Growing up in Merrylands, Very Rev Robert Bossini drew early inspiration to join the priesthood by the priests at St Margaret Mary’s Parish.
“I remember that Fr Peter Humphries was terrific. He would always be out in the yard interacting with children.
“Fr Rod Bray, who was at the parish just after I joined the seminary, was also an inspiration to me through his pastoral ministry. He was always a missionary at heart.
“We always had fairly good priests there.”
Fr Bob, as he prefers to be called, was born in Port Said, Egypt, and has an older brother. As the son of a Maltese father with British ties, Fr Bob and his family fled Egypt in 1957 due to the Suez Canal Crisis.
“The British, French and Americans were being expelled from Egypt, so we had 48 hours to put everything we owned in trunks and leave. We were airlifted to Cyprus because they thought another war like the Korean Peninsula was about to start.”
After spending a brief time in Cyprus, Fr Bob and his family landed in London in March 1957, and then moved to Australia in August 1957, where his dad’s family had settled.
“One of my earliest memories is of buying the house in Merrylands. In those days, Merrylands was starting to develop, but it was a recently-built home, and I remember dad using a sickle trying to cut the long grass.
“My family weren’t overly religious. As a family, we would go to 10.30am Sunday Mass. We had dedications to Sacred Heart and Immaculate Heart. We would say the rosary at different points throughout the year. But I always remember that we would say grace before and after every meal.
“I was baptised in Egypt, but I received my communion and confirmation at St Margaret Mary’s. I remember being confirmed by then-Bishop James Freeman, who was later appointed Archbishop of Sydney and eventually created a Cardinal.”
Whilst at Patrician Brothers’ High School, Granville (now Delaney College), Fr Bob received another push towards the priesthood.
“I was in Year 9 or 10 when the Archdiocese of Sydney formed their first vocation centre. Monsignor Kerry Bayada, the first director of vocations, had a huge team including priests and religious brothers and sisters who would visit every school in the diocese for a week.
“They came to Granville, they spoke to every class and then interviewed every student. It was quite incredible.
“One of the priests in the team, Fr Kevin Fitzpatrick, who had only been ordained a few years previous, then took a group of students up to the St Columba’s Seminary in Springwood for a day to have a look around. I was really quite impressed with it.
“From there, I struck up a friendship with Monsignor Bayada, and kept in contact with him. Following that, when I moved into Form 5 and 6 (Year 11 and 12), each year there would be gatherings of students interested in the priesthood, and it grew from there.”
When Fr Bob graduated in Year 12 from Patrician Brothers’ College, Fairfield in 1974, he started his formation at the St Columba’s Seminary in Springwood with three of his fellow classmates. Two contemporaries – Peter Lamont from the Diocese of Parramatta and Paul Finucane from the Diocese of Broken Bay – are still priests today.
“In 1976, with the help of Fr Paul Ryan, the rector of the seminary, I discerned a move towards religious life.
“I joined the Salesians of Don Bosco and spent a year living in the community at Boys’ Town in Engadine [in Sydney’s south]. I used to run the printing shop, helping with the printing for the teachers and taught a few social services classes.
“In 1977, I went and spoke to the Provincial to begin my novitiate and took my first vows on 31 January 1978.”
After joining the Salesians, Fr Bob relocated to Melbourne, where the formation house was, and completed his formation and studies in teaching, theology and philosophy.
During the completion of his Diploma of Teaching, Fr Bob spent three years as a teacher at Salesian College in Sunbury, Victoria.
He then returned to study, finishing a Bachelor of Education and Theology, and was ordained to the priesthood at the Shrine of St John Bosco, Engadine by the then-Archbishop Edward Bede Clancy on 11 July 1987.
After his ordination, Fr Bob returned to Sunbury where he was the Religious Education Coordinator for four years. He was then appointed in 1991 as the Don Bosco Youth Centre Coordinator in Brunswick, Victoria. In 1996, he was made Rector of the Salesian community in Glenorchy, Tasmania.
In 1999, Fr Bob returned to Sydney to become the Rector of the Salesian Community and Mission in Engadine for four years.
In 2004, whist still a Salesian, Fr Bob was appointed as assistant priest and then later parish priest at Our Lady of the Rosary Parish, St Marys, which is under the pastoral care of the Salesians.
Fr Bob would remain a Salesian until 2010, when he asked to be incardinated to the Diocese of Parramatta.
His first posting as a diocesan priest was in 2011 as parish priest at Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish, Greystanes. Fr Bob stayed at Greystanes for three years, until his appointment as Dean of the St Patrick’s Cathedral Parish, Parramatta in September 2014.
