Where would Jesus be most likely to celebrate Christmas? Father Terry Kean has a pretty good idea.
Fr Terry Kean has warm eyes and he is quick to smile; his presence makes everyone at ease. His presbytery at Montmorency is a bustle of activity as parishioners move in and out, a focal point of the community. In comfortable chairs, sipping coffee, we discuss his time at Sacred Heart Parish, St Kilda, where he was parish priest from 1998 to 2007.
'It was really quite special, quite a wonderful atmosphere. Although I have to say… there was a certain sense of sadness among many of the people, Christmas might have brought out the memory of what they once had growing up as children or in their earlier life where so many of them were in such different places to where they are now.'
Every Christmas they would serve a meal for between 500 and 600 people.
'I remember going on Christmas day and sitting on a table where nobody spoke, because I think that sadness was prevailing in their hearts', he says.
'The lady next to me, I didn’t really know her. She cried the whole way through the meal. It was a three- course meal and there’s all this surround of joy, carols and all these wonderful volunteers doing very hospitable things trying to really bring life and energy to the whole gathering.
'She cried the whole time. And I said a couple of times, "Are you OK?" and she’d just nod, and didn’t speak. But nowhere around the table did anybody really speak, there was this deep… deep sort of pain, living in that particular group.
'The thing that intrigued me was, this lady ate her meal, she stood up and she sort of moved away, quietly, but the intriguing thing for me was she stayed… I guess it was part of a depression, or part of a sense of loss, grief or something that happened in her earlier life that I don’t know.
'Christmas brought some of that back, I have no idea because she didn’t say anything but she stayed. And I thought that, you know, that was marvellous really because probably it was more painful for her to be alone and not stay. There was something here that in my memories said, "isn’t that kind of interesting, and in a way, wonderful that she did stay."'
He pauses for a moment, held by this memory.
'I think the other thing that I really liked about this was that nobody pressured her. I think that’s very important for me as priest (whether she knew I was a priest or not), the fact that we were there in a moment, and nobody pressured her, and nobody tried to find out her story, we just accepted the person for wherever she was, made sure there was an opening there if she wanted to talk, to say anything. So I think that was a very special part of Sacred Heart Mission that we didn’t want people to feel judged. And nobody ever sort of said, “OK, why are you here?” nobody ever sort of said, “Is it because you can’t afford.” No, nobody ever did that. However you came you were welcome, and they didn’t pay any money. So that’s one of the Christmas stories that sticks in my mind.'
At this point we chat about how we’re all more similar than we often think. He explains that many Christmas volunteers are turned away because there are more than enough people wanting to volunteer their time.
We discuss Jesus’ place amongst these meals and I comment on how one of Jesus’ first experiences in this world was homelessness, sleeping in a manger.
'I had a sense when I was at St Kilda that this is where he would love to be and that’s where he was in fact. The risen Jesus in the company, sitting around the table, you know, this is where he would pitch his tent. Not to say that he wouldn’t be at the beautiful family dinner, because there’s a lot of love there too. But I always had a sense that this was a really special place, always.'
Sacred Heart Mission continues to serve breakfast and lunch to the community every day of the year.
Michael Walter works for the St Vincent de Paul Society Victoria supporting young adult volunteers to make a difference in their local communities. If you would like to volunteer with the St Vincent de Paul Society visit the website: www.vinnies.org.au.
View the reflection questions and activities for 'Where would Jesus eat at Christmas?' here