Just short of the 50th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood, Reverend Monsignor Ron McFarlane says he initially wasn’t sure about his call to the vocation.
“I didn’t think I particularly wanted to become a priest. I felt, I’ve got to give it a go on the possibility that there is a vocation there.
“If I didn’t do what God called me to do, I wouldn’t be happy in life.”
Monsignor Ron has been parish priest of St Andrew the Apostle Parish, Marayong for 30 years, being only the second parish priest since the parish was founded in 1961. Fr Kenneth Byrne was the founding parish priest.
“The intention was not to stay here this long. I was appointed permanently to the parish, even though permanent placements weren’t a thing. I didn’t even realise that until years later when I looked back at the letter of appointment and it was without limits.”
Monsignor Ron grew up in Geelong, Victoria, and is the eldest of three brothers. “My family were all very Catholic,” he said. “We lived about 400 metres from the church [St Peter and St Paul, Geelong West], which used to seem very big when I was growing up. We went to Mass each Sunday and as I got older, I went a couple of times a week because my brothers and I were altar servers.
“We were connected to the local community through our schooling and our parish. We started playing in various sporting teams for the parish and then played for the college teams after that. When television started in Australia in 1956, the local priests used to drop in to watch the football [AFL] on a Saturday afternoon.”
After finishing secondary school, Monsignor Ron joined St Columbans Mission Society, as he didn’t feel called to religious orders or to a diocesan priesthood. The Columbans are a missionary society of priests who work in 16 countries in co-operation with lay people from a standpoint of solidarity with the poor and integrity of creation. The Columbans help local Churches grow into evangelising communities open to all peoples and help grow a culture of peace.
“I can’t say enough about the training and the formation that the Columbans offered to me. The Columban focus on the empowering of the people had a tremendous impact on my approach to priesthood and to parish life.”
He began his seminary journey in 1964 in the Victorian Dandenongs and completed his studies at the Columban Seminary in North Turramurra, Sydney. “The whole seminary was like a family and that family atmosphere was emphasised all the time,” Monsignor Ron said.
He was ordained as a priest by Cardinal James Knox, Archbishop of Melbourne, at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne on 4 July 1970.
His hopes of missionary ministry were cut short. “Following my ordination, I was in two car accidents in two months, so that’s when the Columbans decided I wasn’t going overseas at that stage.
“It became a matter of what to do with me. The rector of the seminary said if I went home to Victoria, I would be working at the Far East Magazine office in Melbourne, or if I stayed in Sydney, I’d end up at a parish.
“So I stayed in Sydney.”
His first posting was at St Charles Borromeo in Ryde for two years, where he met an “incredible” and inspirational figure to him, parish priest Monsignor Frank McCosker.
“He would sit you down for a review about two or three times a week and ask ‘what have you been doing? What did you come up with for those people? Did you think about this and this?’
“It wasn’t as though you were wrong, but he was showing that you need to look for different options and different ways of handling situations.
“Doing that review was helpful because he was stressing the importance of each individual person, but also to think things through and not to jump to the immediate result.”
In 1974, Monsignor Ron was incardinated to the Archdiocese of Sydney at the request of then-Archbishop of Sydney Cardinal James Freeman.
For the next decade, Monsignor Ron would serve in various parishes in the Archdiocese, including at Concord, Berala and Belmore. During this time, he was Chaplain for the Young Christian Students movement (YCS) for the whole Archdiocese, which lasted for six years.
His time at Belmore came to an abrupt ending when a replacement priest was urgently needed at St Anthony of Padua Parish, Toongabbie, where he stayed for 18 months.
“I always remember my first morning in Toongabbie, waking up and finding that the water pipes were broken, having no idea where anything is, not knowing anybody in the parish either.”
In 1981, while at Toongabbie, Bishop Bede Heather approached Monsignor Ron to start the ministry for Solo Parents and their families for the western region of Sydney. With help from Sister Roseanne Smith and a core team of nine lay people, including Phyl Sadler, this ministry commenced and developed. After Sister Roseanne Smith left the ministry, she was replaced by Sister Roseanne Sinclair. Monsignor Ron would stay with the ministry until 1994, after which Phyl Sadler took over.
Monsignor Ron and Sister Roseanne Smith, with the total support of Bishop Bede Heather, as well as government funding, established Catherine Villa, which would eventually become the CatholicCare Houses to Homes program. Catherine Villa was opened by Bishop Bede in January 1991.
“After a few years of the solo-parent ministry, one day, Sister Roseanne was coming home from the train station and she found these pregnant girls living at the station. She got talking to them and she took them home.
“Sister Roseanne and I had a talk about it and decided to ask Bishop Bede to build a house initially for homeless teenagers, but then expanded to pregnant teenagers. Bishop Bede got us the land and Sister Roseanne got us the funding from the government.
“At Deacon James Phelan’s funeral on January 4 2019, Bishop Bede said one of the things he was really happy with as bishop was the setting up of Catherine Villa.”
