Agent of Change

By Fr Edmund Campion

Eric Smith and portrait of Roger Pryke

Eric Smith and portrait of Roger Pryke

Roger Irving Pryke changed thousands of lives. Chaplain to Catholic students at the University for a decade before the second Vatican Council (held 1962-65), he was an early exponent of the major themes that make up the Vatican II event. Students influenced by him became a new type of Catholic known as “Vatican II Catholics”.

Beginning in 1951, his work as a chaplain coincided with the Menzies Government’s Commonwealth scholarships, which opened up the University to diverse students. Previous generations of Catholics had been wary of the University and its values. Enrolled in Arts, Pryke himself demonstrated a love of university life and, handsome and gregarious, he was soon a recognised campus identity. He appeared in Honi Soit, and co-authored a Hermes article with the Protestant president of the SRC. He became a regular O-Week speaker and a defender of the University against critics in the church press.

Pryke’s Catholics were formed in small faculty groups, where Bible discussions expanded into problems of university life. They did not seek to colonise the University; their aim was to serve it by making it a better university. Weekend camps and interstate conferences consolidated the work begun in the groups. In his personal counselling the chaplain introduced them to the new thinking then energising the Catholic world.

Here were themes later canonised in the teaching of Vatican II. It was all here at the University of Sydney before the bishops met at Vatican II. So historians of the Vatican II experience in Australia can fruitfully start their research with Roger Pryke.

One of the startling innovations of the Council was in the area of parish worship, most noticeably in its decision to celebrate Mass in the vernacular, rather than in Latin. Pryke led a group of young priests who prepared the local ground for this innovation with gramophone records, leaflets, cards, booklets and other worship aids. Their most successful venture was the “Living Parish” hymnbook that sold a million copies in a dozen years, going into schools and churches across Australia. Simple, cheap and durable, this hymnbook changed previously silent worshippers into singing congregations. Its outstanding feature was the Australian hymnody of James McAuley and Richard Connelly, both Sydney graduates.

The most important pastoral work Roger Pryke did was to organise theology seminars for nuns at Sancta Sophia College. Through their schools and colleges nuns had been the primary makers of popular Catholicism in Australia. But as the church geared up for Vatican II, many felt they were being left behind, so they asked Pryke if he would help them. Yes, he would; and he gathered the best brains in the Sydney church to teach them. For most of the nuns it was a life-changing experience, not only because of the new thinking they encountered but also because of the friendships they made with women from different religious orders. When they returned to their convents and schools, they became agents of change.

Cover of Traveller to Freedom

Traveller to Freedom, The Roger Pryke Story by Francis Ravel Harvey

Not every church authority approved of what Roger Pryke was doing; and in 1966 he was transferred to the quiet coastal parish of Harbord. By then, he had become a leader in the church anti-war group, Catholics for Peace, and he was prominent in demonstrations against the Springbok rugby tour. He started a magazine, Nonviolent Power, to explore ways of developing peaceful personalities and a peaceful world. His rebuke of a Sydney bishop’s rude abuse of a visiting nun-scholar led to a public protest meeting; he sponsored a visit to Australia by Dorothy Day, a renowned American lay activist. His friends, however, could see that he was becoming unhappy and they were not surprised when he resigned from the priesthood, in 1972. He joined the NSW corrective services department and then married a woman he had met in earlier days at the University; he died in 2009.

Now Francis Ravel Harvey has published a biography of Roger Pryke. It is a big, handsome, widely researched book that captures for future generations the complexities of a creative priest’s life. It also records some of the history of the University and so deserves a place on our shelves alongside books such as Alan Barcan’s Radical Students and WF Connell and his colleagues’ history of the University, Volume Two (1940-1990).

Traveller to Freedom by Francis Ravel Harvey (Freshwater Press, $49.95)