Early March 1965 - hot, with the sort of northerly wind which in Melbourne heralds a cool change. Earlier that day a friend of the family had dropped in to offer some reassuring words. He was all of nineteen - patronising, confident and going into second year. "Make sure you enter via the back drive", he told me solemnly. Years later, I was to speculate on the sexual symbolism of that strange advice. At that moment however, I was seized by a more overt feeling of panic. I believed I had a Vocation to the Catholic priesthood (the big "V" we used to call it), but suddenly, on the day I was due to commence the eight year course, I became aware of how little thought I had given to the processes required to reach the goal. Though it was to become home for almost four years, I had never even bothered to visit the seminary at Werribee. It was fifteen miles away and a world away from my childhood and adolescence.
My only childhood memories of the Werribee region were of a few communal picnics at a park just outside the town. On the banks of the Werribee river, the park was a convenient recreational venue for mainly working class people living in the western suburbs. To most Melburnians, however, Werribee was a place to drive through as quickly as possible on the way to the surf beaches. As we all knew, the area’s main claim to fame was its boast of containing one of the world’s largest and most sophisticated open sewage farms. As a child, I had been told on a number of occasions that at the end of the "process", the effluent was so pure that you could drink it. I always felt some vague obligation to look impressed at this information. There was, after all, not too much about which Melbourne could crow about in the fifties.
I may be doing the sanitary engineers at Werribee a great injustice, but on that first afternoon at the Seminary, it was difficult not to form an association between the faint sickly sweet smell of the nearby Sewage Farm (always known simply as "The Farm") and the ten million flies which greeted the arrival of each recruit. Flies seem to be less of a feature of Melbourne and its environs these days. But on calm warm evenings when the cloud cover is low, that unmistakable smell still manages to permeate through at least as far as the inner eastern suburbs; and memories flood back.
My arrival at the Seminary was in the family FJ Holden, recently acquired after the former family vehicle, an ex PMG (now Telstra) 1947 Dodge truck, had finally been sold to another good Catholic family. I was accompanied by a proud father, a teary mother and five bewildered younger siblings. My Mother is of good Irish Glaswegian stock and is not usually the teary type. Through the dust of the back drive and the noise and the haze of the flies, I thought at first that my own eyes might be deceiving me. The only other time I remember seeing her cry on my behalf was when I knelt on the sharp end of a broken beer bottle one cracker night. On this occasion, however, there was a sufficient quantity of relatively clear air between us to convince me that the tears I thought I was seeing were real.
Something of the broader significance of what I was doing began to dawn on me. A gaping hole on my knee was always going to mend. This could be different. Perhaps I needed a little more time for reflection. Perhaps I could retrace my steps and arrive a week or two late. Perhaps ... But parents and hangers on like brothers and sisters ware not encouraged to tarry, and I quickly got the message. "See you at Easter", I said to the seven figures scattered throughout the FJ. I tried to sound breezy, attempting to minimise the impact. But somewhere in the pit of my stomach I knew that life would never be the same again. I had left the family of my childhood for ever.
As our cream coloured Holden disappeared into the evening haze, the advisor on back drives approached and offered me a quick tour before dinner. Terry, I was later to discover, was "on the life", that is, he took the formal part of our training very seriously. For him, therefore, the compulsory first stop was the chapel. In those days, blessing myself with the holy water at the entrance and genuflecting vaguely in the direction of the tabernacle at the front, was as natural as breathing. I had been well trained. Though I have never bothered to claim the title, I feel certain that the length of my stint as an alter boy at St Vincent de Paul’s Church in North Essendon (later to glory in the more presigious name of Strathmore), set a record which has never been bettered. At the age of seven, I could reel off all the responses to the Latin Mass with confidence and without hesitation. To my consternation, the Catholic Church attempted to modernise itself a few years later and taught us the words in English. They were nowhere near as impressive and I was nowhere near as indispensable.
