A beacon for the future

Riverview alumnus Patrick Rodgers was just 23 when he died six years ago. Each year, an award instituted by the College in his memory goes to an Ignatian who devotes his life to serving others as Patrick did.

 JOURNEYING WITH YOUTH 

By Patrick’s father, James Rodgers, Old Boy and teacher at Saint Ignatius’ College, Riverview

Many of us have experienced the death of someone whom we loved, someone who was very close to us, someone whose legacy, we hope, will be a lasting one.

Very few of us, please God, will ever have to face the death of our own son, our own brother.

But, on Christmas Day 2017, six years ago this year, our older son, Patrick, died of illness, aged only 23.

He died in Cambodia, in a remote village called Pailin.

At the time, he was walking alongside those who most needed him. He taught English to the children, he visited the sick, he fed the poor, alongside the humble Marist Brothers of Cambodia.

We are very proud of him. And our family was most grateful for the recent invitation to present this award, named after Patrick, to another young Old Ignatian who has also walked alongside others, who has stood up for those who have most needed him, whether here in Australia or overseas.

When I spoke at the award ceremony on 1 November this year, I did so on behalf of my family, my wife Liz and son Michael – who was unable to be present because of his studies in the Seminary – and my brother Pat, who is Patrick’s uncle. I said that we were especially grateful to the Principal, Dr Paul Hine, who instituted this award just after Patrick died. His vision was that Patrick’s legacy might live on, and that each year we might recognise another young Old Boy who is devoting his life to serving others, far away from lavish privilege, far away from the limelight, who has embarked on a journey to bring hope to the hopeless, and someone who might inspire others to do something similar, because actions are what service is all about.

Ignatius said: “We help others in actions, not just in words,” and serving others is not about having more or saying more, but instead it’s about being more. And you don’t have to be a saint to do that. Like all of us, Patrick had his faults but he persevered, especially as he suffered stoically with mental illness.

But he lit a lamp on a hilltop, a beacon for the future, a light for all of us.

Over the years since Patrick died, the recipients of this award have continued to do selfless work: Joe Wehbe, Tom O’Brien, James Tracey, Jesse Gray and, last year, Xavier Rickard, and this year’s recipient, Gianni Taranto.

This year’s recipient, Gianni Taranto. Photo: Felicia Simon – Fish Tail Photography

This award recognises those who have left a legacy, so that their work continues, despite the fact that Patrick himself would never have considered that he was leaving a legacy. Nonetheless, in Pailin, his legacy is still present, indelible.

In June 2010, when Patrick was in Year 11, he visited Cambodia for the first time with a Riverview Immersion group. Then he returned another eight times, during his university holidays, to work and live in Pailin with the Marist Brothers there. In 2013, he led a Riverview immersion to Cambodia.

He had first heard about Riverview’s connection with Cambodia when he was here in Year 5, listening to an older boy speak about his experience there, just as many Year 5s have done since then. On that day, early in his life, the lamp was lit.

When we leave a legacy, we don’t wash our hands of responsibility. But we do wash the feet of those who have so little.

When we leave a legacy, we leave our thumbprint … a thumbprint not on a block of ice that will soon melt away … but a thumbprint on stone which will last for a long time.

So, we can take up the torch that has been carried by Patrick and all those after him.

What legacy will we leave?

On melting ice? Or on solid stone?

I’m pleased to say that Patrick’s legacy lives on and that the respective legacies of the recipients of this award also live on. Those recipients are basically ordinary young men doing extraordinary deeds for those who most need them. And when we commit ourselves to others, just as they have done, our legacy continues.

So, the morning of 1 November, at the special Service Assembly during which the 2023 Patrick Rodgers Memorial Service Award was presented, Liz and I were greatly honoured, not just to be Patrick’s parents, but also to see his legacy live on.

Gianni Taranto is a young old boy who has been, and will continue to be, a beacon for others, not just in his schooldays but for all days.

May all of you who do exceptional work to serve others be blessed abundantly for your service and for the legacy that you leave for all generations to come.

