Calling to mind Father Ferdy Parer OFM
May 25, 2009
A funny thing happened on the way to…
I was watching the Australian Story episode tonight on Peter Kennedy, Terry Fitzpatrick and the St Mary’s In Exile crew. I don’t want to comment much on it – except to note that for a pair who are supposedly opposed to patriarchy, the trope of ‘fatherhood’ and ‘fathers’ was at the heart of its rhetoric. And that in a way, it was a weird sort of coming out story. [Not implying that Peter and Terry are anything but heterosexual – if anything, perhaps they’re too much. Paul Collins, whose commentary was by his book, did hit on something when he referred to ‘alpha males’…]
It must also be said that the show approached the genre of hagiography, and was full of half-truths at best. Unfortunately, Australian Story generally appears to be an outlet for PR spin, under the guise of human interest, and almost every episode, really, is quite an indictment of what the ABC should be about… But, for my thoughts on the continuing life of St Mary’s Catholic Parish, South Brisbane, see here. Anyway, the show, through a sort of association of themes coalescing into a memory and a spirit, did conjure up a remarkable spirit for me tonight.
A memory – or rather, a set of memories – I hadn’t recalled for years was summoned up. Perhaps because I was thinking – pace Peter’s discourse – about what being a ‘radical Catholic priest’ actually means. [To be fair to Peter, I think that interpolation was made editorially by the programme, and not a label he applied to himself, though I wouldn’t swear to it.]
One of the things I have a problem with in the Exilist discourse is the implication that Peter and Terry are somehow the only Catholic priests – living or dead – in the Brisbane Archdiocese who are living social justice. Whatever one thinks about their good works, that is simply a falsehood. And somewhat of a pernicious one, if I may say.
In my previous post, I referred to the Discernment of Spirits.
I thought of Father Ferdy Parer OFM tonight, a most remarkable priest. I first met him when I was a teenager, attending mass at the Little Flower Church at Kedron, which was was (and is) under the care of the Franciscan Fathers (perhaps better known through its attachment to Padua College).
Fr Ferdy had a remarkable life, which is documented in a book by Mary Mennis. I used to own a copy. It appears to have disappeared. It may come back one day, or if not, I’m sure it’s doing what books do, when like cats, they just wander off to do their thing in the world. I must buy a new copy!
Ferdy helped me when I was very troubled, around 1981, when I was 13. He resurfaced in my life about ten years later. I was at Labour Day, after the annual march. Back then, the Labour Day speeches, market day and general merriment used to take place in Albert Park. Albert Park itself has many stories to tell. But, in any case, I was wandering around, looking for some friends, or someone to hang out with and have a beer with, I guess. It was another confusing time in my life.
I’d been embroiled in student politics, and I was beginning to question both my political position and the ethics of some of what was involved in party politics. I’d been at uni doing a BA forever, and wasn’t sure whether I would ever finish it… or what path would open afterwards. My personal life was in a bit of a mess. Perhaps none of this is unusual for a 23 year old… and when I was pouring out my heart on the phone to a friend on Friday night, and mentioned I’d been going through some more emotional upheaval – aet 41, she said – and with some reason – “when have you not worn your heart on your sleeve, Mark?”…
There’s another story there, which I don’t want to tell…
But, circling back in time, I spotted, in my own wanderings, Fr Parer, dressed in the characteristic brown habit of the Friars Minor. By this stage, Ferdy was in his 80s, I think. His sight was fading, and he walked with a cane. I was worried about him. I approached him, and remembered myself to him and asked if I could be of any help. He seemed a little disoriented, but recognised me – though he could hardly see – and told me he knew it was Labour Day, and that he often walked in Albert Park, because he liked walking in parks. He’d sort of meander, I was later told, and all sorts of strange folk would come and talk to him. He radiated a sort of calm you could feel – literally – almost from ten metres away. Later, not years later, but later on that day, I wondered whether I’d been patronising in assuming he didn’t know exactly what he was doing. But I’m sure he knew I thought that, and he forgave me.
Ferdy’s art was to know – with incredible acuity – what was in anyone’s heart, and what they needed. All of us have that to some degree. There are all sorts of words like ’empathy’ which kinda gesture to it. But they’re not quite right. With Ferdy, he saw into your heart and knew what was written on it, and knew everything he needed to know… while respecting your privacy totally. He was almost without any pretention, but at the same time, abnegation of self didn’t describe him at all. He was a most distinct and loveable personality, despite – or because of – being so oriented to others.
He lived the spirituality, or better, the charism of Saint Francis.
I got Ferdy a lemonade. We sat under a tree, and he asked if I’d help him home. He was tired. I did – taking him by the arm. He was living in a sort of informal Franciscan House of Hospitality in Spring Hill, then still somewhat of a rundown suburb. He’d be picked up every morning – at the crack of dawn – I don’t think he slept, really – and driven by another priest to say mass in the Franciscan Order’s chapel at Kedron, but he was sleeping in this ramshackle old house with anyone who cared to wander in – people with disabilities, Indigenous people, released prisoners, crazy folk, anyone. It wasn’t a ‘boarding house’ or a ‘halfway house’ or any sort of registered or regulated charity. It was a work he’d initiated.
I went back there with him, stayed for a simple meal, and chatted to his friends. Later, a younger priest arrived. He said the Fathers and Brothers were worried about Ferdy. He might be taken advantage of. I don’t think he would have been – he had the gift not to be – a gift of love and reciprocity. But he was obviously old, ill and weakening.
I don’t know what happened to that House after Ferdy was taken back into the Franciscan fold – he’d kind of wandered off, the younger priest said. I suspect it was normalised, regularised, in some way, though I have no doubt that much of his spirit remained.
I won’t go into exactly how, but in a way, Ferdy, in such a lovely way that respected what I thought – mistakenly – about where I was, and didn’t openly call that into question – put me on a path of calm that night. He knew exactly what to say, and he’d ask – quite innocently – if I wanted a blessing. The blessing was wordless, and really just the sign of the cross made over me. He then touched me on the head, and I felt an incredible transfer of healing power. It was a sacramental.
Some years later, I attended his funeral.
I treasured the memory of that night, though I don’t think I ever saw Ferdy in this life again. Tonight, I’ve been thinking about him – someone who meant a lot to me a long time ago, and touched my heart – in the true meaning of those words – and who passed away many years ago. A strange set of circumstances conjured up his beneficent spirit tonight, and I so am very grateful for the ghostly love!
In an odd way, as Michael remarked, Peter Kennedy was the segue. A good work, though not one that was intended.
But I also think that I’m in a similar emotional space as I was eighteen years ago, and perhaps Ferdy came like a stranger in the night, to remind me of the power of love.
The radical love of a radical priest, who saw into hearts, and not in a naive way, but with intelligence, discernment, and … well, love.
Libera nos, quaesumus, Domine, ab omnibus malis, da propitius pacem in diebus nostris, ut, ope misericordiae tuae adiuti, et a peccato simus semper liberi et ab omni perturbatione securi: exspectantes beatam spem et adventum Salvatoris nostri Iesu Christi.