It’s a beautiful Monday afternoon in Gawler, the sun is beginning to poke through the clearing clouds and for Catholic priest Fr Michael Trainor that means just one thing, it’s time to take to the skies.
Some may jump to the conclusion that this adrenalin-pumping hobby is a way for the respected theologian and Australian Catholic University lecturer to get ‘closer to God’, but in an interview conducted at 3000 feet he reveals when he’s up high nearly touching the clouds he’s far too busy to be chatting to his creator.
“To be honest, I’m mainly thinking about the aircraft, the weather, the patterns of weather, air activity, so my focus is on flying and how to continue to fly safely – it’s not a time for contemplation. I’m not talking to God, whom I know is always with me,” he says.
“Concentrating on this puts me in a different world than the world of theology. It’s a beautiful feeling.”
Sitting in the passenger seat and being a person not that keen on heights, I immediately feel reassured that his focus is on safety. And surely if things get hairy, as a priest of 44 years he may be able to pull some strings and jump the queue if a quick prayer is needed!
Fortunately, as Fr Michael tells me, in his 19 years of flying gliders with the Adelaide Soaring Club, such a prayer has never been needed and he’s “never left anyone in the air yet”.
Trust, he reminds me, is the key when placing your life in someone else’s hands.
As the only priest in the Archdiocese who can list gliding as a hobby – although he has taken many of Adelaide’s ordained, including good friend the late Archbishop Faulkner, up with him on flights – Fr Michael says flying gives him a sense of “reassurance”.
“I enjoy the challenge of flying and taking up each passenger is different. People feel their mortality, their fears and desires up there.
“One of the things I like is taking up passengers and hearing their stories. I don’t tell them my background because it is an act of trust. And of course, in light of what has been happening in our Church over the last couple of years, trust with priests is in short supply so this provides a very different experience for me,” he explains.
While he might not have time for quiet contemplation, Fr Michael says he never tires of seeing the beauty of God’s creation below him; a tangible reminder of the important message of Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’.
The green, rolling hills of the Barossa Valley, the Gulf of St Vincent on the horizon, the outline of the Adelaide CBD and the detailed view of the town of Gawler below are indeed inspiring. And once the tow rope is released from the tug plane, it can be enjoyed in a tranquillity that definitely affords the passenger the opportunity for reflection.
Before the flight finishes – all 16 minutes of it, but who’s counting – the aviator padre informs me he is also qualified to do acrobatics in the glider, a loop to be precise.
Panic sets in but I soon learn this is my pilot’s dry sense of humour coming to the fore, and perhaps another test of my trust in him. Thankfully, today will not be the day for a demonstration of his aeronautical stunts and instead we head towards the runway to land.
With feet now firmly planted on terra firma, Fr Michael discusses why he first decided to try gliding and why it has been such a wonderful outlet for him at a time when priests are under so much scrutiny.
“I had a major cycling accident in 2000 and at the time I said what is it I want to do before I die, so I took up gliding,” he laughs.
(The accident saw him undergo major cranio facial surgery but did not deter him from getting back on his bike. Today he continues to ride regularly and also swims to keep fit).
While the joy of soaring near the heavens is always present, Fr Michael says one of the best aspects of his hobby is being part of the close-knit “Monday mob” at the Gawler Aerodrome. They claim him as their ‘unofficial chaplain’ and Fr Michael has been called upon to celebrate the funerals of some of the older members.
The respect and admiration these pilots have for each other is evident and they invariably finish the day with a “debrief” over afternoon tea in the clubrooms.
“The camaraderie of these men is a wonderful experience and these are guys who would not be normally in my circle as a priest.”Jump to next article