Uncontrollable Irma and Fr John George

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Many striking images of Hurricane Irma stay in the mind. The most haunting were not of the eye of the storm or the surging waters but of the lanes of almost stationary cars creeping out of Miami. The cars, symbols of individuals' control over their movement, were going nowhere. In the meantime the uncontrollable Irma had given a flick of her tail and was now about to give Miami a miss.

Hurricane IrmaThe hurricane was a reminder of the uncontrollable elements in human life, well described in Otto's catch phrase for the numinous: mysterium tremendum et fascinans. What cannot be controlled, whether monsters like King Kong or the latest in atomic weaponry, is terrifying, fascinating and takes us beyond our normal calculus. It unmasks and reduces to size all the ways in which we try to control our world. It also encourages us to recognise the difference between reasonable and pathological measures of control.

I was also reminded of the importance of the uncontrollable by the recent death of Fr John George, a Sydney priest who daily submitted comments on our Eureka Street articles, some of which we published. Though no Hurricane Irma, the literary Fr George, the only one whom we knew, was nevertheless easily seen as terrifying and fascinating.

In the Chesterbellocian tradition he laid about him with his broadsword, lambasting the magazine, the people who wrote for it and those who posted on it for their departure from truth and right order. He supplied copious historical theological material in defense of the true faith (usually drawn from the early 20th century Catholic Encyclopedia), and with a single posting could turn a civil exchange on economics into an Irish pub barney on papal authority.

For a magazine that boasts of promoting courteous conversation, and to that end exercises control over postings, he was a moderator's nightmare. But also fascinating: many of our readers looked forward to read his postings, and some even mused whether he was for real or a literary fiction.

Our efforts to control the uncontrollable Fr George reminded us of how limited is our capacity to control and how, as we control, we can turn people into ciphers and threats to be dealt with. Fortunately, we were allowed from time to time to see glimpses of the man behind the posts. In asides he alluded to his experience overseas, his work in schools, his gratitude to the Sydney Archbishop for welcoming him into the diocese, his illnesses and his life in a nursing home. Now we farewell him, not as uncontrollable, but as a brother who has inched a few cars ahead of us on the highway of life.

Coming into immediate contact with the uncontrollable also unmasks the vanity and dire effects of control when it is made the default response to the vagaries of human life. Some measure of control, of course, is necessary and appropriate.

 

"To meet the uncontrollable, whether through Hurricane Irma or the postings of Fr John George, recalls to mind how precarious and precious each human life is and how easily we can crush it when trying hubristically to control it."

 

Evacuating people in Texas and Florida saved many lives. It is right to exercise some control over immigration. It is right to monitor postings on magazines to promote civil conversation. But control can easily be made the wheel on which human beings must be broken. We can judge it a disaster if one irregular immigrant arrives, if one questionable posting gets through, or if one crime goes unpunished. And so we devise a foolproof and humanity proof system of excluding people from our society and from our minds.

We see the effects of control most clearly in the treatment of people who are considered uncontrolled. We place asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island, we starve them and their children to force them to return, we turn their places of detention into gaols where they are searched when they move from one small section to another and are routinely humiliated. And all for fear that a few people might elude our patrolling boats and make a claim on us for protection. In the play of our fears people are made props to be used and discarded.

Control also seems to be at work in public speech. We fear that if anyone is not punished for making a comment that is badly measured, disagrees with a position we hold strongly, or uses words maladroitly, the foundations of a decent society will crack. So we call for them to be shamed and excluded from public conversation. The measures of control subvert the respect for people in their difference that they are intended to uphold.

To meet the uncontrollable, whether through Hurricane Irma or the postings of Fr John George, recalls to mind how precarious and precious each human life is and how easily we can crush it when trying hubristically to control it.

