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Building up God’s kingdom in Sydney

by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP
19 Aug 2015

From today, Archbishop Fisher tells new priests, ‘you will participate in Christ’s power to build up God’s Kingdom in Sydney through word and sacrament … through you, those hungry for truth will be fed, those thirsty for consolation, inspired, and those needing grace, restored’.

 The low-budget Christian horror-film Final: The Rapture was released late last year. Directed by Timothy Chey, it details the global chaos after all the best people are raptured up to heaven – as some evangelical Christians believe will happen – and follows the stories of four of those left behind.

Professional footballer Colin Nelson (played by Jah Shams) is one left stranded when his good Christian wife is assumed into heaven (she’s played, appropriately enough, by an actress named Mary Grace).


Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP prays over deacons Barakat and Stevens before last weekend’s ordinations. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP prays over deacons Barakat and Stevens before last weekend’s ordinations. Photo: Giovanni Portelli


The movie is described in the advertising bumf as “breathtaking, gripping, layered and astonishing … it will captivate you from the very first minute to the stunning, tear-jerking end.”

I’m not so sure. But the film does join a long and rich genre of end-of-the-world and post-apocalypse cinema – whether coming from the spiritual heavens (as in Legion or Noah) or the astronomical heavens (such as Deep Impact and Armageddon) or the alien heavens (as in War of the Worlds and Battle Los Angeles). Other apocalypses begin here on earth at the hands of natural phenomena (Supervolcano, Contagion) or technology (as in the Terminator and Matrix series) or zombies (28 Days, Evil Dead) or nuclear or biological weapons (Resident Evil and Mad Max). One way or another, events around the end of time are endlessly fascinating for human beings.

Our first reading today comes from a book of Scripture which has generated much of this strain of apocalypticism in Western culture: the Book of Revelation by St John the Divine (Rev 11:19, 12:1-10). It’s a mysterious work, alien to our technocratic, historicist, secular mindset that usually excludes the transcendent. It was read at my installation as archbishop and one of the politicians present asked me why on earth such a strange thing would be read!

Though alien and confronting, such Scripture may still resonate with a culture that has replaced fear of a spiritual apocalypse with fear of a nuclear one, then with fear of various pandemics, and most recently with anxiety about a climate apocalypse, a culture that still likes stories of good versus evil, speculations about the future, and the possibility that there is more to this world than the things science and history measure, report and control.

Yet unlike the dark movie apocalyptic, the Christian version is full of hope: hope for a Saviour child, for a Mother and a God who will keep Him safe, for life beyond the tomb, for a merciful judgment that will vindicate the oppressed, for salvation from the heavens. St Paul’s version in our epistle today is less florid than St John’s, but it, too, foresees a general resurrection when Christ the first-born from the dead will raise up His faithful, not for some sort of zombie apocalypse, but to a kingdom of truth, justice and peace, a new Eden in which death has been conquered forever (1 Cor 15:20-26).

For all Paul’s encouraging words, we might still wonder whether that resurrection is just sci-fi fantasy or wishful thinking. For God-made-man it was straightforward enough to live beyond the tomb: but for us mere mortals? Today’s feast is the answer to that anxiety: it is the feast of divine reassurance, reassurance of our resurrection.

As we witness the Assumption into heaven of the Woman of the Apocalypse, the pre-emptively gifted Immaculate Mother, the real Mary Grace, we witness rapture not just for a single favourite of God or for a predestined elite, but the trajectory to a heaven to which we all are called.

That same Mary Grace magnifies the merciful Lord in our Gospel today, singing of the One who casts the mighty from their thrones and raises up the lowly – raises them up all the way to heaven! (Lk 1:39-56) Mary’s version of the end of time is something to welcome: that time when our bodies will be glorified, our spirits exalted, our whole being in company with God and His saints.

Dear sons and brothers in Christ, Thomas and Lewi, it is to such a Marian future – and not the far less satisfactory futures of human fantasy, ambition or neglect – that you must lead and goad us in the years ahead. Like the Virgin in her Magnificat your souls will proclaim the marvels God has worked for us.

Like that Virgin Assumed into heaven, you will join the angels and saints serving at God’s altar, eventually we hope in heaven but first here on earth. Pope Francis, in his recent encyclical, Laudato Si’, cites our first reading in addressing Mary as “Queen of All Creation”.

