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The Funeral of Roger Pryke: priest and social activist

The Funeral took place on July 7, 2009. Celebrant was Peter Phelan

Roger Pryke was a celebrated catholic priest, psychologist and social activist who left an indelible impression on the Australian catholic community. He is best remembered for applying the core values of christianity to the welfare of the individual person and the betterment of society. Many remember him for his peaceful organised mass protests against aparthied in Sth Africa as symbolised by the tours of the All white Springboks Rugby Union teams.

His Funeral was remarkable in that it was in two parts – the first– a concelebrated mass at St Josephs, Hunters Hill. My impression was that there were about twenty concelebrants and several hundred people. Most of these, I imagine, were those who were practising catholics who revered Roger Pryke who, during his priest period, inspired wthem with a brand of catholicism which they still retained. The Mass gave the impression that Roger had never left them – which, in a sense, was true.

The second part at the crematorium was a series of personal tributes by a representative group of his many admirers, who spoke – not only of his time in the church, but of the excellent fearless work he did as a married man and private employed citizen. It was much more of a secular gathering. After an hour and a half the long line of speakers had to be cut off as time had run out.

What was remarkable as far as I was concerned was that someone of his age (a) had so many people. As a funeral clebrant with at least 2000 funerals behind me, old people do not usually have much of an attendance at their funerals. Their friends have died off – usually they just have the widow and children and family.

But Roger’s wife, Meg, had died many years before, she bore him no children, he had had Alzheimers disease for several years and yet he had two remarkable funerals !

At his Funeral there were many excellent eulogies

Here is my Eulogy:

Dally Messenger on Roger Pryke

You remember the days. Catholic priests talked of Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, the authority of the Church, and the evils of mixed marriages.

Enter Roger Pryke — and his then unique Christian perspective – he spoke of how the sources of unhappiness, despair, low self-esteem, low self-confidence, and mental instability so often could be traced to acts of cruelty by one human being to another.

Happiness and mental balance depends, he said, on “the esteem of significant others in our lives”. That is why I surround myself with you lot.

Roger explained how the maintenance of sanity is to always face reality. Yes, people, I am 71, I am an old age pensioner, I have ordered a hearing aid, I have a history of successes and failures. That’s who I am, take it or leave it. I sleep sane. Thank you Roger.

He taught us to be ourselves — there is no peace in false fronts, airs and graces, or pretentiousness. It is not the Jesus way.

He spoke about good reactions to bad stimuli. We talked about the the blacks in America – how , after generations of slavery and of oppression, and being brainwashed to think of themselves as inferior, how they could then think of themselves as equal in dignity to whites. His answer has stayed with me. “They just made up their minds that they were equal, “ he said.

He held up a penny – if you love, the other side of the coin is that you will be vulnerable. If you love, you will likely get hurt. It is the other side of the coin. All things considered it is best to take the love pathway. This led to one of my first sermons on Simon and Garfunkels’s “I am a rock, I am an island.”

He introduced us to the counselling methodology of Carl Rogers. Counselling in those days meant you went to the priest, explained your problem, and you were told what to do. Rogers, Roger explained, meant you listen very carefully, you helped the person consider all the factors, so that they came to their own solution. So revolutionary.

Somehow, in 1965 or 1966 he got into St Patrick’s College, Manly, the seminary, where the tension, between the old guard thinking and the new philosophy of Vatican II, wreaked its own kind of misery. Roger confronted the then Dean, Pat Murphy, and told him that the atmosphere of oppression within the walls of his seminary was so bad, Jesus would never recognise the place. So courageous!

I so admired the guy — he made such sense to me. He is the only person I look back on as a guru in my life.

Permit me some brief personal memories. When still a seminarian I went walking with Roger at Araluen near Canberra. We were given the use of a country house there — I poured my sincere little heart out to him — his quiet reassurances validated me. I wrote a poem about it.

When, back at the Manly seminary, I used to get to frustration point, I would, after lights out, sneak across the oval, crawl under the fence, and go to visit him in his parish of Harbord. I needed to hear a sane voice. So patient.

Twenty years ago he rang me in Melbourne and said he was coming down south and intended staying with me and my then wife for a week, which he did. I recall feeling so privileged — it is as if Barack Obama rang me and asked me could he stay in my guest room. I recall that at the time he talked about the Progoff Intensive Journal method of gaining self awareness.

I visited him more recently at his apartment in Harbord. We spent the best part of a day together. We walked to Manly and back. It was one of those conversation reminiscent of the Walrus and the Carpenter.
“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings–
And why the sea is boiling hot–
And whether pigs have wings.”
And much secret men’s business – a occasion to live in the memory.

I thank Tony Newman, Paul Hartigan, especially Peter and Marian Phelan for looking after our mate in his last sad years and days. I thank Ed Campion for writing such an interesting and validating article in the Sydney Morning Herald.

The American Indians believe that no one is truly dead. while those who are still alive, hold them in memory. So Roger, you have a few years to live yet. I am not a believer in a sense most people would understand, but I cannot resist the words of our shared cultural tradition:

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine,
et lux perpetua luceat eis.
Requiscat in pace.

Bill McMahon Letter

Bill McMahon showed me a letter he had received about Roger from Ken Buttrum which I found particularly interesting. An extract:

(I have) fond memories of Roger’s many great leadership skills, and it’s just a shame that his contribution to the development of new services for disadvantaged youth supported by the Department of Community Services in the mid 70s are not (acknowledged). He led a ministerial committee, of which | was a member, recommending major changes to young offender services throughout this state. It was my privilege to then implement these services. What an extraordinary individual of great vision and compassion! | will never forget his humility, great personal strength and personal encouragement as one of my supervisors. The private sector greatly benefitted from his vision, skill and invaluable leadership.