 


 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Fr John George, asylum seekers, Hurricane Irma, natural disasters


 

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Existing comments

I read this article, with much delight. And then I thought it may be prudent to wait, gather my thoughts and write something suitably controlled. Then I thought: gosh no. I enjoyed reading Fr. George's comments and mused that he was a crusty conservative with a deep love of his faith. A fine tribute to him, thanks.
Pam | 20 September 2017


'In the play of our fears people are made props to be used and discarded.' That is so eloquently, beautifully put; thank you. I never doubted the existence of Father George, having known several of his redoubtable calibre in various belief systems. I join you in affirming his humanity, and that of those who have survived or are surviving extreme weather events, and also those languishing in our tropical hellholes. I believe that scarcity makes for acuity; I hope that our current lack of collective compassion will sharpen our awareness, leading to the exercising of grace.
Barry G | 20 September 2017


Thanks Andrew for your thoughtful tribute to Father John George. Many of his comments were indeed challenging and nobody could say he didn't express his faith front and centre. I'm sorry to hear of his death. Eureka Street has lost one of its more interesting and faithful voices.
Brett | 20 September 2017


AH, Fr John George...he was my Karl Popper, the ever challenging anti to my theories and propositions and as much as I hated the challenges, I accepted them as well, and considered them and in the end, he made me realise that neither side (conservative or liberal) have all the answers. He certainly held up a mirror to the liberals and many just didn't like the reflection, but got stuck into the mirror holder instead. In the end what we all fear is our vulnerable points being injured. The defensive and sometimes attacking mode we need to constantly avoid being vulnerable, this is what causes so many of today's problems. In this, I identify fully with old John George. Hope you enjoy the big blog site in the sky!!!!!
Stephen de Weger | 21 September 2017


Sorry, Andrew, meant to compliment you on your reflection. I think he would have liked it.
Stephen de Weger | 21 September 2017


I weep ... may grace abound and mystery open our hearts ...
Mary Tehan | 21 September 2017


I was one of Fr JG's sparring partners and the recipient of a number of his bruising blows. His knowledge was formidable and he sent me back to do more research on more than one occasion. I am truly saddened by his passing and would like to offer my sincere condolences to his family, colleagues and friends.
Ginger Meggs | 21 September 2017


I only knew FrJG as an online presence over many years and, while I regarded him with some affection and was sad to hear of his passing, I think the hurricane analogy can be extended: I think he more or less 'blew himself out' and ended up quite isolated. I also think it is important to acknowledge that, over the years, many of his communications were personal. I hope ... and suspect ... that there was more to him than what I saw on line and that when he died he was surrounded by people who loved him for all that he was.
Faz | 21 September 2017


Such a terrific article - to a relentless diehard conservative - thank Andy Hamilton - Fr George 's contributions allowed us / me to reflect on and reinforce our / my own counter viewpoint. A truly compassionate inclusive article. Loved it.
Mary Storey | 21 September 2017


A fascinating reflection on, amongst other things, the obligations and role of an online opinion publisher inviting public debate. Even the more so, when such a publisher represents a particular philosophy such as Catholicism. The question which screams out at us is "What is the greater obligation of such a publisher identifiable with a particular philosophy?" Is it to the truth of that philosophy or to the opinions it chooses to offer for public debate? Does it have an obligation to unreservedly censor out commentary contrary to the truths of its declared philosophy? Should it choose its commentaries in accord with the demands of political correctness imposing itself on genuine debate and shackling opinion? Should it allow debate, provided it is courteous, that is clearly controversial or in conflict with the philosophy in the knowledge that controversy is the progenitor of debate and if such debate is unfettered by censorship, it is the most likely to promote progress and dissolve differences? Should it bow to public or political bullying (even from its own hierarchy0? The answers are challenging. I would not relish the editor's job !! Like many I will miss Fr John George - his great faith and insistence on truth was always uplifting. I suspect he is causing much disquiet amongst his ethereal neighbours particularly those who made it without knowing the first thing about Fr George's guiding philosophy.
john frawley | 21 September 2017


Along with several who have commented so far, I found Fr John George's comments a challenge to my more liberal beliefs. I had wondered why we haven't seen that much from him recently ... but all of us must bow out sometime. The few brief bio notes at the time of his death, alluded to by Andrew today, indicated a life lived in service to many. This is far more significant for the measure of Fr John George than any quibbles or stand up arguments any of us might have on points of religious belief. May he rest in the peace he has earned.
Ian Fraser | 21 September 2017


