1968: A Reflection in Four Parts

Part I: Preamble

In 1965, I was faced with a challenging decision. In 1964, I had successfully completed my Senior exams at Downlands College, Toowoomba, and I found myself looking at two life choices, viz., whether to enrol in an Arts/Law degree at the University of Queensland, or to join an Order of priests and brothers to train as a missionary and to work among the poor and the powerless in one of the 55 countries around the globe in which the Order was involved. I chose the latter.

Consequently, on February 2, 1966, I found myself in a white cassock beginning a two-year introduction to missionary life at a seminary on a hill, equidistant from Brisbane and Toowoomba, together with eight other novices. We were of a similar age—19/20, and like skittish colts, we were filled with missionary zeal and raring to go. The problem was, we weren’t going anywhere, for at least for two years. The stark reality that we were actually withdrawing from society rather than engaging with it, slowly crept up and overtook us.

For two years, we rose to a bell at 4.55 am, washed and put on our white (Summer) or black (Winter) cassocks and were in the chapel by 5.20am, for morning prayers, 50 minutes silent meditation, more prayers, then Mass. Breakfast at 7.30 am, followed by classes in spirituality, Latin, church history and philosophy for the morning, and manual work on the Hill’s farm in the afternoon—all ‘on silence’. We did not speak at meals either, and we inherited a sign language from our senior postulants to pass the condiments, bread and butter, etc. Bizarrely, during the day, no matter where we were or what we were doing, a bell would ring automatically on the quarter hour, and we would recite by rote a prayer and response that began:

“I believe in thee O my God,

Because Thou art the eternal truth

I trust in thee O my God . . . . etc. etc.”

…in English one week, and Latin the next. This prayer was supposed to keep our minds firmly focused on God. In fact, it had the opposite effect in that it soon morphed into a meaningless mantra.

After evening prayers and singing the hymn to Mary: Salve Regina, Mater misericordiae, we retired to our dormitory at 9pm and went to bed.

In brief, we were cut off from the world we longed to belong to for two whole years. This made absolutely no sense to us at all, as we had joined the Order to become missionaries, and then immediately retired from society for two prime years of our lives. Inevitably, we took out our frustrations on each other. On the occasion that we were allowed to exercise with both first years and second years together, whether it be volleyball or ‘touch’ football, inevitably one of the novices would grab the ball and scurry away with the horde chasing him until he was caught and tackled and the 20 novices morphed into a rolling mass of fists and feet and elbows. My classmates and I are still learning of things that occurred in our lost years of 1966/67.

Then, equally bizarrely, in January 1968, we were sent from the Hill and dumped into a world that in all senses was alien to us.


Part II: Distraction

Even though 53 years have transpired since 1968, I remember this time so well. It was as if we had been asleep and woke up in a new world. Ostensibly, our group of Divine Word Missionaries spent 1968-9 studying Philosophy at the Marist Fathers Seminary in Toongabbie in preparation for studying Theology for a further four years in a country of our own choosing. But the real action definitely did not occur there.  Rather, it occurred at Macquarie University where a few classmates and I had enrolled in a part time undergraduate Arts and Behavioural Sciences degree. To say that this was an eye-opening experience for us would be the understatement of that turbulent year.

Why? Well, for the first time in years we were in close proximity to not only young men, but more importantly, to young women. This was quite overwhelming for us, and we found ourselves associating, initially at least, with the blokes in our classes. But gradually we came to really enjoy the company of all our peers at Uni, both women and men. This enjoyment increased when one of the young men asked Damien, a classmate of mine and myself, if we would like to come along to rugby training that afternoon. We accepted the invitation and showed up in our old T-shirts, work shorts and sandshoes—no socks! Macquarie Uni fielded five teams in the local rugby competition, and when we were introduced to the head coach, he looked us up and down, frowned and said, “Look, if you come along on Saturday, I’ll give you a run in the 5ths, toward the end of the game.” “Good enough for us”, we said.

