In Bob We Trust begins with Father Bob’s potted version of the history of the Roman Catholic Church. Five minutes of fun and irreverent theology. Over two thousand years passing in the blink of an eye. Then Father Bob, assisted by his sinister chess opponent, John Safron in the guise of the Devil, gets down to more serious business – an old priest’s herculean struggle with an ecclesiastical dragon in Melbourne – the iron institution led by Archbishop Denis Hart and his mob. The story is a hoot.
The Father Bob in whom we trust is a bit mad – but so are John Safron and Denis Hart. In fact most of the characters in the film, with the exception of a few faithful canine companions, are at least a little off the planet. But unlike Hart, who is endowed with the shape and gravitas of a Renaissance prelate, Bob is also a little touched in a special way – touched by the Spirit of God, touched by the message of the Jesus Gospel, with compassion for the poor, the smelly, the homeless, the unwashed and underprivileged. Father Bob had been running the parish of South Melbourne for nearly forty years, opening the church doors every morning, closing them at night, greeting all comers, welcoming the dwarfs, feeding the hungry, but the Archdiocese uptown wanted to get rid of him, the sooner the better, hopefully without any fuss. An embarrassment. A trouble-maker. He was making them look ridiculous. So he was “invited to retire” despite the fact that he was in rude health and there was a serious pastoral crisis caused by a dramatic fall-away of vocations to the priesthood. Pressure was applied. Questions were asked of Father Bob at the Cathedral touching the very heart of the Gospel message. The book-keepers suspected maladministration. Father Bob’s pastoral shadow, his black poodle, was probably being fed off the parish account. Wasting church funds. The Cathedral’s Captain Queeg was on the trail of a clerical mutineer.
This movie is funny, sometimes very funny, so you’ll need to take your laughing gear along to the cinema with you. It is also challenging, even confronting, especially for any practising Catholic. It captures the conflict at the heart of modern Christian institutions – the struggle between property and power, money and influence, pomp and circumstance on the one hand, and a glorious message of service, inclusion and love, especially to the poor and downtrodden. But my overall reaction was one of profound sadness. How blind and stupid those at the controls can be!
Father Bob was obviously a good man doing a good job for his Church in the parish of South Melbourne. The people loved him. His life and mission were transparently, obviously allied to the Gospel and to Jesus. He was a Melbourne, perhaps even a national, identity in a way Archbishop Hart was not, and could never be. He was a priest all Catholics could be proud of. He was the best of us. So why close him down? Why cut off his arms and legs, and take him out of circulation? It was silly, in anyone’s language – just stupid. He provided an opportunity to focus the community’s mind on the values of the Gospel and on the real work of the institution. At the very least, he could have continued his work as a parish priest emeritus, a consultant, gradually training, educating others, handing over to them, watching his work thrive. But no – a rare opportunity lost. Let the faceless ones work until they drop, but for heaven’s sake, let’s get rid of this one.
Archbishop Hart’s mentor and powerbroker had done the same when he had arrived in Sydney, fresh and uninvited from Melbourne.
Like a craggy, crazy prophet, Father Ted Kennedy had worked wonders in his parish. He had transformed his Redfern presbytery into a drop-in centre for Aboriginal people from the city, from the country areas of New South Wales and around Australia. Everyone was welcomed. He had lived and shared with his black brothers and sisters, baptized and buried them, welcomed those in trouble, visited them in prison, nursed their babies, put his arms around them and loved them. The parish looked unkempt but it was in truth a centre of excellence. It had huge potential to project the image of a different world to Sydneysiders at large. A constant reminder of what we could be, of our better selves. The Redfern community only needed someone with Christian eyes to see what they were doing, to encourage them, to give them space, to continue Father Ted’s work after a stroke had crushed him. But no. Another rare opportunity wasted. Captain Queeg’s work is never complete. George Pell could have been the toast of the town, a champion of the poor in tinsel city, a visionary, a new Dan Mannix-type for the aboriginal people of Sydney and Australia. Instead, the narrow-minded, ultra-conservative, anal retentive and culturally foreign Neo-Cats took over, with a mission to destroy all that Father Ted had done with thirty years of his life and more. A tragedy. An opportunity missed again, and the Church is suffering.
When will they ever learn to trust the Spirit, to trust the people, to trust Father Bob?
Of course, they are only institutional men, elected to office by the organization because they possess the qualities valued by the organization – obedience, loyalty, submission. Trained team players who will not rock the boat.
But the good news is that the team has a new coach who wants to play the game in a different way. A new style. Playing on the front foot. More panache. More risks. Playing to win and even though they are rare, using our gifted players. Bob and Ted, living and working today, would be Pope Francis’s strikers playing till they drop, while Denis and George, playing at their present standard, should be on the bench or in the stands.