,” Paul said.
“I said, ‘No, I’m finished with school. No way. I don’t want to go into a classroom ever again’.
“But I was standing outside the shed one day and I said, ‘Lord, well, if you want me to go, you get someone to ask me other than Christine’.
“And the next day, Christine had to get a book over at Redbank Plains and we went over after Mass and she got the book, and the principal saw me in the corridor – it was only the first week of school – and the principal saw me in the distance and he said, ‘Hey, Paul, the Grade 5 parents are screaming out for an RE teacher; would you do it?’
“Well, my legs started to shake and I had to say Yes, of course, and that was the end of the story.”
Having lived by God’s providence the couple now has freedom from a different source.
“We’re on the pension now, so we’re rich,” Christine laughs.
“And that’s great. It’s a freeing thing not to worry about paying the bills, and being able to do volunteer work.
“It’s very difficult to get volunteers.
“Even tuckshops and schools can’t get volunteers, because a lot of young families are struggling to pay off mortgages, and the poor parents – mum and dad both have to work, and for many years, to pay off things, and so they haven’t got the freedom to do volunteer work.
“So, we have the freedom, and it’s great.
“We just wish more people could get involved.”