Father John George took me back to the Catholic Church in this country in the time preceding the Second Vatican Council. I have no regrets about the passing of that era. He was a Traditionalist. From reading his posts I was led to believe he was an orphan and partly brought up by nuns. He had a great feeling for the institutional Church. I believe he suffered a serious physical illness whilst relatively young and thus was in the nursing home. I believe he was relieved of his priestly duties due to this illness and felt he had been put out to dry. Cardinal Pell's visit to him was something he greatly appreciated. Eureka Street gave him a podium from which to deliver his opinions and mentally belabour the opposition. I don't think he was cruel. He was forthright. His sort of Traditional Catholicism is making a comeback. I think he would feel very much at home in the Brisbane Oratory in Formation sponsored by Archbishop Coleridge. I rather liked him although we disagreed. His death saddens me.
Edward Fido | 21 September 2017


The best article on Eureka street in a very long while. What a way to go- commenting on Eureka street from within the walls of a nursing home. What a hero he must have also been for all his companions there. Love and suffering are inseparable. I have no doubt he now has no regrets and could not be happier. RIP Fr John George.
AO | 21 September 2017


Compassion and dignity when dealing with those who challenge us is refreshingly alive! What a contrast to the everyday vitriol. Thank you Andrew.
Dr Wendy Beresford-Maning | 21 September 2017


I'm ashamed to say that I judged Fr George rashly. I pictured him as the sort of Irish parish priest I met in my teens for whom Theology was more like Geometry than Philosophy. Apologetics gave us rock solid theorems that the heretics could disprove. The free-wheeling speculation of the German theologians must have worried him. Advances in Biblical scholarship must have conflicted with his trust in the holy scriptures. In recent years I had a grudging admiration for his Quixotic attacks on the literary windmills he somehow managed to perceive even in the most anodyne of progressive theological articles in ES. May he find peace in the Kingdom of Heaven & be rewarded for his valiant pursuit of truth. RIP Father George
Uncle Pat | 21 September 2017


Noteworthy that the editor states that ES is a magazine that boasts of promoting courteous conversation. That is a handy filter to eliminate any facts that might challenge its political correctness.
Frank S | 21 September 2017


Sorry to read this. Fr George could be scathing of my slightly iconoclastic contributions to the old Cathnews site when discussion used to be possible there. He would then turn around and give excellent references for the question at issue, historicity of the Resurrection or the Virgin birth or whatever it might be. I don't think that towards the end he had control of much more of his body than his finger tips. RIP
Brian3144 | 21 September 2017


“Some measure of control, of course, is necessary and appropriate” and “recalls to mind how precarious and precious each human life is and how easily we can crush it when trying hubristically to control it”: hubris is when you have no good reason for asserting that one or more ‘controls’ in a given situation is necessary and appropriate. Hubris is also when you have no good reason for advocating liberalisation from controls. Knowing whether a reason is good or not comes from the hindsight of having seen how it weathers rational criticism. Whether the criticism is rational is how it addresses the foundations of the posited reason. Criticism of detention without addressing the foundations of deterrence is irrational. So is criticism of magisterial authority or traditional social convention without addressing the consequences of theological or social fluidity.
Roy Chen Yee | 22 September 2017


I don't think Uncle Pat's first impression of the late John George was that wide of the mark. Father George was, I think, someone who thought Melbourne or Dublin in 1950 was a good year as far as the Catholic Church went. With the wisdom of hindsight, I think very many of Eureka Street's readers would disagree with that rosy vision. Certainly, for many women, it was a dreadful time. A backyard abortion or surrendering your child and also possibly being forcibly incarcerated in one of those dreadful Magdalen laundries was a dreadful 'choice' for a young woman. Often it wasn't a choice. There was a great deal of sheer hypocrisy amongst clergy and men in general within the Church towards this. I would not have put someone like JG in the same class as an apologist as G K Chesterton. Chesterton had a warm humanity and his delightful Father Brown stories often looked towards the redemption of a penitent sinner. I had the impression JG was always in considerable physical pain. His posting on Eureka Street was, as it is for many of us, part of belonging to a therapeutic community where we just might learn something. His learning days and pain are over. Whatever and wherever Heaven is I pray he's on his way there. RIP.
Edward Fido | 25 September 2017


Roy, even conservative politicians have admitted that current detention policies have gone way beyond the supposed intention of deterrence. And even if it did, how would a Christian respond knowing that the same refugees are simply feeling in another direction and drowning in boats in North Africa? It's not simply policy matter - it's a moral, humanitarian matter.
AURELIUS | 26 September 2017


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