6 October 2006, St Columbas Elwood
Twenty-eight years ago, in 1978, when Father Con was in St Vincents Hospital for surgery and was about to retire, he called me to his bedside and solemnly charged me as his friend with speaking at his Requiem Mass. And he wrote it in his will. So, I am here on a sacred trust.
In what follows I will assume you have read the outline of his life in the Mass booklet; and that you have drawn the conclusion from the photos that Father Con has enjoyed the loving support of his family all his life and down to todays generation. They are here today in strength and it is great to have baby Eliza, the youngest grandniece here in the front row. The family have had a tough run with the burial of Nancy Reis in May and Alice Tehan on Wednesday last. On your behalf, I offer them our condolences and thank them for all that they have done for Con.
Another preliminary: I hope you had a chance at Communion time to see some of the memorabilia on the coffin and the table. In front of the coffin is a drawing and tribute given to Con by the parishioners of St Albans. On the coffin are his baptismal robe (used by all his nieces and nephews and their children too), a hymn book, war medals, an Australian flag and a Richmond football club scarf. On the table there are his crucifix of Christ the priest, priestly prayer books, some of his sermon notes, his copy of Albert Nolans Jesus before Christianity, a slouch hat, photographs from St Albans and more.
Two thousand years ago Jesus preached a way of life based on love of God and love of ones neighbour, suffered at the hands of the rulers of his day, was crucified and then his followers, filled with the Spirit, found him to be living on, as it were, risen from the dead.
From this came our faith. In the words of the great Saint Brigid, Jesus, the preacher, had lit a flame. Through dungeon, fire, sword, holy empires, Vatican bureaucracies and many scandals that fire burns to this day and we are here to mark the passing of an outstanding keeper of the flame.
Father Con took seriously his role as teacher and preacher. Those apparently effortless, helpful, brief and interesting sermons which he gave were the fruit of hours and hours of study.
In passing, we should note that we are breaking one of his rules today. With six Masses on the hour of a Sunday morning at St Albans he had strict advice for himself and the curates: be out of the pulpit by 25 past.
But back to Cons seriousness about preaching. Here are a couple of sermon summaries of the sort which he always had with him when he was preaching [hold up cards]. These come from a carefully kept file of hundreds: he never went into the pulpit unprepared. On his book shelf were dozens of books of bible commentary and contemporary discussions of the meaning of Christianity.
Con used to say that three major influences moulded his views on the teachings of Jesus Christ: World War II, St Albans and the Second Vatican Council. Lets reflect on each of those in turn and try to draw out what each says about his understanding of the teachings of Jesus.
World War II
In mid 1941, Con was appointed chaplain to the Fourth Brigade of the Australian Army. He had especially close links to the 29/46 Battalion, whose banner is here today (with its colour patch in the Richmond colours), and the Fourth Field Ambulance. The men gave him the nickname, The Little Digger. We are honoured to have a group of his army mates here today.
Our unit, as he always called them, went into battle for the first time in September 1943. Afterwards he said a Requiem Mass for the ones who had died. When they got back to Australia he did that again and for 52 years, on the first Friday in December, at whichever parish he was stationed, in later years in this church. You will find a plaque at the back of the church marking this link. At those annual Requiem Masses, the affection and admiration of those men for Con and he for them was palpable.
Con recalled that after the early battles, they buried one particular comrade in a jungle clearing with a crude cross made of tropical wood to mark the spot. When they came back that way some weeks later the wood of the cross, fuelled by the moisture and heat of the jungle, had started to sprout. This Con said was one of the best symbols he ever found of the reality of the resurrection to come.
At one of those Masses he told the following story. Near Rabaul, after the fighting was over, he was allotted some Japanese prisoners of war to work under his command to build a chapel. There is a picture of that chapel on the inside back cover of the Mass booklet. Con said he was at first happy to see them overworked in the tropical sun without enough shade and water: that was their just deserts for what they had done to our boys. But as time went on he had a conversion from hatred to tolerance and treated them more kindly.
