TWO months after being baptised a Catholic, former governor-general and declared atheist Bill Hayden is eagerly anticipating the joy of his First Holy Communion.
“It will be exciting because I have never done it before in my life,” the sharp-witted, but frail 85-year-old said as he considered his new-found faith journey.
Speaking from his farm outside Ipswich, Queensland, where he is recovering from a broken shoulder suffered in a recent fall, Mr Hayden reflected on his first, tentative steps in the Church – consolation after a painful upbringing and a lifetime scoffing at religion.
“There was an emptiness here that’s filled up now,” he said.
“… I’m part of the Church, and I feel better for acknowledging I am part of it.”
Ipswich parish priest Franciscan Father Stephen Bliss said he would “sit down and talk” to Mr Hayden about Church teachings and prayer, and his passage to receiving his First Communion during Advent.
At his baptism at St Mary’s Church, Ipswich, on September 9, Mr Hayden received a small wooden crucifix from Sister of Mercy Angela Mary Doyle, the religious sister whom he attributes as a major influence in his faith conversion.
This simple gift is now one of his most treasured possessions, in a ranch-style home that is full of exotic furnishings and art objects collected during his world travels as foreign minister and governor-general.
Mr Hayden has received a flood of congratulatory letters and emails – including one from former prime minister Kevin Rudd – and other gifts including packets of Rosary beads and a large-print Bible with the name Bill Hayden embossed in gold on the leather-bound jacket.
The Bible is a present from past president of the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship Alasdair Webster (former Member for Macquarie 1984-93), who once asked Mr Hayden, as governor-general, to do a Bible reading at an annual parliamentary service.
Mr Hayden agreed, but only after asking “would it be appropriate for me as an atheist to do the Bible reading?”
The following year Mr Hayden was again invited to do the reading and he quipped: “Alasdair, if you keep this up you’ll have me becoming a Christian”.
That prediction finally came to pass.
Accompanying the Bible, a note from Mr Webster reads: “Praise the Lord. Bill, be totally assured that we all share in your joy and with thankfulness to God will pray daily for you and your family from this day forward.”
Speaking about his lifelong distrust of religion, shaped during a violent and unhappy childhood, Mr Hayden said he had a message for other “unbelievers”, especially young people looking for meaning in life.
“Don’t let your faith be damaged by the failure of human agents who haven’t been strong enough to let their faith guide them,” he said.
“If your faith is strong it will take you through problems.”
Mr Hayden said he now had plenty to pray about – strength, as he embarks on his new-found faith journey, health, for his wife and constant companion Dallas, and safety for their grown children, including Ingrid Hayden, a 25-year international peacekeeper and recently-appointed deputy special representative of the United Nations mission in Afghanistan.
There remains a deep family sadness for the child Bill and Dallas Hayden lost – eldest daughter Michaela – who was just five when a car knocked her down as she ran across a road coming from Sunday school.
“Terrible,” Mr Hayden said, recalling how he sought help from a kind priest, but found no solace in prayer.
Mr Hayden said his father George was the driving force behind his atheism.
“He had no time for religion … He was quite radical, a determined atheist – always sneering at religion – the opiate of the masses,” he said.
His father was also a “violent man” who would beat him with a length of rubber tubing.
“I was exposed to what family violence is all about. It used to happen at home too often,” he said.
“I can never forgive him for backhanding my mother and laying her out on the floor… she would cry out ‘for God’s sake, someone help me’.
“I was only four or five when this was happening. All I could do was sit there and cry.
“I thought one day, ‘I’ll get you’. I used to hate him so badly.
“So a lot of my life was a championship against myself, trying to prove I could stand up.”
Mr Hayden, who grew up to become a policeman, and later rose to lead the Labor Party as federal opposition leader, said Sr Doyle, a former administrator of Brisbane’s Mater Hospital, was instrumental in both his political career and his late conversion.
While he was Minister for Social Security, she introduced him to the importance of health care, even for the poorest.
Mr Hayden went on to introduce Australia’s first universal health insurance system Medibank (now known as Medicare).
“She helped me get a reputation which I am proud of. I brought in a system with benefits for everyone in this country regardless of who they are,” he said.
“Curiously the AMA (Australian Medical Association) which fought so hard against it now fights hard to make sure new treatments are covered and there is adequate payment for themselves.”
It was a recent hospital visit to see 93-year-old Sr Doyle that proved the pivotal moment in Mr Hayden’s faith journey.
“The next morning I woke with the strong sense that I had been in the presence of a holy woman,” he said.
“My chest felt happily congested with the feeling … she had a profound influence on me … she’s probably the influence that caused me to become a Catholic.
“One Sunday I went to Mass, would you believe it, I was still an atheist … and I walked into the (St Mary’s) church and as I walked through the door I could feel a strange coolness and a reverential feeling – I felt secure.
“Fr Peter Dillon was there and he said, ‘welcome home’.”
Mr Hayden said he was looking forward to Christmas, his first as a Catholic.
“I might make midnight Mass at St Mary’s. It’s going to be more meaningful, now I’m one of the faithful,” he said.