In the winter of 1946, the nineteen year old John Gerry set sail for Rome on the SS Moreton Bay. The world was still reeling from a war that had left behind the ash-heaps of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, but for the boy from Brisbane a new world beckoned. He’d been sent to complete his priestly studies at Propaganda College in Rome, in response to the Apostolic Delegate’s invitation to the Australian bishops to send the most promising of their seminarians to Rome so that Australia could have locally born bishops.
Rome in those years was dominated by the august figure of Pope Pius XII, who proclaimed a Holy Year in 1950 to lift spirits at a time when the shadow of death seemed to darken the planet. It was the Pope who agreed that some of the Propaganda students could be ordained in the Holy Year before their due time. One of those was John Gerry. From the day of his ordination until the day of his death, John never lost the sense, as he said, that “the mystery and the wonder of our priesthood is so awesome”. If anything, that sense grew deeper in him with the passing of the years.
When he returned to Brisbane, John presented himself to Archbishop Duhig who had already decided on a first appointment for him. But post-War Propaganda College was renowned for its meagre fare, and the Archbishop took one look at a very thin John and changed his mind. “Father, you go down to Coolangatta”, he said, “and look after your health”. The tactic obviously worked: John didn’t stay thin.
The young Fr Gerry threw himself into the pastoral ministry, and the gifts which would mark his life soon began to emerge. He said that his only ambition in life was to be a parish priest – and that came to him in 1962 when he was appointed to the relatively new parish of Stafford just as the Second Vatican Council was beginning. John revelled in the challenge of being pastor in what he called “virgin territory” – “no established hierarchy”, he said, “no-one saying ‘We’ve always done in this way’, mostly young families, open to the enthusiasms inspired by the Council”.
John was very much a man of the Council, but he knew that much of what emerged in the Council had its roots in earlier years. John was part of a generation that had grown up with the vision of the Church found in Pius XII’s Encyclical Letter Mystici Corporis, which was revolutionary at the time with its sense that all Christians are living cells of the Body of Christ. From this vision came the JOCIST or YCW movement which was so much part of John’s early priestly life and such a force in the Church, providing as it did a simple and powerful formation for lay apostles young and not so young. It wasn’t a long step from this to the teaching of Vatican II on the role of the laity and the universal call to holiness, both of which were fundamental to John Gerry’s sense of his priestly ministry.
John told the story of the parishioner who spoke to him about receiving Communion: “After receiving Holy Communion, I’d watch others receiving the Body of Christ and would say to myself, ‘I am one with you’, and I resolved, ‘I can’t go out of the church and ignore you”. These words stuck with John and he made them his own through the years, inspiring his episcopal motto, “Though many, one in Christ”, taken from Romans 12:5.
But for all his love of parish life – a love he never lost – other ministries beckoned. For twenty-five years, John was Vicar for Social Welfare in Brisbane, and through that time, he said, “I came to regard people not so much by what they’d done or not done, but by how much they’d suffered”. It was Archbishop Rush who chose him for this ministry, even though John felt that he wasn’t the best qualified for the role. He may not have had the academic qualifications, but John had other gifts more important to the work; and to these was added to the call to episcopal ministry not long after he was named Vicar for Social Welfare. He became the first priest trained at Banyo to be named bishop.
Working with an Archbishop who was serious about delegation, John gathered around him a strong team, and with them he became a key interlocutor with Government, exerting real influence on State and Federal legislation and regulation in key areas of welfare policy. From this came Centacare which has flourished in a very different world than John knew, but which has flourished because of the foundation that he laid.
On the national scene, John also served for twelve years as Chair of what was Australian Catholic Relief and is now Caritas. His finest moment in this role was perhaps in 1985 when he headed to the Eucharistic Congress in Nairobi with $1,000,000 cash in his pocket, to be shared by Caritas in Kenya, Uganda, Zambia and Tanzania. Things were simpler in those days. But in this role too John’s qualities of compassion and love of people, especially those in need, became a gift for the universal Church.
When I came to Brisbane as Archbishop in 2012, one of the first people I spoke with was Bishop John Gerry. I wanted to pick his brain about the diocese. I asked him what he thought was the most distinctive quality of the Archdiocese of Brisbane. In reply John said simply “pastoral intimacy”, citing words of Fr Tom Boland. However true that is of the Archdiocese, it was certainly true of John Gerry, in whom there emerged more and more through the years that sense of pastoral intimacy. It’s one of the reasons why people loved him as he spoke to them heart to heart and loved them with Christ’s own intimacy, the Good Shepherd of whom the Gospel today has spoken.
I once said to John that I was puzzled why he wasn’t given a diocese of his own through the years, given how many vacancies there had been. But he looked at me smiling and said, “That wouldn’t have been my thing”; and he meant it. Perhaps he was right; perhaps the kind of pastoral intimacy that marked his priestly life wouldn’t have flourished best as a diocesan bishop. But it did flourish in Brisbane and beyond through the more than forty years of his service as Auxiliary Bishop; and for that we give thanks to God.
Now in the summer of 2017 the Brisbane boy who set sail in the SS Moreton Bay all those years ago makes his final journey across the dark waters of death. We pray that he journeys safely and reaches the far shore of Easter where the light never fails. There the table will be set for the banquet of the Lamb, and how John will enjoy it when Jesus finally invites him to take his seat at the table. He always loved a good meal, and now the time has come for the best of them all. No more of the meagre fare of post-War Propaganda College, but only the finest food and wine and company at the feast which God has prepared for those who love him, as John surely did. Eternal rest give to him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in peace. Amen.