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Doors open for shy priest with an eye for detail

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As Master of Ceremonies at some of the biggest events in the life of the Adelaide Archdiocese over the past few decades, Fr Maurice Shinnick is no stranger to the limelight.

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His passion for liturgy, recognised by successive bishops, took him to the balcony of the Adelaide Town Hall for the visit of Pope John Paul II where he coordinated his blessing of the city, a role usually reserved for the Pope’s own Master of Ceremonies.

Two episcopal installations, the funeral of Archbishop Leonard Faulkner and the State funeral of Dame Roma Mitchell are just a few of his other notable liturgical achievements.

For the past 22 years his daily prayers of intercession – nearly 50,000 of them in total – have been posted on the Archdiocesan website and emailed to more than 100 contacts. Carefully crafted to ensure they are relevant to the local and universal Church, the prayers are gratefully received by Catholics around the globe.

Outside of Church circles, Fr Maurice is probably best known for his work with people living with HIV/AIDS, a ministry which flowed from his introduction of a monthly ‘Acceptance’ Mass for gay and lesbian Catholics in 1986. When the AIDS epidemic hit, he was integral in establishing a Diocesan AIDS Council, sourcing government funding for a drop-in centre and providing a pastoral care program for the sick – work that earned him an Order of Australia Medal in 1992.

His book This Remarkable Gift, published in 1997, has been widely acclaimed for its role in encouraging dialogue between the Church and same-sex attracted people.

Despite these accolades, Fr Maurice has a humility and gentleness that has endeared him to the parishioners he has accompanied as parish priest at Christies Beach/Noarlunga Downs, Kilburn, the Cathedral (as administrator) and Woodville/Croydon Park.

His early years as an assistant priest were spent at Elizabeth North, where he divided his time between teaching RE in 13 public schools in the parish and knocking on the doors of UK migrant homes to inquire if anyone in the household was Catholic.

“I was pretty shy back then, even standing out the front after Mass and greeting people was something I had to force myself to do,” he said.

Some of the families whose doors he knocked on have remained close friends and the daughter of one of them, Marian Walters, did a reading at his 50th anniversary Mass on September 5.

Fr Maurice said his shyness was compounded by the cloistered nature of seminary life in the early sixties.

“Academically we were well-trained, but socially and pastorally we were poorly prepared,” said Fr Maurice of his 10 years at the Rostrevor seminary.

“We went in pre-Vatican II and it was a very strict regime; we were treated like children even though many of the students were in their mid-twenties.

“It was weird because it was so controlling, but I was surprised at how easily I adapted…the best part was the last four years in theology which I really enjoyed. It was straight after the (Second Vatican) Council documents were out so we actually studied from them. That was very enriching.”

The decision to pursue a priestly vocation came naturally to young Maurice, whose older brother David spent many years in the seminary and whose sister Veronica was a Daughter of Charity for 38 years.

“I didn’t have to wrestle with the devil or anything like that,” Fr Shinnick said.

The second youngest of six children in a devout Catholic family, he grew up in working class Kent Town where life revolved around the “vibrant” St Mary’s Church and school community on Beulah Road.

His dad Gerald was a storeman and delivered groceries on his bicycle before working for Rosella.

“We were poor, but we always had a roof over our heads and Mum (Adelaide) was a good cook,” said Fr Maurice, who caught two trams to the Marist School at Thebarton because “it was the cheapest”.

When he left school at 14 to work for the Electricity Trust, Maurice continued his love of altar serving and attended 7am daily Mass on his way to work. He was actively involved in the Young Christian Workers movement and remembers well his delight at serving on the altar at the Cathedral when Cardinal Joseph Cardijn, the founder of the YCW, celebrated Mass there in the late 1950s.

Fr Maurice blessing his parents at his ordination in 1970.

After ministering in the Elizabeth North parish, Fr Maurice was chaplain at the Royal Adelaide Hospital for two years and then assistant priest in the growing Noarlunga region where he returned as parish priest of Christies Beach (later Noarlunga Downs) in 1979.

Appointed a member of the Diocesan Liturgical Council in 1978, Fr Maurice’s talents were put to good use in an era of new church consecrations as Master of Ceremonies and as a member of a number of advisory committees.

“I’ve got an eye for detail, a bit OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder),” he said.

In the eighties he became involved in an international movement supporting gay people in the Church and started an ‘Acceptance’ Mass at the Hutt St Centre chapel.

He received a $5000 grant for a study trip to the US and UK to look at the Church’s work with people living with HIV/AIDS. His sister Veronica was in charge of the Hutt St Centre at the time and accompanied him to study the Daughters of Charity’s other services for the homeless.

During their three-month trip, which included a visit to the Holy Land, Fr Shinnick said they met some “amazing people doing fantastic work”.

On his return, the Adelaide Diocesan AIDS Council was established and obtained government funding for a Diocesan AIDS Centre.

“We also set up a system of volunteers to visit people who were quite sick, to do things like shopping and housekeeping and held seminars for schools and parishes,” he said.

There was resistance to the Acceptance movement, particularly from Melbourne where political activist Bob Santamaria was “very vocal”, but Adelaide Archbishop Leonard Faulkner remained supportive. He became personally involved with some of those who were dying of AIDS and initiated the AIDS Day Mass in the Cathedral.

“He was incredible,” Fr Maurice said, adding there was also a lot of support from other priests.

“It was the first time there was serious consideration given to the pastoral care of homosexual people who were baptised Catholics.”

While at Kilburn Fr Maurice undertook his Masters of theology in Melbourne which resulted in This Remarkable Gift.

“I gathered Church documents on the subject and the developments happening in the social sciences regarding nurture and nature, the tension between that and the Church, and road mapped how we could develop stronger pastoral care. I still have people say your book was a turning point, it amazes me,” he said.

Referring to discrimination against gay Catholics today, he said it was more common in the United States but there was still a “lot more work to be done” in Australia.

“As Pope Francis says, you have to accompany people, that’s the key, you don’t have to pontificate.”

When he was appointed administrator of the Cathedral the extremist National Action group put up posters calling for his removal and a priest warned him people would walk out of his first Mass, but nobody did.

While at the Cathedral, Fr Maurice gained a reputation as a prayer writer.

“I started doing it because I needed to, and I didn’t like prayers out of books that were bland,” he said.

“Then Archbishop Wilson asked me if they could be put on the website. Every church, parish and community gets prayed for on their feast day no matter how obscure, and I use the various United Nations days, world events and tragedies. I stick a bit of humour in there when I can.”

Retiring in 2018 after 16 years at Croydon parish, Fr Maurice was called back to active ministry when Fr Charles Gauci was appointed Bishop of Darwin and a replacement was needed at the Adelaide Cathedral parish. After 11 months as administrator, he re-retired in July 2019 and aside from the odd MC role such as the recent episcopal installation, he says Mass twice a week at Kensington and does parish supply work.

In his spare time he has a number of hobbies including tapestry (he once won a prize at the Royal Show), reading detective and historical novels, watching movies and gardening.

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