News

The Good Priest

Tuesday 18 June 2019

Jane Cowan, ABC News

Father Justel Callos is creating a stir in the playground.

‘Hey God, hey God!’ yell some boys as they dash past, shoes rasping on the gravel.

‘I’m not God!’ protests the priest, rolling his eyes.

A knot of girls trails after him. He shoots a hoop. He crouches down. He ruffles the odd head.

At 29 — and a first-generation migrant from the Philippines — he busts just about every stereotype associated with the priesthood.

He’s not old. He’s not white. He’s not even remotely stuffy.

He is disarmingly open. Open about his own struggles. Open about the church’s struggles.

‘I’m just me. But maybe people will think, ‘You know what? Maybe there are other types of priests’.’

In one classroom he leads a group of five and six-year-olds in a religion lesson.

The kids sit cross-legged on the carpet in various states of wriggle and fidget. They have an endless list of metaphysical questions. Why is God invisible? Are the moon and stars out in the daytime? How do plants grow? Everything is fair game when you have God’s offsider in the room.

‘You know why God is invisible? It’s because he’s in heaven, isn’t he? Which is why you can’t see people you love who’ve died, either, isn’t it? Because they’re in heaven with God.

‘But you know how you can see God? You can see God in your friends. In your teacher. In your mum and dad. He’s in other people, isn’t he?’

It’s heartening — even for the lapsed Catholic with the camera.

‘It’s sort of moralising,’ he tells me.

‘But we’ve got this great message of love and understanding.

‘I think that’s why a lot of the parents send their children to Catholic or Christian schools. Not necessarily that they go to church on Sunday but because that’s the ethos we have, the Christian principles. And sometimes that can be a little bit forgotten when we have those hot-button issues and debates.’

From sushi train to seminary

Justel Callos was 17 when he migrated to Australia.

Fresh out of high school, vows of celibacy and obedience were the last thing on his mind. He was thinking about university, relationships, maybe making lots of money one day. All the trappings of living in a wealthy country. Nothing like the $20,000 salary and simple life of a priest.

But across the road from the sushi train where he worked in the Melbourne CBD was St Francis’ Church. It was in the pews on his lunch breaks that he felt the stirrings of a calling.

By the time he was 18 he had entered the Corpus Christi seminary in Carlton.

Looking back, it makes more sense.

‘I’ve got an uncle who’s a priest and an aunt who’s a nun. It’s sort of in my DNA.

‘I have always had a sense of God in me, even as a boy.’

His mother remembers him dressing up as a priest and pretending to say mass.

At the time of his ordination in 2015, Father Justel was the youngest priest in Australia.

House calls

‘How are you, Margaret?’

‘Terrible!’

When you’re 84, you don’t bother sugar-coating things.

‘I’m dying to go to heaven. Can’t wait.’

One ankle is swollen out of a maroon moccasin. Walking is difficult. She forgets to eat, she says.

But for the 20 minutes of Father Justel’s visit, she is laughing and smiling. In conversation with her priest, she seems two decades younger. Almost girlish. The talk is of illness. But also of the church, of family. The neighbourhood.

A figurine of the pope waves serenely from the window sill.

PASTORAL CARE OF THE SICK says the little green book in the priest’s hands.

Sometimes he brings communion as he does the rounds of his Mordialloc parish, south-east of Melbourne. Today he has oils, scented with balsam, and asks if Margaret would like to be anointed.

‘Oh, yes!’

He dons his purple stole, cups his palms above her head as he bestows a blessing. ‘Look kindly on your servant, Margaret, who has grown weak under the burden of years...’

He makes the sign of the cross on her forehead.

It unfolds like this at the next house.

And at the next. Each the same beige weatherboard or pale brick. The same filmy curtains in the windows. Husbands passed recently, or long ago, look down from the walls. Proliferating grandchildren smile out of frames. The priest sits at kitchen tables, drinking tea out of floral cups and declining profiteroles. He perches on the edges of sofas. Each parishioner is older than the last. Cancer spread to the brain here, legal blindness there. But always the clasped hands, the delight in the faces.

‘Oh, Father, you don’t know what this means to me today to have you come, to be anointed.’

It’s a role Father Justel takes to heart.

‘I don’t know whether it’s surprising for people but many priests are still trusted.