As she now “grieves for the sufferings of the crucified poor and for the creatures of this world laid waste by human power”, she is a cause of hope for all material creation, for “in her glorified body, together with the Risen Christ, part of creation has reached the fullness of its beauty”.

That transfiguration, to which we all look forward, is prefigured in every Eucharist. For there, as the Pope explains, all material creation “finds its greatest exaltation” as ordinary bread and wine become the substance of God given for us. This Eucharist, he explains, “is the living centre of the universe, the overflowing core of love and of inexhaustible life. Joined to the incarnate Son, present in the Eucharist, the whole cosmos gives thanks to God”.

Earth is joined to heaven and “the world which came forth from God’s hands returns to him in blessed and undivided adoration”. Even when celebrated by the humblest priest on the humblest altar, it is “always in some way celebrated on the altar of the world”.

This is your task, my dear sons and brothers, from this day forward. From today, you will participate in Christ’s power to build up God’s Kingdom in Sydney through word and sacrament. Through you, babies will be transformed into children of God and sinners into saints. Through you, those hungry for truth will be fed, those thirsty for consolation, inspired, and those needing grace, restored. Through you, bread and wine will be transformed into Christ’s flesh for the life of the world.

Through you, couples will be united in the sacred bond of matrimony, the sick raised to healing and hope, the dead consigned to divine mercy. Through you God’s People will be sanctified and taught, led and encouraged in their turn to be the “priests, prophets and kings” Christ calls all His own to be. Only then can the Church appear like our Blessed Mother, as a shining light in the heavens, a Mother promising a bright future for hurting humanity.

Tom Stevens’ journey to seminary and priesthood is a tale of a growing certitude and repeated “putting it off”. Like his bishop, he was born in the Mater, blessed with an excellent Catholic education (though on the other side of the river) and studied law. I’ve often said we all have shameful things in our past and one of mine is that I was a lawyer.


Archbishop Fisher with Sydney's newest priests. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Archbishop Fisher with Sydney’s newest priests. Photo: Giovanni Portelli


Well, Tom took even longer to repent but finally crossed over from the courts of law to the courts of our God. His faith and vocation were nurtured by his mother Robyn and father Ron, his diocesan-priest uncle and the Marists who schooled him and with whom he worked. Like Lewi he had the advantage of seminaries both in Sydney and Rome and pastoral experiences that confirmed for him and for me his suitability for priestly service.

Lewi, a youngest child like Tom, is of Syrian background. We are especially conscious of the suffering of Syrian Christians at this time, at the hands of the evil IS organisation and others, the daily martyrdoms, exile and other torments. That a beautiful Syrian-Australian heart is being offered today for priesthood can only be a cause of hope and healing for these suffering people. Lewi studied and practised as a fitness professional rather than a legal one, and so has less to repent of. While serving the Church of Sydney and youth of the world at World Youth Day 2008 he discerned God’s will for him. There are many answers one might give those who wonder whether World Youth Day is worth all the bother: one will lie in our sanctuary today.

My dear sons, Tom and Lewi, from today God’s people invite you to share in the most crucial points of their lives: their births, marriages and deaths, their sins and aspirations, their hunger for truth and love, their moments of touching the divine but also of desolation. Subject to your bishop and united to your new brothers in the priesthood, strive to bring the faithful together into one family. May your ministry, like the rapture film, be “breathtaking, gripping, layered and astonishing, captivating you from the very first minute to the stunning, tear-jerking end”.

As we delight in these two new priests for the archdiocese of Sydney we are all too aware of our need and so pray that the Lord of the harvest will send us many more. I ask all those present to consider how they might help promote vocations by prayer, personal discernment, encouraging others to put up their hand and supporting those already in the priesthood or seminary.

This is the edited text of the homily by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP for the Solemnity of the Assumption and the ordinations to the priesthood of deacons Lewi Barakat and Thomas Stevens at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, on 15 August.

