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Embracing cultural diversity


A love of God, the law and Asia have been hallmarks of the life of Fr Roderick O’Brien, who celebrated his 40th priestly anniversary last year. 

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It’s a warm, sunny day in Semaphore and Fr Roderick O’Brien has a spring in his step.

Just a short walk from the presbytery the coastal waters are like glass and the weather is nothing short of perfect for the keen sailor, although the official racing season has ended. Back at home he is in his element cooking one of his wonderful Malaysian curries before preparing to go and visit a patient at the local hospital.

In his own words “life is good” and he is right where God wants him to be.

His ministry on the idyllic Lefevre peninsula is just one of the many different cultural experiences over his 71 years.

From humble beginnings growing up in the industrial steel city of Whyalla, to studies and work in Adelaide, Perth and Sydney, through to the challenges of living in Asia, Fr Roderick has never been afraid to embrace change, not only in location but also vocation.

In a relaxed interview with The Southern Cross, Fr Roderick said that even though his Catholic faith had always been strong as a child – and was further nurtured in the years he spent boarding at Sacred Heart and Rostrevor colleges – as a teenager he never believed the priesthood was for him.

“I failed Latin,” he laughed.

So after graduating from high school his interest in people and “how they live together and survive together” saw him pursue a career in the legal profession. He studied law at the University of Adelaide from 1966-69 and was admitted to practice in 1971, moving to Perth to work as a lawyer for the Western Mining Corporation.

It was during his three years in the west that Fr Roderick was introduced to sailing, igniting a passion that continues to this day.

Like many of his contemporaries in the 1970s, the young up-and-coming lawyer soon decided it was time to “see the world” and packed his bags and headed to Asia.

“It was a lovely time to be alive,” he recalled. “The world was our oyster and I wandered around Asia, Singapore on my way to Europe, but got waylaid in Asia.

“The contact I had with Asian students at school and university drew me there. As a uni student I had been to Malaysia and Singapore and I loved the culture, the food and people.”

(Fellow law students at the University of Adelaide included the late Adenan Satem, former Chief Minister of Sarawak, and Joseph Pairin Kitingan, former Chief Minister of Sabah.)

Making his way to Hong Kong, Roderick began teaching law and undertaking his Masters in Comparative Asian Studies at the University of Hong Kong.

“Coming from Australia, it provided me with a wonderful overview. Asia is so large and there are many cultures and it is so diverse,” he said.

Despite his success in the legal profession and academia, and a desire to learn as much as he could about Asia, there was a nagging sense that his life was destined to take a different direction.

“The world was a wonderful place and I was doing very well, particularly for a boy from Whyalla whose dad was a labourer. But I began to think about some serious things … this is great fun but what do I want to do with the rest of my life? I ended up putting my hand up for the seminary.”

Moving to Sydney to attend St Paul’s Seminary, Roderick found his calling and was ordained in 1980, commencing his ministry in the Cathedral parish.

With his strong ties to Asia, he saw the need to support local Chinese Catholics. With permission from the Archbishop, he celebrated the first Mass in Chinese on Christmas Day 1981 at the Otherway Centre in Pirie Street.

Following appointments at Morphett Vale, Naracoorte and Albert Park parishes, Fr Roderick left Australia to teach in China for seven years with the Columbans. When he finally returned to Adelaide he was appointed parish priest at Salisbury. Over the next 16 years he embraced the multiculturalism of the parish, describing it as a “joy” to work alongside Indian priests Fr Shibu and Fr Manu.

“Multiculturalism as the future of the Australian Church is so obvious that it almost doesn’t need discussion. Multiculturalism is already here. I’ve grown up with multiculturalism so it’s like second nature for me.”

Fr Roderick said his love of the Asian culture, people and food has been a mainstay throughout his life and he continues to write for the Macau Ricci Institute, which is run by the Jesuits.

His legal background as well as his Catholic experience has also fostered a long interest in ethics and he completed his PhD in Professional Ethics.

“Law and ethics are kind of neighbours for me. The question of how we are going to live together, how should we live together? It’s a fundamental question and it’s cross cultural,” he said.

“The language of ethics provides the way to talk to people who don’t share your views … with those who didn’t grow up in a Catholic home and have no idea what you’re talking about. They may not believe or even listen to something which is God-based, but they will have similar questions to you about how to live.”

On June 13, Fr Roderick will present ‘The Vocation of the Business Leader’, discussing the processes involved for business people to make judgements, based on the YCW method of ‘see, judge, act’.

“I’m not sure if some business leaders have thought about their ethics too much,” he said, adding that members of the wider community were welcome to attend and contribute their thoughts on the topic.

‘Vocation of the Business Leader’ is part of a series of presentations being run at Lefevre Community. It will be held on Sunday June 13 from 4-5pm at the Sacred Heart Church meeting rooms, 253 Military Road, Semaphore. More information Fr Roderick 8449 6378. Registrations required prior to the event.


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