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How a Queensland priest became the ‘custodian’ of a painting gifted to Australia by Pope Paul VI

Memories: Fr Jim Browne and “Flight into Egypt” a papal gift from 50 years ago.

A QUEENSLAND island is the unlikely home for a rare religious artwork brought to Australia by Pope Paul VI, 50 years ago.

The painting entitled Flight into Egypt hangs behind the domestic altar of retired priest Fr Jim Browne, who lives on Macleay Island, in Redland Bay between Brisbane and the Gold Coast.

He describes himself as the “custodian” of the artwork, that was the pontiff’s gift to Australia’s then Prime Minister John Gorton during a papal visit in 1970.

Pope Paul VI arrived in Sydney on November 30 – the first pope to visit Australia.

“(Prime Minister) Gorton gave it to his daughter, and his daughter was living over here,” 83-year-old Fr Browne said.

“In about 2009 she gave it to me – it was in bubble wrap – and that’s how it came to be in my possession.”

The painting, complete with the papal insignia, takes pride of place in Fr Browne’s house that stands on the hill close to the Church of the Holy Spirit, where the priest still celebrates Mass.

“The artist was a personal friend of Paul VI,” Fr Browne said.

“The painting tells the story of Jesus’ flight into Egypt recounted in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 2:13-23). The focus is on Joseph.

“An angel appears to Joseph in a dream and says take Mary and her child and go to Egypt because his life is threatened.”

When Pope Paul VI visited Australia 50 years ago, Fr Browne was an assistant priest in Holy Cross parish in Wooloowin.

He did not get to travel, see the pontiff or attend the highlight event of his tour – a commemorative bicentennial Mass at Randwick Racecourse, one of the largest gatherings in Australia’s history.

However the painting – a papal gift to a prime minister – now plays a significant role in Fr Browne’s daily prayer life.

“Always when I’m praying the Hail Mary as part of my preparation for my meditation I see that and I see Joseph there,” he said.

“And I think of two things – the Visitation and then the Flight into Egypt.”

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He said many things come to mind, “all connected” – a journey through the Old and New testaments – the Ark of the Covenant and Mary the Ark of the living, New Covenant and Word of God.

Pope Paul VI spent only a few days in Australia. He was reported to be exhausted after gruelling touchdowns in Manila and Samoa.

He held a conference in Sydney’s St Mary’s Cathedral with 65 bishops from across Australia, New Zealand and Oceania, blessed the foundation stone of St Lucy’s school in Sydney, spoke to Aboriginal communities and delivered sermons.

In a farewell speech, Mr Gorton spoke of the significance of the first papal visit to Catholics across the nation.

“You have met many Australians, people from various walks of life, the old, the young, the native-born, the migrants but all Australians,” he said.

“And in addition, through radio and television, the message which you brought has been transferred to the remotest parts of this great continent.

“Now you are to continue your journey, and as you travel on, I hope you will have with you in your heart warm and happy memories of our nation.”


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