He was one of the most appreciated Jesuits

Fr Bob Walsh SJ, who passed away recently at the age of 97, did the ordinary things of life extraordinarily well – emulating St John Berchmans SJ.

There were two moving addresses delivered at the recent funeral of Fr Bob Walsh SJ. This homily was by Fr Daven Day SJ:

Our thoughts of the saints that we celebrated on All Saints’ Day are still with us as we come together to celebrate the life of our own Fr Bob Walsh. As novices, Bob and I were thrilled to hear of the amazing lives of our great Jesuit saints and martyrs. But both of us agreed that St John Berchmans was our best bet to imitate.

When it came time to canonise the 21-year-old Jesuit scholastic, some of the Fathers of the Church objected. They said there were no great achievements in his life. But the canonisation document read, “St John Berchmans did the ordinary things of life extraordinarily well”.

Bob and I decided this was the Saint to follow, little realising what a huge challenge this would be.

John Berchmans had only a few years to complete his challenge – Bob Walsh had the extraordinary willpower of completing 72 years of his commitment. I think you will all agree that Bob Walsh was one of the most appreciated Jesuits we have ever known. This is the story about Bob, who did the ordinary things of life extraordinarily well.

As I start, it is important to note that after a few failed attempts at bringing together a group of young men, Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, concluded that the essential quality in his volunteers was simply that they took very seriously what he called being “friends in the Lord”.

Bob Walsh set out in 1951 on a lifelong journey as a Jesuit novice which brought together spirituality, psychology and lived experience of what it meant to fall in love with the Lord and in making enduring friendships with his fellow Jesuits. This in time somehow widened its horizons to include all those people with whom he worked or met.

Bob had quite a remarkable understanding of the Jesuit emphases in our lived life. His medical studies and his two years’ experience as a doctor gave him a head start, and I am sure other scholastics as well as myself were grateful for his experience and advice.

A later change came to the Australian Province in 1965 with the appointment of two young assistant priests to St Mary’s, North Sydney. Until then it was expected that most Jesuits would be attached to schools, university colleges or to the Indian Mission. It was usually only later in their working lives that Jesuits were sent to the parishes.

Portrait of Fr Bob Walsh SJ taken in Sydney, Australia. Photo: Robert Walsh.

Bob Walsh and Paul Coleman were a breath of fresh air for the parish, and probably a handful for the parish priest to manage. They made a good team – Paul out in front leading the changes and Bob following, bringing calm and peace. They were good friends, forever bringing good humour and much playfulness to their teasing of each other.

Christmas at St Mary’s became Bob and Paul’s signature event every year, excelling themselves with elaborate cribs and Christmas activities. But the parish priest finally intervened after Bob and Paul added a live camel to the crib.

Bob was often but not always the fall man for Paul’s humour. Their farewell to each other could only have come after a lifetime of shared jokes. Paul had suddenly become ill and Bob had come to anoint and to pray with him as he died. Paul had his eyes closed but as Bob left the room, a voice from the bed said: “Six out of ten”.

In 1972 with the winds of change that swept through the whole Church, Bob found himself in a leadership role to introduce the wide, sweeping changes in church ceremonies, and specially the new freedom to follow your conscience. These changes came quickly, and many parishioners at the time found them confronting.

It was here that Bob came to the forefront. He was unthreatening, endlessly patient and he understood the dynamics of social change. His leadership in the years that followed as parish priest of Lavender Bay in Sydney, then Hawthorn in Melbourne and Neutral Bay – Kirribilli in Sydney were full of common sense. He was respectful in patiently nurturing attitudinal change. Quite simply, Bob was so successful because he did not threaten people. He only introduced changes in the liturgy after carefully explaining the meaning and why change was needed if the Church was to survive.

Bob’s secret weapon was his spontaneous smile, he was rarely upset and his homilies were spiked with humour. Earlier, Bob’s quiet competence had surfaced when as a scholastic he was umpiring a football match of the boys at Riverview. One boy had a nasty shoulder accident. The amateur umpire suddenly turned into the competent doctor. In a few deft actions Bob had the shoulder in place. Bob was the hero of the day.

This reminds me of another incident which showed the style of leadership that Bob was developing as far back as those Riverview days. Evidently the Rector overheard a boy speaking disrespectfully to Bob, and so the Rector sent the boy home for a week. Sixty years later that boy was still visiting Bob at the Jesuit retirement home in Pymble. It was that innate kindness, non-threatening and very encouraging, and above all, forgiving Jesuit that Bob had become.

