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Last Sunday, Father Bob Maguire said his final mass at the church of Sts Peter and Paul’s in South Melbourne. At the age of 77, after nearly 40 years of service, he was forced to leave by the Catholic Church, which quotes canon law stating the official retirement age for priests is 75. He and his black standard poodle, Franklin, are temporarily homeless. At 77, Barry Humphries is awarded UK Australian of the Year; at the same age, Father Bob gets the boot.

Father Bob Maguire is one of the most famous and popular Catholic priests in Australia, and has devoted his life to helping others. His compassion, mischievous humour, bluntness, and eccentricities have made him loved by people from all religions, and none.

He has founded four charities, now amalgamated into the Father Bob Maguire Foundation, and inspired by a revolutionary approach to social justice. The Foundation’s workers are called The Bob Squad, and they care for the poor, the destitute, the homeless, and the mentally ill. Their catch cry is Viva la Bob!

Father has received an Order of Australia, and last year was named Victorian of the Year. Everyone thinks he’s super, except, apparently, the Catholic Church. Despite his massive popularity, Bob believes that the powers that be in the church hierarchy find him too much of a headache, because he has an unconventional approach to parish life which had him branded a maverick.

Some reasons the Church may have felt teased by Father Bob:

  • He put up a memorial on the parish front lawn to people who had died from drugs
  • He didn’t lock the church, because no matter how much stuff got stolen, he wanted it to be always available
  • People with mental illness or social problems were welcomed to church services
  • The collection plate was taken up by kids on roller skates
  • He gave the Occupy Melbourne protesters sanctuary
  • He said he would be happy to perform gay marriages in the church if that was legal
  • He publicly disagreed with the church’s ruling that secular songs not be permitted at Catholic funerals
  • Last year as an April Fool’s Day joke, he claimed that his church would be instituting “drive through confessionals” in order to keep pace with modern life
  • He has co-hosted a non-denominational religious TV programme with slightly controversial Jewish comedian John Safran
  • He finds parallel universes much more interesting to think about than life after death
  • When asked what Jesus might do if he were alive today, he quipped, “Get back in the tomb”

More than 1000 people attended Father Bob’s last mass, and many of them will not come to church again, because only Father Bob could make sense of it all for them. However, although he no longer has a church, he sees his Foundation as a “parish without borders”, and is also reaching people through his website, blog, Twitter, and his weekly radio spot on youth radio station Triple J.

I don’t presume to the theological qualifications which can judge whether Father Bob is a good Christian or not, but I do know he is a great Australian. And that (for the purposes of this blog) is more important.

Bob is a pet form of the name Robert, meaning “bright fame”. The old-fashioned nicknames for Robert were Hob, Dob and Nob, and Bob is a continuation of this trend to rhyme a name with others.

Bob is not only a palindrome, but also a vocabulary word. To bob means to “to move up and down”; it’s also the name for a short haircut, and pre-decimal slang for “a shilling” – a word still used by many older folk.

It’s well on trend as part of the vogue for 1930s nicknames, such as Bill, Joe, Sid, Dan and Jim. Knowing they will never call their child by a full form of the name, and loath to saddle them for life with a cutesy name like Billy, Joey or Danny, parents are opting for the simple monosyllabic nickname as an unpretentious choice.

As a middle name, Bob has even been used on a celebrity baby – name-fussy radio host Hayley Pearson called her son Austin Bob.