Herald Sun

Hu­man­ity is a com­fort in the dark­est times

- DAVID PEN­BERTHY @Penbo DAVID PEN­BERTHY IS A HER­ALD SUN COLUM­NIST

THOSE who hold that sport is noth­ing other than a friv­o­lous and mean­ing­less pur­suit can­not have been pay­ing at­ten­tion over the past fort­night.

They can­not have been pay­ing at­ten­tion over the past few years as elite sport­ing or­gan­i­sa­tions have, all too fre­quently, faced and met the kind of tests, the sort of tests posed by pre­ma­ture death, which con­front so many of us as we ne­go­ti­ate our un­pre­dictable lives.

The gifted bats­man Phil Hughes, for­mer Colling­wood and Port Ade­laide foot­baller John McCarthy and for­mer Mel­bourne coach Dean Bai­ley are three who come to mind. And then, of course, there was Phil Walsh.

At Wed­nes­day’s me­mo­rial ser­vice for Walsh, much was made in the fourth and fi­nal eu­logy, a beau­ti­fully la­conic speech by for­mer Port Ade­laide Football Club oper­a­tions man­ager Rob Snow­den, of the grat­i­tude the Walsh fam­ily would like to ex­tend to the public for shar­ing in its grief.

That grat­i­tude should ex­tend in the op­po­site di­rec­tion.

The Walsh fam­ily — that is, the im­me­di­ate fam­ily, the close cir­cle of Walsh friends, and the football fam­ily which sur­rounded the man — de­serves our grat­i­tude for bring­ing the public into their trust at a time of such acute hard­ship.

Un­til re­cently I was un­aware that football clubs em­ployed chap­lains to pro­vide pas­toral care for play­ers and club em­ploy­ees and to help these or­gan­i­sa­tions through tough times.

Through Kane Cornes I learned of the lead­er­ship pro­vided at Port Ade­laide in 2012 by the club chap­lain, the aptly named Bren­don Chap­lin, when John McCarthy died in that ter­ri­ble ac­ci­dent dur­ing a trip to the US af­ter the end of the home-and-away sea­son.

When you think about it, a footy club is the per­fect place for a chap­lain to work. So much of sport in­volves the dash­ing of dreams. Around a quar­ter of all listed AFL play­ers do not last more than a cou­ple of sea­sons. They put their lives on hold to pur­sue a dream and that dream can of­ten van­ish in the form of an ACL, a re­cur­ring foot in­jury, or sim­ply through find­ing out, the hard way, that they’re not good enough. Those are ex­is­ten­tial chal­lenges for young men, but are noth­ing on the scale of a McCarthy, a Walsh or a Hughes, a mega-mo­ment that leaves peo­ple ask­ing the unan­swer­able ques­tion: why?

You don’t give eu­lo­gies marks out of 10, as the mere act of giv­ing one is test­ing in the ex­treme, but I have not heard a bet­ter eu­logy than that de­liv­ered by Chap­lin at Wed­nes­day’s me­mo­rial ser­vice.

Chap­lin opened him­self up by re­call­ing how he al­most fell apart a few years back due to the sud­den death of his clos­est friend. When he was paral­ysed with grief, it was Phil Walsh who, of his own vo­li­tion, be­came the de facto chap­lain to Chap­lin, nurs­ing him through his tough­est of weeks, by sim­ply be­ing there for him.

“He was shar­ing the love,” Chap­lin told the me­mo­rial ser­vice.

As a man of God, Chap­lin manned up for the tough­est ques­tion in Chris­tian the­ol­ogy: how is it that such ter­ri­ble things can hap­pen to such good peo­ple?

In con­ced­ing that even he strug­gles with be­wil­der­ment, dis­be­lief and anger at such a state of af­fairs, and can only rec­on­cile him­self with the fact that life is un­cer­tain and some­times cruel, Chap­lin gave ev­ery­one in that room per­mis­sion to feel com­fort­able in their dis­tress. To feel nor­mal in their ab­nor­mal­ity.

The most gen­er­ous act came from the Walsh fam­ily them­selves, in open­ing up the fam­ily al­bum to a wider au­di­ence than it would have ever have ex­pected to re­ceive. And to show that fam­ily in their once-happy to­tal­ity, beau­ti­ful im­ages of Phil and Mered­ith and Quinn and Cy, fa­ther and son with their arms around each other’s shoul­ders, all smiles, and to im­plore the con­gre­ga­tion to ex­tend their prayers to in­clude their boy. What level of hu­man­ity is that. The grat­i­tude is ours.

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