Sport, studies and the seminary: meet Sydney’s newest candidates for priesthood

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Darren Caballero at the Seminary of the Good Shepherd. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Darren Caballero at the Seminary of the Good Shepherd. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

They like rap music and fishing, cars and sport. They are outgoing young men who have dated, travelled and studied. And they feel called to be priests. Meet the first-year students at the Seminary of the Good Shepherd in Sydney…

Darren Caballero
Age: 23
Likes: Basketball, rap music, fishing, movies

“I never wanted to become a priest,” says 23-year-old Darren Caballero. The idea was so foreign as to be absurd, he says. Until he felt called.

“When He speaks to you He can speak to you in thunder and lightning, but most of the time it’s quite faint, even to the point of just a whisper. And that’s when He’s the loudest.”

It is more than two years since Darren experienced a “sudden interest” in the priesthood and began discerning his religious vocation.

“The more I shut it out, the louder the call grew.”

Unable to ignore the call, he began “trying to explore my own faith and learning what I actually believed in”, he says.

“At the time I wasn’t the strongest Catholic, so by learning more about what we believe in I fell in love, and I realised I had been missing out on so much in my life.”

That brought an important realisation.

“It’s in Him I place my trust.”

For Darren, a vocation to the priesthood is a calling to a life of service. “I’m willing to give up a life of comfort so I can serve others,” he says.

“I want to become a priest because I want to be like Christ.”

Darren grew up in Liverpool as the middle child of three boys.

His decision to enter the seminary “came as a shock to my parents”, he says.

“I expect that they want grandchildren, but I’m very blessed to have two brothers so I’m sure they’re quite capable of that.”

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was announced as Darren was discerning his vocation to the priesthood.

But he is “looking to the future” of the Catholic Church in Australia, a Church he and his fellow seminarians hope to inherit and shape as its priests.

“It is unfortunate, the things that have happened and they are wrong, but that’s where we come in,” he says.

“We’re here to make a difference.”

The Seminary of the Good Shepherd. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
The Seminary of the Good Shepherd. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Darren had been in the final year of a Bachelor of Planning degree at the University of NSW (UNSW) when he decided to apply for the seminary.

“I pushed through it, and I’m glad I did because it shows that you are dedicated to something, you can stay, you can finish things.

“That was quite an achievement for me.”

He credits the Catholic chaplaincy at UNSW for supporting him in his faith.

“They brought me to understand my faith in an environment where you can share your faith together and not be judged.”

Now in the seminary, he has bonded quickly with his fellow first-year students.

“I’m glad that we’ve got such a diverse range of people with different backgrounds,” Darren says.

“You see the differences in different people, and you realise God calls people in different ways.

“Whatever you’ve been through is completely different to the next person.

“We complement each other, in that sense.”

There are adjustments, such as the technology fast which means no mobile phone or internet access on weekdays.

But Darren was surprised to discover “I actually enjoy it, I enjoy not having the phone”.

“Without it, you can get a lot more done.”

He hopes to combine his love of sport with his ministry as a priest, “to bring Christ, in this world, in this context”.

“I love sport, sport is a way to bond with other people, work up a sweat and get healthy at the same time,” he says.

As part of the first seminary intake under the papacy of Pope Francis, Darren has been inspired to follow the new pontiff’s example.

“It’s quite refreshing, to be honest, to have a very charismatic pope, to see his effect on young people,” he says.

“I can use him as a model.”

Robert Assaf at the Seminary of the Good Shepherd. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Robert Assaf. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Robert Assaf
Age: 18
Likes: Fishing, soccer, public speaking, hip-hop

Robert Assaf has experienced a rapid turnaround in his faith in the past two years, from drifting away from the Church at 16 to entering the seminary at just 18.

“If you asked people about two or three years ago if I was going to become a priest they would not believe it,” says Robert.

“But God never let me go too far away from him, thank God.

“I think I hit a low and then I realised that the world was offering me tinsel and not gold.”

It was on a mission trip to Vietnam as a Redfield College student that he was drawn back to the faith.

“Being from such a privileged country and going to a place like Vietnam, I realised I’m a lucky, lucky guy.”

His parents were “reluctant” to see their son enter the seminary at 18, Robert says, preferring to see him complete university first.

“Initially my parents thought it would be a phase,” he says.

“Because I hadn’t been close to the faith for a while, they thought it was a big phase.”

What “changed their perspective of the seminary” was seeing him there. “They were really happy – I think because they saw I was happy,” he says.

His parents are facing an empty nest as Robert and his siblings move out. “It’s a shock for my mother because my brother moved out at the end of last year, I moved out in January, and my sister is thinking of moving out. Three out of four gone in the space of a year, that’s a shock for her.”

Robert attended Holy Name of Mary, Hunters Hill, as a child and says the experience has shaped his vocation.

“They fed me a lot [spiritually] … I’m very grateful to the parish priest, Fr Kevin Bates.”

Life in the seminary is “great”, Robert says. “I’m enjoying it. The only hard part is the technology fast. Because I’m a young one, I’m used to being hooked 24/7, always wired in.”

