Homily given by Very Rev Peter G Williams for the Mass of Christian Burial of Rev Geoffrey Francis Dickinson. Thursday 5 May 2016, St Nicholas of Myra Church, Penrith
I n 1955, after 28 years in the Parish of Camperdown, Norman Cardinal Gilroy appointed Fr Matthew O’Donoghue to the Parish of Dulwich Hill where he was to remain as Parish Priest until he retired, finally, at the age of 98 in 1984. Shortly after taking up his new appointment at Dulwich Hill, a newly ordained priest was appointed as the curate. Fr Geoff Dickinson had been ordained by Cardinal Gilroy in July 1955. As Geoff said to me: “I was 24 and he was 71!” The first parish appointment of a newly minted priest can be formative in the subsequent life and ministry of that priest, and as Geoff would say he struck gold by being at Dulwich Hill with Matty O’Donoghue.
For those who knew him, Fr O’Donoghue was absolutely committed to the people in his pastoral care, and they took priority over everything else; he was the quintessential parish priest of the old school. That dedication to the People of God happily was assimilated by the new assistant priest and that remained one of the hallmarks of Geoff’s long ministry.
St John in his Revelation sets before us a vision of the realised Kingdom that Jesus Christ came to inaugurate, and while the images are serene and could be interpreted as a future idealised state, there is a sense in which God being present among his people is also in a contained way a present reality, as some theologians put it “realised eschatology”.
The notion of the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ is at the heart of the Catholic faith. Geoff understood that that faith in Jesus Christ transmitted through the Church could and should be a vehicle for men and women to reach their full potential as the sons and daughters of God, and for that Kingdom based on lives founded on justice, goodness and peace to be extant here and now. For Geoff the two fundamentals that would help achieve this fulfilment. One was a committed discipleship of Jesus, following the example of the first disciple par excellence, Mary, the first to respond to the Word, and frequent access to the Eucharist, so that this pivotal relationship with Jesus, and aided by Our Lady, could be sustained.
As a young priest Fr Geoff continued to focus on his sacramental and pastoral ministry which subsequently saw him minister in Lidcombe, and then for the first time here in this Parish of St Nicholas of Myra under the towering figure of Fr John Fitzpatrick, another priest in the mould of Monsignor Matthew O’Donohue.
When Geoff came here in 1963 it was during the heady days of the Second Vatican Council. As the deliberations by the world’s bishops took place in Rome reports were filtering back to Australia about what was transpiring, but at that point the consequences on priestly and Church life were little known. As the Council was drawing to a close Geoff found himself appointed as an inspector of Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Sydney, a six-year stint during which time he formed a close working relationship with Monsignor John Slowey who without doubt was responsible for the survival and development of Catholic education in NSW and Fr (later Bishop) Barry Collins. They remained friends of Geoff until their deaths, and Geoff always valued highly his engagement with Catholic schools in a time of unprecedented change.
From the school’s office he came to Parramatta as assistant priest and after two brief administratorships he was appointed Parish Priest of Malabar and there had the task of constructing a new parish church. As any priest who has undertaken such an enterprise knows it can, and often does, take a personal toll, and Geoff while accomplishing the task was exhausted by the process and subsequently plunged into a personal crisis over whether or not priesthood was where he should be.
One of the admirable qualities of Geoff was his humanness. He was not afraid to bare his soul to those he was close to, and although sometimes giving the appearance of being a very private man, he was also very transparent to those who knew and loved him. He took time out to reflect on his future and for some months resided in Canberra. His struggle was to determine whether he could find personal authenticity as a man, and could priestly life fulfil that need for completeness.
Finally, it was an encounter with the Redemptorist, Fr Kevin O’Shea CSsR who posed the question that Geoff knew he needed to answer. “Kevin said to me, Geoff at the end of the day, which is the greater love?” “I knew” said Geoff, “that the answer to that question was the person of Jesus and the priesthood.”
He spent four years reestablishing his ministry at the parish of Mt Druitt with then Parish Priest, Fr (now Bishop) Bede Heather, before being appointed Parish Priest here in Penrith in 1984. It is here in this parish that Geoff flourished as both a priest and a man in ways that probably not even he could have anticipated.
After the untimely death of Fr John Grady, who prophetically had the foresight to build this church in-the-round, as a response to the liturgical reforms mandated by the Council, Fr Geoff took seriously the task of building up the community that occupied this unusual church for the time, and set his priority as attending to the pastoral needs of the people of this parish. Perhaps he could identify with the words of St John through his own recent experience: “We have passed out of death into life, and of this we can be sure because we love our brothers and sisters.”
As many gathered here today well know, Geoff saw himself principally as an enabler of the people. He desired that following the model set forth in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, the lay men and women needed to assume responsibility for the Church and its mission as well as the clergy.