Used with permission, The Catholic Weekly – Sydney. Original article:


by Robert Hiini
8 July 2015

Two Dominican Brothers were ordained to the diaconate on Saturday morning in a marathon effort from their brother Dominican, Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP, who had only just touched down in Australia after a delayed flight from Rome.
Br Matthew Boland OP is congratulated by his niece Sofia after his ordination as a deacon by the Archbishop of Sydney, Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP, at St Benedict’s Church, Broadway, last weekend. Photo: Giovanni Portelli The two Sydney men, Br Matthew Boland, 38, and Br James Baxter, 34, were joined in the happy occasion at St Benedict’s Church, Broadway, by more than 150 family and friends as well as many Dominican confreres.Several of those confreres joined Archbishop Fisher in concelebrating the Mass, including Dominican provincial Fr Kevin Saunders OP; master of studies Fr Mark O’Brien OP; the prior of St James, Sydney, Fr Anthony Walsh OP; and vocations promoter Fr Thomas Azzi OP.The two new deacons have spent the past five years in formation, attending the Dominican Studium, or house of studies, in Melbourne.Br Matthew was a publican, working in hotels and bars, before entering the Dominican postulancy in February 2009.“It was quite a handy experience; the interaction with people on a daily basis,” he told The Catholic Weekly. “Pubs sort of have their own community, which is obviously quite different (from a parish) but, in some aspects, the same.“You get into a lot of deep conversations over the bar and that carries over a bit to religious life.” In addition to feeling God’s call to the religious life, Br Matthew said he had been attracted to the Dominicans “by more prosaic things” such as the balance the order had struck in its almost 800-year history, between study and an active life of service.“We also have monastic observances, prayer in common and meals in common; it’s a well balanced life.“And I’m very attracted to the thought of (the 13th century Dominican priest and theologian) St Thomas Aquinas, who forms a large part of our intellectual heritage.”He said he and Br James appreciated the support of Archbishop Fisher who had attended all of their professions and other milestones over the years. “I don’t think he had slept for a long time,” Br Matthew said, referring to the archbishop’s delayed flight.

“That was a great effort and show of support on his part. He’s been very supportive throughout our religious life and studies.”

The character and heritage of the order will be on display at the Dominican Spirituality Day on 1 August, Dominican Saints and Sinners, hosted by the Dominican Friars and the Sisters of St Cecilia. In November the order begins a year of celebration marking 800 years since it was approved by Pope Honorius III.

Used with permission, The Catholic Weekly – Sydney. Original article:


by Sharyn McCowen
13 July 2015

There’s a crop of fresh faces at the Seminary of the Good Shepherd in Homebush. The seminary is now home to four new students discerning their vocation to the priesthood for the Sydney archdiocese and the dioceses of Wollongong and Bathurst. All are in their 20s. All have completed higher education. All have a deep love for the Church. But they’re not your typical seminarians. As each had to realise, there’s no such thing …

Nam Le
Age: 25; Diocese of Bathurst

The friendly chaos of Hanoi, population 6.5 million, could not have been further from the country village of Dunedoo, whose population tops 850 people on just two weekends a year, where Vietnamese-born seminarian Nam Le found himself two weeks after arriving in Australia last year.

“It’s very, very different” is Nam’s almost unnecessary assessment.

But the engineering construction graduate was “very happy” in the rural village, home of the Dunedoo Show and rodeo, and annual bush poetry festival.

“The main thing was the culture, and how is the Catholic Church in the countryside,” he says.

“In my parish in Vietnam, one small parish has 1400 Catholic people. In Dunedoo they have just 200 or 300 Catholics.”

Nam had been studying construction engineering at university in Hanoi, where he led more than 300 young people in the Catholic students association on retreat, when he encountered the Bishop of Bathurst, Bishop Michael McKenna, on an annual recruitment visit.

(Asked once why, with a background in construction engineering, he wanted to become a priest, Nam replied: ‘So I can build a church.’)

Vietnamese-born seminarian Nam Le travelled to Australia to enter the seminary for the diocese of Bathurst. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

While the pair communicated through interpreters, Bishop McKenna was impressed with what he saw.

The bishop would later sponsor Nam to move to Australia and enter the seminary for the Bathurst diocese.

“When I was thinking about my vocation, the main thing is that I wanted to be like Christ, to shape my life in the life of Christ,” Nam says.

“From that I can serve the people.

“In Vietnam the people have a lot of respect for priests and nuns. The people serve the priests and nuns. But we also serve them.”