In later years, he recalled that he had given sermons about the correctness of obeying orders even though he suspected the soldiers had been told to take no prisoners. He told a university researcher that he still felt he had done the right thing in that situation.
However, he did have other more questioning reflections on war. He used to say, At the end of the war, if our army commanders had said, March down to St Kilda and then said, March off the pier, we would have said, What stupid so-and-sos the army brass are, and then we would have done it.
Indeed, in later life, Father Con gave quiet, critical but real support to the peace movement. On one memorable occasion he gave a fine address to a meeting of Catholics concerned about nuclear disarmament.
Then came the St Albans years but there is a prelude to them. In 1950, when he was 36 years old, Con was appointed director of migration for the archdiocese of Melbourne at the height of the big post-war influx. He won respect among the migrants themselves, with Catholic and other organisations working to make them welcome and he was highly regarded by Arthur Calwell, minister for immigration.
In a talk to the old boys of De La Salle College in 1952 he said, Our own forebears were migrants, it is up to us to make the newcomers feel at home. (Con comes from German Reises, Catalan Parers from Spain, Callinans and two sets of Lawlers from Ireland.) He quoted Jesus parable: I was an outcast and you took me in and argued for upholding the Australian value of the fair go. Thats over fifty years ago and still relevant.
Con and the diocese discussed whether or not to follow an American example and set up ethnic parishes. Con opposed the ethnic parishes and supported the view that having Australian parishes with suitable provision of Masses and pastoral services in the appropriate languages was better for the migrants.
After only two and a half years in this busy and demanding job as director of Catholic migration Archbishop Mannix, then 90 years old, appointed Con to be in charge of the new parish of St Albans.
One of the things that Con wanted me to put on the record today is that being moved from the immigration office to St Albans was influenced by the Santamaria Movement. That organisation wanted to take over the Catholic migration office and make it into an organising tool for what Con, supported by Fr Leo Ryan and Mgr George Crennan, regarded as negative, authoritarian and anti-democratic goals. Around this time, priests such as Frank Lombard in the Young Christian Workers, John F Kelly and Dan Conquest in education, and Jerry Golden in university chaplaincy, had similar problems to Cons, as did lay groups around the YCW, the Catholic Worker and Arthur Calwell. Coadjutor Archbishop Justin Simonds was a source of strength and support to Con and the others. With Cardinal Joseph Cardijn, founder of the YCW, those loyal dissenters believed that to be merely anti-communist or anti-socialist is to do nothing.
Obeying his bishops orders, Con Reis, without fuss, moved to St Albans, and set about 20 years of the most extraordinary pastoral work in a 90 per cent migrant area, over half of them Catholics - was it the only place in Australia with that percentage of Catholics? - unmade roads, lack of services, but full of opportunity and hope.
Together with the Sisters of St Joseph led by Sister Francis, Sister Assunta and others, the parishioners and he constructed buildings with voluntary labour under the leadership of Fred Barnard (whose daughter Jan read one of the prayers of the faithful). They also created a spiritual community where former enemies in World War II worshipped side by side; and their children went to school together. There are ways to avoid ethnic conflict and St Albans has been an example.
Con led a parish for 1900 families, a school for 900 children, and set up four new parishes in the area, doing so much bookwork and organisation. Archbishop Daniel Mannix was big-hearted enough to lavish praise on Father Con for his achievements at St Albans.
Here are three stories about Con and Sacred Heart parish. The first is that every summer Con as parish priest together with his assistant priests and a team of men from the parish visited the homes of each parishioner to enquire about their well being, spiritual and other. This built a strong sense of community.
Second, as he united the different denominations in the army, as he warmed to the Japanese prisoners, so Father Con was able to unite people from both sides of the 1950s split in the Australian Labor Party. Alf Leckie and [Stan?] Marciniak, officers of the local ALP branch, were as welcome at the parish as John Gigacz and Jim Shanley, officers of the DLP branch. Like the Apostle Paul, Con believed that in Christ there is no longer Jew nor Gentile, no male nor female, no slave or free man.
