After the solemn ceremony of Simple Vows, the eight of us who had “graduated” were decked out in “clericals”, black suits, black felt hats and back-to-front white clergyman collars. Teenaged clones of the clergy, we boarded the train for Melbourne. No question of a farewell visit to our family homes before we set off for seven consecutive years in Victoria. We had “given up the world”. Whatever about the Gospel text concerning giving up one’s own mother and father for the sake of the Son of God, we had enjoyed their presence at the taking of our vows, and should never have questioned the decision about not visiting them at home. I must confess, however – and did, literally, at the time – that after a full year away from home, I did regret not being allowed to see Kogarah one last time.
“Greyfriars”, the Franciscan House of Philosophy near Mornington on the shores of Port Phillip Bay, south of Melbourne, would be our home for the next three years. Nearby was “Morning Star”, a “Boys’ Home” or Juvenile Delinquent Detention Center, where certain of our fellow-Friars attemped to “reform” boys of fourteen to eighteen, sentenced by the Courts to from six to eighteen months of incarceration. They were in prison. We were not. But now we were professed Religious, bound by our vows, which for the next three years could be annulled only by the highest authorities of the Order.
Nothing was further from our minds as we settled into our new life as students of First Year Philos. Very quickly we got to know and appreciate our new companions and confreres of Philosophy 2 and 3, our seniors and sometimes models for living the vocation we shared. We also appreciated their numbers, which made the composition of sports teams a little closer to reality.
Our two principal Professors had both completed doctoral studies overseas, not in Rome or Louvain, Belgium, as their predecessors had done, but, because of the war raging in Europe, in the U.S. They were impressive, big men, tasked with introducing us to Medieval Philosophy, with a special emphasis on the Franciscan tradition of Duns Scotus (1266-1308), known as the Subtle Doctor, rather than the more common tradition of the Dominican Angelic Doctor, St Thomas Aquinas.
Aquinas was also the name of the Guardian, or Father Superior, of the Greyfriars community. “Aq” was not like the others. He looked like, and was, a “bon vivant”, appreciated more for his culinary skills and personal recipes like “Duck in Habit” than anything he tried to teach us, including elocution. We liked him, but never took him seriously. “Bob” and “Larry” (or “Lash”) – diminutives we would use only in their absence, or course, were, on the other hand, totally serious, the latter, at least, to the point of paranoia. Uncomfortably so, in class, in chapel, on the football field and in the daily periods of manual labor. “Nicky”, the Student Master, was different again. A soft-spoken Scripture scholar who, besides his responsibility of introducing us to the arcana of Biblical Exegesis, assured also those of Student Master and Spiritual Director. And then there was “Phonse”, who was not a member of the faculty and whose exact functions were unclear, apart from the daily chore he gave himself of feeding his twenty-three cats and driving the Friary Peugeot stationwagon on community errands.
All of these were priests, but there were, as there had been at Robbo and Maryfields, other members of the community called Lay Brothers. They wore habits identical with those of the priests and the “clerics” (students for the priesthood) that we were, but they were different from us. They took care of the physical work that needed to be done for the community, cooking, laundry, maintenance. We participated through our own manual labor, but they were the real work-force. Second-class citizens ? It seemed so. Not only could they never hold office in the Order (this, like so much else in the Order today, has changed), but even share the recreation room of the “Fathers” (we called them the “Dads”) or our own students’ rec room. They had chosen to be Franciscans but lacked either the education and/or the desire to become priests. None of the Brothers I ever lived with was an eccentric or a misfit. Mind you, clerics’ contacts with these good, dedicated, sometimes talented men were deliberately and traditionally limited. We were castes apart. After all, in just a few more years, we would be ordained priests.