CARMELITE Father Paul Chandler was a reluctant recruit to Queensland’s Holy Spirit Seminary at Banyo, but his past decade as spiritual director there has proven to be one of the great blessings of his life.
Ironically it was a spiritual director who helped him say yes to the invitation.
After having taught Church History, and the History of Spirituality, in Melbourne for 20 years Fr Paul was settled at a Carmelite historical institute in Rome.
Even though he said he was not particularly happy in Rome and the future was uncertain, there were other work possibilities that interested him there.
“But it was there that I met Monsignor (Anthony) Randazzo, as he then was (now Bishop of Broken Bay), who was just about to become the rector of the seminary here in Brisbane,” Fr Paul said.
“And a bit to my surprise, 12 months later he asked me if I’d be interested in becoming the spiritual director here, so I asked for a bit of advice.
“I was a little bit inclined to say ‘No’, but I asked for some advice and everyone I talked to said, ‘Oh, no – say ‘Yes’”, so I did, and I came here in fear and trembling really.
“I guess it was just all a bit unfamiliar to me; I’d lived in Melbourne half my life and I felt a bit ‘Melbourn-ised’; I didn’t know Brisbane too well; and just because it was new, I think it was a little bit of a challenge.”
A few influential conversations convinced him to give Banyo a go.
“As it happened, at the time, two Australian bishops were in Rome – (the late) Michael Putney, from Townsville, and (Archbishop) Mark Coleridge, who was then in Canberra (now Archbishop of Brisbane) – and I’ve known both of them for a very long time,” Fr Paul said.
“And I asked both of them, ‘Should I say, ‘Yes’?’; and they both said, ‘Absolutely. Yes, that’s what you should do …’
“And I said, ‘I’m a bit worried about this …’, and they said, ‘Oh, just don’t be silly; just go and do it …’
“But then, at the time, there was a bit of uncertainty about whether I should continue in Rome or not.
“I could see a couple of jobs that I probably would’ve been able to do, but nobody was asking me to do them …, and I asked my spiritual director about this and he really said the thing that changed my mind.
“He said, ‘Look, the bishops of five dioceses (in Queensland) are asking you to come and work for them, and where you are right now no-one’s asking you to do anything, so what do you think you should do?’
“And that just made it – there was only one answer then, I thought.
“That was probably the main thing that helped me make up my mind.”
Fr Paul has learnt there are some things in the spiritual life that we really can’t explain.
That lesson started in grappling with his own vocational call.
Part of the way through his Arts degree in his hometown Sydney after leaving school, he felt called to be a priest and was thinking diocesan priesthood, but his parish priest suggested he consider a religious order.
After searching through the many possibilities and looking closely at a few different orders he eventually decided the Carmelites felt right for him.
“I think it was the emphasis on the fraternal life, and the contemplative spirit of the Carmelites appeals to me,” Fr Paul said.
Trying to pinpoint why that was the case is difficult to answer.
“It’s like, ‘Why did you marry your wife Judy?’, and you sort of give answers like, ‘Oh, we met at the tennis club …’ or ‘I liked her sense of humour …’,” he said.
“But they’re not really answers; I think there’s something mysterious going on.
“You just feel drawn in a certain direction.
“I think that’s what happened to me, anyway. And I think it’s a bit hard to put into words what it is.
“So, I really do believe in vocation and the fact that a call comes to you which you may only partly understand, and I think it’s not so different to finding the right person for you.
“You can’t always explain it very well but you just sense that it’s happening.”
Fr Paul is in his 11th year as spiritual director at Banyo and he loves the role.
“I feel very privileged to be able to work with the young guys here so this is a very happy time of my life really,” he said.
“I think also I was 60 when I came here so I think that was the right time for me.
“Other people may have been able to do the job when they’re younger but I think I couldn’t have done it when I was 40, and probably I couldn’t have done it when I was 50 either, but when I was 60 I think it was the right time for me to do this kind of work.
“I think it’s probably what grandparents tell you – that it’s easier to be a grandparent than a parent.
“I mean, you’re just a bit calmer and you’re more experienced and you don’t panic as easily, and I suppose just life itself has knocked some kind of wisdom into you – even if you resist it.
“I think that’s probably part of the reason.
“I’ve been a student for a long time so I hope I’ve learnt a thing or two on the way and I can pass it on to people who are really studying the same kinds of things with me.”
When Fr Paul considers what’s at the heart of being a spiritual director he thinks of a quote from St Augustine that he likes a lot.
“He says, ‘We are all classmates in the school of Christ’,” he said.
“If I had a motto, I think I’d make that my motto, and I’d see that as a kind of summary of what a spiritual director is meant to do.
“He’s not really their teacher because, you know, the Lord and His Spirit, they’re the teachers.
“You’re really in class with everyone in the school of Christ, and you’ve been there longer and you’ve had a few lessons already so maybe you can just make a contribution out of that to help everyone make the most out of this learning experience.”
He said it was the job of the spiritual director “to try to help the people seeking spiritual direction to see the Lord at work in their own lives”.
The spiritual director and the rector are the only two members of staff that live at the seminary as part of the residential community.
The seminarians live in their house groups, but the seminary community gathers a few times a week for meals and several times a day for prayer.
“I must say one of the things that makes it just such a joyful experience to work here is that the seminarians have got such a spirit of hospitality and welcome and they make, even old guys like me and the rector, they make us so welcome as part of the community,” Fr Paul said.
“And there really is a family atmosphere which, I think, is to be treasured.”
Part of Fr Paul’s role includes a little teaching, especially with the first-year seminarians.
“We have several classes a week – one is a kind of a little quick history of Christian spirituality and the other one is on more practical things like different forms of praying, and so on,” he said.
Once a week he and the seminarians read a spiritual classic.
“We usually take a book each semester and we read it together and we try to draw on the riches of the Church’s great tradition,” he said.
“And then a lot of the rest of the time is taken up with one-to-one work.”
It’s all part of the bigger picture of formation for priesthood.
“I think some of our job in the seminary it’s very clear; we’ve got curricula and the requirements that they have to meet, all that kind of thing – courses they have to do – but all of that is really in service of setting them free, for them to find that mysterious freedom of the Gospel that Paul speaks about all the time,” Fr Paul said.
“So we’re trying to create an atmosphere where each of them can become his best self and put that then as service of the Church.
“Most of that work has to be done by the person himself; no-one can do it to you but people can only help you to engage in that process of personal growth.
“I think it’s one of the absolute joys of working in the seminary, that over six years or so, you can see guys just change remarkably and grow and develop.
“It really is just a joy.
“And of course, you know that, for all of this, the work is incomplete; we’re all a construction site and it still goes on after they leave the seminary.
“But you really hope and pray that that process will continue as they continue to mature and learn.”