“I HOPE I’m not called to be a priest.”
Brisbane seminarian Josh Whitehead, 32, thought this twice in his twenties as a young man growing up in New Zealand.
No doubt he was not the first young man with a priestly vocation to think this way.
Good-looking and physically fit, he was enjoying life to the full.
Why complicate things with the discipline and life of prayer that a vocation to the priesthood would require?
It would take him two careers – as a boilermaker in the New Zealand Army eventually serving in Afghanistan and a physical fitness trainer on the Gold Coast – before he would come to answer the challenging call.
“Deep down in the depths of my heart, eventually I had to accept that God was calling me to the priesthood,” Josh, now in his first year at Banyo’s Holy Spirit Provincial Seminary, said.
So when did he finally act on the call?
“It was on the Gold Coast in 2011 at St Vincent’s parish in Surfers Paradise,” he said.
“One Sunday in particular stands out.
“Father Peter (Gablonski) had been speaking during the homily at Mass, and asked the congregation, ‘Have you ever asked anyone if they wanted to be a priest?
“It was as if Father Peter was speaking directly to me.
“The following weekend, I saw an advertisement for Quo Vadis, a discernment weekend retreat.
“The ad asked, ‘Where are you going?’”
This too appealed and he set off, excited at the prospect of exploring his blossoming faith.
However, in many ways the launching pad for Josh’s final leap of faith was already prepared.
“There were three key things I’d started doing on the Gold Coast,” he said.
“I’d attend weekday as well as Sunday Masses.
”I was also attending Adoration on Friday nights in the Sacred Heart Church and regular Reconciliation before the Vigil Mass on Saturday nights.”
His family’s example had been fundamental to his faith formation.
Josh was born in New Zealand in 1981, to a large family where he enjoyed the company of four sisters and two brothers.
As a student, he attended public school at Otamatea High School on New Zealand’s north island.
Sadly, Josh at 14 lost his mother Prudence to breast cancer in 1995, following a six-year battle.
“Dad remarried a year later and I gained a new mother, two sisters and a brother,” he said.
“My parents maintained my Catholic upbringing and we continued to attend Mass every Sunday at St Mary’s parish in Wellford New Zealand.
“I eventually served as an altar boy for five years there.”
Upon graduating high school in 1998, Josh joined the New Zealand Army, finding his niche as a boilermaker.
He was living in Christchurch where in his mid twenties he made “an adult decision” to practise his faith.
Josh also got involved in an Easter choir and youth group leadership activities.
Then came his tour of Afghanistan in 2005 when the opportunities to attend Mass were few.
Were there any experiences in the war-torn country which had a profound impact on his spiritual journey?
“Nothing specific … which probably doesn’t make for a good story,” he said.
“Though in a way that’s not totally true.
“I started to develop more compassion for humanity.
“In Afghanistan, I was seeing people able to live happily, lively and loving in a war zone.
“I was able to mix with and try to help the local people.
“Unfortunately, I had to carry a loaded weapon, but I had no choice…it was for my own protection.”
In 2006 he left the army and moved to Perth.
Josh’s natural athletic ability and love of people led him to a new career as a personal trainer.
After two years in Perth he spent a year in the United Kingdom, but the allure of life in Australia was too much and Josh returned, settling in Surfers Paradise.
After hearing clearly God’s call to the priesthood, in 2012 Josh spent a year in discernment at Herston’s Canali House.
He counts himself blessed to have never seriously questioned his vocation on the journey since then.
It was a different matter with his parents.
His stepmother Trish was initially sad that he would not have the opportunity to be a father, a role she and many others always thought he would excel in.
She and Josh’s father Kevin mourned the loss of their potential grandchildren, but with time, they both came to realise what a gift Josh was bestowing on himself and the wider community.
Josh’s siblings, themselves not churchgoers, expressed some puzzlement at his chosen vocation.
But like his parents, with time they have come to be fully supportive of him, if a little in awe of his commitment to such a momentous journey.
At this stage in what is known as his propaedeutic year, Josh is working hard on subjects he finds tough including philosophy and Latin.
Discipline learnt in the military and fitness training is paying off, however.
Last term he received a distinction in philosophy.
Josh also wants to express his gratitude for the prayers and financial support of the archdiocese’s lay people.
“It isn’t just for the university fees, but also the ongoing costs of living and learning in the seminary,” he said.
“Please consider a gift to continue the good work of the seminary, which in turn passes these young men into the arms of parish communities just like yours.”
And his long term dreams for ministry?
“I love public speaking and getting out and talking to people,” he said.
“Hopefully, some of these gifts can be used to help evangelise the world.
“I’d like to become a military chaplain at some stage…the army is such a huge area for evangelisation, I know this from personal experience.
“I know God has big plans for me, even though I don’t know what they are.
“So that excites me and keeps me on the journey.”
Josh has a blog of his journey to the priesthood at http://www.surfersparadiseparish.com.au/documents/joshsStory.html.
To find out more about contributing to the Holy Spirit Provincial Seminary call the Catholic Foundation at (07) 3324 3200 or http://www.catholicfoundation.org.au/.