Events in the chapel were pivotal to the life of a Catholic seminary. The chapel, I was to learn, was the last place you visited at night, before the imposition of "magnum silencium", a silence kept until after breakfast the next morning. Before breakfast, the chapel had already taken up more than an hour of your time. Surprisingly, Corpus Christi Werribee had survived with a temporary chapel, constructed shortly after the original buildings were purchased by the Catholic Church in the nineteen twenties. There were no serious plans to alter this situation during my time in the sixties and indeed there was no change right up until the seminary was finally sold in the mid seventies. I clocked up many hundreds of hours in that little chapel. Its human scale and homely dimensions contrasted starkly with the design of the second Corpus Christi College built in the fifties to cater for the final four years of seminary training and (it seemed) an ever expanding number of seminarians.
This College was constructed in Glen Waverley, a smug triple fronted cream brick veneer suburb which was later to feel the lashing wit of Dame Edna Everidge. With its flying buttresses and vaulted ceilings, there could be no doubt that Glen Waverley’s chapel was its centrepiece. Perched ostentatiously on the top of a hill, the senior seminary was increasingly recognised as a monument to pomposity and profligate spending. It was paid for by the coins collected from thousands of mainly working class Catholics each Sunday. So grand is its design, that to this day pilots are advised to use it as a marker for their approach into Moorabbin, Melbourne’s busiest airport. On a clear day, it can easily be seen from an aeroplane over Eildon Weir, more than forty miles to the north.
The architect of Corpus Christi Glen Waverley, a Mr Kelly, boasted that it would last for five hundred years. It survived as a seminary for about twenty, before the Catholic Church managed , with considerable relief, to sell it to the State Government. It is now used for the training of police rather than priests, the significance of which is lost on very few. The chapel is now a gymnasium.
My guide of back drive notoriety steered me next to the two football fields, which I was later to find, rivalled the chapel as the place at the heart of seminary life. I surveyed the football fields with a sense of anxious anticipation. I loved what was then called Victorian Rules Football but I knew my abilities were limited. For a few weeks, I entertained the thought that maybe I could start again. My indifferent reputation as a schoolboy footballer was not known here. Perhaps I could leap forward in stature in the first couple of games and develop my skills and confidence from there.
It was a fantasy. The nearest I ever came to recognition was a badly twisted knee which resulted in a stint in hospital and the removal of a cartilage. The cartilage operation has always been a good story to tell when others of far greater natural ability are recalling the number of cups they received or the number of goals kicked. Especially satisfying has been the fact that my own two boys have been impressed by the story and told it to their mates. In the retelling, they have tended to promote me to more senior grades of football. To date, I’ve not found the time to put them straight on a few of the more trivial details
The dominance of football at Corpus Christi was such that everybody was expected, even required, to play. This included the one or two "late vocations" who signed up each year. Those with late vocations came from a range of previous occupations, but shared in common, a somewhat tardy recognition of their true destiny. These days, I imagine that mature aged recruits would be seen as bringing many advantages. In those days, it was assumed that God generally favoured seventeen year olds.
"Pop" was the oldest recruit in our year. He used to bravely don the shorts on football days and generally try to avoid getting anywhere near the action. I do recall one occasion, however, when standing on the normally safe leeward wing, and in intense conversation with a colleague equally uninspired by the pursuit of a pumped up bag of leather, Pop actually marked the ball. He had not seen it coming. Rather, he had been in the process of gesticulating to his colleague when the ball fell into his arms. His next problem was how to dispose of it. He did so in a manner as hurried as it was undignified.
As Terry and I turned from the football fields, a bell was ringing for my first seminary meal. Self consciously, I filed into the refectory under the gaze of the eight or so Jesuit priests who were to be our teachers, critics and spiritual directors. I overheard one of the more confident new recruits suggest that the meal lacked a certain "je ne sais qua" . I was a reasonable Latin scholar in those days, but to my consternation, I had no idea what he was talking about. To me, that meal and most which followed in the years to come, varied from adequate to excellent. Not only had I had grown up the eldest of six children in a working class family, I had also spend most of my holidays with six cousins (all boys) on a dairy farm in Gippsland. Though I could eat practically anything with relish, there were limits.