‘When it comes to their problems or issues in their life, they come to us. I’m no psychologist, I don’t have formal qualifications in those areas. I may not necessarily say brilliant advice or words to them but just the fact that I’m a priest, my presence there already gives them comfort and that, to me, is incredible.’

‘Into the deep’
 
There have been hiccups.

Twice Father Justel packed his bags to leave the priesthood.

The transition from seminary to real world was a shock.

‘I was having these crazy ideas about how I was going to be a priest and how I was going to journey with people, the parishioners. But when I got to the parish, the reality was different. All of a sudden I was confronted with things I’d never had to deal with.’

From blessing the dead —

‘The nurse just called me up and said, ‘Can you bless?’ and she shut the door. It’s just me and the dead person and it’s like, what do I do? So I freaked out a little bit. The first time I’ve seen a dead body. You’re thrown into the deep.’

— to funerals —

‘How do you deal with the grieving family? How do you minister to them?’

— and the ricocheting effects of constant exposure to the suffering of others.

Jarring, too, was the contrast between the place religion held in his birth country and the role of the church in secular Australia.

‘I’m not used to a smaller congregation, because I came from the Philippines. It’s a pretty Catholic country, masses were packed. Whereas here it was very different.

‘I just felt, ‘Where is the love of the people?’

‘And when it got overwhelming, I started to think about what I had given up: having my own family, the potential jobs or whatever.

‘But thankfully the priest I was with, he really convinced me, talked to me and he managed to get me to go back and I started to see a clinical psychologist. I started to get to know a lot about mental health and about myself.’

‘Priestly things’
I’ve been following Father Justel for a week before I see him in a church.

‘I’m finally doing priestly things,’ he quips as he shuffles up the steps under an overcast sky.

The Pell effect

The day the George Pell sexual abuse scandal became public, Father Justel didn’t leave his room.

‘It’s incredibly difficult for us — especially as new priests, and especially those in training right now — to think that our chosen vocation has been severely tarnished by some, I suppose, crazy or evil people who use the priesthood to advance their gains, their addictions or whatever.

‘We’ve lost our credibility as the church, in general. I don’t know whether we will ever recover from it.

‘The church leaders. Bishops. Priests, especially. And just the church. Our brand has been tarnished, like, severely. But obviously we’re people of hope, we’re Easter people. That’s the message of the resurrection.’

Surrounded by stained glass and stations of the cross, he tells me that quite a few older priests no longer wear the collar in their everyday lives, don’t want to be identifiable in the current climate.

Not him. He wears it daily. As do many of his young brother priests, he says.

God in unexpected places
In a CrossFit gym in the back blocks of Mordialloc, roller door open on a deserted industrial estate, Father Justel squats, barbell across his shoulders.

Sweat fogs his glasses. Eighties rock drifts from the radio.

No religious iconography here. Instead an athlete bulges from a poster. Beasts of men heave weights around on a TV screen.

Gone, too, are the honorifics. Here the young priest is ‘Tel’. Just another guy in a muscle shirt.

‘I used to be nervous because, you know, when you get to know each other you chat and obviously people ask you, ‘So what do you do?’ Sometimes the conversation just dies.

‘I think, Oh my god, they might think I’m a homophobe.

Mostly, though, people are intrigued.

‘It’s not every day that you get to exercise with a priest.’

The power of these moments is not lost on Father Justel.

He quotes Saint Francis of Assisi, who said, ‘Use words only when necessary’.

‘I’ll let them get to know me first. We’ll become friends, and then they will start to ask questions and then we can have a conversation naturally. I think that’s actually a very effective way of evangelising, rather than bible bashing.

‘Unfortunately a lot of people think that all we care about is morality. Or we’re obsessed with sex or something. Or abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage.

‘You’ve got the traditional teachings and then you’ve got real life.

‘The world we live in today is very different. It’s modern.

‘We can’t keep going back over the past.’

A new breed

As I get to know Father Justel he’s about to switch parishes, reassigned to the other side of the city.

It’ll be closer to his parents’ place, where he spends his only day off each Monday.

‘When I was told I was moving I was obviously very sad. I love this place, I love the people here. But that’s part of the vow of obedience, part of the vocation I chose. So when I was meditating about that in my prayer time, I was thinking, Oh wow, how many times will I have to do this?’

He answers his own question.

‘Probably a lot, because the retirement age for a priest is 75.’

Time enough for a whole new generation to follow in his footsteps.
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