FOR THE LOVE OF GOD
By Amy Fallon
Life is, metaphorically, but simply put, a train ride. We are all passengers, on a seemingly never-ending quest for inner happiness. For some, it's a long and winding journey, full of much trial and doubt. For others, it's a shorter and lighter trip. Whatever the case may be, there's much adventure to be had along the way, in the search of the right station.
Joseph Guinea is one of these people, who like many of us, boarded the train travelling the long and winding journey, not knowing what the destination was. But last year, something happened to Joe to change his life. He got off at the right stop. With him, was his travelling companion, who had been with him on his journey all along. What happened next, led Joe to a state of "pure happiness and inner peace."
So did Joe's stop involved something related to a) sex, b) drugs, c) rock and roll or d) all of the above? And was his travelling companion either from a commune in Nimbin or working in a crystal shop in Byron Bay? No, Joe's stop didn't involve any of these things or people. Not in God's name.
Twelve months ago, Joe made the decision that hundreds of other men worldwide make every year: the decision to begin training to become a priest. It was, to say the least, an arduous and courageous decision, one which will certainly impact upon this twenty-three year old for the rest of his life. By choosing to become a seminarian (a student who studies to be a priest), Joe effectively also chose to give up many things, which in mainstream society have come to represent "ordinary life. By one single decision, the future he had once perhaps envisaged was drastically and immediately changed.
For those of us who dream of partying with friends forever, backpacking overseas after uni, fulfilling a big career ambition or marrying and having children, the idea of giving up these things for a life of religious devotion may be perhaps bewildering, even ludicrous.
Joe admits that the decision to enter the seminary was the hardest one he has ever had to make. What lay behind his choice was a calling to become a priest, which he first received when he was only four years old. This calling was not the same as a religious experience in which one imagines seeing tunnels or the Virgin Mary. Rather, it was a feeling inside him, raising the possibility of a life of religious commitment. At this time, Joe, who comes from a strong Catholic family, began to look at his uncle who was a Marist priest (now deceased), as a source of inspiration and as a role model. Being only four years old though, he was not able to fully grasp the impact of this special calling.
During his school days, he once again thought about becoming a priest. His calling came back to him, on several occasions. However, he shunned it. This was partly because he was too caught up in being a teenager. A large part of it though, he says is related to the image which often pervades through mainstream society of those who take up vocational life as freakish.
"I wanted to be a normal person", he says. "There's a tendency to view those who have made the decision [to enter the seminary] as bizarre and I think that a lot of this comes from the media.
At the beginning of last year, the twenty-three year old received his calling again. Like he had done in the past, he tried to ignore it. But this time it was different. Despite the greatest of efforts to push away this force that was putting a huge demand on him, Joe could not.
"This calling kept coming back, from inside my heart", he explains. "I felt the strongest sense that this is what I am meant to do. It was like a beautiful spring had opened inside of me …"
He was now in a situation where he had to go "one way or the other." Still struggling with his decision, he spoke to his local priest, who offered him valuable advice and encouraged him to explore the option of priesthood. Having made up his mind, he began a gruelling selection process, which involved Joe needing references from many various people in his community, commenting on his suitability to seminary life.
Once he had decided to take the plunge and hear God's call, he commenced his training at the Good Shepherd Seminary. His choice, he says was definitely "the right one which fills him with such inner peace."
"The decision to study for the priesthood has brought meaning - real meaning, into my life."
What Joe began was a six-year period of heavy study. It's no colouring in course. In order to become a priest, one must complete a Bachelor of theology and a Diploma in Philosophy. The workload is rigorous and Joe must take subjects such as Latin, scripture and theology. On top of this, he has practical work, which seminarians must undertake within the community, such as assisting disabled people in outreach centres.
Following the six-year period, Joe will commence a one-year practical pastoral placement. Upon his ordination, he will practice in his own diocese, the Lismore Diocese which runs from Laurenton to Tweed Heads.
So is the life of a seminarian one of solitary confinement? The dominant image of religious life which flourishes through society tends to be one of strict, draconian rules and regulations. This seminarian, however, strongly stresses that this is not the case. He is aware of the perceptions most people have of priestly training. In fact, until he went to live at Homebush last year, Joe says he had an image of drudgery and "old men enforcing hardline rules" in his head.
"Most people perceive that studying to be a priest is like being locked up. They equate it to being put in jail. And it really isn't at all. It is quite the opposite, so much that I often invite people to come to the seminary."
By observing the grounds of the Good Shepherd and the men who have chosen to become priests, one can see that the seminarians are just like anyone else and live like anyone else. It is possible that one who visits the seminary for the first time will be surprised, if not taken back when they realise the huge gap between what they expect and what they actually find.
The life is amazingly, a lot like campus life. The men live in blocks with a common room downstairs and a dining hall where they go for their regular meals. Their room includes an en-suite and Internet access. Listening to music, surfing the net, going to the movies and going out are all a large part of life along with study.
The daily timetable which although must be taken seriously, allows for flexibility. Mornings begin with prayers and mass, then breakfast, followed by lectures. After lunch, the men either participate in pastoral care or study. The evening consists of more prayers, a night lecture and a night prayer. Dinner can be had at any time. This timetable is followed from Monday until Friday evening. From Friday evening until Sunday morning, the seminarians have free time, when many of them catch up with mates over a coffee or hang out watching videos.
