by Gordon Nary
Gordon: When did you attend University of Melbourne and what was one of your favorite memories when you were there?
Michael: I was there in the eighties and loved two things. The first was theatre. It was a great time for campus drama, by which I mean on stage. There was drama off stage as well but no need to talk about that! I think drama helped prepare me for my later work as a Jesuit priest. I think liturgy benefits from a sense of the dramatic: allowing gestures to speak, helping people make space for God. I also loved languages. I did my major in Indonesian language and literature. These were the Soeharto years so the department was full of idealism and discussion and hope.
Gordon: What degree did you earn at University of Divinity, what was your favorite course, and why was it your favorite?
Michael: I did honours in theology as I was a member of the Jesuit order at that time and studying to be a priest. I loved church history which is the first cousin of systematic theology: the story of ideas in action. I remember a great scripture teacher, Brendan Byrne, telling us that we owe it to a congregation to at least touch the original earth of the Greek text.
Gordon: Gordon: When did you attend Monash University and what were your studies?
Michael: I did my teaching qualification at Monash although I think you can only learn teaching on the job, in the classroom, getting supervision and help from people who know how to motivate and inspire young people. I sometimes joke that I don’t think anyone should be ordained unless they have taught Religion to 14 year-olds for a full year! It really is the mission field. I loved it. I loved all the questions and all the energy. Young people remind us that the search for God is gritty, hilarious and real.
Gordon: When did you work as a writer and broadcaster at ABC
Michael: I have done many spots at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) but in 2005 and 2006 I was a regular on ABC Canberra mornings talking with guests. I have been a writer all my life but full time between 2001 and 2007. My most recent book appeared last year, Ideas to Save Your Life, published by Text. I think that the struggle to find the right words is a search for grace. It concerns me that people write too fast these days, feeding the voracious appetite of social media and so on. I love to take time. Even sometimes to wait until the words and stories find me. I think that is part of my faith life.
Gordon: When were you at fiction editor of Meanjin and what were some of the books that you edited?
Michael: I was fiction editor soon after I left the Jesuit order, from 2001 to 2007. The fiction editor was the person who selected the stories published in Meanjin. Hundreds were submitted every year. It was overwhelming and paid very little. I tried to remind myself that every submission carried the hopes of a writer at some stage of their career. It was impossible to provide feedback on them all. I can recall being in a holiday town and seeing a sign in the local café. Somebody was starting a support group for people who were having work rejected by ‘publications such as Meanjin.’ That gave me a shake. I didn’t realise that I had a position of such influence.
Gordon: What were your primary responsibilities as a H. C. Coombs fellow at ANU?
Michael: It was an opportunity to get going on a new book which turned out to be Snooze: the Lost Art of Sleep. The fellowship enabled the recipient to be supported as they worked on a creative project. I also conducted some writing workshops. Jenny and I had brand new baby twins and another toddler. So the fellowship was a great support at that time.
Gordon: When did you serve as Dean of Faith at St Kevin's College Toorak What were your primary responsibilities, and what did you enjoy most when you served there?
Michael: St Kevin’s is a Catholic school with kids from age 5 to 18. My job was to support the faith life of the school, especially liturgies, retreats, prayer and staff formation. I especially loved our extensive social justice program which was really extensive. I loved challenging young people at the level of faith. They get such shallow messages from the consumer world. We have so much more to offer. I remember a parent telling me that they thought they would let their child choose their own religion. I replied ‘but you chose their language, didn’t you.’ To me, the language of the soul is even deeper than your mother tongue. I was glad I learnt reverence as a child. I wanted to pass that on. The best form of reverence is grateful. I hoped young people might see life as a wonderful gift and be curious about who the giver might be.
Gordon: What are you doing these days?
Michael: I am the Mission Director for Caritas Australia which is the catholic agency for aid and development in this country. It is part of the very extensive Caritas Confederation. I am so blessed to have this job. It allows me to support people who are working towards a more just and sustainable society. From my very happy Jesuit years, I have retained quite a passion for a faith that does justice.
Gordon: What are some of the books that your have written?
Michael: I have written quite a few books. A book for Lent, This Cup We Bless is coming out in North America soon through Novaliss. I am really happy with it. It offers a little coffee break for every day of Lent.
Gordon: Thank you for a fascinating interview.