Catholic Outlook Highlights for 2023: Fr Gayan Thamel – ‘There is a big role for a migrant chaplain to integrate and move people towards stability’

By Jacob Gormley, 5 January 2024
Fr Gayan Thame Episcopal Vicar for Migrant Chaplaincies: Image Diocese of Parramatta


Over the holiday break, Catholic Outlook is showcasing some of its most viewed, inspiring and thought-provoking articles from 2023.

This article was originally published on 22 November 2023

The recently appointed Episcopal Vicar for Migrant Chaplaincies, Father Gayan Thamel, who took on the role on 1 October 2023, brings a wealth of experience to his mission of helping migrant chaplains provide continuity and normalcy in the lives of migrants as they navigate the intricacies of a new country. This is on top of his existing duties as parish priest.

“With Parramatta being one of Australia’s most multicultural areas, I believe there’s a significant role my position plays in fostering integration and social cohesion for the community’s diverse groups,” Fr Gayan says.

“My role is advocacy – to support the chaplain so that he can carry out the work in the chaplaincy – and also [to be] the connection between the Diocese and the migrant chaplaincies.

“There is a big role for a migrant chaplain to integrate and move people towards stability, continuity and a little bit of normalcy in their lives.”

Fr Gayan represents more than 20 separate migrant chaplaincies, including the Coptic, Fijian, Korean, Filipino and Vietnamese.

He says migrants’ experience of the Catholic Church in Australia is often different to their country of origin, but there are also similarities.

All it takes is “a little bit of understanding and learning and be open to how we do church here. At the beginning, it is okay to feel uncertain. These are normal things migrants will feel when they move into a new country”.

Fr Gayan believes in providing an array of support for migrants. He emphasises the importance of language support, Catholic education, practical ways to assist migrants, counselling services, spiritual guidance, and social activities. He also believes a tailored approach is needed to address the specific needs of each migrant community.

No stranger to migration

Fr Gayan is no stranger to migration and its accompanying challenges. Born in Sri Lanka, he embarked on a personal journey that led him from his homeland to Australia to become a priest in country Western Australia.

He says the move was challenging because there were fewer people in rural parishes compared with the region he came from in Sri Lanka, and the distances between places were so much greater.

“The culture is different, so of course there’s going to be differences in how you express that in your faith as well,” he says, adding that there were also lots of similarities.

From Bunbury to Parramatta

Fr Gayan says that he considered a life in the priesthood before setting his sights on joining the Air Force in Sri Lanka. Despite this desire to become an air force pilot, a deep-seated calling to the priesthood persisted. After attending the seminary on two occasions, he realised that this was more than just a fleeting aspiration.

“I would say I had a sense of calling when I was a teenager, maybe after high school,” Fr Gayan says. “I felt a sense of calling, and I responded to that.”
Fr Gayan arrived in Australia in 2000 and spent a significant part of his clerical journey in the Diocese of Bunbury, in south-west Western Australia, where he served as an assistant parish priest then parish priest for 18 years.

It was during this time that he developed a medical issue that prompted him to consider a move to a parish where he didn’t have to do so much driving. A connection with a priest from Bunbury who knew the Parramatta Diocese led him to move to the east coast.

Fr Gayan arrived in 2018. His first role within the Diocese was at Windsor Parish where he served as assistant parish priest for two years. He then took on the role of Parish Priest at nearby Richmond, where he has been ever since. In that time, he has played a vital role in enhancing the spiritual and pastoral support for the parishioners in Richmond.

Supporting the Air Force Base in Richmond

As well as parish priest and his new role as Vicar, he also serves as an Air Force Chaplain at the Royal Australian Air Force Base in Richmond.

“I go to the air force base once a week every Thursday, to administer Catholic chaplaincy services to the reservist and the on-duty officers,” Fr Gayan says. In this role he supports the spiritual and emotional well-being of servicemen and women, contributing to their overall morale and welfare.

As Fr Gayan settles into his new role, he acknowledges the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. He’s keen to engage with the diverse communities within the Diocese and build a bridge of support.


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