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ABC Compass - Frank Brennan: People's Priest (Transcript Extract)

ABC TV Compass
Sunday, 15 August 2004

Read the full transcript at: http://www.abc.net.au/compass/s1177467.htm


Profiles ‘troublesome’ Jesuit priest Frank Brennan, prominent and outspoken advocate for peace and social justice.


Hello there, I'm Geraldine Doogue, welcome to Compass. Tonight a profile of a man who's been very much in the public eye over the past twenty years or so...
A man who's always maintained his identity as a priest of the Roman Catholic Church.

In fact, he's one of the best known and liked, or in some cases resented church men of our generation. He comes from a privileged background but has used his considerable skills to identify and defend gospel principles of fairness and justice. And this has often put him on the front pages and pitted him against powerful opponents.

But he's more than a public activist. In a church struggling to attract men to the priesthood, he models its possibilities and its difficulties, as you'll see I hope, in this conversation with Father Frank Brennan.

The National Trust of Australia has classified him as one of our living national treasures; he’s also been called a meddling priest and a living saint!
Jesuit priest and Lawyer Father Frank Brennan’s high profile public career has spanned over thirty years.
During this time he’s straddled his priestly calling and the rough and tumble of politics seeking social justice for those on the margins.

Frank Brennan:
Basically I continue to pride myself on being someone who in part because of my religious vocation is equally at home, whether it be around the corridors of power or in the Baxter Detention Centre.
And I'd hate to be in a situation where I became isolated from either of those. And to be able to walk both sides of that street I do think, at least for me, it requires some fidelity in terms of the spiritual life.

He came to National prominence advising the Australian Catholic Bishops on Aboriginal issues during the turbulent period of the Mabo and Wik landrights legislation.
He later headed the Jesuit Refugee Service amongst the devastation of newly independent East Timor.
More recently, he’s helped and written about asylum seekers incarcerated in our remote detention centres.
Fifty years ago, Frank Brennan was born into a family of Lawyers.
His grandfather was a Judge and his father, a Brisbane Barrister, was to later become Sir Gerard Brennan a Chief Justice of the High Court

Geraldine Doogue:
Frank Brennan what were some of the key influences on you as you grew up?

Frank Brennan:
A Well there was my family - a large Catholic family - well it became larger. I was the eldest of seven children. And parents who were very formative I think. Both intelligent lay people in the Catholic Church and professional people. And then I think the schooling that I received.
I was in environments where I was with those who were forming us, who were basically sincere about their faith.

Geraldine Doogue:
What are some of your happiest memories?

Frank Brennan:
I've got very happy memories as a child. I can remember as a child just being around my parents on occasions like birthdays, as a very young child. I remember we moved out into a new house out in what was known as the bush, about seven miles out of Brisbane. We were on a few acres. There were kangaroos around. It was a dirt road.
It was said to be very dangerous to travel out to the Brennan’s because they were said to be so far out of town. But it was really a bit of paradise and I really enjoyed my years there.

Geraldine Doogue:
And what were some of the toughest memories?

Frank Brennan:
The toughest memories definitely were the beginning of boarding school. I went to boarding school at aged 12. It was an all boarding school, it was an intensely lonely experience for the first couple of months. And I hadn't even had much exposure to television let alone to movies in those days. And so there were some fairly horrific experiences of nightmares after movies and things of that sort.

Geraldine Doogue:
So suddenly you came out of a rather cocoon sheltered environment did you?

Frank Brennan:
I think I did. And I was then at a school of course where a lot of the boys came from the country areas, from farms and big properties out in western Queensland. And I realised that yes it was a very different world.

Geraldine Doogue:
What turned you towards the Jesuit?

Frank Brennan:
For many years I thought about becoming a priest. I mean even while I was going through school I thought that I eventually would become a priest.

Geraldine Doogue:

Frank Brennan:
I'd always felt some calling in that way. Even the years I was at boarding school I think I used to go to mass most mornings. I think I had a fairly developed spiritual life for a young adolescent at that stage. But I didn't really know much about the Jesuits.
So it wasn't really until I'd got to the end of my studies in politics and law at Queensland University that I was looking around.
And at first I thought I'd join the order who taught me. They were the missionaries of the Sacred Heart. But as I have often said they were honest enough to tell me that I'd have to either work with Aborigines or teach in schools. I wasn't much interested in either of those things, so I looked further afield.
And then I met a few Jesuits when I came south in 1974, and I heard that there was a strong commitment in the Jesuits to the relationship between faith and justice, and that resonated quite strongly with me.

