OBITUARY: by Paul Duffy SJNews Weekly
William G. Smith SJ
, February 26, 2000
Bill Smith, an only child, grew up in country Victoria, in the Mansfield district. At the onset of the Depression the family moved to the city, his father believing there would be better educational opportunities for Bill in the city than in the country. In 1929, at the age of twelve, Bill started with the Christian Brothers at their East Melbourne College in Victoria Parade, and was there until he moved to St Kevin's College in 1932.
When he left school he worked for a time in the Commonwealth Public Service. It was during this time that his sporting prowess appeared. He started training with the Collingwood Football Club, under its legendary coach, Jock McHale, and it is said that he was actually selected to play for the senior team, but he bypassed the chance to become perhaps a football notable by going the very day of the game to join the Jesuit novitiate at Watsonia.
He started with the Jesuits in May 1937, a few weeks short of his twentieth birthday. At Loyola College he studied Latin, Greek and English before moving on to three years of philosophy in the same place. In 1945 he completed a distinguished honours Arts degree at Melbourne University with first place in English.
For three years in the mid-1940s he taught small boys at Burke Hall, Xavier's preparatory school in Kew, and then moved to theological studies in Sydney, where he was ordained priest in January 1952.
During his 16 years in training Bill obviously impressed his teachers and superiors with his intellectual gifts and potential, so it was not surprising that when they were looking to prepare a man qualified to lead the social ministry they chose him. He was sent to the Gregorian University in Rome to work for a doctorate in Social Sciences, which he completed successfully. He was one of the first of only a handful of Australians who hold this degree from that university.
Bill returned to Melbourne in late 1956 and he took over from Fr James Muirhead as director of the Institute of Social Order and of its education and chaplaincy services for Catholic Social Movement members and others active in unions and other institutions concerned with the shaping of Australian society. After 1957 these services were extended to National Civic Council members.
Bill also become editor of the Institute's monthly journal Social Survey and the quarterly Twentieth Century.
Bill Smith organised the Christian Social Week series over the next seven years. This was a serious attempt to engage the Church and secular society in dialogue on some of the most important issues facing Australian society, and it succeeded in attracting an imposing array of public lecturers and participants - from the professions, business, trade unions, the academic world, politics, the international diplomatic community, the defence community, the arts, and the churches. Two of its more notable lecturers were later to become Governors-General - the then Professor (now Sir) Zelman Cowen, and the young Acting Professor of International Law at Sydney University, now Sir William Deane.
The series was designed to encourage ecumenical dialogue across the Christian churches and later with the Jewish community, and was aimed at developing co-operative engagement in some of the major social issues affecting Australia. In this it was remarkably successful.
This was a time when, following the upheaval in the Labor Party, sectarian rancour permeated much public debate. At the same time this extraordinary co-operation was developing among the Churches. Fr Bill Smith was largely instrumental in achieving this.
From the 1950s and over the next three decades Fr Smith wrote journalism of the highest quality. His monthly editorial comments in Social Survey on current social, political and related issues were striking for their clarity and cogency of argument, and for their lean, economical prose.
From this time, too, and right through the period of the Vatican Council and beyond, he wrote several series of outstanding commentaries on Church documents dealing with contemporary social questions.
In these commentaries he revealed his gift for clear, terse exposition of a subject, and his skill in demonstrating how the social teaching of these documents could be most effectively applied to local situations.
In 1961 one of the speakers at the Christian Social Week for that year was Isi Liebler, a leader of Melbourne's Jewish community. From this meeting a close friendship developed between him and Bill Smith. It led to Bill's membership of the Council of Christians and Jews, where he represented the Catholic Archbishop, and to his active involvement in the Council's work from the 1960s until these last years.
When Bill planned to go to Rome to report the Vatican Council he was asked by the Jewish community to visit Israel on the way and to report on Israel's kibbutzim projects. Isi Liebler arranged for him to stay at some of the kibbutzim where he got first-hand knowledge for the articles which he wrote for Jewish and other publications back in Australia.
This, the first of his many visits to Israel, was really the beginning of Bill's career as an internationalist in the cause of justice and reconciliation. On these visits he studied Arab-Jewish relations and in his writings he sought to promote a wider understanding of the issues involved in the conflicts in that part of the world.
Bill was strongly committed to helping the peoples of the developing world, and he was soon at the centre of a new international social justice initiative, when in 1966 he helped to establish the Pacific Institute. This Institute was founded to foster regional co-operation on common political and economic issues among Christians in leadership positions in countries to the north, and to support the people of South Vietnam.
Bill did much of the organising of the Pacific Institute's conferences, held in Manila, Hong Kong, Saigon, Singapore and Jakarta, and edited the Institute's monthly newsletter, Pacific News, which kept members informed on progress in one another's projects.
At this time Bill was editing three publications - two monthlies, Social Survey and Pacific News, and a quarterly, Twentieth Century - by any standards, a formidible achievement.
In 1965 the Archbishop of Rabaul asked the Institute of Social Order to help with the social and political formation of potential leaders for post-independent Papua New Guinea. Bill responded as usual with a 'yes', and thus embarked on another of his international commitments, helping to set up an Institute of Social Order at Port Moresby.
He travelled frequently to South Vietnam during the war years, to see at first hand and report what was happening there. He wrote in the interests of justice for the people of that troubled country, and to correct what he considered were often false and prejudiced reports in parts of the secular media. In due time he took up the cause of refugees from Vietnam and neighbouring countries of the region.
For most of his life his closest friends were Bob Santamaria and his family, and in them he found continuing support and friendship. He was a confidant of Bob and, as director of the Institute of Social Order, he was much involved in the work of the National Civic Council and in the pursuit of his vision for a better Australia.
The presence at his funeral of people from a wide range of social and religious organisations testify to the breadth of his generous and wholehearted involvement in their various interests. Here was a man who devoted all his talents and energies to promoting justice and reconciliation, here in this country and in the countries of Asia and the Pacific.
The memorial to this Ôquiet achiever' is in the minds and hearts of the hundreds of people, of several generations, whom he helped to develop an alert social conscience and whom he encouraged to be active in seeking a more just society.
Scholar, teacher, writer, editor, ecumenist, reconciler, internationalist, spirtual guide, friend: this is the man we remember and honour. We are grateful to William Gerard Smith for his presence among us, for his example as one who gave everything for the cause of justice and social harmony and the welfare of people, and for his loyal friendship.