Ireland cares for its own
wherever they may be, but Sydney was being overlooked. So the Church in Dublin sent a former backpacker to tend to their spiritual needs, KATHLEEN CARMODY reports
Imagine you are a young
Irish backpacker travelling and working around Australia on a one-year visa, or perhaps you’ve just emigrated and are in the process of setting up a new life in Sydney.
You’re thrilled and excited to be away
from home. But then something goes wrong.
You hear that someone’s fallen ill back in Ireland, or you have some bad luck with a job or a relationship. You need to talk to someone who will understand.
Who can you turn to?
Enter Fr Alan Hilliard (pictured), migrant chaplain to the Irish community in Sydney.
Fr Alan says his role isn’t so much to get people into church, but rather to offer support
“It’s part of the Irish tradition, especially in the country, that whenever you’re really in bother, or on your own, you make your way to the cathedral or to the priest’s door to get a fair hearing
or maybe just to unravel some knots inside you,” he says.
“It could be somebody sick belonging to you, it could be just things aren’t going well, (or the) break down of a relationship.
emphasis in the role of the migrant chaplain is the pastoral care of the people who are travelling.
“They find themselves in a land where if anything happens it’s huge and traumatic because they lack the
normal supports of home. And there are times people don’t even tell people at home there’s problems because they don’t want to worry them.
“So, really, the term (is) pastoral care – looking after people
whenever they find themselves a little bit out of sorts or in bother. You can just offer them support and help.”
Ireland has a great tradition of following its people across the world, Fr Alan – Dublin born
and bred – explains. The process is formally called the emigrant chaplaincy.
“Out of that has developed a bishops’ commission, technically called the Irish Episcopal Commission for Emigrants, and they have
set up a port for the Irish abroad in places like New York – which obviously at the moment is dealing with very harrowing stories and pastoral needs. We’re also in Washington, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco,
Los Angeles, Munich, Rome, Paris, wherever there are major centres of Irish population.
“And for some obscure reason,” he says, “there was no Irish chaplain in Sydney, no chaplain for the Irish community in
Fr Alan, who took up his post in January this year, believes he’s the first chaplain officially appointed to look after the Irish here since convict times.
“The only Irish priests that were
sent out were Jeremiah O’Flynn and somebody else to work with the convicts, and then it was Fr Therry and (Fr John McEncroe), but I think they were the only other chaplains that were specifically here to look after
But surely local priests can provide the appropriate pastoral care? After all, we speak the same language, and many Australians (about 46 per cent) claim Irish heritage, which suggests a strong
connection between the two cultures.
Fr Alan agrees that it helps to be able to speak the same semantic language, but the language of the soul can be harder to communicate.
“It’s like you only realise
you’re Irish and different when you’re in another culture,” he says.
“You can speak the language – the letters of the alphabet we put together.
“But you also have another language which is your soul
and your psyche, which can only be understood really and accessed by one of your own, particularly when you come to deal with major things in life that are part of your culture of transition, or your culture of
initiation, or the culture around sickness and death that are part of your own cultural understanding that has been bred into you for generations,” he says.
Of course, many Irish people have left their
homeland specifically to escape institutions such as the Church and the family, but Fr Alan isn’t deterred.
“To be honest with you they’re here to forget about Holy Mother Church and their mother and father,”
“But, at the same time, whenever you rock up to a person who’s in hospital, or they’ve had an accident or experienced sickness, they’re so happy to see you,”
Part of that is to do with what
he sees as the Irish people’s strong sense of the presence of God.
“(Their) personal journey of faith and belief in God, the belief in God’s care, belief in God’s gifts and creation and everything else, it’s
very deep, very deep; I find that with the Irish.
“Some of them would have gone from the Church, but still they haven’t lost that sense of the presence of God – it’s part of our culture and sometimes the
Church is lucky enough to be able to work with it and acknowledge it.”
It’s still early days for the ministry. It is evolving, but Fr Alan doesn’t want to be too heavy-handed in promoting it. He is hop ing
the underground network will help spread the word.
“There’s only one thing that works, that’s the grapevine,” he says. “You have to immerse yourself into the system and be part of it and let it work.
“There are ways you can advertise, but at the same time we’re at the very early stages of this chaplaincy and you have to ask yourself, what is one advertising? We don’t know yet.”
He likes to describe his role as “loitering with intent”.
“That’s really what you’re doing,” he laughs. “You get to know them, you get to know them through different events, you get to know the ones who are
interested and share a vision. That’s a slow process.
“I suppose the model we use in church today is that people are going to get people along. The priest isn’t going to make the impact.
the community know when there’s somebody sick at home and need a prayer said, so a friend will say, ‘Come on, we’ll go to church’ or ‘Come on, we’ll go and get a Mass said’, or something like that. That’s really
An upcoming event on the Irish calendar is the feast of All Souls, which Fr Alan hopes will be the first of a series of monthly liturgies for young people. Details are yet to be decided, but it
will be held some time next month.
“One thing that we remember in November is All Souls which is very deep in the Irish psyche. It doesn’t happen in Australia as much, but in Ireland on All Souls night, in
some parts of Ireland in every house you can see a candle lit to remember the dead and any wandering souls.
“It’s something that’s part of our spirituality beyond Catholicism; it goes right into the Celtic
under standing of life,” Fr Allan says. “It’s part of the Irish tradition of worship, and so that’s going to be our first venture.”
Fr Alan says he loves being in Australia. He first came here as a backpacker
in 1987 and he’s worked here before. He is also awed by the vastness and untamed wilderness.
“That’s the one thing about Australia; the untamed wilderness has a beauty. These places are just beautiful and
the less we do the better they are, and that represents the richness of Australia, that sheer vastness. You feel in a country like this that you’re never going to influence this Earth,” he says.
worried, though, about what he sees as a change not in Australia’s surroundings, but in its people.
“I notice a lot of people are getting very wealthy in Australia, and lot of people are being left behind.
The divide in Australia is getting greater between the rich and poor. And there’s more, as has happened in Europe; there’s a new poverty which is insecurity.”
Fr Alan says Australians have changed.
“It’s interesting this whole debate that’s going on about refugees – what’s going on? For years and years we had no problems,” he says. “We actually had a warmth towards refugees, even the Vietnamese – these people
lived in the homes of people, they were taken off the boats. What’s happening?
“The whole debate is so un-Australian. People would have looked to Australia, even from Ireland, as being the place that
promised you security, that promised you a future, and now that is actually changing. And that is not sitting well with countries abroad, because that is not the Australia they imagine.
“What it’s doing is
challenging their pre-existing notions of what Australians are like. I don’t mean Australia as a geographic place, as an entity – Australia meant freedom, opportunity, all those things, and that’s changing.
“But, whatever the reasons, people have responsibility and responsibility is always a difficult thing. Governments have to govern; we can’t lose the plot either.”
Fr Alan is only in Australia for a year,
after which he’ll hand over the chaplaincy to someone new. He’d love to stay but he’s been called back to Dublin by his bishop.
Until then, he’ll continue to enjoy what he sees as his “enormously privileged”
role of migrant priest.
“At the end of the day you are an Irish priest, you celebrate the sacraments with people and the sacraments are a celebration of your life, an expression of it all.”