Whilst working as a young priest in southern India, Fr Vincent Savarimuthu was almost run out of his parish.
“I was sent to the parish of Kamuthi, where the demography was lower caste. This parish was so peculiar, as there were three divisions, even in the lower caste, and I could see all the divisions [in the parish].
“One Justice Sunday, I remember, I preached on the injustices done to those people within the parish in the sense that they were not included in the significant celebrations of the parish by the parishioners in the main centre.
“When I touched the topic, after the Mass, there was a revolt.
“They came to the sacristy when I was unveiling my vestments, and asked ‘Father, how can you preach like this?’ I said, ‘who has to ask me to preach like this? Because that’s what is happening in our parish. Those people are also made in the image and likeness of God, so you have to include those people. Being a Christian, you have to include. The problem is you are excluding the people and calling them parishioners.’
“One of the young people said ‘Father, this is not the way you should preach. You should just preach about Jesus and God, that’s all. Don’t touch our lives.’
“I said, ‘No, I will.’
“I talked to the dean, and the dean came to the parish, and we had a chat and he told me to close the church for three days and we closed it for three days because he had to talk to the people.
“So he [the dean] had a chat [with the people] and said ‘I think this parish is not good for you, perhaps you can go to another parish.’ And I said ‘no, I don’t want to go to another parish just because of this problem. I’ll just stay here, let’s see how it goes.’
“The experience was very eye-opening for me,” Fr Vincent said, explaining it further cemented his faith and ministry in the following years.
Fr Vince, as he prefers to be called, has been the parish priest of St Madeline Sophie Barat Parish, Kenthurst, since 2011.
Fr Vince was born in Puliadithammam, Tamil Nadu, India and is the fifth eldest of twelve siblings, but has unfortunately lost two brothers, a sister and his father.
“My father was a primary school teacher and my mother was a housewife. Having many children and looking after them was very difficult, but in spite of that, we had a fairly good, pleasant childhood experience.
“We belonged to the Sacred Heard Parish, Saruganei. My place was just a sub-station [a centre away from the main centre that constitute the parish], so the priest had to come from the main place to celebrate Mass.
“Not every Sunday we had Mass in our village, it was about four-and-a-half kilometres from a place to the main parish centre, so I used to walk to attend the Sunday Masses.
“It was fun, actually, and it was a good nourishment of my faith when I was a child.
“Family prayer was part of our life. Every day at around 7.30 or 8 o’clock [PM], the whole family would gather and we would say the prayer, and I was asked to lead the prayer every time.
“I used to fight ‘why me? I have elder brothers and sisters, why can’t you ask them to lead the prayer?’ But my parents were so insistent that I should be the one to lead the prayer.
“Only at a later stage, I realised, maybe my parents had an intention of dedicating me to this way of life, and they wanted to create in me a thirst or an interest for prayer,” Fr Vince said.
Fr Vince received early inspiration to join the priesthood by the missionary priests who served his parish.
“There was a missionary priest from Spain, Fr Luis Levi. He was very simple, very devout, very committed to the people.
“So when I began to serve as an altar boy, I was attracted by the life of this particular priest.
“His successors were also very inspirational. They encouraged me, they enthused me towards this priestly life,
“I would look forward to going to the church to serve the church,” Fr Vince said.
After completing Year 8, Fr Vince joined the preparatory seminary, St Pius X in Madurai until Year 12. Following a year of a pre-university course, Fr Vince completed a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Philosophy at Arul Anadar College (St John De Britto), a Jesuit-run college.
He then took a year of regency whereby he was sent into a parish to gain mission experience and with another seminarian, he was in charge of a boy’s home. In 1981, he studied theology for four years at St Paul’s Theological College, in Tiruchirappalli, southern India.
On April 21, 1985, Fr Vince was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Madurai by the late-Archbishop Justin Diraviam, in the last year of his episcopate.
His first appointment in the diocese was as assistant priest at Srivilliputhur parish, whose demography was mostly people in the lower caste.
“It didn’t take too much time for me to realise that all my studies – theology, philosophy – I found, at the beginning, so irrelevant, when I looked at the life condition of the people.
“I could not go on and talk about theology, philosophy to those people, which was quite foreign to them. So I had to come to their level to bring the Good News.
“I was able to form a group of like-minded lay people in the view of enriching the community in the value of the Gospel. We used to come together once a week to pray and to study the Sunday Gospel and outlined the key message to go out to the parishioners. It was gracious of them to accompany me to the sub-centres for the celebration of the Eucharist and catechesis.
“The highlight of that experience, I would say, is that one time, there was no chapel in the small village, so I celebrated the Mass under the street light,” he said.
In 1986, Fr Vince was appointed as the Youth Coordinator of the Archdiocese of Madurai for a year. In 1987, he was appointed as parish priest at the Kamuthi Parish.
The Diocese of Sivagangai was bifurcated from the Diocese of Madurai and made an independent diocese in July 1987. During this split, Fr Vince was appointed as the secretary to the new Bishop of Sivagangai, Bishop Edward Francis.
