Popularised, punished or simply prophetic?

Leaving the screening of the new documentary In Bob We Trust, I think to myself that Father Bob Maguire (pictured), Melbourne’s ‘larrikin’ Catholic priest, has probably just become one of my favourite people. The film documents Father Bob’s ministry at the parish of Saint Peter and Paul in South Melbourne and the process of his forced retirement in spite of the wishes of his parish.

Throughout, we’re provided with a comprehensive understanding of his faith, his battle against the decision, and his own and the public’s response. The film begins with a brilliantly succinct and hilarious overview of Hebrew-Christian religion. Spot on, pointed, insightful, and doubtless controversial, it covers all the major details with skill and precision, accompanied by animation to assist the pace of cognition required of viewers.

This lays the foundation for the theological leanings that underpin Father Bob’s ministry.

Bob’s blunt no-nonsense approach is disarming, as is his quick sense of humour and brazenly apparent love for, in his words, the ‘unloved and the unlovely’. Like any good documentary, it’s the little indicators and incidents included that best capture the authenticity of his outward persona.

Father Bob’s love for and attention to the poor, and his fearlessness in speaking his mind, is nothing short of inspiring. His faith is so grounded in the realities of practicality and human limits that he is uniquely placed to be a relevant and useful voice for the besieged and fractured Catholic Church. This and other factors made evident in the film make his forced retirement seem all the more misjudged.

It seems Father Bob cracks at least a joke a minute, in hilariously dry fashion. This will be familiar to those who tune into his weekly radio program, Sunday Night Safran (with media personality and long-time friend John Safran). His easy jokes, self-deprecation and sometimes unintended humour make the film as delightful at times as it is gut-wrenchingly sad in others.

By far the most poignant of these is the relationship between Father Bob and Costas, a man who has lived a tough life on the street battling drug addiction.

The closeness of their friendship, which has spanned well over a decade, is demonstrated by the easy way Costas comes and goes from Bob’s quarters; the habits, rituals and familiarity they share.

This perhaps intended side-narrative is incredibly moving and ultimately steals the show.

Father Bob is honest regarding his qualms with the Church, yet also describes himself as a loyalist. He speaks of most clergy preferring the “vertical transcendence model” of faith rather than the “horizontal imminence model” (that sees God as ‘everywhere’, among humanity rather than transcending it). His faith is oriented firmly in the latter.

In one scene, we see him patiently waiting out a downpour of rain under a car park porch.

He makes a friendly remark or two but mostly stands silently, in patient acceptance that there’s no use rallying against what ‘is’, you just do what you can. Moments like these show him grounded in ordinary life, although he’s so without façade that this is achieved organically in nearly everything he says or does.

Father Bob’s integrity and compassion likely stem from the conditions of his own family background. He lost his parents and siblings when he was young and faced a life of poverty and loneliness. He recalls what he thought around the time: “I don’t know why they left. What am I supposed to do now?”

Father Bob doesn’t ‘help the poor’; he lives with and among them, making them his friends. He implies that his ministry is most especially for people who don’t have a family – in so doing, he makes a family for himself too. Thus his forced retirement becomes all the more heart-breaking.

Despite this, the documentary does not damn the Catholic Church as a whole, nor does it condone the way Father Bob was treated. It shows the best side of authentic Catholic faith while at the same time highlighting the pitfalls of a very human and flawed institution desperately in need of change.

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