“GRATITUDE” was a word Centacare chief Peter Selwood used as he prepared to farewell the “much loved” Fr John Chalmers and “gratitude” is what fills Fr John as he heads into retirement.
November 27 was Fr John’s last day as Mission an Formation director at Centacare Brisbane, and with 47 years of priesthood under his belt he pondered what it was like to be retiring.
“Well, it’s probably what it’s not like … it’s not a deadend; it’s not putting new tyres on the ‘re-tyrement’,” he said as he took time out from emptying his book shelves and cleaning out his office.
“It’s seeing a whole new pathway, and a whole new path to the journey that’s been 47 years …”
Trying to answer what that pathway looks like, Fr John smiled and said, “I don’t know exactly …”
“It looks like more reading to enjoy, more writing to craft, more music to listen to, more time with friends … family, so it’s more of what it already has been …”
And thinking over what’s already been, “gratitude” is overwhelming.
“I’m feeling enormously grateful for who people have been, on the journey,” he said.
“There are eras where I’ve learned so much, … like with (Father) Owen Steele, the parish priest at Beaudesert – he was 50 years older than me when I went there (as a young priest).
“I was 25 and now I’m nearly his age when he retired.
“I think of people with much gratitude, and it’s such a variety of slices of life, patches of life; it’s not just parishes.
“I worked in parishes for 15 years and then I had the study time in the US for nearly four years, and then I had the time at Banyo – both at the seminary and the theologate – and then I had time (19 years) at Centacare, which has been enormously satisfying as well.
“So it’s a wide portfolio, but they do fit …”
Fr John’s been thinking a lot about the people who’ve been part of his life.
“I’ve been thinking of representative people … I’ve thought of the parish placements I’ve been in – who’s one person who represents those,
and I can’t find (only) one, because there are so many people with different facets and so I have worked out people who’ve been enormously significant and who I’ve learnt a lot from – Owen Steele, as I said; (now Bishop) Brian Heenan; Peter Selwood (Centacare executive director); Ravina Waldren (of Murri Ministry); the men, women, children – they’ve all been influential …,” he said.
As part of that exercise of reminiscing, he’s written about 12 little books, “called Trash and Treasure, called Bette and Merv Chalmers, my parents; and they’re books with photos … and they take a particular slice of life”.
“One of the things that struck me is I’ve got so many cousins and uncles who were priests in Ireland and in Australia and in the Brisbane archdiocese …,” Fr John said.
“I grew up knowing priests pretty well, and when they were at family do’s they weren’t treated any differently from anyone else, and so in hindsight that was a terrific mixture of the holiness conjoined to the ordinariness and the whimsy and the sense of humour.”
It’s the kind of family history that made it fitting that he ended up as rector at Banyo seminary for six, helping in the formation of a new generation of priests.
“The other area that has really been significant has been writing and enjoying it,” he said.
“I had trouble with my feet all my life – talipes (equinovarus), club feet – and my orthopaedic surgeon, Tom Stubbs-Brown, said to me one day, when I was about eight, ‘John, you’ll never go far on those feet of yours but you’ve got a brain – use it’.
“And I took notice of that little eight-year-old kid and it’s been quite significant.”
In his 19 years at Centacare – first as Pastoral Ministries director and then Mission and Formation director – what Fr John’s cherished the most is “the capacity of an enormous number of people to get on and get up and dust themselves off and live towards the future with, as (Barack) Obama says, ‘the audacity of hope’”.
“That’s more common than the grand title ‘audacity of hope’ would suggest,” he said.
“‘Audacity of hope’ sounds to me like it’s the gift of one or two people in a community whereas I think it’s everyone – you need to be audacious in hoping, these days, in the circumstances of the political sphere.”
There’s no hesitation on what he’s found most rewarding about being a priest.
“I think it’s the variety – I’ve never applied to go to any position … There’s just such variety,” he said.
“Like, one day you’re on the creek outside Beaudesert talking to Indigenous people who live out in camps, and the next day you’re working with the ecumenical people, Ministers Fraternal, and initiating areas that are not just inside the church closed up in itself but out in the community.
“And I’ve always liked the definition of the Church as ‘the Spirit of God working through the People of God for the life of the world’, and I think that captures what’s best in Centacare. “Even though we mightn’t talk about it in
those terms, but they are, in so many ways, the Spirit of God who’s everywhere working through the whole People of God for the sake of the world.
“And that’s what’s most exciting, I think – you never know what’s coming next … for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health until life do us spring.”
In announcing Fr John’s retirement to the people around the St Stephen’s Cathedral precinct who had worked alongside him, Mr Selwood wrote: “Perhaps more important than what John has done for Centacare is who he has been for his colleagues.
“For many John has been a pastoral ear, a friend and mentor, and always displaying great empathy, wisdom and humility.
“John’s gentle and quirky sense of humour has been disarming and we will miss him greatly.”
Does that go some way to describing what being a priest is like for Fr John?
“Yes, it does … What’s it like being a priest? It’s different; it’s vastly different from what you’d expect or imagine it’s going to be like,” he said.
“But Peter’s very kind with those words, but I’d accept them as where I would want to be – whether I am or not …
“But being a pastor, being pastoral, means having two ears and one mouth and listening, and stuff happens in people’s lives, and I’ve found that there are many people over the last 19 years that have shared or talked, and then I’ve listened, and God knows what eventuated …
“You need imagination if you’re going to be a priest who lives in a Church – what kind of priest, for what kind of Church, for what kind of world are we living in?
“That’s a question that needs to be asked constantly.
“And Centacare asks it constantly.”
Fr John was recently asked to contribute a reflection on “What does Christmas mean to me?” This is part of what he said: “(Christmas) sees the divine in the midst of ordinary life. “When Jesus chose the twelve disciples he didn’t call them out of what’s ordinary in life.
“Rather, he called them out of assuming that life is ordinary.
“Christmas, for me, catches sight of the beautifully wrapped gifts where the generosity of God overflows.
“Given with love and received with gratitude, Christmas gifts are simply divine.
“Who among us isn’t able to sense ‘the holy’ in a new-born baby, whether it’s Jesus of Nazareth or Jerry of Narrabri?
“Surely, if we can see Christmas in a simple sentence, we might see Jesus more clearly in a life sentence.
“The life we sentence ourself to sees God always in the midst of things, at the beating heart of life. “That’s what Christmas means to me.”