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Roger Irving Pryke (1921–2009)

by Edmund Campion

Roger Pryke changed thousands of people's lives. Chaplain to Catholic students at Sydney University for a decade before the second Vatican Council (1962-65), he was an early exponent of the major themes that make up the Vatican II event. A historian tracing the Vatican II story in Australian Catholicism might profitably start with Roger Pryke.

Students influenced by him became a new type of Catholic. Previous generations had been wary of the university and its values. This generation learned to treasure university values and make them theirs. This experience would be written into one of the council's most significant documents but, before it was written, it was lived at the university.

Pryke's students, in small faculty-based groups, discussed the Bible before asking what God would want them to do about problems of university life. At weekend camps and summer schools they experienced worship, not as a duty, but as the prayer of a community. In personal counselling, the chaplain directed them to the new thinking then energising the Catholic world.

Roger Irving Pryke, who has died at 88, was born in Goulburn in 1921 to Edwin Pryke, a law clerk, and his wife, Emily Irving. He was educated at St Joseph's College, Hunters Hill, before entering the Sydney seminary, then Propaganda Fide College, the Roman training school for future bishops. When Italy joined World War II, he returned home via the US.

Led by Guilford Young, who would become the predominant Australian bishop at Vatican II, the travelling Australian seminarians experienced the best of American Catholicism. In New York, they visited Dorothy Day of the radical Catholic Worker movement. Pryke said she was an outstanding personality and sponsored her visit to Australia in 1970.

At the Benedictine monastery, Collegeville, Minnesota, they learned from the pioneers of new liturgy in the Anglophone world. This experience would give direction to their life's work. Pryke saw the communal prayer of liturgy as a counterweight to the individualism of the capitalist system.

After this, he was at the Manly seminary and ordained a priest in 1944. He was curate in Newtown parish until seconded to the Pope's office in Australia as an assistant secretary. Francis Harvey's coming biography of Pryke shows that his five years there introduced him to the realities of ecclesiastical power.

Cardinal Gilroy called him to the cathedral, again as an assistant secretary. It was little more than a typist's job; Pryke called this the period when he was "Miss Pryke". Yet It gave him a close view of the straitened personality and antique churchmanship of Gilroy that later would be useful in his dealings with the cardinal.

He distanced himself from this drab world by enrolling in arts at the university, to specialise in psychology. At the annual Newman Society dinner, in 1951, Bishop Eris O'Brien announced the appointment of Roger Pryke as chaplain to Catholic students.

He quickly became the central figure in a group of young priests dedicated to revitalising worship, known as the Living Parish group. Their most successful publication was a people's hymn book, featuring Australian hymns by James McAuley and Richard Connolly, that sold 1 million copies in a dozen years. A living parish conference in 1958 received international attention. The next year, a poster series by Eric Smith they published won the Blake Prize for religious art.

Pryke was alerted to dissatisfaction in the convents. The prime makers of popular Catholicism, religious sisters, were aware that little was being done to keep them in touch with changes in the church, and appealed to him for help. He initiated courses for them during their vacations and at weekends. When Vatican II happened, these women were ready for it. Historians may judge this Pryke's major contribution.

Pryke's successes had excited the envy of one of Gilroy's auxiliary bishops. Removed from the university chaplaincy, he was barred from the in-service courses for nuns and posted to the unchallenging coastal parish of Harbord in 1966.

The Vietnam War was exploding and Pryke was at the heart of Catholics for Peace, the main Catholic anti-war group. He was prominent in protests against the racially selected South African rugby team.

Also in 1966, Mother Gorman, a scholar-nun visiting from the US, explored on TV the linguistic difficulties of talking about God. The previously mentioned auxiliary bishop, a heavy drinker, dashed off an intemperate letter that found its way into the press. Pryke's response, caning the bishop for his rude attack on Mother Gorman's character, led to a public protest meeting.

Pryke started a magazine, Nonviolent Power, that for three years carried discussions of how to develop peaceful personalities and a peaceful world. His preaching, which Francis Harvey once said "made you feel uncomfortable", drew people to Harbord and drove others elsewhere. He marked his silver jubilee as a priest, in 1969, at a colourful celebration that Donald Horne used, in Time of Hope, as emblematic of the new, Vatican II, Australian Catholicism.

But Pryke wasn't happy. The 1968 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, that forbade contraception, had troubled him. On April 16, 1972, the Herald's front page reported that he had resigned from the priesthood. He became a parole officer in the NSW prison system and married Meg Gilchrist, a member of one of his university groups.

He retired in 1988, gradually becoming oblivious to his part in history. Meg Pryke died in 1994.

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Citation details

Edmund Campion, 'Pryke, Roger Irving (1921–2009)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 23 June 2024.

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