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How this 86-year-old priest went from being an atheist to evangelising the world

Fr Jack Soulsy blessing a man

Overseas outreach: Marist Father Jack Soulsby blesses a man during one of his many missions overseas, spreading the Word of God.

“HELLO, this is Jack,” Fr Jack Soulsby says in his rich, booming voice with an accent that likely springs from his Cornish beginnings.

He’s answering the phone as he sits in hospital in Brisbane wracked with pain from illness that’s been with him for months.

It’s his provincial Fr Bob Barber, of the Marist Fathers, on the line checking up on how he’s going.

“They say I’m making better progress than expected,” he says, and he mentions he’s in the middle of an interview for The Catholic Leader.

The interview went ahead, despite Fr Jack being in hospital and in pain, probably because he is an avid evangeliser and this was another opportunity.

His eagerness for spreading God’s Word has taken him around the world, and he’s itching to keep going.

“I want to get back to ministry. I don’t want to stop,” the 86-year-old said.

It’s a far cry from the young, ambitious civil engineer, who was a Catholic no longer believing in God, was working for one of the leading civil engineering firms in Australia, and whose world was all about making a name for himself in the industry and making lots of money.

His faith was shattered as a 10-year-old hearing bombs landing around him during the German Blitz attacks on England in the Second World War.

“The war came … and the bombs,” he said.

“And, because during the Blitz the bombs were aimed at me and my mother and two sisters whom I loved very much, and, if there’s a God, he could stop them, and the bombs haven’t stopped so I knew there was no God,” Fr Jack said, remembering like it was yesterday.

Fifteen years on, Fr Jack, with the rest of his family, arrived in Australia and he said by then he had no faith.

He graduated as a civil engineer and landed a cadetship with leading firm Gutteridge Haskins and Davey.

But he wasn’t prepared for how “the atmosphere” of the company would influence him.

“I suppose you could sum it up as Catholic social principle in action – that’s how to describe that firm,” Fr Jack said.

He is full of praise for principal Geoffrey Davey.

“Davey was knighted by the Queen for his service to Australia and knighted by the pope for service to the Church,” he said.

“The calibre of that man seeped through the whole organisation … and the values of that organisation were of the highest Catholic values …

“When you come from a situation of your brothers trying to kill you, it’s one hell of a contrast.

“All this I see now was preparation for priesthood.”

A key moment happened when young Jack was searching Geoffrey Davey’s library – “which was ninety-nine per cent engineering”.

“The one per cent was a book called The Framework of a Catholic State, by E. Cahill (a Jesuit), so I started going through that book, (and) three lines blew my mind – shook my world upside down,” he said.

“I’ve shared those three lines around the world.

“Those three lines were ‘Man has a certain nature within him which he must discover, and from that nature spring all the rights he can enjoy and all the duties he should carry out’.

“That was my first contact with the natural law – man has a certain nature …

“Now, with those three lines – ‘Man has a nature which he can discover …’ – I can give a whole retreat on that word ‘discover’.”

Fr Jack said he “went discovering the ocean within me – the ocean of my baptism”.

“I found out it was more than water and a few words from a priest,” he said.

“I found out it was the actual Trinity living within me, and that floored me.”

Fr Jack continued on the journey of discovery and “found out that the Father lived inside me”.

“Amazed by that, I had to ask, ‘What is He doing?’

“I discovered that He was fathering me as He had fathered Jesus, and that was a huge discovery.

“That meant to me that Jesus day by day was emerging in me, courtesy of God the Father.

“The next big discovery was that Jesus, King of Kings, was living inside me – all my life.

“Then I had to ask myself, ‘What’s he doing inside me?’, and his answer came very quickly – ‘I have married you; I am your bridegroom; you are my bride’ – Song of Songs all over again.

“The third discovery I made was that the Holy Spirit himself, Creator of the Universe, is alive and well in me, and had been all my life.

“This brings up such a volcano of gratitude.”

Fr Jack said the next question was: “What’s the Holy Spirit doing?”

“He’s illustrating one of the basic thoughts of being and Thomistic thought, namely ­– making me creative like Him. Blimey!”

Fr Jack returned the book to Mr Davey and told him the book had changed his life.

“It wasn’t long after that I went back to Mass after seventeen years away, and I found a full-page ad in The Catholic Weekly from the Aquinas Academy, (advertising it as) ‘a school of philosophy and theology for Catholic adults who are dissatisfied with a childhood appreciation of their faith’,” he said.

“I knew straight away it was talking to me, so I attended the Aquinas Academy four nights a week for five years and completed all the courses.”

That’s when he was “floored” by the call to priesthood – to be like the Marist Father who was his lecturer.

“I had never ever thought of myself as a priest,” Fr Jack said.

He joined the Marists and served for a while in schools and parishes “(but) my heart was in taking people from the darkness into the light, because that’s what had happened to me”.

This was what he was doing for people in weekend retreats, and his provincial asked if he would like to try the ministry full-time.

“That green light has taken me to every diocese – several times – and to ninety-eight countries,” Fr Jack said.

A strong part of his ministry is in Catholic Charismatic Renewal and presenting Life in the Spirit seminars.

“I specialise in Third World countries,” he said.

“Whether it’s Sudan or Uganda or Rwanda or war, you can see people going through hell.

“What they need is love, a listening ear, someone who can make things happen but above all they need to know who it is living in their heart – who they are living in their heart – as you have discovered.

“I’ve got gold, I’ve got riches and it’s living in my heart – unlike many others who’ve got it and they don’t know it.

“And that sums up my ministry.

“A tool of the Spirit is being used by the Spirit to open their eyes to what they’ve already got.”

Fr Jack said the word “already” was “a judgement of faith”.

“Faith does many things,” he said.

“Faith allows me to sit on my Father’s lap.

“Faith enables me to waltz with Jesus.

“Faith enables me to feel the kiss and hug of Mary.

“Faith enables me to move in the realm of the Christian imagination in the service of Christ the King.

“By faith, I can appropriate courage – I’ve done so in this hospital …

“By faith I can experience the communion of saints in this room – friendship, example, encouragement, love, delight – all these things.

“Faith is the key. Faith enables me to tap the very mothering that Jesus received.

“Faith enables me to be a good shepherd, shepherding people into glory.

“It’s that ignition called faith that does the trick.

“Often I used to envy those who were able to sit at the foot of Jesus.

“I don’t do that any more, because faith says I can do it any time I want.”

Written by: Peter Bugden

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