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Priest of the people

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From serving as editor of The Southern Cross to being amongst the people in parishes and neighbourhood communities, Fr Bob Wilkinson has been an effective and respected communicator over his 65 years in the priesthood.

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While Fr Bob Wilkinson has had to adapt to significant changes in society and the Church since his ordination in 1955, one aspect that has remained constant throughout his ministry has been his enduring love of people.

A good communicator and listener, he has provided support for people from all walks of life and faith backgrounds, as they struggle in times of sorrow or celebrate in times of joy. Generous with his time, he is respected for his sincerity and compassion, his great storytelling abilities and a wicked sense of humour.

“It’s been a great life…and the whole of that 65 years has been dedicated to linking faith and life,” he told The Southern Cross during a COVID-safe coffee catch up.

“My drive has always been trying to transform the Church as having more dynamic participation by people.

“Pope Francis is inspiring. His approach to life is starting from what is happening in the world – the first vocation is to be human and it is home, work and society that is the great human reality. The Church is called to serve that and it needs to be constantly interacting with society.”

Reflecting on his life, the spritely 87-year-old said it was symbolic that it had now gone “full circle”. He began attending church in Kingswood and completed Grade 1 at the adjacent St Joseph’s. Many decades later he is back assisting in the Emmaus parish and living at the presbytery in Kingswood.

Born into a large Catholic family, the youngest of seven children, Bob spent his first six years in foster care following the breakdown of his parents’ marriage. After his mum managed to bring all the siblings back together, he moved to what was then St Cecilia’s School in the city, followed by Christian Brothers College.

The idea of joining the minor seminary was formed at an early age.

“I guess about Grade 6 I thought about the priesthood,” he explained. “The biggest attraction was I heard they had a picnic day on Thursdays (at the minor seminary) and I thought that sounded pretty cool!”

However, his call to vocation persisted long past the picnics and he went from the minor to the major seminary at Rostrevor, moving to St Patrick’s, Manly, to complete his theology studies.

“They were good days,” he recalled.

“We used to work during every holidays and I think the best part of a priest’s education was having to hold down a job.

“I was a postman for three years, a waiter on the East West Express (Indian Pacific train) and the Darwin to Adelaide run (Ghan)… the best thing was you had to make your own way, not just as a seminarian but in public life and that’s terribly important.”

The ability to relate to people from every part of the community has been a common thread of his ministry.

Since his ordination on December 3 1955 he has served Catholics in many parishes including the Cathedral, Semaphore, Goodwood, Blackwood, Dulwich, Marion and Willunga.

He is quick to point out that he was appointed parish priest only once – at Willunga for 18 months –  “so that says something about my administration capacities!”

Great strengths, however, were evident elsewhere. Fr Bob continued to study throughout much of his life, attending Flinders University in the late 1960s to undertake a Sociology degree. Later he completed his Masters and was commissioned by the Hawke Government to write a report on ‘consulting youth’.

When the first independent government was formed in Papua New Guinea he accepted an offer to develop a strategy for the decentralisation of youth in the country. In 1989 under a Commonwealth scholarship, Fr Bob spent a year in Paris as part of his PhD studies.

Another strength has been his ability to communicate via the written word. For many older members of the Archdiocese, Fr Bob’s name will be synonymous with The Southern Cross, where he served as an assistant editor then editor from 1959 until 1976.

His insight and ability to share information in a down-to-earth way was a great gift to readers, especially as the fallout of the Second Vatican Council was emerging.

“It was a great time to be alive in Church reporting. The whole world opened up and what had previously been a highly controlled Vatican Curia, suddenly everything was up for grabs. It was exciting times.”

Notable throughout his ministry has been his chaplaincy work with several groups including the Lay Apostolate, Christian Life Movement, Flinders University, the Young Christian Workers (YCW) and nationally, the Young Christian Students (YCS).

Archbishop Faulkner, perhaps recognising Fr Bob’s desire to bring the Church into people’s lives where they were, appointed him as the chaplain for the Diocesan Movement for Small Christian Communities in the early 1990s.

“Over 10 years we were asked to transform the church and modernise it. We remapped parishes to form basic communities…and get some figures out into the neighbourhood. We called it the ‘neighbourhood church’ and it was simply trying to develop community, translating faith into life that way.”

Fr Bob doing the Saturday quiz with family members.

Acknowledging that being a priest today and the challenges facing society are totally different to when he was ordained, Fr Bob remains upbeat about the future of the Church.

“The world today is as fresh as the first day of creation, whole new things are being shaped; young kids are coming on. The kingdom of God is being built and the only question is, who gets on board and is part of it.”

On a personal note, while he has continued to fulfil pastoral duties in his retirement, having extra time at his disposal has been a blessing as now he can have more regular catch-ups with his many friends and extended family.

One of the “highlights” each week is gathering with some of his nieces and nephews on Saturday morning to participate in The Advertiser’s Brainwaves quiz.

In true Fr Bob fashion, he plays down his part in it all.

“Occasionally there is a religious question and I blunder in, but mainly I gaze and wonder and think, they know everything!”

Footnote: A Mass was held at Kingswood to celebrate Fr Bob’s 65th anniversary. A documentary about his life is currently being produced by Cabra College Drama/Religious Studies teacher, Tess O’Callaghan.

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