Patrick Rodgers Memorial Service Award

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L-R: Tor Taranto, Liz Rodgers, James Rodgers, Pat Rodgers (Patrick's uncle). Photo: Felicia Simon – Fish Tail Photography

On that Christmas Day six years ago, it was several hours before we got the news that Patrick had died. The last message that he sent us on WhatsApp included photo highlights of the Christmas party with the children of Pailin. He also sent a message to Liz, my wife, wishing her a happy birthday for Christmas Day.

We sent him a message, saying that we’d just been to the Christmas Vigil Mass and he replied that he was “just about to go myself”.

These were the last messages that we ever received from him.

After going to the Christmas Vigil Mass at Pailin, Patrick had dinner with the Marist Brothers in their house near the church. After dinner, he went to his room. He was not feeling well and he became agitated. Brother Francis decided to take him to the nearest medical centre about an hour away. Before they could reach a doctor, Patrick had breathed his last. They turned around and placed his body in a shroud in the church at Pailin.

Meanwhile, on Christmas morning Australian time, Liz and Michael (our younger son), and I set out from our place for Berrimah in the Southern Highlands to celebrate Christmas and Liz’s birthday with Liz’s sister Anne and brother-in-law Michael Gray and their family.

As far as I can recall, we didn’t take our laptops or mobile phones with us.

Unknown to us, various people had been trying to contact us while we were in Berrimah.

When we arrived home in Lane Cove at about 6pm, Liz opened the laptop to her Facebook page. There was an urgent message that we should contact Brother Francis. Patrick had died earlier that day.

Cambodia was a very important part of Patrick’s short life. In 2012, he spent his gap year there and it had a profound effect on him. He was to live only another five years, but he went back to Cambodia in each of these five years. This is something that he wrote at the end of 2012 and what he writes (reproduced verbatim here) is much better than anything I could write about his first year there.

Jesuit Mission

The day after I arrived set the tone for what I was going to be doing for the next few months, and left a deep impression on me.

Early on, I was reacquainted with Tun Channareth (Reth), the most well-known landmine campaigner around the world. In 1982 he lost both of his legs when he stepped on a landmine near the Thai-Cambodia border and suffered greatly for many years. He came to know Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in its early years and helped set up the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which won the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize. He accepted the award on behalf of the campaign.

Reth was eager to take me to visit rural areas and see the lives of the people assisted by JRS. He showed me the issues in the village that JRS was assisting with and straight away asked me what I thought they should do to help. I was taken aback by the huge responsibility that was being given to me. This was intimidating at first, but soon it became apparent that I was being treated with respect and maturity.

The one thing that stood out on the first day was Reth’s strong advice on how to use the money that I had brought over from Australia. “It is your money. You must see the real lives of the people and choose yourself what to do. It must be your choice.”

My first experience with the extreme situations in which many find themselves was when I met two disabled people who had leg injuries that had been unattended to for years. Reth wanted to convince them to come to the Apostolic Prefecture of Battambang and have amputations. Both said that they were unable to go.

Reth was disappointed but told me that their choice was their choice. I found this hard to understand at first, but have now learned we need to give people the freedom to make their own decisions. In this way they will be truly independent.

Holy Week

I spent Holy Week at Battambang, one of the largest Catholic communities in Cambodia. A Jesuit priest, Enrique “Kike” Figaredo, has transformed the lives of hundreds of people by creating a lively and joyful parish where everyone is filled with the “happiness of God”.

I was especially moved by a communal washing of the feet, in which the entire congregation participated, during the Holy Thursday Mass. To wash and then to be washed signified the generosity of the community, even those who had no feet to wash. The Eucharist was celebrated in the same way, and we gave each other the Host so that all could experience Christ’s love from both perspectives.

Enrique “Kike” Figaredo washing the feet of a baptism candidate.

Eventually I was moved away from the work I had been doing previously due to the arrival of other volunteers. Initially I was frustrated with this move, as I felt that Sr Denise (Sister Denise Coghlan RSM. Head of the Metakaruna Centre in Cambodia, which is part of Jesuit Services) was unwilling to give me responsibility due to my age and lack of experience. It took some time to overcome this frustration. For a while, I felt that I was in the way of the others.

