COLUMBAN Father Warren Kinne remembers fondly his early years as a missionary, zipping between villages on a Honda motorbike.
“In the early 70s we would have been some of the first missionaries to seriously get into bikes,” Fr Kinne, celebrating 50 years of priesthood, said.
The 74-year-old Columban who grew up in Bundaberg, chuckled as he reflected on his far-flung missionary adventures, especially supporting the struggle of the poor, during long stints in the Philippines, and 20 years in China.
“Life is a journey and Columbans certainly travel far and wide,” he said from Surfers Paradise where he now assists as a priest in the parish and provides chaplaincy support for international students.
Fr Kinne’s missionary journey began in the strife-torn southern Philippines island of Mindanao in 1971, where the parish he was assigned to encountered the wrath of Islamic militants known as the Barracuda “shooting up the town”.
The Barracuda were running guns, and were waging war with the “Ilaga”, a Christian extremist paramilitary group known for utilising amulets and violence.
“You could hear machine guns and there were bullet holes through the presbytery – it was the wild west really,” Fr Kinne said.
“Most of this was not reported in the foreign press.
“The government had imposed marshal law and foreigners couldn’t come in.
“It was really only clergy that were there.”
Fr Kinne embedded himself in the local Christian communities.
“They gave me so much,” he said.
“My lifestyle was simple and my days were full of hiking through mud, stumbling with language and helping facilitate the reflection of oppressed and struggling communities about what it meant to be fully human and free in such terrible circumstances.”
Despite bullets and perilously muddy bike trails, Fr Kinne relished his years in the Philippines from 1971-80, broken only by a two year of study at the Gregorian University in Rome.
Just as he had done in the Philippines, he took to the cobbled Roman streets on a motorbike – swapping a beat-up Honda for a Minali 250cc.
“I used to shoot around Rome on that. It was big enough for the autostrada as well,” Fr Kinne said.
Motorbikes aside, Fr Kinne remembers the “romantic” notions that first shaped his idea of becoming a missionary priest.
“I was 14 years old. I was in bed with the chicken pox read Far East magazine (the Columbans’ magazine),” he said.
“At that time I suspect that there was something romantic about doing good in far flung places. I probably had images of a pith helmet and steamy crocodile-filled jungle rivers.
“But nevertheless at the heart of vocation is something mysterious and graced. I felt a need to ‘give it a go’.”
Young Warren Kinne was a student in Bundaberg at the time.
He studied at Christian Brothers’ College, and was dux in 1963.
In the following year he joined the Columban seminary at Sassafras in Victoria, then went to the seminary in North Turramurra in Sydney’s leafy north.
He returned to his hometown, Bundaberg, in 1970 for his ordination by then Bishop Francis Rush in the Holy Rosary Church.
Part of the text for inclusion on Fr Kinne’s ordination card comes from the Letter to the Ephesians: “that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith … so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
After years in the Philippines, Fr Kinne returned to the staff at North Turramurra for seven years, and then spent another seven years in Ireland co-ordinating a Columban partnership with lay people in cross cultural mission.
The work took him to all countries where Columbans work to see nearly 70 lay men and women “with vocations like us” “serve the Gospel”.
He even found time to complete a doctorate at Birmingham University.
His biggest mission was to come as the Columbans returned to mainland China.
The Columban Missionary Society, which sent its first missionaries to China in 1920, was expelled along with all western missionaries after the Communists came to power in 1949.
“I arrived not knowing a soul,” he said of his move to Beijing in 1997, “where there was no Columban mission, no blueprint, no guideline of how to proceed.”
“So I went in as a student – I was already 50 – and started learning the language.”
After acquiring some Mandarin skills, Fr Kinne moved to Shanghai to work with a publishing company, Guang Xi Press.
There he taught sisters and some priests English, and helped with translations.
He started teaching philosophy at Fudan University, making connections with students and the wider community, and slowly introducing students accustomed to Karl Marx and Chairman Mao to the teachings of Church doctors like St Thomas Aquinas and St Augustine.
Fr Kinne found he was the only native English-speaking priest and his services were in demand celebrating English Mass in Shanghai’s cathedral and St Peter’s Church.
He made friends in all walks of life – the noodle maker in the shop he regularly visited for a bowl of steaming Hunan noodles; his Chinese “mother” Zhou Rui Lan, an elderly woman who got to know him passing her house each day; as well as countless students who remain Fr Kinne’s firm friends today.
To navigate the thronging metropolis of 23 million people, Fr Kinne again took to two wheels, but this time it was a smaller, electric bike dubbed “the electric donkey” that he found useful darting in and out of the thick traffic, along footpaths and alleyways.
“I loved it, but my Chinese friends weren’t too happy with me. They thought this balding, grey haired old bloke zipping in and out like that was a recipe for disaster,” he said.
But with his streetwise approach, Fr Kinne came to know the real Shanghai.
He witnessed the growth of an underclass – workers and their families brought from the countryside to build the gleaming skyscrapers and tower blocks.
For a “floating population” of about 10 million workers there were only the worst, lowest-paid jobs available, and no schooling for their children.
“The government wanted the workers, but it didn’t want the consequences of the workers,” he said.
With support amongst the Catholic expatriate community, Fr Kinne set up the You Dao Foundation – a charity business to help provide migrant worker children, barred from attending Shanghai schools, with places to learn, and supplied them with books and other needs.
He found ex-pats willing to fundraise to provide scholarships that would pay for migrant children to attend private schools, and provide clothing, books and computers.
International business corporations based in Shanghai also started to help.
After a decade, the foundation is still operating providing hundreds of scholarships and educational opportunities for Shanghai’s poorest.
In 2017, Fr Kinne left Shanghai, returning to Queensland, where Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge was quick to enlist his skills, as a chaplain to a large campus of international students at Griffith University on the Gold Coast.
That role morphed into providing spiritual accompaniment for groups of students and former students.
When the Gold Coast hosted the Commonwealth Games, Fr Kinne was enlisted as a chaplain for visiting athletes and teams.
Reflecting on his priestly mission Fr Kinne said: “My 50 years as an ordained missionary have been fruitful ones for me as a person, ever being challenged to grow up. I hope too that I helped others along the way.”
Fr Kinne maintains firm friendships with Catholic families in China and across the world.
And he also still holds his motorbike license open.
“I love motorbikes but I never seem to get the opportunity to hop on one these days,” he said.