Fr Oliver Aro MSP, Parish Priest, Mary Immaculate Parish, Quakers Hill-Schofields
Fr Oliver Aro has had a remarkable journey to Mary Immaculate Parish. He tells us the highlights of his life in ministry across the Pacific.
Fr Oliver Aro speaks gently during our interview, but once he starts talking, you also see a quiet courage and lots of life experience. Apart from ministry, he’s been a marine engineer, studied psychology and even been a crocodile hunter. Over a cup of tea, we discuss his life in parishes throughout the Pacific and his arrival in Sydney as Parish Priest of Mary Immaculate Parish, Quakers Hill-Schofields, in 2019. Fr Oliver believes it was obedience to God through the wisdom of the Saviour that led him here.
The mention of crocodiles reminds him of his favourite experience, the first Mass he said as a missionary priest to a village in a remote part of Papua New Guinea (PNG).
It was his favourite Mass, not necessarily because of its association with crocodiles, but what it signified.
“When I went to the remote community for the first time, they had heard of missionaries in other places. Some worshipped the spirit of trees or storms,” he says. He had arrived by a motored canoe, but the petrol tank was stolen soon after he landed at the village. “That night, I slept in the open canoe amongst the mosquitoes,” he says. “I woke up to the villagers catching a crocodile just near me. They chopped it up and shared the meat with me.”
That interaction was the beginning of a relationship which led to Fr Oliver saying the first Mass for the community six months later. At first, the villagers wanted him to leave, with only the children curious to know more about him. He returned, gently participating in village life and prayed.
“As I prayed, the children copied me,” he said. “I explained I was praying to God. Their mothers had been watching and asked if I could teach them to pray as well.” Over the following months he taught the community about God. Finally, the villagers were ready to be baptised in Christ and attend their first Mass. “It was the most tremendous experience for God to use me in this way,” says Fr Oliver.
After a stint in New Zealand, Fr Oliver served as Superior in the Catholic Mission of Tokelau. Unable to speak the language at first, he picked it up slowly – enough to minister to the people “but that was tough,” he recalls.
Fr Oliver’s order is the Mission Society of the Philippines (MSP). As a missionary, he has ministered in PNG, Tokelau and, for several years, in New Zealand.
Now he is in Quakers Hill, getting to know a new group of parishioners. “When I enter a new community, I’m there to live the life of Christ, because Christ was there before me,” he says. “Any values they see in me are Christ’s values.”
Fr Oliver continues to connect through the children of the parish. He welcomes the many questions they have. He answers a lot of questions about what it is like being a priest. “Who knows, maybe my words will plant a seed for a future priest,” he laughs.
He was also delighted to be part of the parish when it celebrated its centenary last year and tells me how he seems to follow the parishes reaching significant milestones.
“When I was in Thames in New Zealand it celebrated 100 years, the Tokelau Mission celebrated 150 years when I was Superior there, now Mary Immaculate has just marked 100 years!”
Fr Oliver is a renowned gardener. It is his way of coping at those times when loneliness hits. He is open about this, as loneliness is a standard part of a missionary priest’s life. In PNG, he cared for lots of animals. Now he cares for plants. “When I am among plants, I don’t feel lonely,” he says. “They are living creatures, and when I’m with them, I feel I’m in communion with God.”
His parishioners report that he’s very interactive and approachable. “He’s won over a lot of parishioners because of how approachable he is,” says Vice-President of the Pastoral Council, Beverley Rutledge.
When asked about the role parents can play in bringing faith to their children, Fr Oliver is very clear about the first thing they should do.
“When parents want to instil values in their own children, they must be fully committed to those values, whatever they are,” he says.
“As a priest, I recommend to parents they must deepen their own understanding of faith, so they don’t lose direction. Children will do as their parents do; they are their children’s first teachers.”
This article was originally featured in the Lent and Easter/Autumn 2021 Edition of the Catholic Outlook Magazine.