Everyone who met Bob Walsh recognised in him the great gifts of listening, sometimes endless listening. Maybe not so well known was that Bob was also a competent administrator. Parishes don’t just run themselves. Bob was able to give everyone the space to be listened to. Everyone was to be respected, whoever they were. But he knew when it was time to take action. He remained unruffled, but quite clear when it was time for decision making and action, Ignatian action. Parishioners were respectfully guided into embracing the many changes authorised by Vatican II. The children were never neglected. Bob’s delightful puppet shows held them enthralled. He was a very clever ventriloquist.

Bob was keenly interested in architecture and art. It is difficult to get unanimous agreement in this area. But guided by Vatican II theology, Bob kept a firm and steady hand on necessary liturgical changes. It was not surprising that Bob was given what is generally considered the most difficult task – running a Jesuit retirement community. As usual, Bob’s management skills came to the forefront again. Each member of the community felt that he had Bob’s support and that he had been listened to.

This sympathetic respect and support for aged Jesuits came naturally to Bob. Bob also took over the restructuring and building of part of Campion House in Kew, Melbourne. Assisted by professional architects, Bob adapted a soulless house of corridors into a warm home environment.

Bob was always the teacher. I believe we all have much to learn from how he conducted himself over the almost 98 years of his life. The legacy of his dying is in a special way Bob’s last gift to us. I think Bob’s advice to us would be to make sure you peacefully prepare your meeting with God. Bob used to refer to this as the joy of the meeting of two friends. Talking with Fr Michael McShane, we both agreed that in the last phase of his life, without a doubt, Bob had one foot in heaven as he radiated so much peaceful joy.

Michael McShane and I would wheel Bob out to the café attached to St Peter’s and Bob would declare with delight every time that the orange cake and coffee were the best in the world. He always enjoyed the simple pleasures of life. Gradually these also slipped away and nothing was in the way of his meeting with God. Bob’s departure for his Maker was very peaceful. He was asleep at the time. Vale, Fr Bob Walsh, a greatly loved Jesuit.

The eulogy was delivered by Robbie Walsh, Fr Bob’s nephew:

Good morning, everyone. I’ve been invited to say a few words about Fr Walsh from the perspective of his family. I am a great-nephew of Fr Walsh. My name is also Robert Walsh. Indeed, I was named after him, which has always been a great source of pride for me and it’s an honour to stand here with you today.

Robert Sebastian Anthony Walsh, Uncle Bobby, as he was known to us, was born on 28 November 1925, just west of Newcastle in Hamilton, NSW, to Clement and Kathleen Walsh. Clement, Australian born, was an optometrist, Gallipoli veteran and recipient of the Military Cross. Kathleen was English-born and educated by nuns in Belgium.

He had, in his words, an “old fashioned Catholic childhood”, serving as an altar boy in his parish church and receiving his primary schooling at local convent schools. He later attended Marist Brothers, Hamilton and finished his high school education as a boarder at St Joseph’s College, Hunters Hill.

Uncle Bobby had an older brother and sister, Clement and Lucy, and a younger brother, Desmond. All of them would follow a path in the medical fields; Clement as an ophthalmologist, Lucy as an optometrist and Desmond as a general practitioner. Uncle Bobby secured a Commonwealth Scholarship and, like his brothers, studied medicine at Sydney University. During those years, he stayed as a boarder with the Bourne family, with whom he became very close and they have remained so ever since.

After graduating in 1948, Uncle Bobby completed his residency at St Vincent’s and Prince Henry hospitals in Sydney. He enjoyed that part of his life, but throughout his medical years, “the notion of becoming a priest grew stronger” and upon completing his medical education he made his move, entering the Jesuits on his brother Desmond’s birthday in February 1951. It was his reading of the biography of Edmund Campion by Evelyn Waugh that clinched the idea.

Uncle Bobby was not the first of his family to become a priest; his cousin Joseph was also a priest, as were his great-uncles Edmund, Martin and Andrew Walsh. Uncle Bobby told the story of how Andrew, a missionary in Africa, once went bush and failed to return. He was declared missing and was feared dead, only to reappear at his own memorial service!

Uncle Bobby was ordained by Cardinal Gilroy in this very church on 3 January 1962 and celebrated his first Mass the next day at St Canice’s, Elizabeth Bay. He would continue to loyally serve as a Jesuit priest for the next 61 years and was the oldest living Jesuit in Australia when he passed away at St Peter’s Green Aged Care, Lane Cove on 26 October.

After ordination, Uncle Bobby was sent to study in the USA. This was his first experience of overseas travel. It was something he came to greatly enjoy, making among other trips one to Japan, where he stayed with his niece Dorothy and her husband, and two trips to Ireland. There he connected with Irish relatives and formed lasting relationships. He cherished his Irish ancestry. It was very important to him, and one of the inspirations for my own trip to our ancestral town of Carrick-on-Suir.

