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Monday, July 23, 2018

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Real Stories



Forty-five years ago, I experienced what I felt was a call from God to Priesthood and Religious Life. It happened during an Oblate Mission being conducted by Father Billy Byrne and another Oblate priest at St. Mary's Church in Ipswich, Queensland - my hometown.

I discussed the matter with Father Byrne and subsequently, I had further discussions with Father Tom McDermott, Superior of the Mission House in Eagle Junction, Brisbane. However, I was too immature and unsettled at this point of time to even consider entering the Seminary. Father McDermott was aware of this and advised me to pursue other directions in my life.

This I did and some years later I met my future wife and we were married in Brisbane on 31 October, 1959. Our first child, Robert, was born the following August. My position with the Queensland Government took me on transfer to several places in Queensland - firstly to Longreach, where two of our three girls, Marie and Margaret, were born; then to Mackay where another son, Mark, was born; and finally to Rockhampton, where our two youngest, Carmel and Simon, were born. For the sake of family stability, we decided to settle in Rockhampton and I was to spend the next twenty years of my life there.

In 1980 my wife became very ill and was finally diagnosed with cancer. After a long illness she passed away on 17 October, 1981. Before she died, we did discuss what I would do after her death and I told her that I still had the sense of vocation, which I would try to follow. My youngest child, Simon, was only eleven years old when my wife died and I knew that I could not do anything about my vocation until he was at least eighteen. During the ensuing years I did have discussions with my children about studying for the Priesthood and they were always very supportive. When Simon was approaching the age of eighteen, I decided to try to follow God's Call and made contact with Father Austin and Father John. A meeting was arranged with Father Joe McCann at Eagle Junction and then I had a few days at the Seminary towards the end of 1987. However, it wasn't until the beginning of 1989 that I was able to commence my pre-novitiate.

Moving into the Oblate Seminary was like moving into another family for me. The formation staff and the students were very welcoming, hospitable and encouraging. With the grace of God I was able to complete my studies and training and was ordained to the priesthood on 17 December, 1993 at Deception Bay Church in Queensland. All my children, with the exception of my oldest son, who was in Indonesia, were present, together with my grandchildren and many friends from Rockhampton.

The seventeen years of my priesthood (from 1993 to 2010) have been extremely rewarding and I have had the benefit of serving in four different Oblate parishes as well as experience as a hospital chaplain. My appointment as Novice Master in 2000 brought a new phase of my religious life and I thank God for the opportunity that He has given me for my continued spiritual growth. In 2003 I returned to working in Parishes - Burpengary in Queensland 2003-7 and Sefton in Sydney from 2007 till the present.


I was a late vocation, starting at the tender age of 35! I first came into contact with the Oblates through Mazenod College, Lesmurdie, in Western Australia. My family lived on a farm and I had to board at Mazenod for the last three years of my secondary education. Originally, I grew up on a large wheat/sheep farm at Binya, NSW, near Griffith. I am the second of four children, with a large extended family scattered all over Australia. In 1974 I boarded at Chevalier College, Bowral, NSW until 1976, when the family sold the farm and moved to WA to start farming again at Gairdner River (150km east of Albany).

After finishing Year 12, I studied for four years and completed a Bachelor of Engineering (Mining) degree at the West Australian School of Mines, Kalgoorlie. I thoroughly enjoyed university and the mining industry, and worked for a number of companies in WA, NSW, Vic and NT for 15 years (the last two years as a consultant with several, short-term, overseas contracts). I first thought about priesthood when I was 25 years of age after a Sunday homily on vocations in Kalgoorlie (1986). After a few weeks I decided I wasn't good enough to be a priest and kept working. Then in 1991, I took 6 months off work and spent three months working in the Oblate mission in Cilacap, Indonesia. This was a time of introspection and seeking direction in life, and coming to terms with the death of my best friend two years earlier.

During my time in Indonesia, I experienced a sense of wonder at the great disparity of material wealth between our two countries, while at the same time the sense of joy, faith and hope shown by the Indonesian people was more than in Australia. I lived with Fr Charlie Burrows OMI who was very inspiring not just for all the entrepreneurial building/business work, but also for the care and concern he showed for the people in his area. His door was always open, despite his busy schedule. He was captured well in a documentary film called “A Chancer Priest” by the British company, Anglia Television Limited (for ITV) in 1990/91 (shown on ABC in the 1990’s). I also enjoyed the company of other Oblates throughout Java.

After three months I came home, my boundaries definitely stretched, and thinking of priesthood once again. But again, I felt I was not good enough, or holy enough to be a priest. So for another three years I worked in the mining industry, while taking time out to talk to the Oblates every so often whenever the thought of priesthood returned to me. Eventually I came to St Mary's, the Oblate Seminary in Melbourne, for the 1996 annual Vocations Weekend and wished I had taken the opportunity earlier. This was a very positive experience and I went home to make the difficult decision to leave mining and give the Oblates a go. Once I had made the decision, however, there was great relief and I looked forward to the following year (1997) to begin another stage of my life’s journey: checking out Oblate life and possibly priesthood.

