In what he jokingly describes as “the most talked about retirement of the Diocese”, Father Peter Confeggi retired from active ministry on January 1 2019.
“Over the past five years I have sought to be transparent about my preparation for retirement, especially given that I was moving interstate.
“We were asked three years ago, when Fr Peter Williams [the then Diocesan Administrator] was leading the diocese to submit our plans for retirement. It was a very comprehensive set of questions, and I remember responding to it and saying ‘this is the first time anyone’s asked me these kinds of questions. I found the process very adult.”
Fr Peter grew up in Campbelltown, on what was then the outskirts of Sydney, to parents Mary and Vince and is the middle of three children. “We grew up physically very close to the church of St John the Evangelist, Campbelltown and the parish school, it was all in the neighbourhood.” Fr Peter said. “Despite my Italian family name, it was a very traditional Irish Catholic faith in which I was nurtured.”
He joined the Franciscan Order in Campbelltown in 1970. “I’d known friars for most of my life, they had a community in town – it was a natural thing.” He completed his seminary formation in Melbourne and was ordained in Campbelltown in 1978.
After his ordination, he worked in a number of Sydney parishes before spending two and half years completing a Masters in Sacramental Theology and Liturgy at the Catholic Institute in Paris.
Later, Fr Peter accepted a post from the Franciscan Order to assist in seminarian teaching in Uganda, leading up to the Rwandan War, between 1990 and 1994. “Because French speaking seminarians were moving from Rwanda and Burundi into English speaking Uganda there was a need to work in both French and English.”
One of the most confronting experiences Fr Peter witnessed happened in Uganda following Holy Week in 1994. While waiting for a flight from Uganda to Rwanda, news spread throughout the airport that the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi had been assassinated.
“The whole place erupted. The Ugandan soldiers started firing at the ceiling to try and quell the situation. And then everything just broke out, it was just crazy,” Fr Peter said. “Now Rwanda and Burundi are the most Catholic parts of Africa, we had just come through Holy Week but the blood of tribe was thicker than the waters of Baptism. The plane never did leave that day.”
Towards the end of 1994, Fr Peter knew that he was not meant to be a foreign missionary for life. When he returned to Sydney, he witnessed what he described as ‘reverse culture shock.’
“I remember coming back at the end of 1994, towards Christmas, and going into a big shopping centre. It was just overwhelming.
“Once I got back from Uganda, I did some important work on myself, on what trauma had done to me, as you don’t go through those things easily. What I learnt about trauma and the effects of trauma from my own experiences became very important in terms of understanding communities that were traumatised by clergy misconduct and sexual abuse.
“The best way to understand anything is not though your head, but through your own experience. I’ve always believed that God gives you one experience to prepare you for the next one.”
Upon reflection, Fr Peter said that his biggest challenge was helping to rebuild the Church following the revelations of clergy misconduct and sexual abuse.
After serving in the parishes in St Marys, Greystanes, Castle Hill and Mt Druitt, Fr Peter was appointed parish priest of St Patricks Blacktown in 2008. In 2012 he also took responsibility for St Michael’s South Blacktown. Fr Peter led the amalgamation of St Patrick’s Parish and St Michael’s Parish at Blacktown into the new Mary, Queen of the Family Parish in 2014 and has been working hard to make sure the “blended family” is working together.
“The amalgamation has come with great difficulty. It’s a good model, but it’s not been easy. But it’s like a marriage, you’ve got to keep working at the relationship.”
Fr Peter understands that there may be a need in the future for more parishes to be amalgamated. “Whether it’s twinning, whether its amalgamation, co-operation among parishes is important. One parish cannot do everything.”
Fr Peter has been active in the establishment of teams of leadership in his parishes. “One of my greatest joys has been helping to build teams of leadership. I’m utterly convinced that the days of lone rangers in ministry are over. We need to work collaboratively, not just in theory, but in practise. Men and women leading together.
“I insist on sitting down every week and having a meal together with members of the team. We read the Gospel for the following Sunday, we reflect on that together, and what I write on the front of the bulletin comes out of that discussion. We try to have a common theme that we all preach to. Then we talk about people, we talk about pastoral issues and then go through any administrative business.”
When asked about the future of the Australian Church, Fr Peter said that members of the worshipping community want the Church to “welcome, grow and act,” a mission statement that Mary, Queen of the Family Parish has taken on board.
“We know from all the studies that communities grow with a sense of welcome. We have to grow lay leaders. The Church will not be reformed by the clergy, but having clergy working with lay leaders. The third is to act and to develop social justice. A Church for the building of the Kingdom.”
Over the last five years, in planning for his retirement, Fr Peter has used his holiday times to restore an 1840s cottage in the Huon Valley, in southern Tasmania. “It has been good for my mental health, doing something completely different.”
He hopes to dedicate more of his time to his art in retirement. “I’ve drawn and painted on and off all my adult life, more off than on.”
In his retirement, Fr Peter is looking for three different things – solitude; getting his hands into the earth and putting paint onto canvas.
“I’m not going to do anything for three months, but something every day. My supervisor last year said, ‘Peter be very careful. Depression can creep up on you. You live a very busy life and when you stop, depression can hit you.’ And I was shocked by it. She said ‘you’ve got to do something every day, it might be just to re-pot a plant. Whatever, I am sure that Monet, my dog, will get me out each day and engage me in the local community.”
“If I had one regret, it’s that I’m not 15 years younger and with more energy to push ahead with Bishop Vincent Long’s vision,” Fr Peter said. “However, I hold great hope for the Plenary Council process.”
Mary, Queen of the Family Parish recently finished with their discussions around the Plenary Council 2020, in what Fr Peter described as his last hurrah. “We’ve had plenary council sessions with senior students, two retreat groups and with staff of our six centres of learning. We’ve listened to over 3,000 voices now in Blacktown. I believe the Plenary Council is a moment of grace for our Church to engage people in dialogue.”