National Vocations Awareness Week runs from 4 to 11 August.
I don’t know when I started wondering what it would be like to be a priest. I think it would have been soon after I started primary school at St Vincent’s in North Essendon, perhaps after one of the local clergy visited our classroom.
My teacher, Sister Helena, who was one of the three Sisters of Charity who travelled by train to our school each day, would probably have exclaimed that my vocation was inspired by the priest who said Mass for us each Sunday. Maybe it was due to the respectful and reverential way in which my parents spoke about the man in in the black suit that I’d often seen walking about our church grounds.
Regardless of how it began, I picked up the message that, when I grew up, I couldn’t possibly do anything better in my life than become a priest myself. And being a very idealistic lad, even at primary school level, I decided that one day I, too, would be a priest.
I cannot remember at this advanced stage of my life whether I shared this resolve with my parents, but being pretty open with them as a kid I probably would have told them of my hopes. And observing the values that they lived by, they would have responded happily.
On a practical level, my interest in the priesthood would have been strongly endorsed by the affirming way that I was ministered to as I followed the traditional steps of faith—confessing my sins to the parish priest and receiving Holy Communion for the first time along with my twin sister Mary. That was just prior to our sixth birthday in 1938.
Up to that point, my journey to the priesthood had gone smoothly. But then it suffered a giant setback. In year 9, I made my first retreat, and as a result of the talks by the severe retreat master, I became plagued with moral scruples. Everything seemed sinful, and I was continually burdened with guilt.
Providentially, however, I encountered one of the most pastoral priests that I have ever met. He was the resident chaplain at St Patrick’s College, Ballarat, the secondary school where I studied for my matric. In a most reassuring manner he convinced me how much the Lord loved me. Under his patient listening approach he counselled me and prepared me to enter Corpus Christi College, the seminary for the Archdiocese, after considering that I might well be being called by the Lord to become his priest.
After eight years of preparation, I was ordained to the priesthood in the presence of my family and friends, accompanied by my classmates, to serve in the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was 18 years of age.
The dream had become a reality. But then began the fulfilment of the dream. I had to be Jesus to people, and treat them as he would have done in ministering to them, because I had been called to function in his name.
I had not become his priest for my sake, but for his people—to baptise their children, to reconcile them when they strayed, to anoint them when they got sick, and even to help them prepare for their death. My choice of being their celebrant enabled me to be lovingly available to them even in the middle of the night. One of the special joys that I frequently shared was helping a couple prepare for their marriage and their married life that followed, and some of them still keep in touch with me even today.
I relished parish life in my early appointments as assistant priest at St Benedict’s, Burwood and St Mary’s, Altona. I was later asked to enter the University of Melbourne to do Social Studies and to become a counsellor with what later became known as CatholicCare. As a result, Jesus could use me to assist many unhappy people who turned to me for assistance. It was a ministry that was later enhanced by an invitation to conduct a weekly radio talk-back program and an opportunity to write a newspaper column in a Church publication.
For over forty years the Lord has used me very happily to convey his love to those who needed to be reassured—by my genuine Christlike love of them—that they were lovable individuals. Being Jesus’ priest has given me a life of fulfilment that I hadn’t known was possible. Ultimately, it is God who has worked through me and my brothers in the priesthood as we offer Mass, confer the Sacraments, preach and teach in his name with a message that he loves everybody.
Being a priest has not been a ministry that I’ve exercised on my own behalf—it has been carried out on behalf of your Church. We in the priesthood need your prayerful support so that we may take the gifts of Jesus’ death and Resurrection to all who need them. It is a wonderful vocation, and we are truly grateful that we have been called to minister it here in beautiful Melbourne.
Fr Gerard Dowling OAM is Spiritual Director of CatholicCare Melbourne and Dean Emeritus. His radio program, The family counsellor, can be heard on Melbourne’s RSN927 every Sunday night from 10pm.
This article was originally published in the July 2019 edition of the Melbourne Catholic Magazine.
For more information about Vocations in the Diocese of Parramatta, please visit: www.parracatholic.org/vocations/