In two weeks, we were both running on as members of the top team, the Macquarie Uni 1st15. “Gees, you saints don’t take prisoners when you play, do you?” said the coach. “Where the hell did you learn to play rugby like that?” What he didn’t know was the games of rugby even at this level paled into comparison with our melees in the novitiate. Also, both Damien and I had captained the 1st15 football team at our respective secondary schools. Truth be told, though, our primary purpose was not really to play rugby. We were there for the barbecue that followed. It was there that we mingled with our team mates, and also with their girlfriends and their girlfriends’ friends! And we longed to be just like our mates.

But we weren’t.

This became obvious when our mates and their girlfriends expressed genuine interest in why we had chosen the life we had. They invited us to meet their families. We were invited to their birthday parties, and to their weddings. They even took up a sizeable collection for us and for the missions we would be working in. And they kept in touch when we moved on. They taught us an important lesson we should have learned on the Hill, but didn’t. ‘To your own self be true, and to your own calling’–even in the midst of the age that we were living in.

It was, after all, the Age of Aquarius, Hair, and the advice we kept hearing on the radio: “If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.”

We, however, were heading in a very different direction. When we realised that our challenge was not to aspire to be someone we weren’t, but to follow our vocation and calling with all our hearts and minds and souls, we began to listen to, and see, what was truly happening all around us.

We were, if fact, smack bang in an Age of Revolution.


Part III: Reality

In 1968 on

  • 30 January: North Vietnam launched the Tet Offensive against the United States and South Vietnam forces, signifying the beginning of the end of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War;
  • 2 April: Gudrun Ensslin, Andreas Baader, Thorwald Proll and Horst Söhnlein set fire to two department stores in Frankfurt, Germany, as a protest against the Vietnam War. This was the initial action of the Red Army Faction, more popularly known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang;
  • 4 April: in the midst of making plans for a national occupation of Washington, D.C., to be called the Poor People’s Campaign, Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated by James Earl Ray in Memphis, Tennessee;
  • In May: there were mass demonstrations in Poland, West Germany, Mexico City, Paris, and in Italy. On 6 May, known as “Bloody Monday”, students and police clashed in the Paris’ Latin Quarter, resulting in hundreds of injuries.
  • 5 June: Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles by a Jordanian-born Palestinian named Sirhan Sirhan;
  • 21 August: the ‘Prague Spring’ led by reformist First Secretary of the Communist Party, Alexander Dubček, was snuffed out when the Soviet Union sent half a million Warsaw Pact troops and tanks into Czechoslovakia;
  • 16 October: in the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, U.S. athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos bowed their heads and raised their black-gloved fists in a recognised salute to the Black Power movement during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner”.

In the midst of all of the above, the Catholic church was not immune from controversy, for it was on 25 July, 1968, that Pope Paul VI promulgated the encyclical Humane Vitae (Of Human Life) which re-affirmed the teaching of the Church regarding marriage, responsible parenthood, and the rejection of artificial contraception.

As Simon and Garfunkel sang 10 years later in Bookends: Time it was. And what a time it was. . .

It certainly was. . .


Part IV: The Price/Prize

In the midst of all the conflict and controversy, there is another very important reason why 1968 was a time to remember and to reflect on. For it was at the end of this year, on December 21-28, that the Apollo 8 spacecraft became the first human craft to reach and circle the moon. Other astronauts would soon follow to leave their footprints on the moon’s surface, but the crew of Apollo 8 — Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders — were the first humans to witness Earth from deep space and William Anders was the first person to photograph ‘Earthrise’.

Humankind would never be the same again.

Why? Because one photograph managed to put things in perspective. For the first time in history, we humans could view our fragile planet from afar. And ‘From a Distance’[1], we could not see the wars, the revolutions, the assassinations, and the trials and tragedies that humans consistently inflict on one another.

No. What we could see for the first time, was a jewel floating in deep space, infinitesimal, fragile, delicate, yet something to be treasured and protected, a reality to embrace with harmony rather than hatred. A lifeline to our souls.

There is no doubt that the recent ‘Mars Landing’ and the six-wheeled ‘Perseverance’ is an extraordinary machine and an extraordinary achievement by humankind. However, in my opinion, it cannot compete with the simple click of a camera lens by one individual in 1968 that changed humanity’s view of itself by giving it perspective in the form of a jewel of great price.

The crucial question is:

Are we prepared to pay this price?

Only God knows.


[1] The title of a not unrelated song by Bette Midler.