ONE of Australia’s iconic Labor leaders and former Governor General Bill Hayden has been baptised as a Catholic at the age of 85, and after a lifetime as a declared atheist.
“There’s been a gnawing pain in my heart and soul about what is the meaning of life. What’s my role in it?” Mr Hayden said.
Now in declining health, the former federal opposition leader and foreign minister said he hoped his new-found faith might encourage others as the Church passes through difficult times.
“This took too long, and now I am going to be devoted.
“From this day forward I’m going to vouch for God,” Mr Hayden told The Catholic Leader as he prepared to be welcomed into the Church at St Mary’s Church, Ipswich, west of Brisbane, on September 9.
He suffered a stroke in 2014, and as he prepared for the baptism celebrated by Fr Peter Dillon, Mr Hayden was feeling “great pain” from a recent fall in which he broke his shoulder. However he was determined to go ahead.
Fr Dillon said he felt a “real closeness” with the former Australian leader as he baptised him.
“It was a big thing for him … an act of submission to the fact that there was no denying for him that God is real and he had come to discover that,” he said.
Mr Hayden attributed his conversion to the influence of his own mother, who was Catholic, and of the Ursuline Sisters, who taught him at primary school in inner-city Brisbane, and who stressed the principles of humanity, social commitment and service to others.
However, it was a recent hospital visit to see Sister of Mercy Angela Mary Doyle that proved the pivotal moment in Mr Hayden’s faith journey.
“I have always felt embraced and loved by her Christian example,” Mr Hayden said, of the 93-year-old, who has been a lifelong inspiration of service to him, and who was among the congregation at the baptism.
“Sister Angela Mary Doyle was for twenty-two years administrator of Mater hospitals in Brisbane – a citadel of health care for the poor of South Brisbane where I grew up towards the end of the Great Depression,” he wrote in a letter to friends before the baptism.
“Dallas (my wife), our daughter Ingrid and I recently visited Sister Angela Mary in the Mater Hospital where she was a patient.
“The next morning I woke with the strong sense that I had been in the presence of a holy woman.
“So after dwelling on these things I found my way back to the core of those beliefs – the Church.”
Ironically, Mr Hayden said the message that Christianity was a religion not of rules, but of love came to him while reading a book on Shia Islam by academic Malise Ruthven.
“It is about love for your fellow humans, forgiveness, compassion and helpful support,” he said.
“These characteristics are founded on the teachings of Christ and driven by faith in an external power – the Christian God whose limitations are beyond what humans could attain.
“I can no longer accept that human existence is self-sufficient and isolated.”
Mr Hayden said he hoped his baptism might help others to see the importance of the Church with fresh eyes, especially after revelations of clerical child sexual abuse.
“The problems are caused by human agents of the Church, but we shouldn’t let our faith be undermined by the action of agents who aren’t quite as good as they should be,” he said.
Mr Hayden said he hoped to serve the Church.
“I would like to play an active part in the St Vincent de Paul Society,” he said.
“And I want to understand my theology better, by reading the Bible.”
Mr Hayden recalled growing up with a father who treated his mother “quite badly”.
“Unfortunately I had experience of what domestic abuse was all about,” he said.
Mr Hayden was “indebted” to the Ursuline Sisters who taught him at primary school and shaped his social-policy thinking.
He was also shaped by Sr Angela Mary Doyle at Brisbane’s Mater Hospital who “saw to it that the poor received the best medical attention at low cost, and pressed for universal health insurance”.
“Without her, there would have been no Medibank and no Medicare today,” Mr Hayden said.
“She displayed enormous courage in standing up for those principles against strong opposition, including from the medical profession.
“Later she again showed her strength and morality in standing up to narrow-minded political leadership in Queensland which wanted certain patients treated as though their often terminal illness was God’s judgement on them – something quite contrary to her Christian spirit and compassion.
“Lots of people who couldn’t afford expensive medical treatment, can now because she broke ranks and came out and supported it.”
Mr Hayden started his adult career as a policeman before entering politics.
He succeeded Gough Whitlam as Leader of the Opposition and led the Labor party for six years, including an election defeat in 1980.
Just weeks before the 1983 election he resigned after key frontbenchers switched allegiances to support Bob Hawke as leader.
In a Hawke government, Mr Hayden served as Minister for Foreign Affairs from 1983 to 1988 (Trade was added to his portfolio from 1987), and was then appointed governor-general for seven years.
Mr Hayden said he’d been wrestling with the idea of becoming a Catholic for a long time.
Among messages of congratulations he received a “marvellous letter” from former prime minister Kevin Rudd.
Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge also congratulated Mr Hayden.
“I’m delighted for Bill and think it is a gift for not only him and his family but for the entire Church in some sense,” he said.
“This is just another extraordinary moment late in life for a man who has already had an extraordinary journey.
“He wasn’t a flawless politician, but he made a remarkable contribution.
“As one of his colleagues said to me, we owe Bill Hayden a lot including Medicare.”