Bob Maguire – Australia’s Larrikin Priest
House of Representatives, Wednesday 24 May 2023
Father Bob Maguire was one of Australia's best-known priests, but to call him a priest is a bit like calling Nick Cave a guitarist: it's technically true, but it doesn't really capture the breadth of the bloke. Bob Maguire was born in 1934 in Thornbury, Victoria and worked as a beekeeper and army officer before becoming a parish priest for Sts Peter and Paul's Catholic Church, in South Melbourne, from 1973 to 2012. In that role, Father Bob campaigned on social justice issues, particularly homelessness. He engaged with communities through radio shows on 3AW and Triple J and frequently clashed with the government and church authorities.
I first got to know Father Bob in 2013 when he joined me for an in-conversation event about a book I'd written, Battlers and Billionaires: The Story of Inequality in Australia. I quickly learned why over a thousand people came to his final church service. He was incisive, amusing and passionate.
Father Bob Maguire's brand of Catholicism wasn't that of Daniel Mannix or Bob Santamaria, and it certainly wasn't prosperity gospel. His was a form of social justice Catholicism, larrikin Catholicism, in the vein of Australian Catholic leaders of the past, like Peter Kennedy and Bill Morris, as well as Naples priest Mario Borrelli. It meant reaching out to the local community through his Bob Squad and the Bobmobiles. Bob's work over the years brought him multiple awards, including Victorian of the Year, and a documentary was made about his life: In Bob We Trust. In 2014, in an effort to gauge the happiness of Australians, he organised a competition in which first prize was the chance to work in one of his soup kitchens.
Bob Maguire had it tough. When Bob was a child, his father was violent towards his mother and towards Bob. Bob said later in life that he forgave his dad and he was on a journey of trying to redeem his father. He said his father was a sailor and suffered from placelessness. Bob lost his sister Kathleen to tuberculosis when he was aged just 11, and he'd lost both his parents by the time he was 15. Yet, he was remarkably generous towards the world. He told me in a podcast we recorded that 'To know all is to forgive all.' He talked about the five Cs: care, communication, concern, compassion and common sense. He said he believed in a message of religion, pure and undefiled. I asked him if living a good life really was that simple, and he responded, 'I would think so.'
I was fascinated too as to how Bob Maguire managed to be present and completely focused on a single parishioner when he was in confession. He responded to me by saying, 'The real presence of God is in the next person you meet.' He talked about the importance of the church becoming the heart of the neighbourhood. He said that's what they were doing, 'up there for 35 years at Sts Peter and Paul's.' He clashed with Denis Hart, Melbourne Archbishop at the time, over the sale of church property to the poor. His love for others is demonstrated in a phrase he once recounted to me. He said that the Japanese talk about ‘forest bathing’ and that ‘I believe in crowd bathing.' He said that he loved going into crowds. He said, 'I think if you can give a crowd the chance, it'll welcome you.'
Many prominent Australians have acknowledged Bob Maguire's contribution to the nation. Eddie McGuire said:
He imbued what he believed to be his religion, not the pomp and circumstance of it, he really imbued the sense of what he believed Jesus was about, that you gave everything, that you stood with the sinners, that you looked after people.
His collaborator, John Safran, said:
More than being kind in broad brushstrokes, he was kind in small ways.
John Safran went on to say:
He attracted all manner of outcasts, not all pleasant, but he was open hearted to those people too. I asked him how did this and he said, "You don't have to like people to love them."
John Safran was acknowledged too by former Albert Park MP, Martin Foley, who said the loss of Bob Maguire was:
… a blow to the 'unlovables' who he supported and sustained over a lifetime of lived social justice. May his example inspire us all to overcome poverty injustice and hate.
Bob Maguire once said, when asked why the poor matter:
Because not only are they the majority but they're also the treasure trove of wisdom and resilience … The elites might have everything, but they know nothing.
Bill Shorten said of Bob Maguire:
He would have been the best pope we never had, but he would have laughed at this because there was no way he was going to be constrained by convention.
There are a lot of things in life that if we don't do someone else would. But occasionally you meet rare individuals that but for them things would never get done.
He would poke fun at those in power but he never stopped fighting for those without power.
I found it a great privilege to have known Bob Maguire and to have bathed in his wisdom and his eclectic view of the world. He was the great larrikin priest. I'm not sure we'll ever see his like again, but Australia is richer and the poor are better for his having walked the earth. Vale Bob Maguire.