Amens and Alleluias

Fr Don Gunn loves to share stories about life on the margins. Nothing seems to bring more joy than when relating his copious tales of liturgies and pastoral care of people in remote towns and communities. So I sat down with him to learn how this love evolved. 

At first, Don grew up in a pre-Vatican II world. He became immersed in the church as an altar boy at 8 years old in a little church in South Forbes, in rural NSW. He remembers riding his bike to 7am weekday Masses in the freezing cold, surplice and soutane slung over his shoulder. There were big Catholic processions, Redemptorist missions, an altar servers’ choir and many of the trappings of Christendom.

So it was no surprise when he and a friend approached the bishop to go to the seminary after school. Yet the bishop suggested that he work some time instead, and he ended up returning some 8 years later, to enter the seminary at 26. So he went off to Adelaide, South Australia, where many of the Wilcannia-Forbes priests were trained at the time. 

Fr Don Gunn at his 30th Anniversary of his Priesthood, 2014

Don’s formation was quite a new experience, in a Catholic environment that was opening out and renewing the liturgy. The seminarians were exposed to a humanist style of education, going back to the sources and re-debating religious doctrines. They delved deep into scripture, with commentary from across Christian denominations. And they studied alongside future female church leaders as well as nuns.

But it was Don’s pastoral placements that really were “a big turning point for me.” He went to Port Lincoln and Whyalla, in the Port Pirie Diocese, where he experienced creative approaches to sacramental life. In Whyalla, Fr Eugene Hurley (later, Bishop of Darwin), insisted that people preparing for their sacraments be informed and formed for the celebrations. With baptism preparation, Fr Eugene and seminarians developed an audiovisual presentation using the image of powerful water. With an understanding of the symbolism involved, people could “more fully participate in the sacrament.”

In both Whyalla and Port Lincoln, Don was immersed in implementing Vatican II, with all its liturgical potential. There was a large cast involved, but Don would like to name them all: Frs Bill Wauchope, Arthur Hackett, Leon Quinn, Paul Quirk and Chris Warnock; Sr Jill O’Brian SGS and large community of Good Samaritan Sisters. They changed his appreciation of what it meant to be a priest and to lead liturgy, and his vocation “as a liturgical adult experience first occurred.” It was about “offering the treasures of our faith” in accessible ways. 

From South Australia, Don moved back to the west of NSW, in the Wilcannia-Forbes Diocese. Here, the accent was on freedom, remoteness and “making the best of what we had.” When once asked to draw the diocese, he did it through the lens of a steering wheel. Liturgies were less of the big and beautiful, but more like showing up to derelict buildings in tiny communities, yet finding a full congregation. Except, Don laughs, when it clashed with the races. His Masses now felt fulfilling and authentic. All he did was follow the rubrics, but “some way or another that was enough. The people came back the next time.”

During times of drought, the people begged that there would always be a priest. They said, “If we don’t get together for the Mass, we’ve got nothing else.” Don found that liturgy was not really distinguishable between the practice of charity and fellowship. And that faith and the liturgy are bigger than the church. What he was doing as a priest was affirming and supporting the faith and liturgical life of the community that was already there. Don tried to find templates for people to pray both in the church and in their private prayer. And if they knew it so well, when he wasn’t there (for example, during a baptism), the people had a pattern of liturgical prayer to follow.

One liturgy stands out in particular. It was at the end of a Christmas day when Don said a home Mass in a remote parish. The woman, whose house it was, was famous in the local community. However, no one else there would have been a regular at Mass. So although they followed the rubrics, it was informal and the responses just came out naturally. “Amens and Alleluias came freely and appropriately”. Just a few weeks later, the woman died and it was a privilege to celebrate her funeral.

Don emits a tangible sense of delight when he recalls all these good times as a liturgical leader on the edge and at the margins. He ends by saying that it doesn’t end with the end of the Mass. It is all about going out to be filled with the Spirit, to live sacramentally in the world.

Book Week with the staff at St Joseph’s Parish School, Condobolin. Fr Don Gunn is in the bottom row, third from the right.

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