This article originally appeared in the April edition of Melbourne Catholic Magazine.
Sporting thick-rimmed black glasses and a tight high-fade haircut, Fr Rob Galea is easily the most Instagrammable member of the clergy in Australia—possibly the world. And speaking of Instagram, his feed is peppered with gym selfies to provide spiritual and fitness motivation in equal measure with each new deadlift personal best.
To the wider non-Catholic world, he’s best known for being a contestant on the popular show X Factor in 2015 when he auditioned in front of Chris Isaac, Danni Minogue, James Blunt and Guy Sebastian, a friend of his.
It’s perhaps owing to his mastery of media and music that, over the last five years, Fr Rob Galea has become a household name in Catholic circles. Fr Rob boasts an active YouTube channel, podcast, Facebook and Twitter accounts driven by a professional marketing team. He is the nexus point where clergy meets celebrity. In a YouTube video, he explains his mission in a nutshell: ‘Finding engaging and relevant ways to reach out to people to help them know and love and serve Jesus.’ And so far, it’s working.
Fr Rob is Maltese and sports a hint of an accent. Ordained in 2010, he now calls Australia home. In his ninth year of priesthood, Fr Rob serves as Assistant Priest at the Sandhurst Parish and spends his time ministering to his flock and wielding the power of social media to acquaint the youth of today with Jesus.
After X Factor, during which he dropped out ‘after struggling to balance the demands of the show with pastoral commitments,’ he was invited to sing and speak at Catholic events all over the world.
Despite his active public profile, Fr Rob was once a shy and introverted child who was once bullied out of a choir. ‘I was kicked out because I couldn’t sing in tune,’ he confesses. ‘And so I gave up singing for a long time.’ It was only after his conversion that he decided to sing again.
In his autobiography Breakthrough, Fr Rob writes about the moment when he discovered Church. As a teenager, his grandmother called and mentioned a new youth group that had started and thought his sister Rachel would be interested in. The young Rob was miffed that the message was only for his sister and defiantly went along with her. That defiance paid off as he gradually pivoted from a life of gangs and nightclubs to the life of Catholic priest and performer. ‘Thank God my life was saved because I was depressed and I was suicidal,’ Fr Rob says. ‘I was lost, addicted and messed up. But through a series of experiences, I came to know the love of Jesus.’
It’s worth noting that Fr Rob didn’t fall onto his strategy of connecting with young people by accident. Before discerning his vocation to the priesthood, Fr Rob completed a degree in marketing and since then, he has been deliberate in his approach to connecting young people with the Gospel.
‘Through studying marketing, I found that people need to hear a message not once or twice, but over and over and over again, before taking action,’ he explains. ‘If you’re trying to sell a product, you have to hit them five times.’
‘For us, that means hitting them once through performing or speaking at a school, then again through social media, then again through music, then again through YouTube, and eventually, there are some that come to action, decide to purchase the product, which is Jesus and a life carrying the cross.’
And it’s important to create music that plays to current tastes. Musically, his influences are varied and he admits to having eclectic taste. But if pressed to list a favourite genre? ‘A lot of pop music. Or dance music,’ he says. ‘I listen to the top 10 constantly on iTunes, because one, I want to learn the language of the people, and two, I want to see how we can influence and infiltrate this type of music as well. My songs are written in a very alternative pop style. It’s about reclaiming for God what was stolen. I don’t believe particular genres of music belong to the devil or to the world. I believe all music belongs to God.
‘I’ve spent the whole of my life figuring out ways of speaking to young people in a way they can understand with a message that could save lives and souls,’ he says.
Fr Rob’s social media style has elicited a variety of responses from the wider Catholic community. Mostly, the reaction is one of appreciation, yet some think his prolific usage of social media is not fitting for a priest. But the Maltese-Australian priest is not bothered by any naysayers. For him, it’s a matter of knowing the ‘language’ of the people, and he demonstrates his fluency daily through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and his music.
‘This is my life. This is where I want to speak to young people. I don’t seek to be popular or to be everywhere but to give a Gospel message where young people are. Where are they? They are on social media. They are in schools. We have young people there, and we have access to their hearts, but very often all we access is their minds. What I’m doing is developing resources for curriculum, working in social media, working in music, radio, television, helping in any way possible so they can listen.’
Given the widespread concern over a decreasing number of younger mass attendees in many Catholic communities across Australia, his mission is an important one. Being able to speak the ‘people’s language’ in spreading the Gospel is crucial to Fr Rob, ‘because this is the way people can understand.’ And to be clear, that message isn’t restricted to Sunday Mass. In his autobiography, he writes about sharing the word of God at interfaith gatherings, pubs and nightclubs. ‘I will go anywhere that there’s an open door,’ he says. ‘I would play in pubs, but I’ll unapologetically talk about Jesus. I’d go to clubs. I’ve written EDM (electronic dance music) for nightclubs, so maybe they can hear the message there.’
Again, for anyone questioning the appropriateness of a priest writing dance music, Fr Rob is clear: ‘We need to infiltrate the system which has been stolen from the kingdom of God. We’re just influencing the system back again.’
And as for those Insta-selfies pumping iron at the gym? ‘The overall message on my social media and through the gym pictures is one of discipline, of looking after the body, the temple which is serving and loving the Lord. It’s about looking after your entire being. It works together: when there’s discipline in body, there’s discipline in the soul and the mind.’
Yet flourishing communities also present their own set of challenges, especially in welcoming newcomers to communal youth groups that may not always feel inclusive. ‘One of the biggest dangers of youth groups is cliques,’ he says. ‘That’s one of the things that has always been a struggle in the history of all churches, in the history of all youth groups—how do you deal with cliques? Because that is the most unwelcoming thing for certain groups of people. They come in and then they don’t belong to the core group. It’s about training our young people to fall in love with Jesus, but also to love like Jesus. That is, to love the broken.’
For Fr Rob, it’s about being open and authentic, and making private faith public. ‘We are conditioned to keep our politics and religion private. But at the same time, there are people there who are desperate for the hope that you have in Christ Jesus. I think we are missing opportunities. We don’t have time to waste or to be shy. We don’t have time for private religion. We need to go out, and we need to reach out to people because if we’re silent for the fear of being misunderstood, we are losing opportunities to save souls. We’re losing opportunities to give people hope.’
He describes a friend he was on tour with who gradually decided to make her private faith more public, especially over social media. ‘She was afraid people wouldn’t understand. But all they say to her is, “Wow, I didn’t know you were a Catholic”. Her followers have found her posts about faith really encouraging.’
Fr Rob recently arrived back from World Youth Day Panama during which he performed for thousands of young people from all over the world and for the Pope himself. ‘It was a very surreal and beautiful experience,’ he says. Fr Rob reveals that behind the social media and production values of his music, he can be as nervous as anyone. ‘In Panama, when I was getting ready to sing, I was just shaking. I was terrified. But you know what? Once I started singing, I knelt down, and I just looked at Jesus and I forgot everything else.’
Fr Rob’s brand new album Coming home can be found on iTunes and Spotify.
Melissa Parkinson is a Digital Content Producer of Melbourne Catholic.