WHEN Father Bob Maguire left the altar after his final Christmas service yesterday, tears erupted along the pews.
The outspoken Catholic priest has been a thorn in the side of the Melbourne archdiocese for most of his 38 years in the South Melbourne parish, launching broadsides at his superiors and running his own foundation to help former drug addicts and others needing food and shelter.
Next month his tenure will end in forced retirement — unless the Pope himself intervenes.
Supporters have launched an online campaign to keep the 77-year-old in his job against a rule that sees priests asked to step down at 75 unless granted exemption by their archbishop.
More than 2000 emails have been sent to the Vatican asking Pope Benedict XVI to intervene, with copies forwarded to Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart.
South Melbourne resident Michael Nelthorpe, who began the online petition, said Father Bob “works his backside off” and should be allowed to continue as parish priest.
“He is as fit and determined as ever and at age 77 is seven years younger than Pope Benedict, so it is hypocritical of the Church to use age as the reason for kicking him out,” Mr Nelthorpe said. “He should be able to continue doing God’s work until he wishes to finish and not be told to stop.”
Archbishop Hart has said he is happy with Father Bob’s work but wants to free him of the day-to-day administration work of running a parish.
About 500 people yesterday crowded into the St Peter and Paul’s church, as Father Bob gave a message of “saving each other” instead of waiting for God.
“The only way we can save one another is to stick together — that’s what it’s about,” he said.
“It doesn’t suit the bosses because the bosses want some religious component like ‘God will save us’.
Father Bob is due to step down as parish priest by February 1.
Katherine Rossi quietly wept as the priest left the church where he had performed her wedding ceremony and baptised her children. “They (the church) will really suffer without him,” she said. “It’s just so unfair. He should be sainted.”