Nam recognised that seminary numbers in Vietnam are sufficient to serve the needs of the Church there.

“So I thought about serving the people outside of Vietnam. I saw there are not many people who wanted to become priests in Europe, America or Australia.

“I wanted to come here to serve the people here.”

It is a vocation encouraged by his family.

“In Vietnamese culture, if one member of a family wants to become a priest, they are very happy,” Nam says. “My family has been very supportive.”

While at university in Hanoi, he could return to his family home in the diocese of Vinh, 300km away, only once or twice a year.

Now, Nam is more than 7000km from home.

While the distance isn’t easy, he and his family honour “God’s will” in his life, he says.

And he is learning to call Australia home.

“God helps me with my vocation day by day. Accommodation, food, weather, culture, nothing is difficult for me.”

As for dating, “my vocation came early”, he says.

While there were girls he was interested in, “the love, I give to God”.

“It’s not a sacrifice”, he says of giving up marriage and children for the priesthood.

Nam settled in to first year quickly, having spent time at Good Shepherd in 2014 learning English.

“I feel very peaceful here.”

While he has been “learning Australian culture”, his priority is “to think about my vocation, to discern my vocation”.

“I was a bit nervous because my English wasn’t good enough, but now I am very peaceful, very happy, and enjoying first year.

“They call it the foundation or spiritual year. It’s different to the other years, and I’ve found it very helpful. At first when I came here I felt it was very different, but now I can see what I need to do when I become a priest, what I have been called to do.

“People don’t go to church here as much as in Vietnamese culture.”

While Sydney, with its melting pot of cultures and large Vietnamese population, was “not very different to Vietnam”, Nam says he was not prepared for the Bathurst diocese.

“I hadn’t heard of Bathurst before, and couldn’t imagine what it would be like with the Australian culture,” he says.

Dunnedoo, with its limited grocery options, was “the first challenge”.

“Even in Mudgee you can buy something similar, but in Dunnedoo you can’t, there is no Asian food there.

“When I went back to Cabramatta I bought some Vietnamese food and took it to Dunnedoo. I cooked it for everyone and after Mass I invited people to eat, and they enjoyed it.

“In the presbytery I usually cooked Vietnamese food, and the parish priest would invite someone to come and enjoy lunch or dinner with me.”

Despite the cultural differences, Nam has nothing but praise for the people of Bathurst diocese.

“People have been very kind, very friendly,” he says.

“Bathurst is where God is calling me to be, and I call the diocese my second home.”

Despite the long distances, small parishes, and shrinking congregations, the young seminarian who loves soccer, reading and writing is eager to return to this second home and get to work.

“I felt God calling me there, to serve the people,” he says.

“That is the challenge, but that is the thing God called me to be, to deal with that challenge.”

Benjamin Gandy
Age: 24; Archdiocese of Sydney

For many young people, the first stirrings of a religious vocation are inconvenient in the face of plans for university, travel, marriage.

A gifted musician, Benjamin Gandy made the decision to enter the seminary as he prepared to embark on a different path: a four-year music education degree at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

“I started my first day at the conservatorium and I remember thinking, ‘I know what I want to do after this degree’ and that was enter the seminary.”

Though thoughts of entering the seminary had “always been there”, it was only when he pursued his degree that he realised his call to the priesthood was not going to be silenced.

“Once I was there I realised: ‘This is good, but I’m not quite fulfilled’.”

But Benjamin believes in finishing what you start.

“I think you should finish something once you’re in it, especially a musically-stimulating place like the Con.”

On graduating, he turned down an opportunity to teach music in the UK in favour of entering the seminary. “I didn’t really feel comfortable going into education. I just didn’t think it was for me.”

While Benjamin’s parents and five siblings had seen in him signs of a possible priestly vocation, he was, to the outside world, consumed by his musical education.

“When I announced it at the end of my degree, people were surprised,” he says, “but I just followed where God called me.”

Though he had been in a serious relationship, “God was asking me, ‘Ben, what do you really want?’

“I feel very clear about what exactly God wants from me. I don’t really see it as a sacrifice; I see it very much as a ‘yes’ to God.”

Ben Gandy gave up a music career to 'say yes to God'. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

In addition to music, the young seminarian is a keen bushwalker and cyclist.

