07 September 2023, The Tablet

How a tirade by the richest man in Australia helped bring me back to God

by Bob Cameron

How a tirade by the richest man in Australia helped bring me back to God

Bob Cameron at Malabar, in Sydney, Australia.

It was a Monday morning in the late 1990s and the legendary temper of Australia’s richest man, the late Kerry Packer, was on full display. The target of his wrath was me. But neither of us had any idea the furious dressing down would lead to a profound change in my life.

I was editor-in-chief of the media magnate’s biggest selling weekly women’s gossip magazine. I was being paid more than the Australian Prime Minister to drive sales figures that funded much of the media baron’s lavish lifestyle.

Now it seems I had gone too far with a recent cover story about a powerful business friend’s celebrity daughter. He wanted my scalp. So, I’d been summoned to Kerry’s wood-panelled office where he instantly launched into a trademark Packer tirade. “You know what you are, you little so-and-so, you are morally and intellectually bankrupt. That’s what you are, you little so-and-so.” I’ve censored the language a little bit.

After further heated discussions, I left Kerry’s office with scalp and job intact, but thinking – is it true, am I morally and intellectually bankrupt? Is Kerry’s character analysis of me, right? 

Some of the replies floating to the surface of my mind were troubling to say the least. The flickering God-spark in my rusty old soul was beginning to wake up from a 40-year-long spiritual coma. I was discovering both an emptiness and an indefinable yearning at work inside me. There was a big hole in my soul and no amount of material success was going to fill it.

I was 18 when I stormed out of my home city church, Nottingham Cathedral, after a chastening encounter in the confessional. I became a collapsed Catholic like millions of others in the great flight from the pews in the Sixties.

Raised in a working-class, Mass-going family, I’d felt close to God for many years. But suddenly I didn’t want to know him anymore. I was angry with his priests trying to control my life and asking too many questions. I hadn’t grasped that most of them were just trying to do their job.

But I wanted to live by my own moral code as a young journalist. A code largely based on instinct, pride and greed for success. I convinced myself it was the only way for me. I’d known poverty as a child; and I didn’t want to be poor again.

By the time I reached 40 I was a senior media executive living in Sydney and happily married with two children. I had lived through many experiences as a journalist, including a last-moment rescue from being shot dead in Belfast, a city where historically people killed each other in the name of God.

But not once during that grim night in a Belfast alley did my thoughts or thanks turn to that same God. I believed my destiny was in my own hands, or the pay packet of whichever media mogul was hiring my services, including Rupert Murdoch and finally Kerry Packer as I turned 50.

Now the volatile encounter with Kerry was unwittingly putting me on my first hesitant step back to the Church. Eventually, I began to see such episodes as God-moments. The real turning point, the most powerful and beautiful God-moment came ten years later when I saw a young woman making the sign of the cross as she walked by a local church.

It wasn’t a hurried sketch of the sign, but a reverential salutation to God who silently waits in the tabernacle of every Catholic church. I felt a wave of emotion as I watched her act of devotion. It was a “lest we forget” moment and I realised I had forgotten. I’d forgotten the ancient sign reminds us of the courageous sacrifice and joyful resurrection of Jesus.

I couldn’t get the image of her act of reverence out of my mind. And several days later when alone in the house, I touched my forehead, lower chest and then each shoulder with my fingertips while silently saying: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”

I didn’t know the Church had exorcised the “ghost” word and changed to the more sacred “spirit.” But in making the sign that day, I felt I’d taken my first practical step back to the spiritual realm of the Church.

I began to feel I was no longer a stranger to God. I was making a personal connection with Him again, thanks to observing a young woman practise her faith in such a simple and public way.

I describe this transforming moment in my recently launched book, 21 Days Back to God – after 40 years of Running Away. (Coventry Press, Melbourne). It’s a slender, step-by-step spiritual guide to help rehabilitate the wounded soul, but in a practical way. The intention is to help collapsed Catholics rediscover the love of God and our love for God.

Part autobiography, the book does not seek to preach or blame, particularly self-blame. It aims to help hesitant seekers discover the peace and relief of a Prodigal returning home. It’s been given the Church’s imprimatur, or official blessing.

The foreword is written by prominent Jesuit academic and author, Father Gerald O’Collins, who states: “(the book) ...evokes a brilliant picture of the Catholic Church as Bob left and as he found it again, forty years later. The whole story is pervaded by a sense of truth and forgiving love. I cannot recommend too highly this guide for returning refugees.”  

Such support has led to the book being sold online in nine countries and a wide range of people are buying copies, not only the prodigals I imagined. Half a dozen priests have contacted me wishing the book well and one is going to give copies as Christmas presents.

This has emboldened me to write to two Archbishops suggesting an annual “welcome home” Mass for absentee Catholics. Parishioners could invite family members or friends along – and perhaps we could wish them many happy returns. I think Kerry would be lost for words. 

Bob Cameron is writing a follow-up book. Orders for 21 Days Back to God can be made online through the publisher, Coventry Press (Melbourne) or Eden, Waterstones or Amazon. 











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