Finding their feet in a school of shepherds: meet our first-year seminarians

Seminarians. By Giovanni Portelli
Seminarians Ben Saliba, Mark Anderson, Eden Langlands, Adam Brereton, Joshua Gaddi, Bijoy Joseph and Samuel French. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Seven men, aged 20 – 35, entered the Seminary of the Good Shepherd in Homebush, earlier this year. What paths had led them there, and why did they decide that it was something they simply had to do?

An unshakeable feeling, persistent doubt, an overwhelming desire to serve, or more likely a strange combination of all three: there are many reasons why the seven men who entered the Seminary of the Good Shepherd in Homebush, earlier this year, chose to take the plunge.

Some of them believe they are being called to serve God and to serve others as priests; some of them have an inkling – and a hope – that they are.

All of them have decided – through prayer and work, and the collective wisdom of the seminary staff – to find out for sure.

Aged 20 – 35, from a myriad of backgrounds and experiences, the men spoke to The Catholic Weekly about why they had put themselves forward, particularly for a state of life and an “institution” already so much on the nose in broader Australian society.

Their first year at the seminary – one of seven or eight years of formation, study and training – is classed as a ‘year of discernment’.

With the help of first year spiritual director, Fr Bernard Gordon, and under the paternal guidance of rector, Fr Danny Meagher, the men are already entrenched in the routines and rhythms of seminary life, particularly its structured prayer and communal meal times.

Over the past six months they have been exposed to an array of teaching and experiences reflecting the heart of what it means to be priest:

Morning prayer and daily Mass; short courses on the catechism and on the virtues; examinations of papal documents, such as Mulieris Dignitatem (‘On the dignity of women’) and Pastores Dabo Vobis (‘On the formation of priest); and pastoral work each and every Friday, to the soup kitchens, retirement homes and other projects run by Catholic consecrated and laity.

 

 

Ben Saliba, 32, St Felix de Valois, Bankstown

Ben Saliba. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Ben Saliba. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Ben Saliba decided to stopped being his own boss – “for once”.

“I just started listening, and that listening brought me closer and closer to God, and that is what brought me here.”

But that listening wasn’t unaided, Ben said, speaking to The Catholic Weekly, late last month.

A former architectural representative in his family’s business of importing boutique tiles from around the world, Ben had drifted away from the faith before his younger brother Daniel helped to wrest him back.

“He did the ‘older brother’ thing and sat me down and asked me what I wanted to do with my life.

“I was fairly certain it was just ‘make money and have a family – that’s just how you live life’. And I was completely unaware that there is another vocation out there. He showed me how beautiful the faith is when you have an open heart and open mind.”

It set off something of a revolution in his life. Taking the commands and beatitudes of Christ seriously, he wondered what difference he could make to the poor and suffering of the world.

A light bulb moment happened when he attended a talk by the Jamaican-Chinese missionary priest Fr Richard Ho Lung, founder of the Missionaries of the Poor; an order which, in our own region, ministers to street children in the Philippines.

Ben co-founded his own religious youth organisation, the Queen of the Most Holy Rosary (QMHR), which began taking groups of young people to Missionaries of the Poor communities, living among them and offering as much concrete assistance as it could.

“My joining the seminary had a lot to do with the past few years of missionary work, identifying a need that people have in third world countries just for the basic necessities that we take for granted.

“(And it had a lot to do with) coming back to Australia and seeing how wonderful we have it here, but also seeing a different type of poverty – a spiritual one.”

He says the commitment and energy of QMHR, and coming from one of the youngest and most vibrant parishes in Sydney – St Felix de Valois, Bankstown – were pivotal in his formation, and in his ultimate decision to enter Good Shepherd.

“I think being older helps but I have a lot of respect for the younger guys who have joined the seminary,” Ben said.

“They’ve done a lot of discernment and the so-called ‘musts’ that you ‘have to’ have done by the time your 30 don’t matter to those guys.

“They were very concrete in their way of thinking. For myself, it came a little bit later.

“Life experience has helped and it will help me to connect with others. I might be able to understand what others are going through, but not all. At the end of the day we are all very different.”

 

Bijoy Joseph, 26, St Luke’s, Revesby

Bijoy Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Bijoy Jospeh. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Contrary perhaps to received secular expectation, it was the Church’s teaching on contraception that heralded a new birth in the faith of Kerala-born Bijoy Peters.

Growing up in Sydney from the age of one-and-a-half, it wasn’t until he heard a bishop deliver a catechesis on the subject at World Youth Day in 2008 that he felt any ownership of the Catholicism in which he had been raised.

“It came around at just the right time for me,” Bijoy said, coinciding with his first year at the University of NSW where he studied engineering and science.

“It struck me as profoundly true. And I thought, ‘If the Church is right about that, it might be right about a lot of other things.’”

The WYD experience led him to do a lot of private reading and to getting actively involved in his home parish of St Luke’s, Revesby, where he eventually became a parish councillor.

He first thought about joining the seminary while completing the last year of his degree, but he didn’t feel confident enough to act on his inclination.

He was three years into a job as an engineering consultant – designing roads and highways and working on flood and storm water designs – when the idea of becoming a priest began to weigh on his mind, more and more.

“It became an idea that I couldn’t get rid of, no matter how hard I tried. By the end of it, I just had to apply.”

Seeing the low regard in which society more generally holds the priesthood and priests, and seeing the needs of parishioners up close, he said he appreciated more and more the great need for good and faithful priests.

“Even with some of the problems – I have seen them and am aware of them: It is something that I hope will change with time, but ultimately somebody has to be the vehicle for that. Why not me? Why not this generation of priests?

“I saw the need; I should do something about it.”

At the time of speaking to The Catholic Weekly Bijoy was about to head overseas on pilgrimage with another seminarian, during the inter-semester break.

He and his confrere were set to journey to Fatima, Portugal – where Mary appeared to three shepherd children – and thereafter walk the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St James), spending some three weeks traversing its more than 550km.

Eden Langlands, 21, studying for the archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn

Eden likes to jokingly refer to himself as “the well-balanced child” among his six other siblings – three older brothers, two younger sisters and a younger brother.

The 21 year old is studying to be a priest for the Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn after living and working for the past three years in Young, an agricultural town – population 7000 – 133km northwest of Canberra.

The softly spoken but quietly confident young gent grew up in Cowra before undertaking accounting and business studies, eventually entering a cadetship in finance.

“I’ve wanted to be a priest from a very young age; from around the age of 12 I’ve had a desire to be a priest,” Eden said.

“Over the last four years or so it was really strong and came back again so I decided to pursue it.”

He said he had a lot of good influences growing up: a good parish priest, the opportunity to serve Mass, and the example of his parents – his father who runs a local building business and his mother who has dedicated herself to the nurturing and formation of their children.

Eden never felt called to pursue the life of a religious, order-based priest, saying that he loved the spirituality of religious life but had always felt inclined to a life more “in the world but not of it”.

His first six months in seminary had been an enlightening time, with the in-house formation and immersion experiences with the Missionaries of Charity at their soup kitchen, and with the Schoenstatt Sisters, among others.

“I’ve found here that age doesn’t matter,” Eden said. “We’re all open minded and we’ve all got our hearts on the one thing. Some guys have got more experience in life and work – more than what I do – but I think we sort of complement each other. We (younger guys) have got the youthful enthusiasm I suppose. It’s a good dynamic.

“It’s strange because I wouldn’t necessarily be friends with a 35 year old anywhere else but the seminary, but Mark (Anderson) is one of my best friends. So it’s a great environment, a great place to be.

“It’s definitely a change of lifestyle. You follow a regime which is quite different to outside the seminary, and community living provides its challenges. But overall, it’s great. You’ve got many opportunities to grow in virtue.”

 

Mark Anderson, 35, Engadine 

Mark Anderson. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Mark Anderson. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Mark says he often thinks the Lord put him on ice when it comes to the priesthood, albeit in 45 degree heat.

For the past nine years he’s been putting his skills as an electrician to use, working at a fly-in-fly-out in Western Australia to a “four and one” roster – four weeks work, one week off – around 100km east of Karratha.

The eldest of four, Mark, 35, was born in Darlinghurst and spent the bulk of his childhood in Engadine in Sutherland Shire, after brief moves to Lakemba and Peakhurst.

A graduate of St John Bosco College, work eventually took him to England, and then to Brisbane for a bit before he began working in WA mines.

He made his application to enter the seminary in March 2015 and had a whole year of waiting and wondering as to whether he’d be accepted for the following year’s intake.

Life on Barrow Island meant living in his own “donga” – a temporary housing unit akin to a fitted-out sea container – in a makeshift campsite with around 100 other men.

The thought of becoming a priest, “sort of crept up on me”, he said, in the “little events and conversations” in his life, up until that point.

His faith jumped up a notch after he had turned 30, when he started to think more deeply about life’s serious questions.

The unique environment of Barrow Island may have also played a part in God’s ultimate plan.

“There was a lot of isolation and there wasn’t really the opportunity to have a girlfriend because a relationship was difficult to hold together,” Mark said.

“If I had been working in the town maybe I’d be married now, I don’t know. But maybe there’s a little bit of providence there.

“I often think maybe the Lord put me on ice in 45 degree heat. So He’s got a sense of humour.

Mark had done a lot of discerning before he entered and said he had “a quiet confidence” about a priestly vocation, “but who knows what the Lord will throw at me”.

“I was thinking, ‘Do I or don’t I?’ Some days I’d be thinking, ‘this is perfect’ or (alternatively) ‘what am I doing out here in the bush?’

“But I always thought what a shame it would be (not to pursue a possible priestly vocation) when I had the opportunity to respond generously.

“In the end I just said ‘God just be gentle with me. I’m going to do this. If you want to lead me into the priesthood then I’m going to follow you’.”

The positive reactions he received from his mates – his colleagues at the gas works – were not what he thought they would be, “given some of the media attention at the moment on some of the problems”.

Some of them were fallen-away, others Protestant, and others had no exposure to the Catholic faith.

“I was surprised. They were all very positive and I found that people came out of their shell a bit more – like closet Catholics.

“One guy said ‘you know, I was discerning the priesthood when I was younger’ and there was another guy saying, ‘I think I may have got my vocation wrong. I think I should have been a priest, but this thing happened in my life, and now I’m going down this road.’

“A couple of guys couldn’t wrap their head around celibacy. So, you do what you can do. You’re in the workplace – there are high-vis vests and stuff – and you’re trying to talk to someone about celibacy! (laughs)”

“The other interesting reaction I got was that people seemed to be impressed that someone made a concrete decision.

“I imagine that a lot of people – people like myself – sort of fall into a job and you just do it because it’s your job and you’ve got to pay the bills. And it’s a good job, but if there was something else, what would I do?

“But I think when someone says, ‘That’s what I want; I want to go for that,’ maybe there’s something in that; that people sense and think, ‘I’d like to do something like that.’”

 

Adam Brereton, 27, Sydney

Adam Brereton. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Adam Brereton. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Former journalist and online editor Adam Brereton is pretty sure that he’s in the right place, and hopes that he really does have a vocation to be priest.

He’s joined the Seminary of the Good Shepherd to find out.

The relatively recent convert to the Catholic faith says it was first-hand experience of the sacraments that changed his understanding of what being a Christian, and what the priesthood, is fundamentally about.

The poetry and prose of great Catholic writers were his entry point into the faith: Australian poets Les Murray and Bruce Dawe, the polish poet Czesław Miłosz, US author Flannery O’Connor, and the Irish poet-priest, Gerald Manley Hopkins, among them.

He had also been drawn towards some of the big intellects in the Church, including John Paul II, Herbert McCabe and Benedict XVI.

“The combination of the aesthetics and the intellectual weight of some of these writers I just found very appealing to me. That kind of led me to Chesterton and I think Chesterton has a reputation of making converts, particularly being a convert himself.

“And I think largely I was just dissatisfied with a lot of the thinness of what I had been reading and writing and just dissatisfied, as many converts are, with my own life.

Adam says he is thankful that Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP and the seminary staff instituted the first year of seminary life as a discernment year.

He says that coming to the seminary had brought him from high abstraction to a life of embodied grace.

“I was always looking for something more in my intellectual life, what I thought really mattered; how I could make a contribution, those sorts of things. I think I thought that was the role of the priest in some way, and all the other things the priest did were somehow tacked on to it.

“But then, though my own experience of finally arriving in the confessional, I finally realised that, no, actually prayer and the sacraments are core business.

“Coming here, I realised very quickly – and it was a nice discovery and not an imposition – that God really is a mystery,” Adam said.

“It’s more mysterious to me why I’m here than when I first came, to be honest. But you learn very quickly that God has his own plans for you and that what you do is not irrelevant but is always secondary to what He wants you to do and what the Church needs you to do.

“And that’s, I think, the essence of all priesthood which is responding to the Church. And so finding out if I’m fit to do the work that the Church will require of me is what I have been finding out. And that’s a good feeling.”

 

Joshua Gaddi, 20, Couples for Christ

Joseph Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Joshua Gaddi. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Seven or eight years is a long time.

But if it’s God’s will that he be a priest, Joshua Gaddi says he wants to be one that emits joy from his very pores – “like King David”, energetic, excited, “a man after God’s own heart”.

At 20, Joshua is the youngest of the new entrants to the Seminary of the Good Shepherd, this year.

He began to “own” the faith he had been raised around the age of 14 or 15, when he became involved in the pontifically recognised lay movement, Couples for Christ, and their youth arm, Youth for Christ.

Year 12 was a particularly difficult time, he said, as he struggled in his studies, eventually applying for a tertiary bridging course at Notre Dame.

As he waited to find out if he had gotten in, he went on a two-week mission trip to the land of his birth, the Philippines.

“Most people would say the heart of the trip was the second week, experiencing the poverty (among the people whom we went to help),” he told The Catholic Weekly.

“For me, the highlight came in the middle of the first week. We had gone into a church named after Padre Pio, and it was a beautiful Mass.

“I had received news of my acceptance (into Notre Dame) that morning, and there were three statues with large queues in front of them.

“I went to the statue of the Sacred Heart (of Jesus) … For the first time, in the very depths of my being I heard Jesus saying to me, ‘Josh, I love you. Everything is going to be okay – rest in my embrace.’

“I think that was the very first moment where my faith really solidified. And it wasn’t something that I just attended or had to give myself to because it was ‘the right thing to do’.

“Jesus was really real – real for me and real for everybody else – and his love for me was so tremendous that I had to follow him.”

Far from being daunted by the prospect, he was looking forward to the 30-day Ignatian silent retreat which all first year seminarians will attend at the end of the year.

“At the end of the day, none of us know until those hands are placed on our heads (the moment of ordination). I hope God gives me the grace to get through the rest of the year and to get to that retreat.”

 

Samuel French, 23, Woy Woy, studying for Broken Bay diocese 

Samuel Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Samuel French. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Samuel French was six weeks into a psychology course at Macquarie University when he realised he would have to put his studies on hold, the prospect of World Youth Day in Madrid proving too strong an attraction not to up sticks and go.

During that year, which he also spent working in retail and pursuing various other hobbies and interests, he found another desire stirring.

At the end of high school, it had already occurred to him that although he had a strong sense of “cultural Catholicism” and had been “saturated in the faith” at home, his knowledge of the faith was lacking.

He decided to do something about it, enrolling in theology at Notre Dame University with the help of Catholic Youth Service’s youth ministry scholarship program – working in parish youth ministry for 10 hours per week while receiving financial help with his first year’s fees.

Having moved out of the family home mid-2015, the move to the seminary was a fairly radical change.

“I went from being free and doing what I wanted to do to a very strict, regimented routine, which I’ve found has helped me a great deal,” Sam told The Catholic Weekly.

“I think it makes a profound difference. The seminary is doing what it is supposed to do. I can feel myself changing in a lot of ways.”

Sam has had a myriad of private interests and hobbies.

There was a time when he was interested in fire spinning. He has also turned his hand to the cajon – the Afro-Peruvian box drum, and he still plays the guitar occasionally.

Far from muting his own sense of self, it is instead helping him discover to discover it, he said.

“Very quickly, I came to realise that being in here the whole program talks about integration.

“By being here I’m learning more about who I am; so I think I am becoming more of me, or more of who God wants me to be by being here.”

Negative mainstream perceptions of the priesthood failed to dissuade him from the course, including persistent misunderstanding about celibacy.

“A lot of the times I think people are starting out on the wrong foot,” Sam said.

“They see it more like a deprivation and not as a decision made by a person. I mean, if I didn’t want to live that celibate life, then I wouldn’t be here. I still have that free choice.”

The first-year course, ‘Living the priestly promises,’ run by seminary rector Fr Danny Meagher, had been enormously helpful.

“Because one is so devoted to Christ, Himself, there’s almost no room in our hearts to give ourselves totally to another person.

“As priests we will be taking that fatherhood role in the Church. So we need to be able to give of ourselves – completely – to the people of God. Celibacy makes sense in that role. It’s a complete self-giving over to Christ and to his Church.

“I think when confronted with that question, I always need to focus on where they are starting off. It’s something that actually liberates the person and allows the priest to live the vocation of love according to his state of life.”

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