Men’s Breakfast, Goulburn Parish




Dear Friends,

Thank you for inviting me to your men’s breakfast here in Goulburn.  It’s early in the morning at 7.30am and so it’s not appropriate to give you a dense theological discourse!

I’m sure you’re relieved!  I would like, however, to tell a story about a man who I think lived out his Catholic faith in an extraordinarily manly way.  I think he gives a very good example to us.  So rather than speak abstractly I’d like to share with this true pastoral story that I was quite involved with in more recent times.


Reflection on a pastoral experience by Archbishop Christopher Prowse, Catholic Archbishop of Canberra and Goulburn.

From 2009-2013, I was the Bishop of Sale.  On a day to day basis, the activities of a Bishop are many and varied.  One pastoral activity a local Bishop is often involved in is the blessing and opening of new buildings in his Diocese.

In March 2013, I was preparing to open a new nursing home as the Bishop of Sale in the city of Pakenham. The name of this new nursing home is Shanagolder.

Before the official opening I was passing nearby the Pakenham Nursing Home and decided to visit it unexpectedly and briefly to prepare myself for the opening.

It was a pleasant enough visit, and I was preparing to leave the nursing home when the pastoral associate Jane came up to me.  She explained to me that an elderly woman was dying in one of the rooms.  Her husband and family were there with her.  The question was whether I would be able to go and visit the family on my way out.  I gladly accepted this invitation.

Jane took me to the room.  When we entered the room it was like walking into another world.  The curtains were closed despite the fact it was quite a sunny day.  There were perhaps up to twelve people in the small room.  On the bed, lying comatose was the dying woman.  Seated beside her was her husband.  Those gathered around the bed were the immediate family and the grandchildren.

The husband immediately stood up when I entered the room.  His name was Stan.  He explained to me, that he and his wife Rose had been married for 71 years.  But clearly she was dying and Stan was very happy to see me.  He immediately told me that she was not a Catholic.  He gave the impression that he wasn’t the most active Catholic in town either.

What pastoral response was I to make?

I began quietly praying to myself as to what the appropriate pastoral response might be.  I was not able to offer the Sacrament of Anointing of the sick or Holy Communion given the fact that Rose was not a Catholic.

Then a thought flashed through my mind.  I decided to act upon it.

I asked Stan if he would be prepared to renew his marriage vows with his wife.  Both Stan and everyone in the room fell silent.  I was wondering what sort of response I would be given.

Then Stan rallied and he said it was a wonderful idea and yes he would be delighted to renew his marriage vows to his wife after 71 years of marriage.

I asked Stan to hold the hands of his comatose wife.  I then asked him to repeat after me the following renewal of his marriage vows. He gladly obliged.  And so looking at Rose and holding her hands he said to her most lovingly, “I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health.  I will love you and honour you all the days of my life.”

I then asked Stan if I could bless their wedding rings.  This was readily acceptable to Stan.  He placed his wedding ring and the wedding ring of his wife towards me.  I then lent over and renewed the blessing on their wedding rings.

The atmosphere in the little room started to change from something very sombre to something that was light in nature – perhaps even the beginnings of joy.

I then said to Stan, “you may now kiss your bride.”  Stan readily did so.  He leant over to his wife lying on the bed and kissed her lovingly.

Then something extraordinary happened.

He then moved back from the bed stood up straight turned around to me and to everybody else.  His face was changing quickly into something that was indescribable and full of surprise.  He then spoke out clearly to us all and said the following “She kissed me back!”

Some in the room chuckled as if to think their father was becoming a little eccentric.  Yet, the atmosphere continued to change in the room into something that was really quite joyful.

It started to dawn on us that indeed what Stan said could have happened.  We often hear of comatose people who seemingly are not connected at all to the reality of the moment but indeed can actually hear what’s going on.  Although physically unable to respond the comatose can participate in at least listening to the conversation.  I think this is what was happening here.  The fact that Stan said “She kissed me back” meant to me that although her body was completely paralysed the only part of her body that she could communicate to her husband was with were her lips.  In kissing him back ever so gently he interpreted this as her participating in the renewal of their marriage vows and saying a big YES to all the promises of their marriage.

As the atmosphere in the room turned to joy things started to happen.  Without being asked to, somebody started opening the curtains and let the bright sunlight come into the darkened room.  People started clapping for the married couple who had just renewed their marriage vows as if it was their wedding day.

I joined in the festivities too and asked “Has anybody got a camera?”.  Of course, these days everybody has a camera on their mobile phone!  So photographs were taken of the newly renewed married couple. Time was running on and I had to leave.  I had another appointment that I needed to go to.  I bid them farewell and the atmosphere was full of hope and great happiness.  I’d felt that I had left the room as a member of the family although 15 minutes earlier I had entered as the angel of death!  There was a beautiful atmosphere of prayer, love and courage and hope amongst them when I left.

I then went on and attended another appointment nearby and then visited the nearby Catholic presbytery at Pakenham.  The parish priest greeted me as I entered.  He asked me, “What happened at Shanagolder?”  I didn’t quite understand what he meant.  He then explained to me that the pastoral associate Jane had telephoned him.  “Oh.”  I then explained to him the above.  He then informed me that the pastoral associate of the nursing home had rung to say that Rose had in fact died shortly after I had left.  I sighed.  There was a sense of completion in her death. I subsequently wrote Stan a letter offering my prayers and condolenses.