Sr Denise once asked me: “Do you think it was a good idea to come here after school?” I saw this as a sign that I was not wanted. However, it made me all the more determined to prove that I could be of use. In a way, it helped me validate my reasons for being there. I accepted the decision and tried to apply myself as much as possible.

Fr Frank Brennan SJ came to the Metakaruna Centre in May to give a talk on faith and social justice. His words were inspiring and relevant to the dream that JRS shares with the Cambodian people: “We are creatures made for life in community, for life in relationship.  Only with others can we achieve our full human flourishing.”

The inevitable loneliness that I sometimes felt was always alleviated by the spirit of the above quote. This is how the Cambodian people are overcoming the struggle for dignity after the terrible crimes committed against them.

Meeting the Immersion Group

I planned my time in Cambodia so that I would be able to spend some time with the Riverview Immersion group in July. The most memorable moment happened on the first day that I went out with them. Reth took us to a village to build outdoor toilets, which was done with high spirits and enthusiasm.

I suggested that the group take half an hour so that Reth could tell them his story. I wanted them to know just how much he had done for Cambodia, through his own experience of rising from hardship. It was a reminder of my own time on the Immersion to see how attentive the boys were. He urged them to keep striving for good, and to spread the message of justice back home.

Reth telling his story to the Riverview group.

After the talk, Reth asked me if I wanted to take them to see someone. There lived in the village an ex-army deminer, a person who disarmed landmines. He had lost his arm and eyes to a landmine in 1999. He lived under a sheet of plastic outside his mother’s house because he had contracted tuberculosis and had been ostracised by his family. Reth warned that there was a good chance that we would cry. Surely enough, for the first time in three months I was almost moved to tears.

This was not, however, a cheap method of eliciting a feeling of guilt or sentimentality. It was the perfect chance to see the absolute poverty in which many people still live in the modern world. We gave him a meal and listened to his story. There was complete silence. Mrs Sarah Harrison and Sean Bowmaker (Riverview teachers and leaders of the immersion) both said that this encounter came up frequently in the boys’ final reflections.

He died two weeks after we met him. Reth went to his funeral and came back without a shirt. The family was so poor that they could not afford a burial cloth, so Reth gave them the shirt he was wearing.

The Marist Mission in Pailin

Patrick with a boy suffering from muscular dystrophy whose family he supported by providing money for a new roof.

In August I moved to spend four months with the Marists in Pailin Province, near the Thai border. It was once the last Khmer Rouge stronghold and had been isolated from the rest of Cambodia until as late as 1997. Retired soldiers from the regime live in the area with their families in the countryside. They withdraw and live out the rest of their lives quietly. Working in Pailin was a reminder that compassion does not take sides.

I was treated to a confronting experience when Br Francis invited me to a dinner with a very wealthy local figure and his friends. Sitting at a table with five ex-Khmer Rouge soldiers and men of high influence made me feel uncomfortable, not because of their past, but because of our proximity to some of the poorest people in Cambodia. I felt as if I was contributing to the corruption of the country. I told Francis about this afterwards, and he said that he would soon ask: “What are you doing to help the suffering people in your country?”

He said that everyone we meet has potential to help. By making these connections, we can put them to great use. This was a profound lesson in humility for me. I now understand that if we remain reluctant to be friendly with the “other side”, then we are making it much harder to change society.

Pailin was a way to renew my enthusiasm and to meet another group that is dedicated to bringing Christ’s love to the people. The Marist mission in Cambodia has great potential and is one that I am excited to follow throughout its development.

Due to the kindness of the Riverview community, I was able to bring with me $1,400 in donations. I was encouraged to use it “as I saw fit”. I met each beneficiary personally and considered what would be the best option to help them. The donations financed:

  • Clearing the debt of a seamstress and providing her with new sewing equipment.
  • New tools for a barber and spare parts for his electronics workshop.
  • The construction of five wells in four separate villages.
  • The treatment of four cancer patients in Pailin.

My time in Cambodia gave me so many opportunities for the future and has taught me things that I will carry for the rest of my life.