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Q&A with centenarian, retired parish priest and mission chaplain, great-grandpa and proud Welsh person, The Rev’d Bernard Thomas

Spotlight Q&A

Meet Fr Bernard Thomas, who recently celebrated his 100th birthday, and find out about his ministry, why he decided to become a priest, what advice he has for people discerning their vocation, about his faith journey and what scripture he would write on a billboard and why

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Fr Bernard Thomas’ ministry has spanned two continents, commencing in 1949. It has included parish ministry and serving in the Queensland Police Academy, lecturing in education and being a Mission Chaplain between 1978-1992.

Bernard married Hilary in 1949 in the UK. Bernard, Hilary and their sons, Paul and Mark, set sail in 1964 for Australia, where Bernard became Rector of Holy Trinity, Woolloongabba. After leaving Holy Trinity, he looked after many parishes while working for the Queensland Education Department and studying at university.

Where do you currently live and where do you worship?

I worship at Forest Lake Lodge in my room, after the fortnightly Monday service in the lounge when The Rev’d Carol, Priest-in-Charge, administers the sacrament of Holy Communion.

Fr Bernard Thomas enjoys visits from family and friends at Forest Lake Lodge (Image by The Rev’d Carol Palmer)

How long have you been involved in the Anglican Church and in what roles?

I have been involved in the Anglican Church since the age of 15 while at school and at the College of the Resurrection, a theological college in Yorkshire where I was Precentor in 1948-1949. I was ordained a deacon in 1949 and a priest in 1950, and then went to St Andrew’s Church, Lambeth where I served between 1949 and1954. I was invited to be Rector of the Parish of Woolloongabba in 1964-1972 and worked as a Mission Chaplain from 1978-1992. I have continued to preach in various parishes by invitation up until recently.

Why did you decide to become a priest?

This process of discernment began at school with the support of a worthy headmaster and Classics master in my mid-teens when I felt called. I could not avoid it; I had a faith and it all fell into place.

Fr Bernard Thomas at an event celebrating his 50th anniversary of ordination in 1999 in Brisbane

What advice do you have for those considering entering the priesthood in our Diocese?

Clergy are always needed in the community as Good Samaritans in terms of outreach, and being a caring community offering pastoral care based on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. With a rising number of suicide attempts, it is even more imperative that clergy continue to study, undergo formation and be ordained to meet these growing needs.

What has been a highlight or best memory of your ministry so far?

My most treasured memories of my ministry so far are going and ministering to people and being ‘out there’ on the margins, rather than waiting for them to come to church. I once received a letter of thanks from a woman whom I had ministered to, ‘dating’ her recovery.

What have been the key challenges of your roles and how have you worked through these?

I have been challenged by the fact that some parishes have barely changed. We haven’t come to terms with the people and times. Clergy can also sometimes feel ‘out of joint’ when they do not feel supported.

Can you tell us a little about your personal faith journey?

I continue to try to understand the work of the Spirit. I realise that our prayer life is all important.

What is your favourite scripture and why?

My favourite scripture is the “I am…” statements in John’s Gospel because they lead us to Jesus’ character.

What person of faith inspires you the most and why?

Evangelical Welsh minister and medical doctor Martyn Lloyd-Jones has inspired, and continues to inspire, me the most. He was a Welsh Harley Street physician in the 1920s who gave up medicine to preach the Gospel.

What are the primary strengths of the Church and what is the best way to make the most of these for the benefit of our communities?

The primary strength of the Church is the movement of the Holy Spirit, which flows steadily in parishes, and tradition while being open to change, resulting in fresh expressions of being Church.

What is the kindest gesture you have ever received or witnessed?

Many years ago I received a letter of thanks from a lady, which was an extraordinary outpouring from her of gratitude for my pastoral care.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever received and who gave you this? 

My father, who died in 1957, gave me the best piece of advice I have ever received. It was helpful and focussed on one’s general attitude to life.

What do you do in your free time to recharge and relax?

I read and pray.

I married Paul and Sue in 1976 and they have two boys, Matthew and Ryan. I also have two great grandchildren, Grace and Owen. Mark and his partner Jill have been together for many years. I now live in an aged care facility in Forest Lake, where all family visit regularly, when they can.

Fr Bernard Thomas likes to pray and read in his free time

If you found yourself on a deserted island, what three things would you choose to have with you?

I would choose a Bible, a means of exercise and a toothbrush.

If you could have a billboard with any text on it, what would it say and why?  

The text I would write or have written on a billboard would be John 3.16: “[For] God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

I choose this sentence because as the Protestant German reformer Martin Luther described it, it is “The Gospel in miniature”.

What book have you given away most as a gift and why? 

I have given away copies of my anthology of poems which is faith-based and spiritual. It was to be launched in May 2020 at Kangaroo Point, but COVID-19 prevented the launch from taking place.

What’s your best childhood memory? 

My favourite childhood memory is being bilingual when growing up. We spoke Welsh at home and English outside it.

What day would you like to re-live and why?  

Another birthday party!

Fr Bernard Thomas celebrating his 100th birthday in lockdown on 2 July 2021 with Forest Lake Lodge staff (Image by The Rev’d Carol Palmer)

What is your unanswerable question – the question you are always asking yourself?

My unanswerable question is how life is a mystery. I keep trying to unravel it and understand it. “Life is a mystery to be lived not a problem to be solved.” All we can do is keep living, asking those questions over and over. Maybe in living them we may find the answer.

Parish priest’s note: Interview conducted by The Rev’d Carol L Palmer on Monday 26 July 2021 at Forest Lake Lodge.

Editor’s note 09/08/2021: Text updated.

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