Priests I Have Known

Priests I Have Known: Grove Johnson

Grove Johnson was a proud Queenslander – but while spending most of his ministry in Sydney, he was also at home in the great capitals of Europe.

As a young man, he travelled by ship to Rome to study at the international college for students for the priesthood often coming from the third world. The Collegio di Propaganda Fidei was the house of studies for students from what we would call the Third world. Australia was seen by Rome as a missionary country. Grove’s fellow students often came from such places as Malaysia, Nigeria, Indonesia, Tanzania, or Brazil. Propaganda was lively multi cultural house in which to be formed for his future ministry.

Grove grew up in a remarkable family. His cousin Gerard became Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia – Sir Gerard Brennan. Gerard’s brother-in-law Tom O’Hara and his son Frank both became distinguished Jesuits. Another family member Mary Brennan was a leader in her Congregation of the Sacre Coeur.

But let us start at the beginning of Grove’s remarkable ministry. As a young priest in Rockhampton  he would edit the local church paper ‘The Review’ in which he would contribute, in the words of historian Ed Campion, a commentary on the Vatican council which ‘was unrivalled anywhere’. As the parish priest of the small coastal town of Yepoon, just outside Rockie, his fortunate parishioners enjoyed the heady new vision coming from Grove’s appreciation of the conclusions of the Bishops of Vatican 11.

Australian historian Manning Clark would draw the distinction between ‘ the enlargers and the straighteners’ in our life. Grove was without doubt  an enlarger. To be with him was to be caught up in his enthusiasm and vitality. Bill Wright, now bishop of Maitland, claimed Grove was one of the great influences in his life.

The instigator of the Second Vatican council was the legendary figure of Angelo Roncalli from Bergamo, whom the world knew and loved as Pope John XXIII. The pope had challenged Catholics everywhere ‘to throw open the windows’ and allow some fresh air into a church which had become too concerned with its own domestic issues.  Grove Johnson need no pushing. He kept throwing them open. Wherever his working desk was situated, there would be a large photograph of John XXIII – leaving no doubt where the source of his inspiration could be found.

Wherever his ministry took him, as professor of Liturgy at St Patricks College, later as Rector of this seminary taking responsibility for the necessary culture change required in the formation of trainee priests as a result of the Council, or later still as National Director of Catholic Mission Grove brought a fresh theological vision, a grounded spirituality and limitless optimism to the direction of his work

The words of his hero from Bergamo could be his motto:

‘Consult not your fears but your hopes and dreams. Think not about your frustrations but about your unfulfilled potential.”

Dr Grove Johnson died in his beloved Rockhampton in January 2018.