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Rev Dr Rice proves you’re never too old to learn

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At an age when most are happy to sit back, relax and enjoy their retirement, Monsignor Robert Rice decided to venture down a much different path and embark on all-consuming studies to gain his PhD.

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Twelve years later, at the ripe old age of 87, the Archdiocesan priest can now proudly call himself ‘Rev Dr Rice’ after graduating with a doctorate in philosophy from Flinders University on April 23.

His research thesis is of great importance to the history of the Catholic Church in Australia as it covers the life of Archbishop James Gleeson and the contribution he made to the implementation of changes which took place in the wake of Vatican II.

One of the examiners described the thesis as “an impressive piece of scholarship, and a valuable contribution to the literature on Catholic Australia”.

“It is written with fluency, and based on prodigious research,” he said.

Unquestionably the oldest priest in the Archdiocese to complete his doctoral studies, Mgr Rice was overwhelmed when he was presented with printed copies of the thesis by one of his supervisors, Dr Josephine Laffin, a week before his graduation.

“God bless my soul,” he exclaimed, clearly moved by the imposing book in front of him.

With more than 400 pages and 110,000 words, Mgr Rice has devoted “every spare minute” of his time to researching and writing the thesis which he started when he retired in 2007.

“On Saturday afternoons I would be going to the State Library (to do research) and would be thinking, ‘why are you doing this to yourself, this is crazy’…because research is lonely,” he said.

“At times when I got disheartened and thought I was never going to make it, Jo said no, you’re almost there.

“It was a real thrill to go over the finish line,” he admitted.

Besides the weekend visits to the State Library, Mgr Rice also spent months in the Archdiocesan Archives office and the library at the Adelaide College of Divinity trawling through old newspapers and archival sources. He also conducted several interviews over many hours with members of Archbishop Gleeson’s family.

The spritely priest strove to ensure he maintained a neutral and balanced tone in his writings, without including too many personal anecdotes.

“It was interesting because I was a priest in the Archdiocese for the whole time Jimmy was a Bishop and we got on well together – except on one occasion when he asked me to consider going to Mt Gambier and I said no. He still made me go, but we got over it and got it sorted out.

“I think he will be remembered as a pastoral Archbishop… that was his strong point. He was a very spiritual man and had a passion for social justice,” Mgr Rice said.

Some of those social justice issues included the rights of Aborigines and overseas aid.

“Historian Patrick O’Farrell said Gleeson pursued social justice in such a forthright manner as to embarrass some of his more conservative confreres.”

Mgr Rice said Archbishop Gleeson’s biggest flaw was that he “did not take care of himself”.

“He had a massive heart attack at 64 and no doubt it was partly due to his relentless go, go, go attitude and that he never relaxed.”

Archbishop Gleeson died in 2000 at the age of 80, serving as archbishop from 1971 to 1985.

While working hard on his thesis Mgr Rice was mindful not to emulate his subject and maintained a more balanced approach. Throughout his retirement he has continued to celebrate parish and school Masses, baptisms, marriages and funerals, while also making time for a round of golf each week.

Ordained in 1956, Mgr Rice said he realised after about 25 years into his ministry that he needed to exercise his brain and “learn more”.

He completed a diploma with the Catholic Correspondence Centre in Sydney and was then awarded a scholarship to study at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC.

Returning to Adelaide, Mgr Rice forged a friendship with Dr David Hilliard, an historian from Flinders University and one of Australia’s leading scholars in the field of religious history. At Dr Hilliard’s prompting, Mgr Rice began writing journal articles, including one on each of the 11 Archbishops of Adelaide which were published in the Australasian Catholic Record.

With retirement looming and a new challenge needed, Mgr Rice took up the suggestion of Dr Laffin to start doctoral studies. Dr Laffin had just completed her thesis on Archbishop Matthew Beovich so it seemed appropriate that he continue the thread by researching Archbishop Gleeson.

“It’s a massive task and he was extremely conscientious and diligent in regards to research,” Dr Laffin said.

Even two half-knee replacements and heart surgery in 2018 didn’t deter Mgr Rice and he remained resolute in finishing the enormous project.

However, while allowing himself a little time to bask in the glory of his achievement, there is still plenty of work ahead. For the thesis to be a ‘readable document’ to the average member of the public it now needs to be edited, reworked and trimmed by at least 30,000 words.

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