Paul Collins. Three wise people.

Dec 18, 2015

In the last eighteen months Australian Catholicism has lost three of its great leaders, people who genuinely contributed not only to the church, but also to our social and cultural life. They were Professor Max Charlesworth who died on 2 June 2014, Sister Veronica Brady who died on 20 August 2015, and Father Frank Martin who died on 2 September 2015. In a time when the church is utterly bereft of episcopal leadership, it was people like Veronica, Max and Frank who were the ones who inspired us and who remained most true to the message of Jesus and the Catholic tradition.

Without a doubt Max Charlesworth was the most profoundly influential layman in twentieth century Australian Catholicism. A graduate of Melbourne and Louvain Universities, his contribution to Catholic intellectual life is without parallel. His primary interests were in practical philosophy, ethics, Aboriginal religious cosmology, the primacy of conscience, the role of women in religion and society and the relationship between church and state.

He was the author of twenty books that ranged across all his philosophical interests and his emphasis on the role of the laity in the church and conscience was far ahead of his time; he was a genuine precursor of Vatican II. He and his wife Stephanie brought the lay-led Teams of Our Lady (Équipes Notre Dame) to Australia in the early-1960s and the Teams have had a continuing influence on married couples. Despite criticism from some hierarchs and laity, Max remained a man of deep, but critical faith, always loyal to Catholicism and maintaining a gentleness and humility towards all.

Right from her earliest years as a teacher Loreto Sister Veronica Brady (born Patricia Mary Brady in Melbourne) inspired her students and challenged them to ask questions about everything, including Church doctrine. She was suspicious of belief that wasn’t “tempered with a certain amount of doubt.” In many ways she was reminiscent of the founder of the Loreto order, Mary Ward, who even in the seventeenth century was a truly self-reliant woman with a healthy independence of church authority.

Veronica’s tertiary teaching was mainly at the University of Western Australia where she championed the introduction of studies in Australian Literature. A friend of Patrick White, she was also the biographer of Judith Wright. Speaking at the National Library, Veronica said that Wright stood “against the current of the times, against technology and the destruction of the environment, against war and its violations of our common humanity” and against the “historical amnesia” that condemned Aborigines “to oblivion.”

These were the issues around which Veronica’s life constellated. Like Max Charlesworth she was a champion of conscience and she was part of a group critical of Cardinal George Pell’s restrictive views on conscience and who reported him to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

But Veronica’s interests were not limited to Catholicism. Like Max, she was a ‘public intellectual’. She was appointed a member of the board of the ‘new’ ABC when in 1983 the ‘Commission’ became the ‘Corporation’ with a new managing director, Geoffrey Whitehead, with whom Veronica often clashed.

Her biographer, Kath Jordan, called her a ‘larrikin angel’ and that is exactly what she was. Former WA Senator Fred Chaney said that “In an often smug and complacent society, we need Veronica Brady and her ilk to remind us to look beyond ourselves. I think Jesus would be OK with her.” Precisely!

At age eleven Frank Martin was a member of the Vienna Mozart Boys Choir. Well, to be precise, a choir made up of Austrian boys from the Vienna choir stranded in Australia at the outbreak of war in 1939 and boys, like Frank, who were co-opted from the Christian Brothers College, Victoria Parade, East Melbourne to form the original nucleus of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral Choir.

Frank at first resisted going into the seminary and for three years worked for the secretary to the War Cabinet, a very useful experience of the inner workings of government. Ordained in 1956, by 1970 he was Melbourne archdiocesan Director of Catholic Education. As such he became a pivotal player in the educational reforms initiated by the Whitlam government. We are fortunate that Frank’s long-term colleague and beloved friend, Dr Anne O’Brien, has written the history of this period and of Frank’s enormous contribution in her Blazing a Trail. Catholic Education in Victoria 1963-1980 (1999).

By the early 1960s Catholic education was in a parlous state. Administration was decentralized and schools were “owned” by either parishes or religious orders. Working with inadequate infrastructure, poor teaching training and a massive increase in student numbers and class sizes (I was in a class of 80 in first year secondary in 1953), the Catholic “system” was on the brink of collapse.

But after the Goulburn school “strike” of 1962, government money gradually became available, especially after Gough Whitlam persuaded the Labor Party to support state aid. But the church had to organize to receive it accountably. Frank Martin in Melbourne and Archbishop James Carroll in Sydney took the initiative. Here Frank’s background in government was pivotal. He was appointed to the Schools Commission in 1972 by Whitlam which introduced block funding and needs-based payments to Catholic schools. To facilitate accountability responsibility for funding moved from parishes to diocesan Catholic education offices. Frank was central to all of these processes.

However, a small clique around Bob Santamaria was determined to resist and this merged into their opposition to Vatican II changes in the church. But in the end the contemporary Catholic system was established because of Frank’s skill, persistence and political nous.

From the 1980s onwards Frank worked as a parish priest in Endeavour Hills and Cheltenham. Both parishes became beacons of hope and his sermons on social justice and issues that resonated in people’s lives meant that parish Masses were packed.

It is people like Max, Veronica and Frank who have been true leaders in the Catholic and the wider communities.


Historian broadcaster and writer, Paul Collins was a friend of Max, Veronica and Frank.

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