by Gordon Nary
Gordon: When you received your vocation, with whom did you first discuss it with, and what was their response?
Father Steve: I was about thirteen or fourteen years old when I first became aware of a calling to priesthood and I discussed it with my parish priest and a couple of the brothers at my Christian Brothers high school, who were all very supportive and encouraged me to pursue my vocation.
Gordon: Where did you attend seminary and what was the most challenging course that you took, and why was it so challenging?
Father Steve: I attended seminary at St Francis Xavier Seminary in Adelaide, South Australia. I was taught by Vincentian priests and very much enjoyed my seven years in the seminary. In those years, although it may have changed since, we only studied one unit each of Latin and Greek, and I failed both, but I did well (or well enough) in my other subjects. Latin and Greek were challenging because I just don’t have a head for languages, simple as that.
Gordon: What is your current parish and approximately how many parishioners do you have?
Father Steve: I am a priest of the Diocese of Geraldton, Western Australia, and I have two parishes to care for - Carnarvon and Exmouth. These two towns are 360 kilometers apart and it takes me about four hours to drive from one town to the other. I go to Exmouth every second Sunday, and two of the lay people take it in turn to lead the parishioners in Liturgies of the Word with Holy Communion on the Sundays in between.
Carnarvon has a population of about 5000 people and Exmouth has about 3000 people (but over 10,000 during tourist season). Carnarvon is a fishing and agricultural town, where fruits and vegetables are grown, and Exmouth is mainly a tourist town, as it is close to beautiful beaches and the spectacular Ningaloo coral reef.
In these towns about a quarter of the population are Catholics, and only about ten percent of our Catholic people would regularly come to Mass. It is very hard work on the plantations and after a week of exhausting labour the pickers and packers are extremely tired – so I understand if they sometimes miss Mass. It is not always easy to come to Mass as the farms are at some distance from the town, and many of the migrant workers do not have their own vehicles.
Gordon: To what parishes were you previously assigned as Pastor?
Father Steve: My assignments as a pastor have been to four parishes, all in rural or remote areas. My first two parishes were farming communities, and my next two parishes were mining towns.
Gordon: To what parishes were you previously assigned as Assistant Pastor?
Father Steve: Following ordination in 1994 my first appointment as an assistant priest was to a big city parish. After a short time I was then sent to a parish in a mining town. This, too, was a brief stay, after which I had my longest assignment in another city parish.
Gordon: Please share with our readers the story of Cleo Smith.
Father Steve: Actually, I wasn’t much involved in this. With the assistance of the parish school, which Cleo attended, our parish had two prayer services - the first, during the time she was missing, was to pray for Cleo’s safe return, and the second was a Mass of thanksgiving after she was found. Apart from leading these services, I wasn’t really involved, and certainly not on the frontline – but I was available to chat with people who were feeling anxious or worried during these difficult days. The pastor and people at the Church of Christ also hosted prayer vigils and a thanksgiving service. The whole town of Carnarvon was praying for Cleo, as well as people all over Australia and around the world.
The police and the many volunteers who searched for Cleo, and found her after almost three weeks, did a wonderful job. Thanks be to God for the efforts of these many good people. They are heroes.
Gordon: Please share with our readers how some of the people with disabilities have been treated in Australia.
Father Steve: The Church in Australia has made much progress in the past twenty years or so to better include the disabled in the life of the Church, such as welcoming them into our Catholic schools, and creating opportunities for them to participate in the various spiritual and social activities of our parishes. We have tried to make our sacred liturgies more accessible to the disabled, particularly the Mass, and parishes are strongly encouraged by the bishops to provide appropriate programmes to assist disabled Catholics to better prepare for the reception and celebration of the sacraments. Parish groups are actively reaching out to disabled Catholics to provide appropriate pastoral care, be it at home or in residential care facilities.
I don’t think this was always the case and I think that our disabled brothers and sisters, prior to the Second Vatican Council, were often forgotten by the Church. Perhaps, though, it’s wrong of me to make such a broad statement. There has been many wonderful organizations and people in the Church – like the Daughters of Charity, parish St Vincent de Paul groups, Personal Advocacy, the Sant’Egidio, L’Arche and Emmanuel communities, and many saints and saintly Catholics – who have held the disabled close to their hearts.
Gordon: What are our moral responsibilities to help the disabled?
Fr Steve: Our moral responsibilities to the disabled are to allow them to have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate fully in all dimensions of Church life. We must love all our brothers and sisters, and especially the vulnerable, as we are all loved by God and made in his image.
Gordon: What are some of the societal issues currently facing the Australians government and what are your suggestions on how they should be addressed?
Fr Steve: Although Australia is a rich country there is a growing gap between those who are well off and those who are not. Some people are paid excessively high wages or salaries, particularly in the mining industry, whereas workers in poorly paid sectors - such as aged care, child care, retail and hospitality - are paid very little in comparison, and will never be able to save enough to buy their own homes because of inflated prices in the housing market. The rising cost of food, and electricity and gas, is also a huge worry for the poor.
Gordon: Thank you for an insightful interview.