FR Bob Harwood answered a knock on the door in Dysart.
A dying miner was looking for a priest, knowing the cancer tormenting his body would soon claim his life.
He wanted to die in his central Queensland home town and he wanted someone to walk the final weeks with him. He had no family and no close friends.
So he knocked on the door of a man he’d never met.
For the next six weeks, Fr Bob ministered to the man each day at Dysart hospital.
“I can still picture his face,” Fr Bob said.
“Some people don’t have family or close friends to be with them as they’re dying. He wanted someone to be with him.
“We became quite close over those last six weeks of his life.”
The short-term but impactful relationship was among the many Fr Bob has forged as a minister and priest, including time as a chaplain.
He now co-ordinates Brisbane archdiocese’s chaplains through hospitals, prisons, retirement villages and police.
On any given day, the archdiocese’s priests perform this valuable chaplaincy – different to the work of a parish priest.
“Parish priests tend to minister to people who they have got to know quite well,” Fr Bob said.
“With chaplaincy, you’re ministering to people who aren’t in a normal parish situation. We talk about chaplaincy as intentional loitering. It’s also a ministry of presence.”
And it’s a ministry that relies on the support of the Clergy Sustentation Trust Fund, which operates on behalf of Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge.
The fund’s only income is via a levy of three per cent on all Mass collections throughout the archdiocese.
The same fund supports priests in rural parishes, ensuring the generosity of archdiocesan parishioners is spread widely.
“We’re very thankful to all who make it possible to continue these ministries through Mass contributions. It’s important that these generous parishioners know how their donations help people,” fund chair Noosa District parish priest Fr Mark Franklin said.
Sit down with Fr Bob for a while and you understand quickly the importance of chaplaincy – often a friendly face in the darkest hours.
Fr Bob is a quiet presence in the final hours of lives long and short.
“It’s about being with people and letting them say what they are feeling. Sometimes it’s not even about talking. Just sitting with someone in silence, in their final hours, is very meaningful,” Fr Bob said.
“At the time of death, some are very much at peace. There is a great sense of quiet. The person even looks peaceful at that time despite what they may have been through.
“When you get to the stage of death, the Church really has a beautiful rite. It’s something that sits so well in those final moments of a person’s life.”
Fr Bob has also sat with families who can’t face the loss of their loved one, urging the priest to not let on to the patient the serious nature of their conditions.
“It’s often the families who struggle the most because they don’t tend to come to terms with it as quickly as the person who is dying,” he said.
“The person who is dying usually accepts their fate before the family.”
But chaplains do share in happy stories – watching the transformations of lives from dire to the inspiring.
Those stories are often on show in prisons, where archdiocesan priest Fr Tony Girvan serves as chaplain.
And they’re common at the Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital at South Brisbane, where Fr Bob is chaplain.
He has rejoiced in the recoveries of young Queenslanders, including those he once served as parish priest.
“I was walking through the hospital and I came across a young girl I had baptised,” he said.
“Her mother had come to the parish at the time of her daughter’s leukaemia diagnosis and asked for a blessing. We did that and she returned later for a baptism.
“The next time I saw her was after I had become a chaplain. I was in the hospital and the little girl was still fighting the disease.
“But her final course of chemotherapy showed all signs of the leukaemia were gone. We celebrated that day in her hospital room.”
Fr Bob visits the wards at the children’s hospital, offering to speak with families who have nominated their Christianity.
But that doesn’t always mean the parents are happy to see Fr Bob.
“I had parents who didn’t want me to go into their son’s room because they were worried that if he saw a priest he may think that his condition was a lot more serious than it was,” he said.
“You can never be certain how people will react when they’re placed in these difficult situations of medical problems.
“But I’m always amazed at the strength of the parents as they watch their children fight these serious medical issues. They are remarkably strong.
“We present ourselves to people and it’s up to them whether they want to talk to us or tell us to go away.”
The anonymity of the chaplain sometimes encourages people to speak out, knowing they can tell of their troubles in a confidential way.
That happened to Fr Bob when he served as a military chaplain.
“We had a lot of police officers in the Reserves and there was one who told me how, in the course of his work, he had been forced to shoot people who were threatening police,” he said.
“This was at a time when the support services were not what they are now. This had happened to him on the job and he had never been encouraged to speak about it.
“But, clearly, this was something that had caused him significant issues. He needed to talk about it and, one day, he told me the story.
“I barely knew him but he obviously felt that he was able to talk to a chaplain in a way that he had not felt comfortable in talking to anyone else.
“So, it’s a privilege to be with people at these times of their lives. We know that priests are with people at their most important times – baptisms, weddings and funerals. Chaplaincy adds to that.
“It’s an important service and the work we do is made possible with the help of parishioners through the Clergy Sustentation Trust Fund.”
The fund supports chaplains at hospitals including the Royal Brisbane and Women’s, Lady Cilento, Greenslopes, Princess Alexandra, Mater South Brisbane, Mater Greater Springfield and Logan. The fund also supports chaplaincy in retirement villages through Fr Paul Chanh and for police on the Gold Coast with Fr Paul Kelly.
By Michael Crutcher