Remembering Fr Justin King SJ

Fr Paul Fyfe's homily and eulogy for Fr Justin King SJ, who died at the Royal Adelaide Hospital on 13 February 2017, aged 79 years and 8 months.

Last night, at the end of a School Board meeting in Clare, I was reading on the notice board the letters our Year 7s had written, applying for leadership positions in the school. Many letters were marvellous, and a good proportion of students talked of their Christian faith.

Fr Justin King SJ

Fr Justin King SJ

Ten days ago, after a Saturday night dinner together, Fr Justin King and I discussed a wide range of topics. Eventually I asked him how he would explain to children why a priest keeps confessions secret, a topic of some interest to a Royal Commission. And we then talked about the sacrament for the dying, as I had earlier that day prayed with a not-old husband and his recently deceased partner. In less than an hour I was praying for Justin.

It had been a tough week for him. Two days before he had had a procedure to remove skin cancers and had to have a skin graft taken from elsewhere. He had a tendency to bleed because of other medical issues, and ended up in hospital on both Thursday and Friday nights. But by Saturday afternoon, he had got over those problems.

We have heard St Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians speaking of our ‘outer person falling into decay’; Justin, replete with a bandaged head, was a great poster-boy for that text. Indeed, he was also an exemplar of words following: ‘the inner person is renewed day by day. Yes, the troubles which are soon over… train us for the carrying of a weight of eternal glory.’ And after two days spent in a nether world of ambulances, helicopters and hospitals, Justin had to carry that weight no more. His are now all ‘the invisible things that are eternal.’

It is not by accident that Justin and I had such a conversation shortly before he (at least consciously) departed this world. Justin is a Jesuit. He was part of that polymath tradition, obtaining both a BA and a Bachelor of Science at Melbourne University, so I am told. His career covered the world of science, of schooling and universities, and of spiritual conversation. His floor was typically covered in reading that stretched the full distance from the Sunday Mail to the highbrow English Catholic magazine, The Tablet. He liked to know what was going on around the world, at all levels.

The founder of Jesuits, St Ignatius Loyola, before he was either a priest or a founder, put together one of the most influential spiritual books in Christian history. It is not so much a book to be read, as to be done in the form of a retreat from daily life. A central scene that retreatants are invited to immerse themselves in, has the Blessed Trinity — Father, Son and Spirit — gazing upon the world with all its turmoil and problems. The Trinity decides to engage directly in that world, and sends the Son to embrace the earth. Theologians call this the mystery of the incarnation, of the Word of God becoming flesh, but this mystery is in fact the stuff of every Christian’s baptism.

Being a good Jesuit, Justin had in his turn embraced that mystery Ignatius introduced him to. He certainly did it by his reading, but he took it into his teaching, his caring for students, his regularly celebrating mass and sometimes a funeral at Prague House, a house for men in poor circumstances, chiefly through alcohol addiction and mental illnesses of various kinds.

Justin’s patience with laborious situations was remarkable, such as when people came to the presbytery door looking for money or food, but the patience was also carefully tempered so as to be of longterm benefit to the person. The high regard many of his retreatants kept for him suggests he could help Christ come to life in their lives through his gentle guidance.

Now, as Justin would say when he was inadvertently interrupted, ‘I haven’t finished what I wanted to say.’

As we give thanks for his life and prepare to commend him to his gracious Father, it might help to have a brief account of that life. It was very varied, so rather than a monotonous list, I will give a snapshot at every ten years; I hope it covers most the ground.

An only child, Justin was born in Drummoyne on the Parramatta River, 6km west of Sydney, and attended Mass at Hunters Hill, just across the Lane Cove River from Riverview. At age 10 he was already well settled into ‘Riverview’, as the Jesuit-run St Ignatius College is commonly known. By 20, he himself was a vowed Jesuit, studying philosophy at Loyola College, Watsonia, 20 km north of Melbourne as part of his priestly studies.

At 30, after some teaching and obtaining degrees, he had started studying theology in Pymble, near Sydney. Ten years later as a priest, teaching science and religion and running sport and cadets at St Aloysius College, located on Sydney Harbour, was his ‘sad’ lot at the halfway point of his life.

Then, Jesuit ministry was changing, and Justin would not be left behind. At 50 he was the chaplain at a new Adelaide diocesan secondary school which had Jesuit headmasters for its early years. St Thomas More College was at Salisbury, a far cry from Sydney Harbour, and Justin was living at the nearby Para Hills presbytery which he did for four of his nine years as chaplain.

Back to universities for the third time at 60, Justin’s chaplaincy was to the University of Adelaide, while based at Aquinas College.

St Ignatius stressed repetition, and at 70 Justin was once again at Loyola College Watsonia where he had studied, but it had become a diocesan college. And he was a school chaplain for another 9 years, while living and assisting at Hawthorn Parish and ministering at Prague House.

This year, 2017, he would have celebrated his 80th birthday as a Spiritual Director, who also assisted in the Sevenhill and Riverton/Manoora Parishes.

It was St Ignatius’ dream that his men be trained for flexibility, to travel about wherever there was a need. We can see Justin was a great exponent of that. But Ignatius also discovered that becoming a priest could be an important way of carrying out such a vocation. Through the liturgy, as we heard it framed in Luke’s Gospel today, priests can bring the risen Christ into the midst of a world that struggles to recognise him by gathering people around a table and breaking bread.

Justin always prepared carefully for the Eucharist and for several years at Sevenhill he celebrated all the masses for retreatants as well as house and some parish masses. Like the disciples at Emmaus, he took the joy of resurrection with him. I was always struck, when I saw Justin deeply engaged with someone, by his smile and the joy in his eyes.

I am already missing the man who would lock up the house, organise the books and newspapers; the priest who would say the early masses, draw people to Sevenhill by his conversation and gentleness, his knowledge and wisdom; and the scientist who found God through a telescope and in his retreatants’ hearts.

It is sad to farewell him, and sad to wonder how we can replace him. Yet our Year 7s, who may have been influenced by this ‘old’ priest, want to be compassionate leaders of our school, and even want to proclaim their Christian faith. So we have hope indeed.

As St Paul says, all this is for our benefit, that grace is being multiplied, and we should give thanks because the glory of God has become manifest, manifest first in Christ, then in those like Justin who are the earthenware jars that hold such a treasure, who proclaim, ‘yes it is true: the Lord has risen.’

May the inner person in each of us similarly be renewed every day too — despite the decay.

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