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Boy from Limerick keeps his eye on the big picture


Hallett Cove parishioner Kevin Liston is passionate about the role of lay Catholics and their everyday lives in shaping the future of the Church in Australia. In 2019 he started a series of forums inviting people to come and talk about their spirituality, how it developed and where it came from.

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The group soon morphed into a more organised movement called SA Catholics for an Evolving Church which met via Zoom during COVID restrictions and is now a member of the Australasian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform.

For Kevin, renewal is not so much about “telling the bishops what to do” as it is about “what can we do ourselves, how can we make things happen ourselves without relying on someone else to change it for us”.

He is driven by two fundamental convictions.

“The first is that we live in a larger world than the everyday, cradle-to-grave existence,” he said.

“Life makes too much sense to say it just stops. Our living, our relationships, our engagements with one another and the whole universe are all wrapped up in a love far greater than we can imagine.

“The second is that the key to living a good, worthwhile and authentic life is to be people of integrity, honest with ourselves and others, loving one another and looking out for each other, especially the weak and troubled.”

His views are influenced by his own quite extraordinary life experiences which include three years as a seminarian in Rome, re-joining the priesthood and serving as a missionary in Africa, laicisation, marriage and parenthood, his migration to SA and 26 years with the  Australian Refugee Association.

But it all started in Limerick, Ireland, where he grew up on a mixed dairy farm with his parents and six siblings.

“It was a very, very traditional Irish Catholic family; we were fortunate it was a good size farm and we were pretty well off. It was a little bit of paradise as far as I was concerned,” he said.

By the age of 15 Kevin had decided he would be a priest and after finishing secondary school the local bishop agreed to send him to the Irish College in Rome rather than the seminary at Maynooth.

Kevin said Rome should have been a fantastic experience for a 17 year old but in reality it was a “wasted opportunity” as he drifted through his studies for three years.

“It was a stage of life when I was very immature and didn’t have a sense of my own identity or where I belonged,” he said.

“I was so innocent. I remember being in St Peter’s at Easter or Christmas, hearing 10,000 people in this huge cavernous basilica all singing the Creed in Latin with great gusto. It was the most triumphalist, self-congratulatory singing I have heard anywhere. Any football club would have been proud of it, but it frightened me, it was so overpowering.”

The opulence and commercialising of the Vatican didn’t sit well with him but in the end it was his own lack of commitment that made him decide “I wasn’t living up to what I was supposed to be doing”.

He returned to Ireland and began studying medicine but was “very unsettled”. After failing first year, his father encouraged Kevin to come back to the farm, knowing that he probably wouldn’t stay but that he needed time to find himself.

“I found my feet there in a way I didn’t think was possible,” Kevin said. “My younger brother, Aidan who was a natural farmer, really made me feel at home; he introduced me to a huge lot of people and I discovered community there for the first time.

“I got a confidence in myself and who I was.”

After a year in Limerick Kevin began to look further afield again.

“I came to the conclusion I wasn’t really cut out for a life of milking cows and feeding pigs,” he said.

“So I decided to give the priesthood another go, and I joined St Patrick’s Missionaries.”

He spent five years in the seminary which was “so lax I could basically do anything I wanted”.

“And by then I was beginning to know what I wanted. I started reading and studying stuff that wasn’t on the curriculum.”

Kevin was sent to a mission in north western Kenya where the Turkana people lived a very nomadic and primitive lifestyle: “The women wore skins and the men didn’t wear anything most of the time,” he said.

Kevin Liston returned to the Turkana region in Kenya in 2005 to catch up with refugees in Kakuma camp. Coincidentally, his daughter Mandy later worked there as a psychologist for Jesuit Refugee Service.

“It was a fascinating experience, we were right at the forefront of missionary life, building schools and hospitals for everyone, churches for first generation Catholics and supporting  commercial enterprises.”

After three years on the mission, apart from a four-month stint raising funds in Chicago, he found difficulty with the notion that “as a priest you go somewhere, you make relationships with a whole lot of people, you put your heart and soul into it and then you move on”.

“I began to realise that there was more to life, much more.

“I came to the conclusion that I needed a permanent relationship in my life if I was going to remain sane. I needed intimacy with someone that goes on, not just a bit here or a bit there or whatever.”

Around the same time Kevin became friends in Turkana with a Scottish nun, Maureen, who was a member of the Medical Missionaries of Mary but was “thinking along the same lines”.

“I didn’t leave because I fell in love with Maureen, but one thing followed the other very nicely.”

The couple left Kenya and landed in Glasgow in “10 inches of snow”. They were married in a Presbyterian Church because Kevin’s laicisation was delayed by his order. He eventually got his dispensation and they renewed their vows in a Catholic church.

Kevin worked for the Children’s Court in youth justice. After five years and the birth of their daughter Mandy, the family migrated to Adelaide, where Maureen’s relatives had settled earlier, in 1982.

Initially employed by Offenders’ Aid, Kevin responded to an ad for a position with the newly-established Indo-China Refugee Association (now the Australian Refugee Association).

Passionist priest Fr Jeff Foale came to his house in Happy Valley to tell him he had the job, and then informed him that the funding would run out in three months.

Fortunately, ongoing funding was secured and for Kevin it was “one of the best moves I ever made – apart from meeting Maureen and having a daughter”.

Over the next three decades Kevin won the respect of many for his management of refugee and migrant services as well as the development of policy and programs in SA, nationally and internationally.

“I had very much a free hand and was able to develop the organisation,” Kevin said.

“One of the reasons the Association was successful was because it focused on what people needed and also put a lot of Australians in direct contact with the newcomers.

“Once you link up people with a family, there’s hope after that.”

After suffering a heart attack in 2010 Kevin retired and had time to continue his love of learning, obtaining a Master of Theological Studies at Australian Catholic University in 2017 and a Graduate Diploma in Psychology through Monash University in 2020.

Sadly Maureen, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2014 and then had several mini strokes, died recently.

Throughout the ups and downs of his faith journey, Kevin said he always felt that “Jesus was on to something”.

“For all the different ways that people have ever come up with, the only one that is going to provide for a lasting, decent better world is one where we care for one another, look after one another and for the environment, think long term and basically love one another,” he said.

“And that’s what Jesus was on about.”



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