Penrith buzzed with life, so many groups, so many activities, building up Mary MacKillop school in South Penrith, the coming of the Franciscans and the formation of a Catholic community at Cranebrook, the ministry of the Redemptorists on Jamieson Road, religious sisters in the hospital, Sr Ann Martin in the parish house with Lorraine Blakers on the front line and Gwen Nunn at back of house, Mila with a legion of catechists, Jean Vranich and Louise Debeck and a burgeoning RCIA, the fledgling beginnings of a Catholic community at Glenmore Park spearheaded by his great friend Br Vin Dale. Everything was on the table.
It was all happening here and there seemed no end to the energy and the enthusiasm. Assistant priests came and went all the better for the experience. There was no room here for a complacent and subservient laity. Geoff facilitated all this and motivating him in this leadership was a template captured in the words of St John: “This has taught us love – that he gave up his life for us; and we, too, ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters.”
At his centre he was a man of great compassion, and was never afraid to walk with the families of this parish as they faced the troubles of life, illness, breakdown and bereavement. He always seemed to be in possession of his ritual and oil stock. There are many people here today who can testify to his calming presence at their lowest point and the reassurance he could bring.
But he also enjoyed their good times, baptising their children, encouraging the young people and solemnising their weddings. He loved this parish and its people and was Penrith to the core in all things – but not to the extent of adopting the Panthers – there could be no turning on his boyhood team of the Balmain Tigers!
When we celebrated his 40th anniversary of priesthood here, Fr Geoff in his concluding remarks made the comment, perhaps reflecting on his own journey, “there is nothing wrong with the product, it just needs repackaging.” He possessed a somewhat cheeky sense of humour. Every so often a priest is required to update their details at the Chancery. On one such form when it came to filling in the university attended Geoff in his inimitable handwriting had scribbled – University of life – 40 years on mission!
Although plagued by coeliac disease, which often affected his mood, there was no greater critic of Geoff than himself, and often would brood for hours if he felt he had transgressed someone. And he was not a morning person. At 7am Mass here one Sunday he was railing forth during the homily and some poor unfortunate started shaking their head. “Don’t you shake your head at me,” he thundered from the pulpit. “I’ve been a priest for 40 years.” As Mick and Helen Ryan related to me later, everyone in the church remained frozen in their pews as no one dared move for the rest of the Mass!
At the end of 1996, after 12 years at the helm, Geoff moved across the river to Our Lady of the Way, Emu Plains, as Parish Priest. It had been quite a rollercoaster ride for those who had shared that part of the history of this parish. For him, Emu Plains was a very happy time, less intense and a more measured way of life as he ministered faithfully to the people of the parish with great contentment.
It was in semi-retirement at Greystanes with his great friend Fr Gerry Iverson that he continued to minister in a limited way, but the early signs of dementia saw him relocate to Rosary Village at Fairfield. Visiting Geoff, his short-term memory was in tatters, but his long-term memory was solid as he spoke about the early years of priesthood and particularly his time here and at other parishes. Eventually, the Geoff we knew faded away and he relocated to Marian Nursing Home in Parramatta where he spent his final years. It is a testimony to so many former parishioners that even in these years they would continue to visit him, and at times there were flashes of recognition.
On Thursday 21 April, I was contacted by Marian Home to advise me that he was declining quite rapidly after not responding to treatment for an infection. There had been a similar incident last year in June when they thought it was the end, but Geoff had recovered. When I came to administer the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, I spoke his name and for one last time he opened his eyes and smiled. He survived the day and on Friday morning when celebrating Mass, the Gospel for the day was the Gospel we have had proclaimed here today.
Geoff had two favourite Gospel passages, the Beatitudes in chapter 5 of St Matthew’s Gospel, and this passage from St John, part of the Last Supper farewell discourses by Jesus. Call it serendipity if you like, but when I arrived on Friday morning to pray with him, I read him the passage. “I am going to prepare a place for you, and after I have gone and prepared you a place, I shall return to take you with me; so that where I am you may be too.”
In the end, his friendship with Jesus was paramount, and in giving himself faithfully to the task of being a priest, Geoff remarkably fulfilled the challenge, and the Lord came and took him home to himself. It was his choice to be buried at Kingswood cemetery. I think in his own way having no continuing blood family Geoff desired to be among the family of faith at Penrith, so many of those family members during his years here he had committed to eternal rest when their time had come to pass from this life.
Geoff was very attracted by the writings and the poetry of the English Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ and would often quote from him. The Hopkins family motto which Geoff often referred to resonated with him – Esse quam videri – “to be, rather than to seem”. As we come to farewell Geoff today from this community of Christ’s faithful it seems more than appropriate that this motto was truly apt for Geoffrey Francis Dickinson, priest and friend to so many.
May he rest in peace. Amen.
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