Fr Bert Brill: Avant-garde theologian; a political and social progressive

January 4, 2008 at 5:38 am (Fiction) ()

The rest of the group was made up of Fr Bert Brill, the resident Catholic priest and avant-garde theologian; Dr Jan Speer, medical officer and zealous artifact collector; and Geoff and Laura Sheppard, the husband-and-wife team managing the hotel. 

Fr Bert Brill had no trouble comprehending social and political events. He was avant-garde in his approach to most things.

The Vatican II Church Council was sitting and Bert fully approved of it, but said it was sixty years too late. 

Sam was on a jolly rollicking journey of life in the quest of a dollar. Bert, on the other hand, was on a quest to engender a sense of renewal and social responsibility in humankind. 

Fr Bert Brill was a tall angular man in his late thirties with shoulder-length hair. He had an impervious and impenetrable look about him. He walked with an attitude of lofty exalted indifference to his surroundings. He reminded Bill Clayton of a cassowary and he sometimes referred to him as a longpela muruk. 

Bert came to the Sepik in the late 1950s shortly after his ordination. He had been in Angoram for most of the time since arriving in the country. He attended the SVD Mission Seminary at Steyl in Holland. Not a centre that would have been considered particularly radical and progressive at the time, but it must have been a seminary that opened its students to an awareness of new trends within the church. 

Bert had great admiration for the Protestant Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great pastor and theologian killed by the Nazis during the War. He was attracted to Christian Socialism. He was in complete agreement with the Second Vatican Council and identified with the ideas of the theologians who wanted to bring the Church into the 20th century.

This updating or aggiornamento was strongly supported by Edward Schillebeeckx and Hans Kung, two theologians who Bert thought provided the intellectual basis for a rapprochement between contemporary culture and the Church. Renewal in Bert’s mind was tied up with a rejection of legalism and dogmatism.

He advocated the liberation of the spirit guided by a Pauline interpretation, or what Bert considered was St Paul’s interpretation. He loved to quote Colossians 2:14 where Paul says that Jesus had come to abolish the Law and Prophets. 

Bert’s theological and scriptural approach had an individualist and collectivist thrust about it and was given a practical rationale by the writings of the secular psychologist Carl Rogers. He put great store on the concept of self-worth and the practical application of encounter groups. 

To facilitate the spread of his ideas, Bert built a large community centre where educational and recreational activities were encouraged. The community centre increasingly became the place where religious services were conducted. He phased out the practice of private confession and said Mass in non-clerical dress. 

James Ward, being something of a Catholic of the old school, was left in wonderment at Bert’s brand of Catholicism and one night at his house they got into a broad-ranging discussion. James’s house overlooked the Sepik River and was surrounded with planted eucalyptus trees.

On this particular night, there was a full moon.The only sounds heard outside were the occasional gong of a garamut or signal drum from a distant village and the hushed tone of various tropical insects. The discussion touched on the Second Vatican Council, personal morality, freedom and social responsibility. The attraction of native women, confession and international politics were all broached in an atmosphere of alcoholic conviviality.

 In a nutshell what Bert said to James went along these lines: “You are an Irish Catholic essentially and your black and white morality and mortal sin theology only undermines your self-worth and at best can only lead to an unimaginative dysfunctional way of living.”He went on to say: “I know after a few years in these outstations, there develops a sexual attraction to native women. This is only natural but what you have to ask yourself is: Is it socially responsible to be promiscuous? Of course, promiscuity is wrong, and especially so, given the ages of the girls with whom some of the whites are having sex. There’s nothing wrong with sex in itself. I remember in Amsterdam some years ago I came on a group of prostitutes. Now they were beautiful in appearance and I was tempted. But what stopped me was the commercialisation of sex and the social evil this had created.”

 Bert then went on to talk about private confession, and how unnecessary this was unless one really wanted to seek psychological advice. Bert maintained that every time you go to Mass there is a general penitential rite which is just as sacramental as a private confession. 

Sometime after this discussion with Bert Brill, James Ward said to Ernest Spender: “You know Ernest, Bert in some ways reminds me of Albert Schweitzer searching for the historical Jesus in a primeval tropical forest. Of course, I’m not saying that he’s in the same class as Schweitzer, but there is something ironic or incongruous about two essential Europeans in the tropics engaged in a philosophical search given their respective physical location.” 

Ernest said: “We seek the Lord wherever we are.”

Pope Paul’s Humanae Vitae was noticed and commented on. The encyclical perhaps did not create the crisis of faith for non-Catholics that it did for some Catholics. Fr Bert Brill found it incomprehensible and a clerical disaster 

A memorial service was conducted by Fr Bert Brill at the Angoram Catholic Mission Church. Fr Bert spoke on the Bibical words: “O death, where is thy sting?” 

Fr Bert Brill eventually left his community in Gavien and returned to Holland where he was given a church job working with the unemployed.

Excerpts from Sepik Blu Longpela Muruk

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