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Outback Priests

OUTBACK PRIESTS: 25 Stories from the Toowoomba Diocese by Fr Peter Murphy
Diocese of Toowoomba, PO Box 756, Toowoomba, Queensland 4350, Australia
(No price stated)

IN this day and age, when vocations to the priesthood are so rare, it’s a wonder nobody has thought about undertaking a study of priests and how they came to answer God’s call. This is just one of the thoughts that struck me on reading this book.

The author, a priest from the Diocese of Toowoomba, profiles 25 of his colleagues or, in most cases, former colleagues, and the names alone reveal that many of them are either Irish or have close Irish roots – Murphy, Hayes, McKenna, Herbert, Cahalane, Skelly, Flynn, Mahon, McCormack, McMorrow, Concannon, Cronin, Skehan, Maher, Leahy, Kelly, Bergin, Moran, King.

Australia’s outback is no picnic for its priests, with many of them working in isolation many hours’ drive from their nearest colleagues, so answering the call required courage in much the same way that it does in Ireland today when the tide has turned against the Church.

So how did these men find their vocations? Well, one of the most interesting ways was the simple friendship with the local clergy, and the latter’s prompting that the priesthood might be a suitable calling. How similar this is to the manner in which Christ approached his disciples, yet I have read and heard priests in Ireland declare that they would not ask any young man to consider the priesthood in the present climate. What has the climate got to do with it? It’s about time priests realised the true worth of their calling and spread the word to the nest generation.

There are many interesting anecdotes in this book, one of which makes the point so well. The Hall family’s home was a few minutes’ walk from St Patrick’s Cathedral in Toowoomba, and became a gathering place for priests. Fr Murphy writes: “It was (Fr) Joe Skelly who received the dad, William, into the Faith: ‘You’ve been with us so long, Bill, you might as well join us’.”

As a result of that simple invitation, William Hall became a Catholic, and in time, three of his sons, Thomas, Frank and Pat became priests, two daughters joined the Little Company of Mary, while the remaining children, Jack, Peter, Kit and Marie, contributed much to the life of both church and community.

Fr Clarrie Leahy, whose grandfather hailed from Co Tipperary, was born on a remote outback farm. “The priests from Roma visited Jackson once a month,” writes Fr Murphy. “Sunday saw the family up at 4am and, after milking 40 cows, travelling to Mass, fasting. His mother prepared Clarrie for his first Holy Communion. ‘She just read me a couple of chapters of the Catechism.’ He did not hear of the Epiphany until he went to the seminary!”

Being outback people, farming was a principal occupation and its connection to the priesthood was alluded to by Fr Justin King on his Silver Jubilee: “Farm life in those days was a very natural place for nourishing a vocation. In farm life there was family life, prayer life and togetherness. Also it equipped you pretty well for priestly life: you ploughed the ground, planted it, and then it depended on various circumstances if you would get a crop, something similar to pastoral ministry.”

Words of wisdom, which indicate that with Ireland’s transition from agricultural to industrial nation, one of the main sources of vocations has dried up. This is a very readable book, with many thought-provoking anecdotes.

© Seán Ryan, 2008

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