The third story concerns a survey around 1967 which ranked Melbournes suburbs in a pecking order of desirability. St Albans, because of its percentage of migrants, came in last. In a rare action for Con, he wrote to the Herald newspaper to defend the reputation of his hard-working, family-minded parishioners. Among other things he made the simple point that St Albans had an above-average percentage of home owners.
Father Reis - some of the Europeans used come to the door and, using the German pronunciation, ask for Father Rice is a folk legend in St Albans and rightly so. He told Evelyn Gigacz that he is to be buried at Keilor so that he can be with his friends from St Albans.
Second Vatican Council
While the flame of Christian teaching which Father Con carried came from his family (lets bring to mind today his father Charles Reis and his mother Susan Parer), his teachers and the great Catholic tradition behind them, when he was in his late forties, in the 1960s, he had a profound experience of the rekindling of that flame, namely through the Second Vatican Council convened by the great reformer Pope John XXIII. This meeting of the worlds Catholic bishops over four years was for Con, and for millions of others, a spring time of new learning, new possibilities: in Ezekiels words, breathing new life into old bones.
Two points about the council deserve mention today. Firstly, the overarching importance of the restoration to the Holy Thursday liturgy of the washing of the feet. Con, like most of us, loved the symbolism of the church being at the service of the world.
The second point is that he, again like many others, felt that the 1968 Papal ruling against contraception was a reversal of the renewal promised by the council. Father Con was one of those who, like Cardinal John Henry Newman, would toast the Pope but would toast conscience first.
There is a funny story about that. One night following the release of the encyclical Humanae Vitae, after two priests in Melbourne had been sacked for publicly disagreeing, a group of us were sitting around talking about our future. Con, with his friend Fr Tom Curran, had just been up the Newell Highway which was then under repair. He said that he and Tom were prepared for the possibility that they too might be sacked but that they had found the perfect job for people like them without worldly qualifications. Con said, referring the men holding the signs at the road works, We could become Stop/Go men. It never came to that but he was mentally prepared.
Summary and farewell
Several days would be needed for all the stories about Con.
In summary, we salute Fr Con Reis as an outstanding, happy, intelligent, competent, dynamic, forward-looking, self-effacing and well organised Catholic priest and preacher of Jesus teachings.
As a keeper of the flame, there is one characteristic that Con had to an exceptionally high degree, namely, the ability to encourage and trust the coming generation. The Irish have a proverb, Mól an óige agus tiocfaidh sí, Praise youth and it will flourish. Con did that.
Though Con was born in Albury, he was a Victorian all his adult life, The poet Bruce Dawe says of Victorians that they shall not grow old as those in northern climes grow old/ for them it will always be three-quarter time with the wind advantage in the last term/ having seen in the six-foot recruit from Eaglehawk, their hope of salvation. Like Simeon of old, as Fr Peter Matheson said, Con had seen in the coming generation the light of salvation.
However, Con did grow old and was stricken with a purgatory on earth: for the last few years he has been legally blind, mute but for a few words, and bed ridden. We thought for a while that he was waiting for a Richmond premiership before he could die. In Justin Villa and the Good Shepherd Nursing Home, two of the best such places in the world, Con was cared for by many marvellous people and found peace. And to the end he kept his crop of black hair. At Frankston in the years immediately before that he was helped by the remarkable work of his devoted carer Kay Daniels, her children and others. Con used to say that people who work as carers are worth much more than executives, and deserve much better pay. That remark certainly applies to the wonderful, wonderful people who have cared for him these past seven or more years. On behalf of the family, and on behalf of you all, thanks.
Those of you who have been consoled by Con at the time of the death of a loved one know that there is only one way I can finish this eulogy. I must imitate Con and quote the 1500-year old words of the great Greek saint, John Chrysostom: He whom we love and lose is no longer where he was before: he is now wherever we are.
Con Reis, well done thou good and faithful servant. You have been a keeper of the flame: our best tribute to you will be for us also to be keepers of the flame.
Con requested that at the end of this Mass we sing together the Song of Joy. Would you please stand and Mike Wood will lead us in fulfilling Cons wish.