“In an ordinary parish, as parish priest, you have a great deal of autonomy in terms of what you can do, but of course going through the correct means.
“[Parramatta] was a parish before it was the Cathedral parish, so there’s an ongoing pastoral foundation there. But when the Diocese of Parramatta was established, the parish church became the Cathedral Parish of the diocese. St Patrick’s parish has use of the Cathedral and Blessed Sacrament Chapel for its pastoral initiatives and works.
“So, even though I’m parish priest, the Cathedral and Murphy House are given to us on trust.
“Being part of the Cathedral parish is a highlight – the community is a pleasure to work with and to be with.”
Fr Bob is aided in his ministry at the Cathedral by assistant priest Fr Chris del Rosario, and deacon Willy Limjap.
“Deacon Willy works full-time with the NSW Police Force in the finance area but comes in every Tuesday for our parish team meetings. He has a fairly full workload in the parish, considering he is still full-time. He co-ordinates the RCIA process, Baptismal preparation course, preaches at the Vigil Masses every second and fourth Sundays of the month and officiates at the Sunday baptisms. He’s communicative and very easy to get along with. He is a very gifted and talented member of the parish team.
“With Fr Chris, there’s that initial joy and energy that comes with his ordination. He has his feet firmly planted in terms of faith and what priesthood is all about. He’s good to work with and a very friendly presence within the parish house.”
Fr Bob still has strong connections with the Salesians, as St Francis de Sales and St John Bosco remain inspirations to his ministry.
In a 2017 interview with Catholic Outlook, Fr Bob said that “there was a real joy in St Francis de Sales’ case of presenting the faith during a very difficult time of the Church’s story. Through faith and gentleness, he won many a soul for the Lord.”
Speaking two years later, Fr Bob again stressed the importance of prayer in the lives of people, especially priests. He says prayer needs to be adapted to each person according to their Christian vocation.
“Even though there may be times when you don’t want to pray, you still should pray. Whether that’s reciting the breviary, or just spending time in silence before the Blessed Sacrament – that regular communication with God through prayer is important.”
In the same interview, Fr Bob believed that St John Bosco was guided by the principles of “reason, religion and loving kindness.”
“The overarching theme in that is presence. Being present with people was a way of assisting them. St John’s philosophy was that the assistant – be it a priest, a religious brother or teacher – was always present with the children, which would prevent the children from being involved in activities that were detrimental to their physical and spiritual lives.
“That sense of accompaniment is something I’ve tried to adapt in my parish ministry, whether it be keeping in contact with people, ringing them up if I hear that something’s happening with them or being present for people at Sunday Mass.”
Looking back on his 31 years of priesthood, Fr Bob said that one of his biggest joys was the celebration of his silver jubilee of his ordination as a religious in 2012.
“The parish [Our Lady Queen of Peace] organised the celebration and they invited people from all aspects of my life to attend. Looking at all the people in the church was like viewing a visual display of my life. It was a joy to see where I’d come from, where I’d been, the highlights, the lowlights.
“It was good to see all the people who have been part of that journey and it made me realise that I haven’t been journeying alone.”
On the opposite scale, Fr Bob said that the biggest challenge of his priesthood has come through the revelations of the Royal Commission.
“Coming to terms with some fellow priests with whom I work and who were convicted was difficult to accept.
“Living and ministering as a priest within the shadow of all this is quite difficult, especially when people seem to judge all priests as being guilty.
“In many ways, we have become the secondary victims of this, due to the fault of some of our brothers.
“As hard as it has been to live with it, it has not deterred my commitment to the priestly vocation.”
Looking ahead to his own future, Fr Bob believes he still has a couple more appointments left in his ministry before his retirement.
“Having turned 64, I’ve started to look at the last stage of life, which is quite an eye-opening task. Thinking that there might only be one or two more appointments left in me, which is a bit daunting and the graceful handing over to others that comes with it.
“My philosophy when it comes to parish life is that the priests are here for an appointed time, but the parishioners are always here. I encourage them to be able to take hold of the parish themselves, so that it becomes their parish, rather than me doing everything and directing them – the initiative needs to come from them.
“We as priests are not caretakers of the parish, we’re here to animate the parish, and to lead it to becoming the parish of the people.
“If I had the choice again to join the priesthood, I would do it. I would make the same decisions.
“Even though the priesthood at the moment seems to be receiving some negative coverage, it hasn’t tarnished my idea of what priesthood is about.
“It’s still a beautiful and rewarding life.”