“Going for bushwalks, I find God,” he says. “It’s very close to me, as a hobby and as a spiritual exercise.”

Having studied in Sydney, he had settled into the archdiocesan Catholic youth scene and participated in events including 40 Days for Life and Reasons for Hope.

He “got to know Sydney people and Sydney churches and Sydney culture in the Catholic terms” and decided to enter the seminary for the archdiocese.

Benjamin named Wollongong priest Fr John Stork as a spiritual adviser he “could not have done without”.

“He was a regular confessor; I served for him once a week, so we got to know each other on very, very good terms.”

Though some may be turned off the idea of pursuing a priestly vocation while the Church in Australia is under a legal and media microscope, Benjamin disagrees.

“This is one of the best times to enter and start challenge people’s prejudices,” he says.

“This is a good chance to become very educated and very articulate about these issues.

“What happened was terribly, terribly wrong, but it’s important that when prejudice comes in, we defend where we should, where we can.”

For Benjamin, faith and music are inseparable.

“I’m currently doing an assignment in our spirituality course on the relationship between spirituality and music, how God comes to us by music and we are drawn to Him.

“In terms of my overall spiritual life, music has played a very, very big part in that.

“All of my family members play, except Dad, who I think is tone-deaf. There is always one in every family.”

He believes there is room in the priesthood for composing and playing music, and looks to “priests who have come before me in the archdiocese, like Fr John de Luca, and even composers like Vivaldi who was an ordained priest while composing and teaching”.

“One of my favourite composers, a Spanish renaissance composer, was also a priest, so he perfectly wed the two. For me, as a composer, there is definitely room to take music into my priesthood, God willing I’m there.”

Adrian Simmons
Age: 29; Archdiocese of Sydney

At 29 Adrian Simmons is the eldest of the first-year seminarians at Good Shepherd.

As such, he admits to having been set in his ways before entering the structured life of the seminary, which includes set meal times, no mobile phones, and no weekday internet access.

But “among these drastic changes, there is a deep sense of peace”, he says.

“And that’s the best way I can describe it. Because it is difficult; it is challenging. But I have a deep sense of peace.

“It’s about allowing for Jesus to ‘take the wheel’.”

Adrian’s path to this year of discernment is long and indirect, from working a single night as a bouncer to training as a cobbler.

He enjoys camping and playing music, and his own musical tastes range from Paganini to Metallica.

At 17 he was drawn to join the military but, after being turned away until he turned 18, opted to enrol in chemistry and medical science at university.

In the years that followed he explored several jobs, including working in security, loss prevention and risk management,

“It was then that I started thinking: ‘Is this what I really want to be doing’?”

While priesthood had been on his mind since 2007, he continued to date while he discerned his vocation.

It was during this time, he says, that he experienced two “amazing relationships that have allowed me to mature and understand a little bit more clearly what it means to fall in love”.

But “my heart wasn’t in it, and I think they sensed that”.

Adrian Simmons dated several girls before realising his heart 'wasn't in it', as he felt called to the priesthood. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

After “trying to find every reason not to do it”, he realised “my heart will not be settled, will not be at peace” without at least giving the seminary a try.

“This is what has been there with the Church, the intoxicating madness and persistent attraction.”

While the focus on spirituality in first year differs from his science background, “that carries over into the pastoral application of what we learn”, he says.

“It isn’t black and white, one size doesn’t fit all, the universality or the Catholicity of the Church means many different cultures, many different ethnicities.”

Despite the emotion involved, he is pragmatic about outcome.

“This may not be where I am called to be, but I have to look at it,” he says.

Adrian is attracted to hospital ministry, which he sees as a “privileged place of encounter with God, particularly God’s mercy”.

“There, people have a greater ability to be open. It’s also a place where some people can be isolated, and that is a place where the priest needs to be.”

It is for those reasons that he was drawn to diocesan priesthood.

“I particularly like the nature of the parish, hence why I have chosen diocesan priesthood, not a religious life.

“I like the parish environment, this intersection of the domestic churches, where you’ve got unique families and people from different generational and cultural backgrounds coming together to be in the presence of God.”

Adrian grew up in the cradle of a Catholic family, including his parents, grandmother and aunts.