When he was ordained as a Jesuit priest in 1985, Frank celebrated mass in Brisbane’s Musgrave Park.
It was a favourite gathering place for some of the local aboriginals.
The congregation included members of his family and the indigenous community.

Geraldine Doogue:
You said that earlier you didn't join the Order that taught you because they said you'd have to work with Aboriginal people or you'd have to work in schools. So what changed in the interim? You didn’t want to work with Aboriginal people then and then you changed your mind?

Frank Brennan:
I didn't and when I answered the Jesuits I was then an novitiate and I had a couple of months living at Redfern there in the Presbytery with Father Ted Kennedy who was the parish priest of Redfern.

And yes I think there was a lot of the opening of my eyes then. And I think there was an increasing freedom in myself to say well yes I'm available, and yes I was then very blessed with the relationships I established with particular Aboriginal people and communities right the length and breadth of Australia.

Geraldine Doogue:
And if you were sent back to schools now by one of the Jesuits?

Frank Brennan:
If they sent me I think I'd probably go, but I'd be fairly banking on the fact that there might be a bit of a kafuffle if I were to be sent.

Geraldine Doogue:
What would be the matter with you in the classroom?

Frank Brennan:
I think that there might be a thought that I might be a bit unreliable in terms of the forming of young minds.

Geraldine Doogue:

Frank Brennan:
And I was sent to teach for a year in a school in Melbourne where I taught Year 10 Maths, and I'd never done any formal training for this.
And one morning tea the Deputy Headmaster came to me and said, has anyone ever sat in on one of your classes. And I said, no.
He said, well I think I'll come to your next class. Well I nearly died, because it was the group known as Form 4 veggie Maths, and they were the most misbehaved class in the school.
So I walked in with the Deputy Headmaster and during the whole of that class I got absolute attention from the students. 22 hands shot up every time I asked a question.
At the end of it after the Deputy Headmaster walked out one of the kids said, you owe us one now sir. And I always thought, well that's not a bad relationship to have with the kids, no matter what the school authorities might be.

Frank’s early years in the Jesuits were spent at a time when the Catholic Church in Australia was undergoing great changes created by the reforms of the second Vatican council.
Father Michael Kelly is the founder and former Head of Jesuit Publications and Current National CEO of Church Resources.
He’s been a close friend and confidante of Frank’s since their time as student priests.
He believes they’re both products of a bygone era.

Michael Kelly:
I suppose people like Frank and me are the last of that generation. A world of settled pieties, of established and respected authorities.

And I suppose too of a parental generation that was - in my instance - I mean I look back at it fairly bizarrely now, was really to consign us to a life of celibacy from the age of 18. But that's what they did.

Geraldine Doogue:
Chastity. Have you regretted that vow?

Frank Brennan:
I wouldn't say I've regretted it. It's the vow which for me I think has been most changeable. When I think back to joining the Jesuits coming up to age 21. I think it was very much about knowing that yes I'm not going to have a life partner with whom I will share those deepest intimacies.
But I think now at age 50 it's more about well yes I don't have my own children, I'm not going to, and I don't expect to have grandchildren. And so I think those sorts of demands of chastity can be quite strong.
I think the real challenge for me in chastity is that whole idea of opening yourself to your own vulnerability and balancing that with the availability.

I mean I've always said to people perhaps a little glibly, well I know that if I were married with children I wouldn't be able to do the work that I do in the style that I do, unless I were some sort of multi millionaire or unless I was going to completely abuse my wife and children in never being home.

But I think moving beyond that, it is about the openness to relationship and the real understanding that in the acceptance of one's vulnerability is the call to intimacy.

Geraldine Doogue:
You've made a statement, rather candidly about some of the price celibacy takes of you in terms of missing the intimacy that calls you to account. That's a very interesting choice of words I think.

Frank Brennan:
It is, it actually emerged, it crystallized for me one night after I'd been speaking at a legal seminar. And a mate of mine who is a very competent lawyer, he and I, we'd gone back to his hotel room to talk a little and met his wife who was not a lawyer. And we lawyers when we've been at seminars we like to carry on about how bright we've been and how devastating the points we were making and all of that sort of thing.

But I saw her just so lovingly call him into line, and say well enough of that and there's more to life than this. And I thought well yes I don't go home to that each night, and I think that is a cost, and it is something that someone like myself has to be very aware of.


This is an extract. Read the full transcript at: http://www.abc.net.au/compass/s1177467.htm


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