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Former Australian governor-general, a lifelong atheist, becomes Catholic



John Burger - published on 09/20/18 - updated on 09/20/18

Bill Hayden attributes reversal to the Christian example of a nun working in healthcare.

The Christian example of a Catholic nun was so powerful that it convinced a lifelong atheist, a former governor-general of Australia, to become a Catholic.

Bill Hayden, 85, a former leader of Australia’s Labor Party, was baptized September 9 at St. Mary’s Church in Ipswich, west of Brisbane.

“There’s been a gnawing pain in my heart and soul about what is the meaning of life. What’s my role in it?” Hayden told the Brisbane-based Catholic Leader newspaper. He added that he could “no longer accept that human existence is self-sufficient and isolated.”

A native of Brisbane, Queensland, Hayden first got involved in politics after serving as a policeman. At age 28, in 1961, he won a seat in the House of Representatives. When Gough Whitlam led the Labor Party to victory in 1972, Hayden was made Minister for Social Security. He also served briefly as Treasurer in 1975. Two years later, he succeeded Whitlam as Leader of the Opposition and led the Labor Party to the 1980 election, recording a substantial swing but falling well short of victory. Under Bob Hawke, he served as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, 1983 to 1988, then left parliament to assume the governor-generalship. He held that position for seven years.

The Governor-General is normally the Chief Scout of Australia. Hayden declined the office on the grounds of his atheism, which was incompatible with the Scout Promise. Instead, he served as the “National Patron” of the Scout Association during his time in office.

He said he has been thinking about the faith for a long time. In an interview with the Australian newspaper, he talked about the Catholicism of his family when he was young. Apparently, he had never been baptized.

“I always regarded myself as a fellow traveler with Catholicism and declared I was a Catholic on official forms, but it wasn’t official,” Hayden said. “I would go to Mass every Sunday and then go to Benediction when I was a teenager. I didn’t know that I wasn’t officially a Catholic, and found that out only later when my sister did the family history.

“When you grow up with it, I don’t think it ever really leaves you,” he continued. “The Catholics have ceremony very much in place. But it was more than that. I could just feel in my heart that I didn’t feel fulfilled.

“There is more to life than just me. I had to make a dedication of myself for the good of others, before God. I felt that strongly,” he said.

The Catholic Leader said that Hayden had suffered a stroke in 2014 and as he prepared for the baptism celebrated by Fr. Peter Dillon, he was feeling “great pain” from a recent fall in which he broke his shoulder. Fr. Dillon said that the baptism was “a big thing” for Hayden, “an act of submission to the fact that there was no denying for him that God is real and he had come to discover that.”

The newspaper said that Hayden attributed his conversion to the influence of his mother, who was Catholic, and of the Ursuline Sisters, who taught him at primary school in inner-city Brisbane, and who stressed the principles of humanity, social commitment and service to others.

But it was a recent hospital visit to see Sister of Mercy Angela Mary Doyle that proved the pivotal moment in Hayden’s faith journey.

“I have always felt embraced and loved by her Christian example,” Hayden said of the 93-year-old, who was in the congregation at the baptism.

“Sister Angela Mary Doyle was for 22 years administrator of Mater hospitals in Brisbane—a citadel of health care for the poor of South Brisbane where I grew up towards the end of the Great Depression,” he wrote in a letter to friends before the baptism. “Dallas (my wife), our daughter Ingrid and I recently visited Sister Angela Mary in the Mater Hospital where she was a patient. The next morning I woke with the strong sense that I had been in the presence of a holy woman. So after dwelling on these things I found my way back to the core of those beliefs—the Church.”

He said the Sister of Mercy worked hard for the poor who came to her hospital and for healthcare reform in Australia. She “saw to it that the poor received the best medical attention at low cost, and pressed for universal health insurance,” Hayden said. “Without her, there would have been no Medibank [Australia’s first system of universal health insurance] and no Medicare today. She displayed enormous courage in standing up for those principles against strong opposition, including from the medical profession.”

In that spirit he said he would like to play an active role in the St Vincent de Paul Society.

The recent spate of bad news for the Church did not deter him in his desire for baptism.

“The problems are caused by human agents of the Church, but we shouldn’t let our faith be undermined by the action of agents who aren’t quite as good as they should be,” he said.

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