COVID-19 has forced Fr Gary Walker, a man who once craved a life of adventure and excitement, to do something he’s never dreamed of doing – stop and rest.
Even though the 76-year-old Columban missionary is retired, he’s used to being busy and he was intending to keep it that way.
Sitting in a presbytery where he lives in Sandgate, on Brisbane’s northside, Fr Walker said he never expected to be retired.
Most recently he’s been happy as a supply priest around the Brisbane North East Deanery.
“Last year I was quite busy for six months because priests went on holidays and I looked after the parish,” he said.
“(Then) COVID-19 happened so everything stopped …
I was going to look after this parish (Sandgate Brighton) for two months and then go somewhere else, (and) – Boom.
It’s all over …
“For the first time in my priestly life I’ve had nothing to do, literally nothing to take me out there, and I’ve always loved working.
“Workaholic? Well, probably.
Need to work? Well, yes.
I mean, that’s why we … (and) in a way it’s the same for the nuns and the brothers – well, at least for our generation – you joined the Church to make the world a better place, but it was to work – really, to get in there and work, all the time.
“So this is the first time I’ve ever been still, for a long time, and it’s kind of strange to come to rest …” It’s a far cry from the life he’s lived since he set off as a young man from his family’s home in Bulimba to enter Banyo seminary.
He was fired by missionary zeal, partly inspired by one of his heroes Tom Dooley, the legendary medical doctor who worked in Laos in the 1950s and died of cancer at the age of 34.
Two years after leaving school, young Gary had an idea of becoming a missionary but Fr Owen Oxenham, who was head of Catholic Mission in Brisbane at the time, suggested he go to Banyo to decide if he wanted to become a priest first.
“But somehow I had this thought that, ‘No, it doesn’t really work like that – that, if I want to know if I want to be a priest, it’ll have to be in a missionary priest context …’,” Fr Gary said.
In his third year at Banyo a former Columban student visited and told him what the life was like.
“He told me about the Columbans, and he said ‘You join the Columbans and you go on mission’, and this was the key thing,” Fr Gary said.
It was convincing enough for him to apply to join the St Columbans Mission Society, and he was accepted and transferred to their seminary at North Turramurra in Sydney in 1968.
“I wasn’t there too long and I felt this was the right place … probably because the focus was missionary, and that if you went there you were going to go on mission, and that was what I wanted to do,” he said.
He was “a bit of a dreamer” and liked the idea of “the adventure, the big picture, excitement, helping poor people, all of those usual, normal things”.
“All the things that (the Columbans) were talking about were things that really spoke to my heart,” he said.
He had no thought for the risks he might face.
“Risks? Oh, God, no – just excitement, adventure, you know.
Get out there and win the world for God, for Jesus, for the Church,” he said.
There was plenty of excitement and adventure to come his way during three years in Fiji and six in Jamaica … along with his share of challenge and risk.
“It was very demanding, because everything is new …,” he said of his first missionary experience in Fiji.
It was made more difficult by the fact he was unable to attend language school when he first arrived.
“It’s very difficult, but I learnt an enormous amount and have a great sympathy for people who come here who can’t speak English,” Fr Gary said.
His next overseas posting – Jamaica – took the “adventure and excitement” to another level.
“It was totally different to Fiji.
Jamaica was such a dangerous place … One of our guys was killed there,” Fr Gary said.
The danger stemmed from total lawlessness and illicit drug trade.
Unlike Fiji, family life was fragmented.
It was an eye-opener.
“Oh yeah; I thought it was going to be like the Gold Coast – you know, beautiful beaches,” Fr Gary said.
Criminals had brought guns into the country to protect their drug crops, and even when the marijuana trade began to subside, the criminals kept their guns.
“Also you’ve got to remember – this was the big thing for me – (Jamaica) had been a slave society, and that had crippled the whole mentality of the people,” he said.
“And (then there’s) the ruthlessness and the evil of the planters – these were the guys from England, the so-called ‘civilised’ people.
It was just astonishing.
“Some of the big, big fortunes in Glasgow and Bristol were built on the backs of the slaves …
“And you just see that these are hurt people.” As a member of the clergy, he was sometimes invited to official functions and he was at one of those events one evening when he struck up a conversation with a lawyer.
“(The lawyer) said, ‘Father, how do you like Jamaica?’,” Fr Gary said.
“And I was struggling a bit that night, and I said, ‘Well, I don’t find the people very friendly’, and he wasn’t expecting that kind of answer …
“Anyway we had quite a good talk, and he said, ‘You know, my grandmother told me about her grandmother …’ “He said, ‘When my grandmother was only a child, her grandmother was a slave …’ “And he said, ‘You know, the boot of the overseer on the verandah at 4am, it’s still very alive in our memories’.
“And I never forgot that.
“A guy spat on me one day, when I was sitting in the car, for no particular reason, and I didn’t take exception to that, given what these people have been through and what they’ve had to survive.” Fr Gary was appointed co-ordinator of the mission area encompassing Jamaica and, in that capacity was invited to attend one of the Colum- bans’ general assemblies, held every six years.
To his surprise, he was elected to the society’s general council.
“I was sort of relieved (to be leaving Jamaica) and also disappointed,” he said.
“I was relieved that I didn’t have to be afraid all the time, and also disappointed that I would really miss Jamaica because I was really just starting to get into it and get to know the people in Seaford Town (his last appointment there).
“Both Fiji and Jamaica were big learning experiences of living and being different.
“After a while you don’t think about yourself being white; you’re just all there together.” Being on the general council meant living in Dublin for six years.
With that and then being editor of the Columbans’ The Far East magazine for 10 years and the society’s Oceania regional vice-director during that time, followed by regional director for six years, Fr Gary said he “ended up more within administration than I ever thought I would”.
But he said he’d had a fortunate life, and now that the pandemic restrictions have slowed things down, he’s taking time to reflect.
“All of the places that I’ve been, my life has turned out better for where I’ve been than if I had been able to choose completely my own destiny, and I feel thankful to God, to the Holy Spirit, for that,” he said.
“I feel like I’ve had a rich life and I’m really appreciative that I was called to be a part of it and that now I’ve got time to think about it and give thanks.
“I suppose that’d be it, yeah – sit down and just give thanks.”