Monsignor Ron says one of the biggest challenges during his solo parent chaplaincy was to “get people to see that because you are separated or divorced doesn’t make you a second-class Catholic. It was important to educate the solo parents and the broader community that they are still fully-fledged members of the Catholic Church.
“The Solo Parent Ministry was a great learning curve. People were going through life crises and it is a great blessing how well many of them came out through it at the end. All we had to do was be there to support them and encourage them to keep searching for options, taking it one day at a time. There were regional meetings and a regular newsletter for support.”
After five years at North Rocks, and just over 12 months at Katoomba, Monsignor Ron reached Marayong on October 19, 1988.
“When I first came to Marayong, we had a whole series of meetings so that I could learn about the parish and about the people. It was their parish, I was the visitor, I was the new person. It wasn’t my job to dictate what we were to do. We needed to function as a community.
“I wanted to get everybody on the same playing field. Yes, I have the final say, but I wanted us to work out together concerning what direction to take the parish.
“I see my job as facilitating and empowering people to take responsibility for the life of the parish.”
Monsignor Ron says that one of his joys in his ministry is the people that he has come to know at Marayong and in all the parishes he has been appointed to.
“The priests I have worked with have been fantastic, and that doesn’t just mean in Marayong. I’ve had over 20 assistant priests since I’ve been here, some staying for six months, some for a couple of years, some coming back from leave. We’ve had priests from all around the world, all of whom have added to my understanding of priesthood and also have added to the culture of the parish. Each of them has brought their own gifts and talents.
“I see myself as a member of the parish family. My greatest support structure are the people in the parish because they’re there all the time. I’m working with them, walking with them, supporting them, being supported by them.
“The parish is a wonderful cultural mix of people from everywhere who get along together and who love their faith. It’s a wonderful community where people get up and do things. Being able to be a part of this developing journey has been fabulous.”
Monsignor Ron has been involved in many different ministries and held several different titles including Dean of Blacktown and Episcopal Vicar for Clergy. Currently, as well as being parish priest of Marayong, he is one of the two Chancellors for the Diocese.
He was sworn in as Chancellor five years ago during the height of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. “At the time, I just wanted to be a parish priest, but I was asked to be Chancellor, I guess, because of my knowledge and experience. As well, the former Chancellor, Father Louis Breslan, had retired. The role of Chancellor changed dramatically with the Royal Commission and continues to evolve.”
He was made Monsignor at Archbishop Anthony Fisher’s last Mass as Bishop for the Diocese of Parramatta on September 18, 2014. “The title Monsignor is given for service to the church. I knew that something was happening at that Mass because everyone was being secretive about it. I have the biretta and the soutan, but I rarely wear them.”
When asked about the future of the church, Monsignor Ron remained optimistic despite the dark times faced during the child abuse scandal.
“The numbers going to Mass and sacraments may initially drop off, but I’m very confident about the future of the church and the formation we are offering to our young priests. In the near future, it’s going to rely more on the laity to take more responsibility. There’s a lot of positive signs in our young people. I believe the acceptance by the laity that they are the Church is growing and this is vital for future development and evangelisation.
“One of the blessings of the Diocese of Parramatta is its multiculturalism. We have received so much from people coming from overseas. They’ve given us a gift that people have grabbed onto in their journey of faith. They have added broader forms of spirituality.
“I think Pope Francis has opened up the doors in many ways. I think Pope Francis is more in the spirit of what Vatican II was on about. I’m tremendously impressed by Bishop Vincent Long, and that he’s prepared to get out there amongst the people and the reaction of people to him is wonderful too.
“I believe that more people have a calling to be priests, but don’t accept it because they’re not prepared to take the risk and it is a risk, but it’s an enjoyable and fulfilling life. We need to remember that whatever path we choose in life is a risk. I hope that the example of our four new priests will encourage other young people.”
Having clocked up his 30 years at Marayong, Monsignor Ron shows no signs of slowing down in 2019.
“This year is going to be an interesting challenge. I have two new assistant priests, I’ve got two new principals for the primary and secondary schools and I will work with them so that we are on the same page, because the parish has always had a good relationship with the schools and this is so important. We are fortunate with the physical closeness of the school and parish complexes.
“I may be here one year, two years, five years, six years. There’s nothing locked in at all. In some ways, I will have a say in this, but in the final analysis, it is up to the Bishop as to what my future path will be. Whatever happens, it is important that it is what is best for the Parish of Marayong and the Diocese, rather than for Ron McFarlane.”
Over the years, Monsignor Ron has given and received advice that he wished to share with readers. “Recognise the individuality of each person and the value of each person. This means that there’s no set answer that fits everybody.
“Always think before you speak.
“Always, if possible, prepare material.
“Always look for options, rather than jumping in, as every person and situation is different.
“Jesus comes to me in every single person I meet, every encounter I have and in everything I do, Jesus is present there. I’m living and acting my life in the presence of Jesus.
“We need to see the individuality of each person, but also to see them as bringing Jesus to you.”
“I’m still coming to understand the priesthood and I’m still growing as a priest. Some days I’m a good priest, other days I’m a lousy priest. The main thing is that you do your best all the time, taking one day at a time,” he says with a smile.