Several times, I came near to gagging on a delicacy which the nuns who oversaw the kitchen attempted to serve in many disguised forms. The seminary had its own orchard and in the early sixties, the pride of the orchard was a plantation of quince trees. We called the products of these trees quangers. But it didn’t matter what they were called because for me, nothing could hide their taste and texture. I still recall with a warm glow, a sign which went up on the notice board late in my career at Werribee. It seemed the poor quince trees were in the way of progress and volunteers were being called for to (sadly) uproot them. I worked like a fiend that day, convinced to the last that an order would come at any moment to cease operations. The last quanger tree was toppled in the half light of a late winter’s afternoon.
Meals in the Seminary were normally taken in silence. On the occasion of this first evening back from vacation, the old hands looked expectantly in the direction of the Rector at the top table. He seemed to be enjoying the tension of the moment. "Deo Gratias", he finally mumbled, with just the hint of a smile (it was about as much of a smile as I ever saw him achieve). The refectory erupted into the happy business of attempting to eat and tell too many stories at the same time.
It was at that meal that I also discovered the secret of strategic seating. If seconds were to be had, the rule was to offer them to the person at the bottom end of the table first. Seconds worked their way up from that point, but frequently petered out at about the half way mark. Though seating was supposed to be a random affair (you simply took the next available seat as you filed in), there were some whose reputations for securing an end seat
were legend. To this day, one former colleague, who continues to practise as a priest, is still known to his friends as Ender The evening meal over, I was invited by a group of second and third years to join them for Rosary and a chat along the front drive. The back drive had been constructed like the barrel of a gun - the shortest distance between the road and the main wing of the seminary. The front drive, I was to discover, was curvaceous and immensely more elegant. It was the focal point of beautiful gardens laid out by the Chirnside family, who at one point had owned this property as well as much of the land between Melbourne and Geelong. It began at the front door of the old Chirnside mansion, now a residence for the Jesuit professors and for the Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny. The drive and gardens combined to foster an impression that the seminary grounds were extensive, which they were, and undulating, which they were definitely not - most of the country around Werribee being about as flat as it gets.
My senior companions, with rosary beads at the ready (I had not thought to carry this essential piece of Catholic equipment on my person), asked a number of polite questions of me and then proceeded to top each other’s holiday stories. The stories which got the biggest reaction were always those with a discreet hint of sex. They were not stories of conquest or of "doing it". To this day, I believe that most of my seminary companions took their promise of celibacy seriously, at least initially. Rather, they were stories of meeting girls or of being in the presence of girls, of the tension and excitement of the girls not knowing "who they were" and, sometimes, of the teasing and other reactions which resulted from the discovery of the seminarian’s "real identity". "She was amazed to find I was just an ordinary person", was the sort of comment I was to hear over and over again.
I was always puzzled at why the girls in these stories should have been so astonished to discover who we "really" were. But even on that first evening, I vaguely recognised that such conversations had much more to do with the ongoing issue of why each of us had volunteered to make eunuchs of ourselves. In years to come, the many arguments I was to hear on this subject always seemed to be couched in obscure theological language and were never convincing. For me, at the age of seventeen, it was simply something you had to do in order to reach a greater goal. I thought I could do it. I remember feeling a blank sensation and not responding when a few of my year 12 school friends had told me, flatly, I was crazy. Any other reaction would probably have been too confusing both for me and for them.
We were approaching the end of the front drive and I figured that if we were to get through the rosary, we would need to start shortly after commencing the return journey. I was keen to make an impact, but up until then had only been given an opportunity to supply a few boring details of my life, like where I had grown up and which school I had attended. Conversation lulled momentarily and nobody seemed keen to commence the ten minute prayer session. Then, oh joy, one of my companions asked what I had done during the holidays. I was waiting for this. It was the one thing which I was confident would confer on me an initial, unique identity. "I got my pilot’s licence", I said, in a voice as casual as I could muster. There was silence. Today, learning to fly at the age of seventeen would be no big thing. But in the mid nineteen sixties, this story had clearly topped all the others. "So you’ll be a flying priest then", came an eventual somewhat ungenerous reply. "We’d better start the Rosary. What mysteries are we meditating on?"