I had always kept in regular contact (maybe once every year or two) with the Oblates who taught me at Mazenod, WA. They have always been a source of inspiration and friendship. Being one of 40 boarders at Mazenod was a great experience—especially as I had previously been in a school with 300 boarders. This was my first experience of Oblate community life and I have much to thank people like Fr Michael McMahon OMI, Fr Ian Mackintosh OMI and Fr Pat Moroney OMI, for making us feel like a family at home, while being away from home. It was this experience of community and friendship that helped encourage me to join the Oblates.

Four years after joining I completed a pastoral year at Oblate parishes overseas. The first four years were a time of intense growth and struggle to develop a deeper understanding of my vocation, who I am and what I think God wants me to do. Living in community with a variety of nationalities and ages has certainly caused some changes in my life—for the better, I think! In many ways I think married couples probably go through the same journey of learning to give, more than take, to think of the whole community rather than individual schedules.

The pastoral year was an important time for me to reflect on my initial calling and match the theory with the real world. The first 6 months was in the Philippines (Manila) and the second 6 months was in London. Both experiences were fantastic, although London took the longest to feel at home in, and I didn’t want to return to the seminary!

The study at Catholic Theological College has been challenging, but very enlightening and freeing. A better understanding of the scriptures and teachings on morality has helped me to realise that God, as portrayed by the Christian faith, is indeed a God of love and mercy for all. We live in a secular society that largely fails to understand this properly (if at all), and incorrectly writes the Church off as being irrelevant. Nothing is further from the truth.

As I reflect back on the journey so far, I think religious life should be viewed as an adventure, not as a burden. When deciding to join the Oblates I was worried about what my friends and work colleagues would think. But I underestimated them. Many of them were supportive, a few were bemused and only one or two were negative. I made it a priority to keep in touch with my friends and work colleagues a few times each year, and their support and interest has grown in what I am doing and my progress through the stages of commitment. For many of them I was the only contact with the Church that they experienced outside media reports. Part of the reason for staying in contact was to let my friends see that religious were still normal people.

Although my initial inspiration came through the material poverty of ordinary Indonesians, the reason for continuing has matured. As a younger man I was worried about my providing for my future security, but came to the realization that "it is not really important to know what the future holds for us, but rather who holds our future: GOD," and that we should not count how much we can give up… but how much God gives. People need help to rediscover their dignity as individuals in, and members of, one common family.

My on-going struggle of not feeling good enough to be a priest helps me have greater compassion for the people I meet. My most useful assets are not my technical and practical skills, but my experiences of the ordinary struggles of life. My struggles with poverty, chastity, obedience and perseverance are no greater than other peoples struggles: just different! God wants ordinary people to be priests, and I hope my story helps people reflect on that.

After ordination in 2003, I spent almost three years at Tea Tree Gully parish, in Adelaide, as Assistant Parish Priest. The parish had 4 Catholic schools (three Primary and one Secondary), and was at the time the second largest parish in the Archdiocese of Adelaide. As my first posting it was a steep learning curve, offset by enthusiasm and forgiving parishioners! There was a big emphasis on youth ministry in the parish and the schools, and I was asked to be leader of a Men’s Spirituality Project.

In July, 2006, I moved to Iona College, Brisbane, and took up a dual role of Chaplain in the senior school, and in Rosies (Oblate) Youth Mission (a street outreach ministry). Iona College has 1,300 boys (Yr 5 to Yr 12) and Rosies has more than 10 outreaches including a Youth Detention Centre, Prisons and Court Support, stretching from the Gold Coast up to the Sunshine Coast, with Cairns as an extra.

In August, 2008, I moved to Mazenod College, Melbourne, to fill in for one of the resident Oblate priests who took sabbatical leave. At Mazenod (1200 boys, Yr 7 to 12) I was mainly involved with pastoral support (students and families), supporting the religious education teachers, sport and sacraments.
At the end of 2008, I received a new Obedience as Chaplain at the University of Notre Dame, Australia (UNDA). The chaplaincy appointment was a gift in many ways as it took me “home” to West Australia. It was a blessed time as I renewed old friendships and made new ones. I also spent time with my family, especially the younger nephews and niece. The ministry at UNDA was varied and rewarding. There was pastoral support, teaching theology, liturgies, funerals, sick calls, and providing input to raise religious awareness through art and activities. Living with the Oblate community at the Fremantle (the Basilica of St Patrick) also kept me in touch with parish life. A lot of new friends were made and I was sad to leave as I prepared for my new mission in Kenya. During my time at UNDA, I also studied the required curriculum to obtain a Graduate Diploma of Education (Secondary).

I commenced the 2010 year at Mazenod College, WA (my alma mater), to complete my teaching practicum. This was a “busy” and tiring time, but at the same time very rewarding. Teaching is a great blessing for priests who have no children of their own. Then it was time to pack up and say goodbye to Australia as I headed to the OMI Kenya mission on 26th April, 2010.

A language school in Tanzania on the shores of Lake Victoria await me in August, 2010 (for 4 months), and an intensive 3 week course in understanding African Culture during June. After this, I will probably be posted to Meru, on the equator, in the foothills of Mt Kenya.

Fr Gerry's first mass at Kionyo Church in Kenya
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