“It was there, in that domestic church, that I saw the first seeds of priesthood.

“I saw them praying, I saw their connection with God; Mass attendance was non-negotiable.

“My grandmother is an example of this silent devotion. I remember her praying the rosary … just seeing her pious actions certainly left an impact on me.”

For the past six years his free time has been devoted to adoration nights, mission work, and Catholic youth events.

In a different life he spent five years working with trained leather workers and cobblers

“I found it very relaxing, after using your mind at uni which could be somewhat monotonous,

“With fixing shoes, making shoes, leatherwork in general, that was more creative and allowed me to relax and use other parts of me.”

Above all, Adrian feels called to serve.

“Do I think I’m going to be a great priest? No, but I’m going to do my level best because I think it’s something that people need,” he says. “We need good priests.”

Men should not be discouraged from their vocations by public perceptions of the Church, he says.

“I think young people can become disheartened because of negative (attention).

“But we’re not here to perpetuate the problem. We’re here to be the solution, and we need more people for the solution.”

James Arblaster
Age: 24; Diocese of Wollongong

James Arblaster is honest about his most distinct memory of his first day at the Seminary of the Good Shepherd in February.

“I remember standing in my room thinking: ‘What the hell am I doing’?”

Five months in, his fears have been allayed, as has the emptiness he had felt since his teen years.

James was still in high school when the idea of priesthood first came to him.

“I remember being on my knees in my bedroom, praying, out of this sense of emptiness,” he recalls.

“You know when you’re so open with yourself because you’re really vulnerable, and you open that vulnerability up to God?

“That was when I first sensed the true desire, potentially, for priesthood.

“It scared me.”

He told himself “it’s not going to happen” and “put a lid on it”, while continuing with the conventional path for his life: finish the HSC, study law degree, travel.

He graduated from Wollongong University in 2014 with a degree in law and international studies, but the emptiness remained.

“I thoroughly enjoyed law, but it just wasn’t satisfying me on the level that I deeply wanted.

“After wrestling with it and the Catholic faith, with everything you argue with, I had to be honest.

His internal monologue was as follows: It’s been five years and I’m about to finish law, I’d still be interested in going in to some government job, I lived in Spain for a year, and if all that isn’t fulfilling then maybe it’s time.

“That’s when I applied.”

James approached Wollongong priest Fr David Catterall, who had been “very supportive of me generally in the parish – I think he saw it coming.

“I can remember sitting in his office telling him, and he was just so happy.”

Fr David advised James to mention it only to those close to him while he continued to discern.

“I wasn’t in a rush to tell people anyway.”

His mum would the first family member he told.

“She was positive but cautious. This has been the common attitude of my family; ‘if this is something you want to do then we’ll support you, of course, but we have reservations’. Which I think is fair enough.”

It would be months before he told his younger brothers.

“For me, it’s been going on for forever, but for them it’s been a kind of rapid transition.

“With decisions like this, people do need their own time to process it, and I respect that.”

His last few days before the start of the seminary year were spent “rushing around, packing, saying goodbye to friends”.

Though he would be just 80km from Wollongong, there was a “dramatic sense of separation”.

On arrival at Homebush he was “so anxious”, he recalls.

“I was so scared.”

James Arblaster battled a fear 'not being Catholic enough' before entering the seminary. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

But, after settling into his new home, adapting to seminary life, and getting to know his fellow students, James says his anxiety has disappeared. “Within a week I was so much calmer. I kind of relaxed into this sense of peace.”

A key process for him has been overcoming pre-conceived ideas about seminarians – “what they did, how often they prayed, what they wore and who they talked to and what their background was”.

“There is still a stereotype that you think of when you think about seminarians or priests.

“The story for me has been the story of breaking down the prejudices that I had about the seminary – even though I was in the seminary!”

For James, those prejudices had been responsible for one nagging thought.

“You know, I can’t remember feast days. I’d never prayed the office.

“There was the fear of not being Catholic enough.”

James couches his vocation in conditional language – potentially, possibly, if – as he continues to discern.

His time in the seminary is “more in the nature of exploratory rather than because it’s the only option or because I don’t feel called to anything else”.

“I certainly haven’t come here with that [marriage and children] ruled out. I’ve come up here because this other vocation has opened up.

