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On a ramble with Father Bob Maguire

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Columnist for The Canberra Times

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Father Bob Maguire speaks to residents and friends at the Calvary Retirement Community.

Father Bob Maguire speaks to residents and friends at the Calvary Retirement Community. Photo: Rohan Thomson

Father Bob Maguire, AO, community worker and likeable media personality, made supernatural gestures in his audience's direction as he arrived for Monday's chat to folk at the Calvary Retirement Community. The Calvary Book Club has been reading his biography The Larrikin Priest and had invited him to visit.

This atheist, unfamiliar with Catholic ways, was a bit perplexed by the gestures and so was glad of his explanation that ''I've just given general absolution to everyone in the room. Even to the Protestants.''

It's the sure and certain knowledge that the famous and venerable man (suddenly he's 79) has room in his heart for everyone, even Protestants and atheists, that makes him so popular. He is a legendary worker on social justice for just the sorts of people (the wretched of the earth) for whom Our Redeemer showed such compassion.

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Australia bristles with associations he founded, all intended to do for the unfortunate what the founder of what he calls ''the firm'' would want done. Lots of ''Christians'' (some of whom might have felt their ears burning during Monday's talk to a silver-haired congregation) will have a lot to fear when and if Jesus comes again.

Maguire, you sense, will have nothing to worry about. He and the Jesus of the New Testament seem to be singing from the same hymn sheet.

But you also sense he is a far better mover and shaker and doer than he is a public speaker. If I described his presentation as ''rambling'' that wouldn't do justice to a talk that was skipping backwards and forwards, and even sideways in time, and leaping gymnastically from subject to unrelated subject. Roving a bit as he spoke, he was a little like a sweet-tempered boxer. He did, though, land a few clips to the ear. One was landed on Cardinal George Pell and another on the previous archbishop of Canberra and Goulburn, the eerily unpopular Mark Coleridge. Maguire did, though, have fond words for Canberra's ''good old Bishop Pat Power'', at which the congregation (having not made a sound in defence of Coleridge) gave an appreciative cheer. Another of his clips to the ear landed on the highly punchable Christopher Pyne, somehow our nation's Minister for Education.

A currawong at a Holt window.

A currawong at a Holt window.

During his ramble, Maguire alighted, briefly, on his work in Canberra during the 1960s.

''During the Vietnam War I used to go into your Duntroon, as a chaplain. We had a job to do so-called 'character training'. The idea was that Aussie soldiers could run and shoot and do all the right stuff that soldiers do, but that we'd like them to pursue 'excellence' and not just be killers. We therefore had to pull something out of the hat, and it couldn't be called 'religion' because Aussies won't have that forced on them. So instead you had to pull out of the hat a thing called 'character', something invented by the Greek philosophers, and the thing that was missing all around the Western world.''

From here he skipped effortlessly into a ruthlessly truthful analysis of our misguided and tragic participation in that war, although for him at least the Australians had performed creditably ''while the Americans did what they usually do, which is drop bloody napalm over everyone and try to kill the lot of them with one shot''.

Next, a few rhetorical hops and skips to the disappointment he feels at the Catholic Church's refusal to accept everybody (he had wanted to christen the child of a gay couple). And he said it pained him whenever the church refused to let football-mad Victorians have football-based elements at weddings and funerals.

Here he broke into the famous old hymn Good Old Collingwood for ever! and mused that the church really should accommodate the football mad, rather than drive them into the clutches of agnostic celebrants, perhaps driving them away from the church for ever.

Grateful for his generous absolution, this reporter left the Calvary occasion with the larrikin priest still in full, rambling, entertaining flow. Those of you who were not there on Monday can listen to him on Triple J every Sunday evening where he helps comedian John Safran co-host Sunday Night Safran.

Bird feeders: takeaway on the fly

Recent stories about the need to provide water and food for native birds during this Saharan heatwave have galvanised a Holt family (giving their address as the ''Holt Fly-In Take-Away'') to sending us some pictures of their currawong and magpie clientele. The currawong customer comes to the kitchen window and here has posed itself, flatteringly, with a pot of South African violets.

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