“There have been seven popes while I have been a priest…in 1957 St Pius XII was head of the Church and we thought that was going to be the pattern forever,” he told The Southern Cross during a relaxed interview at his home in Francis Murphy Villa.
“With Pope Francis now it is a case of ‘cometh the hour, cometh the man’… he is reading the signs of the times. I know you can’t suit everybody – no Pope can – but I think he is great in discerning the world in which we live today.
“And it’s certainly a different world.”
Celebrating the 65th anniversary of his ordination on July 27, Fr Rob reflected on his service to God and how the role of the parish priest has changed over the years.
Raised in Parkside in a “good Catholic family” of eight children (with another baby sadly dying only a few days after birth), Fr Rob said he grew up in a “relatively peaceful atmosphere” where faith was central to his life and values.
“We appreciated the loving guidance of our parents, Dorothea and Eugene (Doss and Gene),” he said.
After attending St Raphael’s School, Parkside, and then Christian Brothers College in the city, he began discerning a life in the priesthood at the seminary in Stradbroke Park and later at St Patrick’s College in Manly, NSW. Similarly, his two younger siblings were also called to a religious vocation with Ruth joining the Mercy Sisters and Tony a Passionist priest. Older sister Kath, 97, rounds out the surviving family members.
Describing his ordination day as a highlight of his life, the 89 year old said he had always been inspired by the words of the gospel, ‘putting your hands to the plough and not looking back’.
His first appointment was at Croydon parish where he was assistant to Irish priests Fr Tom Daly, followed by Fr Michael Murphy.
“I learned a lot from them,” he said.
“I was very naïve and I think now about how inadequately I was prepared – you learn a lot on the job!
“Fathers Daly and Murphy were great parish priests and in those days we used to visit from door to door. In the six years I was at Croydon I visited every Catholic family in the suburbs of Mansfield Park, Ferryden Park and Woodville Gardens (where the then St Philomena’s Church was located), which had been assigned to my care.
“You don’t see that nowadays because of the shortage of priests and the atmosphere and ethos has changed.”
Moving to the Brighton parish, Fr Rob enjoyed more on-the-job training under the watchful eye of another Irish priest, Fr Bill Collins. With growing confidence he took on the role as chaplain to Sacred Heart College and also became the first chaplain at the newly-opened Flinders University.
It was during this time he enrolled at Flinders University to undertake a degree in History and Politics graduating with a Bachelor of Arts.
In 1970 he received his first placement as a parish priest, venturing to Morphett Vale parish in the rapidly developing southern suburbs.
“In those days Morphett Vale was like a country village – there were vineyards and almond blossoms and the old church (St Mary’s was the first Catholic church built in SA, opening on January 4 1846).
“Many of the parishioners were families that had been there for a long time, but newly married couples and young families were starting to trickle in and some had been outstanding leaders in the Young Christian Workers.
“For me that time reinforced many things we had been taught, about relationships with people and the young, and being part of the Cardijn Movement.”
Staying in Morphett Vale for 13 years, Fr Rob enjoyed being a member of the local community and was pleased to be involved in the project to build Mary Help of Christians Church and Antonio School – largely made possible through a generous bequest by brother and sister, Herbert and Ethel Antonio.
The next parish to welcome Fr Rob was Salisbury, a vast parish with three churches and three schools. At the time St Augustine’s school had the largest number of students in any Catholic primary school with 700 children.
In 1990 the direction of his ministry changed again as Archbishop Leonard Faulkner appointed Fr Rob to be Vicar General of the Archdiocese. He was part of the Diocesan Pastoral Team, along with Sr Pat Fox, Madge McGuire and later Sr Pauline Morgan, Sr Meredith Evans and Geraldine Hawkes.
He enjoyed the many parish visitations, especially to country regions he had never been to.
After serving his five-year term, he was invited to the beachside suburbs as an assistant priest at Glenelg parish, followed by parish priest at Seacombe Gardens, where he remained until he retired in 2008.
During that time the Parish Pastoral Council invited the National Evangelisation Team (NET) to live in a house that belonged to the parish. NET was an organisation for young people who volunteered to work with youth and over three years, three teams of five people lived in the parish. One of them, from the USA, was Peter Bierer, now assistant director of Mission for the Archdiocese.
Commenting on his ability to adapt to the different needs of parishes over the years, Fr Rob was unassuming.
“I don’t know that I had a great plan but I like to think I moved with the times and rolled with the punches,” he said.
“Looking back you realise that just being available to people is what you are called to be, and share with them their happy and sad times.”
Like many elderly clergy, Fr Rob has continued to actively serve the faithful in his retirement.
Until recently he was chaplain for the Knights of the Southern Cross and was celebrating Mass at Sacred Heart College Chapel every Wednesday morning.
Despite a recent health scare and no longer driving, he still finds his way to the nearby Bucklands residential care home every Sunday morning to celebrate Mass.
One of his passions over the past decade has been Pilgrims Quest, a small not-for-profit enterprise that produces religious publications.
Making the Most of the Mass is probably the most well-known of its booklets, having sold more than 55,000 copies. He and designer Ros Rowett are currently working on an eight-page pamphlet that will focus on faith formation in the home.
“I think future vocations will come from those homes, where the faith is very much nourished in the early years,” he said.
As for those men discerning a vocation in the priesthood, Fr Rob had some words of wisdom.
“It’s about putting your hand to the plough and while, of course, it is a call from the Lord, it also gives us unique relationships with all sorts of people. At the human level it is a very rewarding and interesting vocation.”Jump to next article