WHEN Paul O’Callaghan was High Commissioner of Samoa he had an unusual job on the side – shaving about 25 men at an aged-care home every Saturday.
Recently visiting Brisbane to attend the launch of Project Compassion, Paul said he’d started this volunteer work at the invitation of one of the local Little Sisters of the Poor.
He also explained how this had set him on a journey, which eventually saw him become the chief executive officer of Caritas Australia.
As Paul told his story, he was not long back from witnessing the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.
There was a definite sense that the resilience and faith of these suffering people had uplifted him, confirming his decision to take on the Caritas leadership role a couple of months earlier.
His time in Samoa from 1998 to 2000 had been crucial in his formation.
“Sister Rita, an Indian nun whose order runs Samoa’s only old people’s home, approached me,” he recalled. “She said: ‘Why don’t you come and help us?’
“I said I didn’t think there was anything I could help with.
“She said: ‘Well, you could shave the men.
“‘They really would appreciate a man shaving them, than just always the women.’
“And so every Saturday, I spent a few hours there shaving all these guys.
“Most of them could speak English … they were in the late sixties, seventies, eighties … the bonus for me was that I got to hear some very interesting stories about their lives on the island.”
That was the career diplomat’s first “hands on” experience of Church work. Soon he also became involved with Fr Mosese Tui, from a Salesian mission, to help young Samoan men at risk of dropping out of society.
There were about 400 boys at the Don Bosco Centre and Paul started volunteering.
“There was another special connection as Fr Mosese went on to marry my wife Toni and me,” Paul said.
By the end of his Samoan posting, Paul felt increasingly drawn to Church work as a way of finding a stronger connection to his faith and beliefs.
“I could see the Sisters and the Salesians were making a big difference in their society,” he said.
But what about the roots of this compassionate, “hands on” approach to social justice?
“It’s all from my family,” Paul said.
“I was very blessed, together with five brothers and sisters, to be brought up by parents who were themselves people of deep faith and leaders in the community.
“My dad was in the air force and so we moved from Victoria to Canberra to Ipswich – he was teaching at the Amberley RAAF Base – and then back to Canberra.
“My mother was a midwife and community nurse … she loved her community nursing work in Queensland at that time.
“Both of them played leadership roles in Catholic community service activities wherever we lived.
“My mother was a co-founder of Canberra’s Pregnancy Support Service and active in other support programs for young women.
“She was awarded an Order of Australia in recognition of this voluntary work.
“Even when I was small, I was conscious of how engaged they were in our Church community and through the St Vincent de Paul Society with so many people in difficult circumstances.
“My dad was also an active member of the Knights of the Southern Cross throughout his adult life.
“Their decision in 1976, with several other parish families, to actively sponsor Vietnamese refugee families was typical of their commitment to help those in distress. This was a truly big thing to do.
“It involved finding them houses, helping them to get jobs, helping to get their skills recognised, clothing, getting children into schools … all sorts of things.”
Another crucial influence came from one of his mother’s first cousins who would frequently contact Paul’s family about her mission to Tanganyika, now Tanzania.
“She worked as a field nurse working in a four-wheel-drive with a doctor with the Masai, a nomadic people,” he said. “The Masai people had acute eye health problems but could not change their nomadic lifestyle.
“She literally lived out in the bush for over ten years, sending us a postcard every six to eight weeks.
“Also my mother had a friend who had gone to Mt Hagen in Papua New Guinea and she spent about 20 years there helping to run a hospital. We would get postcards from her every month.
“So, over the dinner table, we had lots of talk about these two marvellous women and about life for those poor communities in Tanganyika and PNG.
“We’d be wondering why they were going to these places?
“Why weren’t they pursuing ‘normal’ careers in Australia?”
Inevitably this curiosity led Paul to travel, preferably to places off the main trail.
So at 18, he headed as a backpacker to the rural areas of Peru and Bolivia in the high Andes. It was there he encountered poverty for the first time.
“The people were so poor they were eating bags and bags of cocoa leaves mixed with lime,” he said. “This served to numb their senses against hunger and cold.
“I was shocked because they had nothing to look forward to.
“I could see the huge disparity between the rich and the poor and it’s still that way in Latin America.
“One of our stories in Project Compassion this year is about Maristely, a young girl living in this slum in Sao Paulo, this huge city in Brazil.
“They’re living with inadequate shelter and very little food right next door to these luxury condominiums.”
Paul also visited Argentina, which was in the middle of a military coup.
“People right across the country were terrified … there were so many random killings going on wherever I went,” he said.
“I was told by fellow travellers not to go there, but I was 18 … you think you’re invincible at that age.
“It was very dangerous and I was lucky not to have been killed myself on two occasions.
“The military had released a lot of criminals and had armed them to help round up any potential troublemakers.
“Such situations are terrible for the citizens – they’re terrified and also they can’t pursue their jobs.”
Paul also visited Chile which was still recovering from General Augusto Pinochet’s coup two years earlier.
Seeing the disastrous consequences of political chaos “tilted” him in the direction of becoming a diplomat.
A distinguished career followed in this field over about 18 years.
He served for a period with the Department of Foreign Affairs as High Commissioner in Samoa and as the Australian Representative to the South Pacific Regional Environmental Program, as well as undertaking diplomatic assignments to Malaysia and Thailand.
After his experience with the Church in Samoa, Paul took on senior leadership roles within Catholic organisations. Prior to his role with Caritas Australia, he was executive director of Catholic Social Services Australia.
So what has been Paul’s biggest surprise and source of inspiration since joining Caritas Australia?
“When Archbishop Philip Wilson, the chairman of Caritas and I were recently in the Philippines – my first visit overseas with Caritas – we were overwhelmed at the gratitude and positivity and sense of hope that many victims of super Typhoon Haiyan displayed,” he said.
“There was so much grief and trauma – 8000 dead, 26,000 seriously injured, four million homes destroyed …
“And yet, when Archbishop Philip celebrated Masses, the churches were overflowing and hundreds of parishioners asked him to pass on their deep gratitude for the contributions by Caritas donors.
“I was very humbled by the way in which their faith and hope manifested itself.
“I wondered whether our own community could have responded to such calamity in this way. I really believe Australians have much to learn about our attitude to life from engagement in these countries.”