For me, the Rosary had always been a struggle. For one thing, you were supposed to say the words but at the same time meditate on something else. If you were in the leading role, you had to remember the name of, say, "The third glorious mystery" and then make sure you incanted the first part of exactly ten Hail Marys. Too few would lead to a lot of coughing and clearing of throats from your companions. Too many and you would find the response trailing off in a manner which left you in no doubt that you had blown it. The Rosary was both rigid in its format and democratic in its execution. You could get into a pleasant trance like state (which I much later discovered was something that meditation was supposed to help you achieve) and then suddenly be called upon to lead the next decade. What decade? What mystery? Oh Christ! Oh sorry!
As children, the Rosary was a compulsory part of the family evening. Just when we though we might escape it, my Father would remind us that it was time. Typically, we would drop to our knees in the lounge room. The trick was to find an armchair or couch into which you could gradually roll as much of your body above the knees as possible. It was OK so long as you knees (or at least one knee) remained on the floor. Falling asleep during the rosary was common and always frowned upon. It was good to get you decade in early. That way, most of the pressure was off. On the other hand, being the eldest, I was expected to set a "good example". Occasionally, even my Father would nod off and have to be told several times to commence his decade. Slip ups, therefore, had to be tolerated.
My most agonising memories of saying the rosary were summers evenings with the front door ajar. Our house was open to the many other children in the street, a number of whom were not Catholics. They would turn up after dinner (actually we called it tea), expecting to play through the remaining hours of twilight. I just wanted them to go away, but they rarely did. They would simply hang about until this strange ritual was over and then suggest we go out to play "Hidie" or "Charlie over the Water". Perhaps there is so much in children’s lives which is simultaneously beyond their ken and accepted, that I neednt have worried. On visits to their Indian Grandmother outside Kuala Lumpur for the last part of her life, my own children seemed to think nothing of accompanying her to the village temple and offering bananas to a Hindu deity. It was simply what their Grandmother did!
Adults who stumbled upon the family rosary were more discreet than the children. They would often stand within hearing distance nonetheless. Sometimes they were friends who might even be invited by my father to join in. When he did that, we children would wince. Mainly, however, these unexpected visitors were customers. For a bit of extra money, my parents ran a local branch of a Hospital Benefits Friendly Society and people would come to the house to pay their bills. They were always invited in, regardless of what was happening or how many bums were in the air in the middle of the rosary.
Twilight now with no sign of the cool change. Time for the serious business of room allocation. We were called together by the "Rhetoricians Prefect" - Rhetoric being the name Jesuits traditionally gave to their first year students. Each room, we were told, was to be shared by two first year students. "Damn!" I had hoped that I might finally be afforded the luxury of a room to myself. As a concession to my need to study towards the end of Year 12, I had been able to live in our garage, which my Father had lined with masonite. To me, it was luxury. I’d had no previous memory of ever sleeping in a room on my own.
I scored Brian, who at the age of 22, verged on being in the late vocation category. To me, he seemed quite out of touch with everything with which I was concerned at the time. He may as well have been 50 which, in my arrogance, I regarded as near enough to being dead. Much worse, I discovered to my horror that Brian was s snorer. To save Brian’s live as much as my own, I had by the third night developed a strategy. It consisted of lining up all my shoes at the side of the bed. If Brian began to snore whilst I was awake, I would hurl one of the shoes at the wall beside his bed. The loud bang, followed by the slide of the shoe onto his bedclothes, was usually enough to stop him for a time. This ritual went on for most of the six months in which we shared that room.
Sometime between putting bags in rooms and being shepherded into a lecture room for "Points for evening meditation", we were issued with our cassocks or soutans and back to front collars. In most religious orders, donning the garb is an event of great symbolic significance, marked by appropriate ritual. But though being trained by Jesuits, we were studying to be "secular priests". Whilst not formally a member of a religious order we were frequently told we had "married the church" and, in those days at least, would have been expected to wear the Church’s priestly uniform. But the uniform, that overt symbol of what would set us aside from others, was practically thrown at us. They may as well have been distributing overalls. As we filed into the lecture room in our soutans, I suspect that each new recruit felt something of what I felt - a mixture of pride, self consciousness and a sense of having somehow been cheated.