EMMET COSTELLO, SJ
22-5-1924 - 15-10-2013
"You think I'm off to dine with the rich," said the white-haired priest to a smirking bystander as he took the wheel of a costly car. "You're wrong. I'm going to dine with the filthy rich."
Father Emmet Costello was not averse to joking about his reputation as a friend to the wealthy and powerful, the "apostle to the silvertails", as one colleague described him. One of Australia's best-known priests, he was a Jesuit for more than 71 years.
Emmet Patrick Costello's Australian-born parents, Daniel and Kathleen Costello, had tasted abundant wealth and celebrity in Fiji, where their son was born on May 22, 1924. In Fiji, the family had profited from gold mining and interests in cattle-raising and tourism. They were associated in Suva with the former Queensland premier, federal treasurer and tycoon Edward Theodore.
Such was Dan Costello's influence and reputation in Suva that most shops closed their doors as a mark of respect on the day of his funeral in 1951.
At the age of four, the frail Emmet was sent to carers in Auckland so he could escape the oppressive heat of his birthplace. At eight he was moved to Melbourne to be educated for nine years by the Jesuits. This was in St Patrick's College, East Melbourne (1854-1968), the society's oldest and, in the eyes of proud alumni such as this author, its most prestigious Australian school.
In 1942, at 17, Costello entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus in Watsonia, at the time a semi-rural Melbourne suburb. His decision followed what he called "much soul searching". Many years later, according to his former pupil and one-time Jesuit, the writer Gerard Windsor, he told a Riverview class his alternative choice was to become "the playboy of the Pacific".
One of his fellow Jesuits recalls that in the novitiate he had the misfortune to be supervised by a narrow-minded Irish novice master. It became an arduous two years of preparation under an almost military-style regime.
After long years of study in Melbourne and Sydney, with a three-year interval as an apprentice teacher in St Louis' College, Perth, Costello was ordained in Sydney by Cardinal Norman Gilroy in 1955.
Costello's work in the priesthood found him based in Sydney for nearly six decades, except for a year of spiritual and intellectual renewal ("tertianship") in Sevenhill, South Australia, where the Jesuits produce a renowned altar wine.
For most of those Sydney years, Costello was on the teaching and chaplaincy staffs of St Aloysius' College, Milsons Point, for two spells, and St Ignatius' College, Riverview, for another two. For some of that time he acted as part-time chaplain to the University of Sydney's medical faculty and the Catholic Teachers' College. He also did weekend parish work and had a three-year break from school activity when appointed parish assistant at St Francis Xavier's Church, Lavender Bay. He had not been an outstanding teacher but had much more success as a spiritual adviser and the inspirer of generations of boys.
After completing his last Riverview assignment in 1992, Costello worked until retirement in 2006 as parish assistant in North Sydney. While he was there, enjoying a new lease on life, he became a published author. He was 70. His first book, Saints: Popular and Relevant, was launched by his friend Tom Hughes, QC. The former Australian attorney-general was to declare at a Jesuit gathering some years ago that Costello's "wise advocacy led me back to a path I should never have left". It was not the only example of the priest's successful ministry to lapsed believers.
In 1995, the chief justice in NSW at the time, Murray Gleeson, launched Costello's second book, Christ My Brother: Personal Encounter with the Living Christ. Costello told Alan Jones on radio that he intended the book "to make Christ warm, human and close to all". He believed that without a personal relationship with Christ, "our religious life can be rather routine and devoid of human warmth".
He promoted his two books at church services, while circulating copies of his sermons and other reflections on his own website, which he launched in 1998, and in other ways.
The main focus of Costello's teaching and writing was the centrality of Jesus Christ for all believers. While criticised by some for what they saw as his unrelenting self-promotion, he would have replied that his real motive was to spread the Christological message.
A number of his former pupils and parishioners found Costello something of an enigma. He could boast of his friendship with celebrities such as Sir Warwick and Lady (Mary) Fairfax, Dr Mervyn Cross, Tom Hughes, George Nicholas and the artist Judy Cassab, who painted his and his mother's portraits. At the same time, however, he was compassionate and attentive to those in need, assisting at one time alongside his students at the Matthew Talbot Hostel for homeless men, while responding promptly to other calls on his services from young and old, rich and poor.
Heads sometimes shook over his driving of expensive cars, mostly owned by his widowed mother, who had moved to Sydney, or borrowed from affluent friends. Queried by one boy about the conformity of his vow of poverty with driving a Mercedes Benz, the quick-witted Jesuit from a well-to-do family replied that, for him, this was poverty.
While Costello's kindness to people at all levels was well known, he could be irascible at times. On one occasion, without naming him, a radio listener complained to John Laws about his ill-tempered and rushed conduct of a wedding on the previous day. It emerged that, with an important subsequent appointment, Costello had been delayed and had also fallen out with the bride's mother.
Devoted as he was to the celebration of the Mass - and disappointed by the decline in church attendance, especially by his beloved young people - Costello did not conform rigidly to liturgical rules. He would change or eliminate specified scriptural readings, notably passages he abhorred from the Old Testament. He gave brief and cogent sermons and liked to greet parishioners cheerfully as he left the altar in procession.
Even in old age, Costello continued to draw on his constant reading on theology and church affairs. He had absorbed the spirit of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), believing strongly in its emphasis on ecumenism and friendly relations with other religions. The council's document on the church in the modern world influenced all his views.
Costello's cultivation of people with power extended to some members of the hierarchy, including cardinals and papal representatives to Australia. This did not spare some from his privately expressed critiques of their shortcomings.
He made much of brief private audiences he had with popes Paul VI (his favourite) in Sydney and John Paul II in Rome. In his final months he rejoiced in the election of Pope Francis, the first Jesuit to reach that high office.
A source of great pleasure near the end of his life was seeing his best-known Riverview protege, Tony Abbott, become prime minister. He had recognised the future leader's potential as a teenager and continued to be his counsellor and friend in his times as a university student, Rhodes Scholar, seminarian, journalist and parliamentarian. In turn, Abbott, who saw Costello as a second father figure, was one of his most loyal visitors in the last months and days of his life. He attended and spoke at his funeral.
Emmet Costello is survived by his sister, Maureen.