It is a life, in which, Joe says, "you are only limited as much as you limit yourself, except for the obvious things. No one puts barriers on you. We are living a relatively normal life, but we're also studying to become priests."
Life as a seminarian though is constant and never-ending, something which he greatly emphasises. Unlike any other jobs where, for instance one begins work at nine and ends at five, there is no escaping it. It is not a career, but a life, a very "rewarding" life, which is constantly demanding.
The seminary lifestyle, which is designed to mirror priesthood, must be learned. It is structured as carefully as possible so as to enable seminarians and priests to minister successfully. Accommodation is paid for and the diocese covers almost all expenses, apart from personal things. University fees are paid for by the church
It is also a lifestyle which is structured to cater for changes within society. The Good Shepherd not only reflects a society which is dynamic, but one which has a rich and diverse cultural pattern. This becomes evident upon walking around the grounds of the seminary. There is a wide range of cultures, including Sri Lankan, Irish, Vietnamese and Indian, to mention a few.
Again, the wide dichotomy between image and reality becomes present. Instead of this picture of "old, boring and perhaps out of the ordinary men", one discovers that these future priests are just average people. At the beginning of lunch they file casually into the dining room, most laughing and talking. Most are dressed casually, some wearing jeans, others baseball caps and football jerseys. After the lunch prayer is said, many begin talking about a broad range of topics from where the best place to have coffee is, to politics and what movie they have seen lately.
All have different, unique pasts. Many have come to the seminary as a result of a life-changing experience. Telesphor Zenda, in his mid-twenties, is a Tanzanian student who is in Sydney only for continued formation and study, which he started thirteen years ago, back in his home country. He is completing his final year and will be returning to Tanzania as a deacon.
Telesphor has decided to become a priest, because, as he explains "I believe that I am specifically and uniquely called by God, without having any powerful or mythical experiences. I feel that priesthood is the only life there is for me. Having been honest and faithful to myself in response to this call, I have been drawn to realise that I not only have a choice of a more fulfilling and giving lifestyle, but also that I do not need any other choice. What I have chosen is not only the best choice for me, but most specifically, it is the real thing for me."
Whatever the background or their reason for being here, these men have all been united by a common factor, their search for inner peace and happiness, and their devotion to God. Or, as Joe says, using the train ride metaphor "we all got off at the same stop, which was fortunately, what we see as the right stop for us."
Despite witnessing all of this "normality" within the priesthood, it is still inevitable that one must ask Joe if he has any regrets about his decision. The question must be put to him: does he see himself in ten years time looking back and wishing that he could have had the opportunity to get married and have children? Surely the answer will involve a slight twitch or extra time for thinking. But it is greeted with an adamant and blunt "no."
"No, I don't have any regrets. By making this decision I am filled with inner peace and happiness. The tranquillity I have found and the beautiful, fulfilling life which I now live and will continue to live in the future, means that there is no room for regret. I've found inner peace and what can be better in life than inner peace?"
Okay, but does he wish he could ever be out with his mates in the pub meeting girls? Was this a main factor in his decision? And does he think that the exclusion of this puts men off becoming priests?
Again, a resolute and definite "no."
"No, I don't think this is a strong factor in anyone's decision to be a priest. I believe strongly in the phrase 'thy will be done.' The sacrifices are worth it because of what you gain and that is, a fulfilling and peaceful life. In the end, people who want to be a priest will become a priest. People who get the call will become a priest … the lords, will be done."
Despite the promise of this fulfilling and peaceful life, approximately one third of seminarians leave before they are ordained. This may be because they find that life as a priest is not for them or it may be because of the need to seek other ambitions. Whatever the reason, the decision for a seminarian to leave the seminary is a traumatic time for the whole seminary, which functions like a large, extended family
"It is accordingly one of the most upsetting times for those in the entire place. If you feel that the life is not for you however, you are free to leave. No one forces you to stay."
If numbers are anything to go by though, it may be that more and more people are answering the call. Last year's intake at the Good Shepherd seminary was the highest intake since the early eighties. There are now twenty-eight seminarians studying to be priests at Homebush. Fifteen entered last year.
As the interview winds up, it becomes impossible for me not to ask about the role of the Catholic Church in politics and in what direction this seminarian sees the church heading in. Although unwilling to comment on the recent and controversial appointment of Archbishop George Pell as Sydney's new Catholic Archbishop or any other matters relating to politics, you can imagine the look on his face when I show him a certain article labelling Pell as a "homophobic."
His response is, "It's unbelievable. People should listen to what he says before making ridiculous claims."
Joe emphasises that he feels large parts of society have already lost and are continuing to lose their morality.
"Not only their sense of morality, but their sense of responsibility too. More and more people go to the Mardi gras and less to church on religious occasions, such as Easter and Christmas. People are keen to experience new alternative and informal religions in their search for inner meaning and peace, but this inner meaning and peace can be found within the Catholic Church."
What then about religion in other parts of the world?
"I do not believe that religion is the problem in trouble spots. It is the misuse of religion. We should aim to stick to the primary message of Christianity, which is 'love the lord your God and love one another as I have loved you.' Jesus loved us til death, he loved us so much that he died for us, what love could be more perfect than that."
The apparent blurring of religion and that state, although arousing passion within him, seems to bear no impact on his decision to carry out the work of God. Whatever may happen in politics and religion within society, Joseph Guinea and twenty-eight other men will continue to study for the priesthood of the Catholic church in the future.