“I was the one to interview him before his episcopal ordination,” Fr Vince laughed.
“After a year, of being the secretary to the Bishop, I decided to go to a parish and work”
Fr Vince worked in St Theresa’s Parish, Manamadurai for five years, but was brought back to the diocesan centre to work as a vice financial administrator for the diocese for one year, and then as the Director and Coordinator of the Vianney Pastoral Centre, for five years.
As director and coordinator, he was in charge of 14 different commissions, and, in collaboration with his priest friends, he set the vision and the mission of the pastoral centre, started a local magazine and built the infrastructure of the centre.
In 1998, Fr Vince took sabbatical leave and went to the Philippines, completing a Masters in family counselling, and a PHD in anthropology, though he was unable to complete the research and dissertation.
Whilst officiating a wedding in Manila in 2004, Fr Vince met the bride’s Australian parents from Quakers Hill. Once arriving back to Australia, the couple spoke with then-Bishop of Parramatta Kevin Manning and then-Vicar General Bob McGuckin and asked if Fr Vince could be invited to serve in Australia.
Within a year of the wedding, and with the due permission of Bishop Edward Francis, Fr Vince arrived in Australia on June 1, 2005 and was appointed assistant priest at Luddenham-Warragamba parish for two years.
He then spent three years at St Matthew’s Parish, Windsor, three months at Our Lady of the Nativity Parish, Lawson, three months at Padre Pio Parish, Glenmore Park and six months at Greystanes, before his appointment at Kenthurst.
“[Kenthurst] is my first parish as a parish priest in Australia.
“[Because] I had held so many responsibilities back in India, I wanted to be an assistant priest. But I don’t regret that I became the parish priest [here].
“At the beginning, it was quite difficult for me, because this parish had been under one priest for 25 years. It was indeed a struggle to introduce changes. Slowly, I initiated various programs, small changes. I was really enthused by the people’s interests and their cooperation and their support for new initiatives.
“I’ve got a good parish team. Whenever I tap the shoulders of somebody for anything, they are always willing to lend their hand of support. St Madeleine’s is a warm, welcoming and hospitable and well-knit community.”
Over his 34 years of priesthood, Fr Vince said his biggest joy in his priesthood is being a part of the life of the people.
“At every stage of our life, from baptism to death, the priest has been a part of it.
“It is a gift that I am an instrument of God in bringing hope and peace to the people when they are weighed down by life’s difficulties. The counselling skills help me a lot to deal with the people facing issues or challenging in their lives. The simplest act of listening to them and telling them that they can weather the crises and that they are not alone and they are surrounded with God’s love and forgiveness takes them a long way in their lives with a heavy, positive outlook.
“I am just an instrument of God in what I do.
“It is a great joy to see them grow and happy.
“I often realise that it is not what I preach, it is who I am that affects the people. The way that I approach life, the way I talk, the way I relate to the people – that’s where I focus my attention. I should be a good influence and inspiration to the people,” Fr Vince said.
Reflecting on the biggest challenges of his priesthood, Fr Vince believes that “priestly life, in general, is challenging, whichever country you are in. Life in general is a struggle, so priesthood is not an exception to that fact.
“If I feel somewhat low, and my spirit is drooping, I share my concerns with my friends, besides talking in prayer. It lessens my burden and heaviness, and I am back again on track.
“Every Mass I celebrate has been a very God experience for me, because it is the source of my spiritual energy.”
Fr Vince, like anyone else, felt that “priestly life is all the more challenging in Australia, given the Royal Commission results and abuse and everything that’s been happening.
“The media was in full force saying that the church attendance will be much less after the Cardinal Pell case. But, the participation of the faithful in the Holy Week services proved that the forecast of the media was a failure.
“I was so delighted that the faith is still alive. It mitigates the struggles and challenges we are facing, because looking positively at the faith side of the people, it becomes a source of encouragement for me.”
When asked about the future of the church in Australia, Fr Vince hopes that more is done to engage young people on a local and national scale.
“Seeing young families coming in and being a part of the parish is quite encouraging, because the future of the church belongs to them.
“I hope that with the Plenary Council, there might be initiatives that will attract young people to live out their faith that would be fantastic for the Australian church.
“I hope the diocese [of Parramatta] will initiate some steps to make the young people be an active part of the church.”
Fr Vince wished to share some advice that he received from St Teresa of Calcutta – pray.
“One time, I met with St Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Her advice [to me] was pray, and that word she repeated three times. I think that’s the best advice.
“Prayer is the foundation of a priest. Without prayer, it is not going to work out. I see prayer as out connectedness to God in our context. Unless I am connected to God, I cannot sustain as a priest.
“As to the expectations of the people from a priest, I tell the people, I cannot satisfy all 200 of you that are gathered here, because it is God who speaks, it’s not me.
“Listen to what God is telling you personally through His Words and the events of your day-to-day life and take that into your life.”