This year is very significant in my priestly life for two reasons. I am just completing my first year as parish administrator in Taree and Wingham parishes and I have not long ago celebrated my 40th birthday. I feel I have just entered another phase in my life. At this point of time I want to look back, recall and reflect upon the experiences I have had in my priestly life in Australia.
I have ministered here for five years and prior to that, for seven years in India. When I compare these experiences, I can really see the growth within me. For me, change stands for growth. When there is growth, there is change. Five years ago, I was not sure whether I would stay so long and continue the ministry in Australia but today, when I think about my ministry here, I love it in a thousand different ways.
Living in a different cultural situation was initially a bit hard but once I fell in love with this country, it became part of my life. I love the people and this country just as much as home. Whenever we move to another country, food is a botheration. In my case, especially with regard to food, I am a little bit adventurous. I love to experience different cuisines and that means I enjoy the food habits of Australia.
All the situational changes were so visible but when I reflect upon the change that has happened in my whole thinking pattern, I realise it is subtle but very remarkable. Moving ‘down under’ from India has broadened my whole perspective about religion, spirituality and morality. Since I am from a traditional Catholic background, it took me some time to reconcile the teachings of the church and the reality I face in my everyday priestly ministry. One thing I admire in the Australian church is the people’s willingness to accept everybody, without considering whether they practise the teachings of the church or not. This is a very realistic, practical and human approach which can be understood only by coming out of the traditional Catholic way.
Before coming to Australia, I didn’t have much interaction with other Christian denominations but since I started to work in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, I have had plenty of opportunities to relate with other denominations, especially with the Anglicans. I still cherish those moments I spent with the Anglican priests, Fr Garry and Fr Michael, in the ministry to seafarers at Stella Maris. That experience gave me the understanding that if we forget the differences, we can achieve a lot.
Our God is a God of Surprise. When I moved to Taree I thought I would not be having much opportunity to interact with the Anglican community anymore. To my surprise, I soon realised that in Old Bar, the Catholic Church is sharing the holy place with the Anglican community. Every Sunday after our Mass, the Anglicans have their service. Initially I was wondering how people are coping with it. Eventually I realised when people see Christ in others, they gather together in his name. Since then, for the last year I have been having various activities along with the Anglican communities. On Good Friday we combined for the Stations of the Cross, walking from the Anglican Church to the Catholic Church. There was a combined Pentecost celebration, carol singing at Christmas and so on.
The Australian community is multicultural and the faith community reflects this. Though I had multicultural experiences back in India, it was never with people from different nations. On every weekend when I see my congregation comprising Australians, Filipinos, Indians, Italians and so on, I feel that this is the real Church of God: people of all nations coming together under Jesus’ name. It is a wonderful experience which is unique to this country.
Along with the cultural adaptation, I still continue a few spiritual exercises, which are devotion to the Eucharist and devotion to Our Lady, which I have inherited from my family and cherished throughout my priestly vocation. Initially, I had the impression that these devotions were totally irrelevant and meaningless to Australian society. But in reality, a large number of people still hold on to their devotion to the Eucharist and to Our Lady. Moreover, Pope Francis is a model in devotion to Our Lady and the Eucharist. I have noticed that the people who pray the rosary daily and spend some time before the Blessed Sacrament, pray for others, especially for their priests. When I am in the company of such people I feel the power of prayer.
Australia has given me a lot of good friends. When we move to an unknown place, acceptance and friendship matter a lot. I am really lucky to have a lot of good friends among clergy and laity. Because of the warmth of that relationship, I never feel that I am away from home. I still remember the day when I arrived in Sydney airport; our Vicar General, Fr Brian, and Bishop’s Secretary, Elizabeth, were standing there with smiles to welcome me to the diocese. Since then I never felt that I am in an unknown place. I firmly believe that the environment in which we live dramatically affects our level of achievements. One of the factors that makes me do my best in my ministry is the support I receive from fellow clergy and the people of this diocese.
Finally, the simple and powerful lesson I learned from my priestly ministry is 'smile'. It is contagious and truly makes a difference to the people around us. Furthermore, God loves a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9/7) and I love this Bible verse. Every morning when I get up, I pray to the Lord for the grace to serve the people with a smile – and it works!