The larrikin priest and his parish without borders

AS FATHER Bob Maguire has come from a funeral, where he gave the final blessing for a man who left the priesthood to have a wife and son, we talk about heaven and hell over lunch.

AS FATHER Bob Maguire has come from a funeral, where he gave the final blessing for a man who left the priesthood to have a wife and son, we talk about heaven and hell over lunch. At least I do. Father Bob is not fussed with either. "I don't give a rat's arse," he says. What happens then when we die? "Buggered if I know. I could become part of the DNA of the bloody universe."

It's a Friday in Lent and the Catholic priest, known on TV and radio simply as Father Bob, orders a ham, spinach, mushroom and onion frittata with a side salad from the Let Me Be Frank cafe, in South Melbourne. I select a similarly sacrilegious BLAT sandwich. It's big and tasty but perhaps not worth damnation.

Glaring through the window is the gothic bluestone of Saints Peter and Paul, Father Bob's parish church for 38 years until his forced retirement in 2012. Shouldn't Catholics be abstaining from meat today, I ask. "Nah, not pinko leftists," he says, his mouth full of food. "He's gone now, I can do what I like ... I haven't had a bloody omelette in years."

"He" being Benedict XVI, now merely Pope Emeritus Benedict I after retiring as head of the Roman Catholic Church. The papal tailors have prepared ivory cassocks in small, medium and large to clothe whomever might emerge from the Sistine Chapel as his successor.

Father Bob, 78, dressed in a T-shirt, grey jacket and loose pants, has been studying the faces of the cardinals clambering towards St Peter's. "They're feigning concern for Benny the 16th as he leaves in his white helicopter," he says. "Their faces also primarily convey fear because their world has just come to an end. They've had 37 years of John Paul II and Benny the 16th, of conform and comply, and they are afraid it might not continue."

Vatican City is a foreign country to him in more ways than one. "Their particular form of Catholicism is conform and compliance. It means you wear the dress with the buttons, you wear the hat. You are never going to see anyone who is dressed differently. It's a franchise, like McDonald's."

"Clergy are not supposed to be thoughtless or unthinking. They run the risk of being permanent adolescents and that will cause them trouble, emotionally and sexually."

I once worked at McDonald's and remember the exhaustive rules and tight trousers. The Catholic Church depends similarly on protocol and prescription. What chance then that someone unorthodox might emerge from the cloud of white smoke?

"What the hell, I don't care who gets the job. They should draw straws," Father Bob says. "It won't make any bloody difference."

He puts his faith not in a particular person but a notion of Catholicism that is humble, open-minded and tied to local communities rather than ritual. "The best chance for Catholicism around the world is Australian-branded Catholicism, because it will be creative and innovative, it will be larrikin. And that is what I hope will happen."

It's after 1pm and the cafe is quiet. A cover version of Hey Hey My My plays in the background ("It's better to burn out, than to fade away"). A man with the softest hands I have ever felt comes by to say hello. "This could be our finest hour," Father Bob tells him. "It could be our swan song, too," the man replies.

A woman then stops to ask about next Sunday night's service. Father Bob has continued giving mass in the back of Saints Peter and Paul, despite being replaced "under duress" by the Capuchin religious order. Father Bob's brand of "Occupy Catholicism", inspired by the will of the 99 per cent rather than those in Rome, didn't sit well with either Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart or Sydney Archbishop George Pell. Nor, presumably, have his appearances on television and his lively Sunday night radio program with John Safran on Triple J.

Father Bob, who has described himself as "a brawler not a fighter", was given a pair of boxing gloves after his final official mass in January 2012. He has continued running the independent Father Bob Maguire Foundation, providing assistance to "the unlovely and the unloved". "I've retired from institutional catholicism. I've got the parish without borders."

But does he miss his church? "Yeah, I want to be in there," he says. "Some person said the other day, 'Stop going up there because you'll drive yourself bloody mad'. I said, 'Well, they interrupted a major operation'. The patients are still there, the neighbourhood."

During his informal Sunday night services, parishioners and priest sit on chairs on the same level, away from the raised altar and vestments. "Catholicism at its best says to the world: 'Hey listen, excuse me, can we humbly ask you to let us on board your ship and we will do what we're the best at doing, which is Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, where we put ourselves at your service'," Father Bob says.

"If we were in good shape, we would be looking after the asylum seekers, we would commission a ship and help them onshore. That's the Catholic way. The top level should become part of the global neighbourhood but the poor buggers can't see past their bishops' rings; they're hypnotised, they're mesmerised."

The building around us is a practical demonstration of what the church can achieve, he says. He helped open the South Melbourne Commons with Friends of the Earth three years ago as a "secular humanist installation", next to Saints Peter and Paul. The complex now has a cafe and business providing bicycles for those in need. The Melbourne Archdiocese intends to reclaim the property for "parish-related purposes" when the lease expires in August, a spokesman says.

Father Bob hopes a biography and a documentary about his life, which will be released in May and July respectively, will provide a guide for establishing similar organisations, which seem to straddle the divide between religion and spirituality.

A wake is under way in the community hall next door for the ex-priest. Father Bob says his own beliefs have never wavered. "Call it faith, call it religion, I have seen it work. Not only piously when someone like your mother hangs on to her Rosary beads even when she's 60 and has had a stroke. But among people who are trying to make ends meet.

"The heroism of the ordinary person in public housing, the heroism of ordinary people from all walks of life when they have received a kick in the arse ... I think the more secular we become, the better it is."

He is fascinated with the splendour of little things, he says. With simple hymns over Mozart or Handel. An omelette instead of high cuisine.

"What's that like?" he asks, pointing to my toasted sandwich. It's all right, I say, would you like some? "Nah," he says, then insists I try his side salad.

It's getting on and he offers to drive me across town to my next appointment. He walks slowly with a cane, after being hospitalised with nerve disease in January, and groans while climbing into his beat-up green Ford, one leg at a time. "Physically I'm buggered but otherwise I am all right," he says.

Twice it fails to start then, on the third try, a miracle. As we drive over the glittering brown water of the Yarra River we start talking about celibacy, as I guess you do when you're killing time with a Catholic priest.

Father Bob insists on calling himself a "voluntary celibate", regardless of church edicts. "You have to accept celibacy as being an honourable craft. If you have involuntary celibacy you are going to get into all kinds of bizarre behaviour, one of which may well be paedophilia and the other one will at least be old, sour bachelors. The clerical culture is going to bring out the worst in any of us."

He joined the seminary (or "cemetery", as he has called it) in 1953, believing he was joining a movement to help those who could not help themselves. The revolutionary promise of Vatican II inspired him to stay put. That movement has been hijacked since, he says. But he believes in resurrection. "That's why I'd like to stay alive because I'd like to hang around long enough to see the movement flourish."

Which brings us back to death. Heaven, hell and purgatory were "cooked up" by the church to corral matters beyond comprehension, he says. Dietary prescriptions during Lent were similarly man-made inventions, he says.

So what happens when we die? "I'm buggered if I know," he says again. "You know this is not all there is when you listen to music, you see the sunset or the sunrise. Or you look in the eyes of a baby. We become fascinated with our own image and likeness and we try to preserve that environment so we're safe, like the church is trying to do now.

"But we have an instinct there is something else going on. You can either call it faith, you can call it hope, you can call it imagination, you can call it what you bloody well like. All I know is I am optimistic."

While the cardinals will soon gather in their scarlet robes in Rome to elect the next pope, the real power of Catholicism ultimately lies with its followers, he argues. "We are the boss, we the people," he says. "They can do what they like but these days you have less to fear, especially those of us who have been belted out of the ground."