After a six-hour drive, I motored into Rockhampton in Central Queensland with only 20 minutes to spare last Sunday night. At 7.30pm, there was to be a paraliturgy in St Joseph’s Cathedral celebrating the life of Michael Hayes who had been a priest for 61 years, writes Fr Frank Brennan.
So I headed straight for the Hungry Jacks drive-through, picked up my burger, and found a bench in the park opposite the cathedral. I was approached by four young Aboriginal people. They had come in from the Woorabinda community, and were just hanging out in the park. We talked.
I told them I had come for a funeral. They immediately expressed sympathy. I said, “You might have known him, Fr Mick Hayes?” “He, that tall grey one? He knew me when I was a little fella.” Another said, “He knew my family when I was just a little baby.” This is typical of the pastoral legend of Mick.
In the church a few minutes later, Fr Grove Johnson reflected that Mick was admired by all the priests of the diocese and he was loved for his fair dinkum integrity. He blossomed once he started organising the youth dances back in the 60’s and then Bishop Frank Rush asked him to reconcile the Aborigines and those of us who were descendants of migrants.
“It was as if we owned the place and they were the strangers. It is so good to see so many of you the Aboriginal people here tonight to honour him.” Then came the tribute from Carol Willie, a respected Aboriginal elder.
“Fr Mick gave our parents back their respect and their hope in their land where it had all been taken from them. He gave it to them and then they were able to give it to us. And just look at us now! He told our parents they were as good as anyone. He told us that we were worthy. He believed in us. We had lots of meetings and decided that better houses, better jobs and better education were the key.
We laughed at our parents and said it would never happen. Now we have houses, jobs and education. Fr Mick organised the dances and the basketball, telling us we were just like anyone else. He would come to our homes and we were ashamed but he did not care about the state of the house.
He just looked at us and asked, ‘What are you doing? What are your plans?’ We came to church and he told us that this is God’s house and we belong. Come down the front here! You are worthy. We were all shaking in our boots, nervous, a big shame job. But he prepared us for all the ministries - distributing the cup and the Eucharist, and reading. He was so proud of all we did.”
There were also tributes from family and the Filipino community to whom Mick ministered faithfully when he encountered Filipino brides in mining towns who were often lonely.
The coffin lay open and I looked upon the serene and emaciated corpse of one whose every sinew and muscle had been spent on love and service of others without a thought for self-aggrandisement or comfort. Mick was the epitome of the ozzie country priest hoping beyond hope that the “poor little buggers” would get a break in life.
Liturgy and sacraments underpinned and expressed all he thought and believed. He was never hassled by church shortcomings and shortages – no theological doubts, and no time for all the ecclesiastical politics. Just get them to line up with the poor, and do something practical in love and service.
Next morning, the ever-gracious bishop, Brian Heenan, presided once again at the mass of Christian burial. The cathedral was packed to the rafters. Every imaginable group was there, including the Baha’i community whose homes Mick would visit periodically. The leader of the Baha’i community showed me photos to prove it.
Aborigines enjoyed pride of place in the congregation. There was Phyllis Toby, aged 81, boasting 144 direct descendants and looking so marvellous in her hat. Her late husband Bill had worked along side Mick for years as an Aboriginal pastoral worker.
John Grace, the Vicar-General, preached. He pointed out that the funeral liturgy had commenced with surfacing symbols expressive of the Christian status which belongs to every baptised person, adding, “All other callings in life build on this solid foundation, neither displacing nor abandoning it.”
The diversity of the congregation was testament to Mick’s outreach. He always had an eye for those on the edges, but especially for the first Australians. John Grace recalled that Mick, when once asked about his involvement with the Aboriginal struggles, replied: “I love buckjumping and they excelled in it. We formed a friendship on the rough field of life and have been mates ever since”.
Mick’s passing marks the end of an era - there will never be another like him. But the congregation left St Joseph’s Cathedral last Monday confident that as God’s people, we can sacramentalise the movements in everyone’s lives, if only we are attentive to those on the edges.