I now move to June 2014.

I’d since been transferred from the Diocese of Sale to the Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn.  Unexpectedly one day in June 2014 I received a message that a “Stan” was dying at Shanagolder Aged Care Facility in Pakenham.  I remembered exactly who this Stan was.  Apparently in the intervening year or so, and after the death of his wife, he himself had become enfeebled, and became a resident at the aged care facility.  The message was that he was dying.  Now it was his turn to go to God!

I telephoned the same pastoral associate, Jane, and left a message on her answering service.  I indicated that I would be praying for Stan and the family.  I also asked Jane to mention to Stan that it would not be long before he and his wife Rose would be reunited.  They would be able to renew their marriage vows once again, but this time in heaven.  It would not be the Bishop that would be officiating at this renewal of marriage vows, but it would be the Lord Jesus himself with them in their moment of reunion at the gates of paradise.

The next day I received the following email from Jane.  I will quote directly from her email of the 27th of June 2014.

“Please thank Archbishop Prowse for the message.  I know the family were extremely grateful that he was aware of Stan’s declining health.  When I arrived at work in the morning following our conversation I told Stan I had left a message for the now Archbishop to be informed of his declining health.  I noticed a change in his breathing and the family was so grateful he was notified.

It wasn’t until I arrived home last night after 6pm and turned on my phone that I heard the message Archbishop Prowse left.  I was humbled he found time in his busy schedule to ring and leave this beautiful message.  I know the family have been carried by their encounter in March 2013.  They constantly talk about it and the letter the Archbishop sent to Stan is on Stan’s wall above his bed.  It has meant so much to them.  Stan himself has re-established his faith and had been receiving Holy Communion.  He was also anointed.

I was worried Stan wouldn’t last until the morning so I went back to work last evening with my mobile phone to Stan and his family so that they could hear the message.  All the family were present, just the same as they were when Bishop Prowse visited last year.  I told them what I had and they all came into Stan’s room to listen.  Some of them were crying and I played the voice message to them.  It was an amazing feeling being present with them while they were listening to the message.  I immediately noticed Stan’s breathing slow down and I knew he was able to hear what was said to him.  I was glad I had decided to come in.

Stan passed away peacefully this morning at 3am.

The Holy Spirit was working in this family and Stan last night.

The family also commented to me on a number of occasions last night, how grateful they were that Stan had found his faith and how the encounter with Bishop Prowse had changed Stan’s and the family’s lives.  They were also blown away that he had made the time to actually ring and remembered about the encounter.  They were being supported by the Holy Spirit.  You have given a family who was facing death such comforting memories at a most difficult time of life. “ End of message from Jane.

And so the full circle has turned.  Now both Stan and Rose are reunited, please God, in the joys of God’s merciful embrace.  It is from the heart of the Lord Jesus that all love comes.  All hope comes from the Lord.  There is no other way to encounter the love and hope and mercy of God than by committing our lives to each other in faith.  Certainly Rose and Stan have been a great example of that to me.

Now I’m able to pray, with all the saints of God to intercede for me and my Archdiocese.  I am able to also pray with the many un-canonised saints that are surely with the Lord in paradise.  I will certainly now be praying with Rose and Stan in my needs.

I share this story with you so all of us might thank God for the great gift of married life.  In a culture and a world of transitory relationships and affections, Rose and Stan give us the wonderful example of steadfast love.  Their 71 years of marriage continues in heaven.  All marital love, indeed all love, comes from the heart of God and returns to the heart of God.  The basic biblical definition of God is “GOD IS LOVE.  May we mirror that love to all we meet.

So as you can see, dear friends in Christ, here we have a real example of what Christian manhood is.  Two points come to mind.

Firstly, Stan’s faith grew as his life matured.  Stan reminds me a little bit like Abraham or Moses.  Their faith grew the more that they were in touch with God.  The more they were in touch with God who is love and mercy, the more they became loving and merciful themselves.  Abraham and Moses were able to receive the covenant of God and through this covenant were able to transmit this loving covenant to their people.  Abraham and Moses moved the culture away from the worship of may gods to the worship of the one true God.  In many respects, we see both Abraham and Moses as reflecting in a prophetic way the image of Christ who was to come centuries later.  Here the New Covenant was sealed in the blood of the Lamb of God.  It’s a New Covenant that we celebrate every time we go to Mass.  It’s an ongoing covenant of love and mercy.

Stan was able to unify his divergent family into the faith over a period of time.  In the twilight of his wife’s life and his own life he was able to unite them together in faith.  He was able to move them away too, from the worship of many gods and the distracted gaze of today’s world into the one vision of Christ our Light.

Secondly, Stan was able to give a wonderful example of what a husband and what a father ought be in today’s confused world.  In renewing his marriage vows at such a critical moment of his marital life, he was able to show great docility to my suggestions and also to ensure that his whole family gathered together to witness this.  There was no individualism in Stan.  It was all about family life.  It was all about providing an ongoing faith-legacy to his family.  In this respect he reminds us of St Joseph and the other manly figures of the New Testament.  I would also include St John the Baptist in this.  He was able to give a lead to be a man “under God.”  In this respect, Stan starts to move towards the biblical definition of what a just man is.  A just man is under God and docile to God at all times.  So we thank Stan as a just man of God. He gives all of us today at this breakfast a very good example of what it means to be a Catholic man in today’s world.