“For me, the experience has been if your life is supposed to be lived in your relationship to God then that will be the ultimate good that you can do for other people.

“You can serve very, very well in marriage, and it is beautiful, but this is also a beautiful calling.”

While James’ interests range from playing the piano to hiking, his “ultimate interest” is being around other people.

“Priesthood is definitely a social vocation.” And it’s not one he is swayed from because of “bad press about priesthood”.

“If you feel called to marriage, out of the experience of that love, it’s not because you’ve made a decision based on divorce statistics.

“You always have to expect that people are going to bring it up and talk about – ‘how can you possibly do this? They’re all child molesters’.

“It hasn’t affected how I feel about the priesthood; it has affected how I talk about it

“That has happened, and it’s not something you can shy away from, but at the end of the day if you feel called to it then that could be something you find your greatest joy in.

“Those other issues, as important as they are, are still peripheral to your own experience of that.”

With its focus on the catechism, the first year in the Sydney seminary is geared towards developing “an awareness of what being a Catholic is and what the Catholic Church teaches, so that we’re shaped by the actual authentic documents of the Church”.

James says he has “felt confirmed” in his ideas, but is also “happy to discern out” if he decides priesthood is not for him.

“It’s not just a place of professional training,” he says.

“Ultimately I think the seminary is, first and foremost, a place of discernment.”


Used with permission, The Catholic Weekly – Sydney. Original article:


Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,

3 Aug 2015

Deacon Lewi Barakat with Archbishop Fisher after he received the Pallium from the Holy Father

On the eve of his ordination as a priest by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP on 15 August, Deacon Lewi Barakat encourages every young Catholic to seriously pray and discern the call to consecrated life.

“Don’t be afraid to take that first step in faith and to open yourself up to God,” he says. “A vocation is a gift you receive. It is not something created or earned. It has to be offered and if it is offered, you have to be listening and open to God.”

As dioceses across Australia celebrate National Vocations Week which began yesterday, the 31-year-old admits that unlike a large number of seminarians and priests, he did not think about the possibility of a priestly vocation until he was in his 20s.

Although a great many priests begin thinking about the priesthood during their time as altar servers or while at school after being inspired by a parish priest or one or more of their teachers, for Deacon Lewi the call to the priesthood came in adulthood.

Growing up in a close-knit family in Auburn, Deacon Lewi studied Exercise Science at the Australian Catholic University (ACU) and on graduation, spent the next four and a half years as an exercise professional as well as working in corporate health industry.

“I had had an increasing passion for God since my uni days, and I had always wanted to serve Him in whatever I did, whether I was working as a personal trainer or in an office,” he says.

Although serving God was something he had pondered throughout his teenage years, it was only after attending World Youth Day in Sydney in 2008 that he made the decision to enter the Seminary of the Good Shepherd at Homebush.

“Over two or three years before World Youth Day I had become more open to God and I knew I wanted to be a Servant of Christ and the best servant to Christ I could be,” he says.

At 24, Deacon Lewi became a first year Seminarian, entering the Seminary of the Good Shepherd with Christian Stephens, a good friend from his uni days when they both studied Exercise Science.

Although Christian ultimately discovered his Vocation was not the priesthood but instead to be married and serve God in other ways, Deacon Lewi knew from the day he entered the Seminary that was the right decision and becoming a priest, was the path God had chosen for him.

Deacon Lewi Barakat with St Peter’s Dome in
the background

For his Syrian-born parents, elder brother and two sisters, Deacon Lewi’s announcement that he was entering the Seminary to train as a priest came as a shock.

“When I told them there was silence. None of them spoke. The dialogue about the priesthood had been in my heart with the Lord over a period of two or three years. For my family there was no preparation. But after their initial shock they started asking questions…didn’t I want to get married?…didn’t I want to have children?…was entering the seminary and becoming a priest what I really wanted?..would it make me happy?” he says and recalls how his parents, raised in the Syrian Catholic culture had expected their youngest son and last of their children to marry and give them grandchildren.

“Since that time, their thinking has totally changed. They have seen my own transformation and my happiness and joy. They have also now met many outstanding young seminarians and priests and know I made the right decision,” he says and describes the first year as a seminarian as a time of “growth and nourishment.”