In our family, Uncle Bobby was very special indeed. When I was a child, his work often had him away from Sydney but he was there at the big occasions whenever he could be, so those occasions were always more special as a result. In particular, I remember the Christmas parties at my grandparents’ home: the Walsh family’s biggest night of the year.

There are, of course, many advantages to having a priest in the family; expertly delivered grace at those Christmas dinners, for one. My wife Emily and I were lucky enough to have him on the altar for our wedding, as was my sister Anne and several of my cousins. Having him there in my corner on one of the most nerve-racking days of my life was immensely reassuring. The Walsh family is a large one, and so there were numerous baptisms he helped us celebrate (including my own) and funerals (including my father’s) where he helped console us.

My Uncle Michael fondly remembers him saying Mass on several occasions in the dining room of my grandparents’ home in Strathfield. I was lucky enough to be there for one of these occasions where we commemorated the first anniversary of the death of my Pop. Whether it was in a formal sense or simply by being there, he blessed us all in one way or another.

Characteristic of Uncle Bobby’s ministry was an affinity for all, but particularly the young. He used storytelling, fictional characters and famously, puppets to help get his message across. Some of you here might remember Miss Piggy and Sam. At the Mass for the 50th anniversary of his ordination, he invited the children to join him on the altar – a potential recipe for chaos, but he had them captivated. He was a great communicator and his communication style was all about patience and gentleness. Gentle, but no pushover – Uncle Bobby was an effective operator!

For the past 15 years or so, my mother and I made a habit of regular catch-ups with Uncle Bobby. Our first meeting spot was the Cool Mac cafe in Kirribilli and we’d see him coming towards us, always impeccably dressed in a shirt, tie and often a jacket. We’d watch nervously as he approached and crossed the road, increasingly wobbly on his walking stick, and then he would see us, and his face would light up.

Fr Robert Walsh SJ

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He had many stories, but he was a particularly great listener. And during those visits he was always keenly interested in what we were up to. “Oh go on!” he would say, encouraging us to elaborate on whatever news we were telling him. He never judged and his cheeky, witty sense of humour stayed with him until the end.

As the years went on, Uncle Bobby moved from Lavender Bay to Arrupe House at Pymble, where we enjoyed spending time together in the beautiful grounds there. The walking stick was replaced by a walking frame but there were still the occasional outings such as to the Roseville Cinema and the local shopping centre. There was always something on his phone or computer that he wanted me to take a look at or help him with. He truly was a lifelong learner; an intellectual man with an open mind and a humble curiosity.

In 2017, Uncle Bobby moved from Arrupe House to St Peter’s at Lane Cove. The walking frame gradually gave way to a wheelchair but he still managed coffee and cake at the attached cafe. Former students and parishioners, his Jesuit colleagues, nieces and nephews, great nieces and nephews and even great great nieces and nephews; his visitors were many and varied. They were a reflection of the cross-section of lives he touched. Just a couple of weeks before he passed away, Uncle Bobby was enjoying one such outing with his dear friend Fr Michael McShane and described the local brew as “the best coffee he’d ever had! Uncle Bobby’s glass was always at least half full!

He loved art, both admiring the work of others, especially the Australian and French Impressionists, and creating his own in the form of paintings. He credits his first trip to America with sparking that interest and it stayed with him ever since. He loved attending the art classes at St Peter’s and the walls of his room often displayed a few examples of his work. Some of us are fortunate enough to own a Fr Robert Walsh original!

Whether at Kirribilli, Pymble or Lane Cove, without exception I left those encounters feeling good. He made me feel like I was one of his special ones. Well, it turns out that’s how he made so many of us feel. When writing this, I realised very quickly that mine was just one of many families of which he was a much-loved part.

My mum has kept an envelope addressed to him that says, “Fr Bob – national treasure”. I think that’s how many of us felt about him. He was a national treasure – not in an overt, grandiose way, but in a kind, unassuming way. He was a gentle gentleman, as I heard him referred to recently. He had a great impact on the lives of those who knew him, but he often worked at the scale of 1:1.

In his homily at the Mass celebrating his fiftieth anniversary of ordination, Uncle Bobby spoke of his belief that “we all have a deep need to learn from each others’ journeys”. My family, like many of yours, I trust, has both learnt from, and been inspired by, Uncle Bobby’s journey. Just shy of his 98th birthday, his journey has been a long one, full of loyalty, service, humility and love.

There’s a line that he liked to use, one borrowed from Australian poet Roderic Quinn, and it came back to me many times in his later years as he gradually slowed down. When asked how he was going, he would reply that his train was slowly pulling into Central.

We will all miss him dearly, but he has at last arrived at his destination.