Seminary life is more relaxed than he expected, he says.

“I thought it would be very strict and regulated, but it’s not at all.

“They’re very free and relaxed, and the attitude is: ‘Take it day by day; if you’re meant to be here, good; if not, we’ll support you with whatever you do’.”

He has found a refreshing role model of simplicity in Pope Francis.

“I’m not much for academics,” he says. “I love being with people, good music, good food. The academics have never appealed to me. I enjoy what we’re learning here, simply because it’s about the faith and that’s what I love.

“But I love Pope Francis because he’s so simple, ‘let’s get back to the basics’. The basics are helping people – love and mercy, that kind of stuff.

“Benedict was awesome, but he had an intellectual twist to him and sometimes I couldn’t grasp what he was saying. But with Pope Francis you get direct access.”

Robert has some advice for anyone considering religious life.

“You’re never going to be 100 per cent sure. You just have to trust.

“And keep it simple. It is love and mercy that matters. Everything else will make sense if you keep your eye on that.”

Adi Sugiarto at the Seminary of the Good Shepherd. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Adi Sugiarto. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Adi Sugiarto
Age: 27
Likes: Guitar, tennis

For Adi Sugiarto, one date with a girl was all it took to give him clarity over his vocation.

“She was actually a big part of my discernment,” he says.

“I went out on a date with a girl.

“But then I thought God was asking me for more.” Singapore-born Adi, 27, studied business information systems at ANU in Canberra for five years, followed by an internship in Sydney.

“I decided to enter the priesthood here,” he says.

The decision was met with mixed reactions from his parents. “My dad is very happy. I’ve never seen him so happy with me. I’ve never been a good student, but he’s very proud of me,” says Adi, the eldest of three children.

“My dad is very happy because my grandfather is a very, very good Catholic.

“He had a big family, seven kids, and he always wished that one of his sons would become a priest.

“So perhaps his dream comes one generation later.”

Adi’s mother, on the other hand, broke down when he told her.

For Adi, the first inkling of his vocation came when he met a “very holy priest, he was just always happy”.

“This was a priest from the personal prelature of Opus Dei, and I’m still very much in touch with him.

“He changed me … I thought, ‘Well, if I could make the same change to other people the way that he did to me, I’m done for life’.”

Compassion, and a desire to share it in the world, also drew him to the priesthood.

It is a quality he admires in Pope Francis.

“The one thing that really inspires me about him is how he treats people,” Adi says. “He treats them like, ‘I’m not a priest, I’m a human being like you, so let’s start there’.”

Adi hopes to model this in his own priesthood.

“I don’t want to be clerical, I want to have a lay mentality so hopefully people can relate to that better.”

The seminary is “definitely a special place”, he says. “What I enjoy most is the fraternity of the seminarians. We’ve got a good bunch here. There is just so much joy.

“I think I am doing God’s will, and I just feel that deep inner peace.”

While the technology fast is a challenge for some, it is nothing new for Adi who has served two years of mandatory military service as an infantryman in Singapore.

“The first year director is quite strict on us; I’ve dealt before with drill sergeants like him,” he says.

“I’m prepared.”

Chores are an inescapable part of seminary life but even Adi’s least favourite household tasks have new meaning.

“I don’t like all the things we do here – I’m not that big on gardening – but I know that I am doing this for God and it just kind of sustains me.

“That’s the most amazing part about this place.”

Jonathan Vala. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Jonathan Vala. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Jonathan Vala
Age: 18
Likes: Music, people

Jonathan Vala celebrated his 18th birthday at Good Shepherd in February, having been the first 17-year-old seminarian in Sydney in a decade.

Adjusting to the routine was easy, says Jonathan, who had finished Year 12 at Redfield College, Dural, just months earlier.

“There is a lot of prayer, there is a lot of study, but it’s a lot like school,” he says.

He has found the seminary extremely enjoyable, and very fulfilling.

“I’ve done so much in this past month, it’s been like a year of progress, with other people, with myself and with God.

“There is a lot of prayer, a lot of study, but it’s this unexplainable peace being here.”

He is even “coping ok” with the limited phone and internet use, having only joined Facebook late in Year 12.

“I didn’t have time to develop an internet addiction,” he says.

Planning events takes time, but the technology fast is, for the most part, “very freeing,” he says.

With his family, Jonathan was a parishioner at the cathedral parish of Broken Bay, Our Lady of the Rosary at Waitara.

“My parents have been extremely supportive,” he says. “They’ve been extremely supportive of anything that any of us, their children, have wanted to do.”

At the Seminary of the Good Shepherd. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
At the Seminary of the Good Shepherd. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

He was the first of the family’s six children to move out of home.

“At first I think it was a bit hard for Mum and Dad to adjust, but they’re still busy with all the other kids.”

Jonathan says he has been discerning a religious vocation “as long as I can remember”.

“I remember in Year 7, when I was 12, going up to my school chaplain and telling him that I was going to join the priesthood.

“He laughed and said, ‘Come back in Year 11.’

“To his surprise, I did.”

While Jonathan’s close friends “saw it coming”, he still encounters “surprise at someone so young, so normal, joining the seminary”.

“People outside the seminary don’t really understand exactly what you’re doing, the nature of the spiritual year.

“I think it has been very helpful to take a step back because it allows you to focus, heart and mind, on the things that you’re doing.”

Jonathan is a people person to his core.

“I love the fraternal, community living here,” he said.

“Coming from such a big family, there are nine of us who live at home, three generations of the family.

“I’ve always had a lot of friends, I’ve loved going out with friends and being with people.”

Sharing the experiences of seminary life is richly rewarding for him.

“It brings people together, the fact that everyone is going through the same thing, be they from different paths of life or experiences.”

He is a keen musician, having playing piano for 11 years.

At 12 he performed in the choir at World Youth Day 2008 in Sydney.

“It actually helped me get in touch with that aspect of service in ministry, because they were long rehearsals, long hours, and being so close to all the
clergy… the choir was nestled between stands full of cardinals from around the world, five metres away from the pope.”

The choir received a private blessing from Pope Benedict XVI, which was “amazing”.

To have witnessed a change of pope as he discerned his vocation was “big news”, Jonathan said.

“I had Pope Benedict from primary school, so having this new pope, who is always in the media, it’s been really good.

“His message of love of everyone has affected the idea of service that I had, especially within the priesthood.”

While aware of the importance of the Royal Commission, Jonathan isn’t prepared to give up on his Church.

“In any sort of institution that is made up of humans there is going to be some sort of corruption, some sort of negativity, and the Church isn’t exempt from that,” he says.
“The fact that she is still standing and doing so much good in the world shows that she shouldn’t be given up on.”

Thao Nguyen at the Seminary of the Good Shepherd. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Thao Nguyen. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Thao Nguyen
Age: 25
Likes: touch football, music

It is a long way from the Vietnamese diocese of Vinh to the diocese of Bathurst, where first-year seminarian Thao Nguyen will be posted if he is ordained a priest.

“I loved the idea of being a priest when I was a kid,” he says.

He decided to enter the priesthood after studying IT at university in Vietnam.

“After graduating from university I prayed that God would give me a way, and I had a call,” he says.

“He brought me here to serve.”

Thao’s parents and four siblings remain in Vietnam, where his eldest brother is a seminarian in the Vinh diocese.

“In my diocese we have a big number of vocations to the priesthood,” he says.

“Last year we had 410 young men took the entrance test to the get into the seminary.”

But full seminaries and limited funds means just 40 were selected to study for the priesthood.

“After graduating from university I had one year volunteering in my parish, and I nearly took the test to get into the seminary but at exactly that time Bishop
Michael McKenna went to Vietnam looking for young men with vocations.

“By chance I saw him in the parish.”

Bishop McKenna interviewed Thao and selected him as a seminarian for the Bathurst diocese studying in Sydney.

“I had a golden chance to study here, and I hope that God will choose me to become a priest and serve Him, because I love Australia, I love the people here.”

On arriving in Australia Thao spent five months in the rural parish of Gilgandra

He was overwhelmed by the “kind and friendly” reception he had out west.

“I had a lovely, wonderful, time there, especially with the people.

“The first time I came here I didn’t understand anything, my English was so poor. But the people in the countryside taught me English.”

As well as English, the people of Gilgandra gave Thao his first tastes of Australian culture.

“I stayed there to study English and culture, and how to serve in an Australian parish,” he says.

He learnt to play touch football, and to sing evocative Australian songs including Waltzing Matilda and Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport.

“When I was in Gilgandra I often sang in the church after Mass,” he says.

“I love the song I Am Australian, ‘We are one but we are many’, it’s very meaningful.

“And now I love touch football.”

He also delighted in visiting Australian farms for the first time.

“The people in the rural areas were so lovely,” he said.

“They brought me to see people shearing sheep and lots of things on the farms.”

Thao will always have a soft spot for Gilgandra.

“Now I’m staying in the seminary I really miss the people there,” he says.

“On my holidays I often go there to see my friends.

“It’s a very peaceful country, especially in the countryside. I’d prefer to live in the countryside.”

Thao has bonded with his classmates over, among other things, a shared love of music.

“They love music as well, so I’m living in a good community,” he says.

“Everything is going well and I’m really enjoying my life here, especially the spiritual year.

“It is motivating me to work hard, and I love it.”

Thai is homesick for his family and Vietnam, but their pride in his vocation sustains him.

“My dad and mum are so happy because I want to be a priest,” he says.

“When I said farewell to them and came to Australia they were crying; I miss them so much.

“When I call my dad he says, ‘I don’t miss you at all’ – I know what he means.

“He wants me to think about something more important, my vocation.”

A cassock, worn from second year, at the Seminary of the Good Shepherd. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
A cassock, worn from second year, at the Seminary of the Good Shepherd. Photo: Giovanni Portelli