“That growth continues with each year as your training progresses as a priest and you discover the beauty of the path God has prepared for you,” he says.

Deacon Lewi had only been at the Seminary of the Good Shepherd for two and a half years when the former Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell gave him the opportunity of completing the final years of his studies at a Pontifical University in Rome.

The Rome study initiative was developed and promoted by Cardinal Pell to enable seminarians studying at the Seminary of the Good Shepherd to study at one of Rome’s Pontifical Universities for their Licentiate degree in Sacred Theology or similar disciplines.

But when offered this unique opportunity, instead of grabbing it with both hands, Deacon Lewi worried that as all the lectures at Rome’s Pontifical Universities are delivered in Italian, and he spoke no Italian himself, that it would be too difficult, and that he would not be able to study Theology as deeply as he had hoped.

Deacon Lewi’s Diaconate Ordination at St Peter’s Basilica, Rome with Deacon Trenton Van Reesch(Canberra)

“I asked His Eminence to give me time to discern and pray before making a decision,” he says.
Deacon Lewi sought the counsel of several wise priests as well as other seminarians, but it was Cardinal Pell who finally convinced him that the chance to study in Rome and experience the universality of the Church was the right decision.

“Cardinal Pell saw things in me, I didn’t see myself. He stretched me in a way that has taught me so much more, not only about God and the Church but about myself,” he says of his time studying at the years in Rome.

As a student at Rome’s Angelicum as the Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas is popularly known, Deacon Lewi quickly became fluent in Italian as Cardinal Pell had predicted.

“I trusted in God’s providence to work through me,” Deacon Lewi says.

In addition to his studies, he also made his mark as one of the Vatican’s most outstanding soccer players. A top-flight amateur footballer in Sydney, Deacon Lewi has captained as well as coached the American Martyrs to victory in the Clericus Cup – the Vatican’s answer to the World Cup.

With 16 teams comprising more than 350 priests, deacons and seminarians studying in Rome, the Clericus Cup is hotly contested with the Deacon Lewi’s American Martyrs regarded as the ones to beat.

The American Martyrs players including Deacon Lewi are selected from the seminarians who live at the Pontifical North American College during their studies in Rome.

A frequent spectator at games is Cardinal Pell, who is now based in Rome as Prefect for the Secretariat of the Economy of the Holy See.

“The Cardinal keeps in touch all the Australian seminarians over here and watches our football matches whenever he can,” says Deacon Lewi.

In early October last year, on the Feast of the Guardian Angels, the Australian seminarian was ordained to the transitional Diaconate at St Peter’s Basilica. Attended by his proud family, he along with 43 others from the Pontifical North American College were ordained by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington DC at a ceremony that included Cardinal Pell as one of the concelebrants.

Now Deacon Lewi is preparing for his ordination as a priest.

He will spend the week prior to the ordination on 15 August in silent retreat and says he approaches this important milestone with deep humility.

Hosting childhood friends in the Eternal City

“The ordination will represent a culmination of the years of study but it is also a beginning. I am very aware that this is part of God’s plan and of God being in me and preparing me for this day,” he says as he looks ahead to serving God and people as a priest, providing pastoral care, hearing and absolving sins in Confession, ministering to the sick and bringing Christ to people in the Blessed Sacrament.

Not only will his entire family be at St Mary’s Cathedral for the Ordination in just over two weeks’ time but three great friends he has made during his time in Rome are flying out specially to be there as well. Two are newly ordained American priests and the other a seminarian from Manchester in England.

As a newly-ordained priest, Deacon Lewi will celebrate his first Holy Mass of Thanksgiving in the Syriac Catholic rite at Sydney’s at Our Lady of Mercy, Concord. Later the same day he will celebrate a second Holy Mass of Thanksgiving in the Roman Catholic rite at St John of God Catholic Church, Auburn where he grew up.

As Father Lewi Barakat, the 31-year-old will return to Rome at the end of next month to complete his final year of studies for his Licentiate in Dogmatic Theology at the Angelicum. But just before he flies out he will celebrate a wedding for close friends of his family on 19 September.

A second Sydney deacon will also be ordained  on 15 August by the Archbishop – Deacon Tom Stevens.

Used with permission, Catholic Communications Archdiocese of Sydney. Original article: