THE presence of Tom Cullen is enough to calm the soul.
Even isolation restrictions, prompting an online interview, were unable to mask his quiet wisdom and unassuming holiness.
But Tom would be last to recognise his gentle yet inspiring impact, instead allowing God’s Spirit to speak.
“Do you mind if we begin (the interview) with a prayer?” he said, admitting to having recently mastered Zoom (online) communications and the necessary accompanying headset.
“God, we ask You to bless this time of discovery,” he prayed, “(And) allow us to be guided by the Spirit.”
The conversation could’ve been the day after our last encounter in Banyo Nundah parish, on Brisbane’s northside, more than five years ago, easily drawn to shared experiences and friendships.
But our dialogue was coloured differently because of COVID-19 restrictions and by Tom’s reality today, his emerging successes and challenges.
The former isolation reality allowed sharing about one of the most influential figures of his life – Tom’s mum, Marie, aged 91, who’s “rarely missed Sunday or weekly Mass in her life”.
“Mum’s all of five foot, the tiniest of people,” he began.
“She lives on her own, and still drives to church and to the shops (outside of this restrictive time).”
Sydney-based, Marie Cullen suffers from a lung condition and “considers every day a gift”.
“Mum says that every day is a chance to connect with God and others,” Tom said, looking forward to their reunion given a recent trip southward was cancelled.
“She was and is a powerhouse of the Spirit and I am so grateful for all the blessings she’s given to me through the Catholic faith over such a long period of time.”
Tom’s father died more than 30 years ago but he said both parents “were great believers” and gave him “the gift of the Catholic faith”.
“Growing up, we would always say the rosary each night, attend morning Mass before school as often as we could and of course, in my Sunday best for Mass,” he said of early years in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.
“This is all while both my parents worked full-time and my mother ran the house.
“We were the kind of family who would host home Masses in those days and regularly have the parish priest for dinner.”
The other theme of our conversation centred on the theology and philosophy student’s recent reception of the 2020 Australian Catholic University (ACU) Centre for Liturgy Postgraduate Scholarship.
Considering bouts of illness, Tom, an exceptional chorister with a unique bond with the late St Stephen’s Cathedral musical director Ralph Morton, said he “never dreamed” of “studying at this level”.
“I rate myself with average intelligence,” he said.
“(But) have always found the (study) work stimulating and fuels my goal to understand the Church more and why we do what we do.
“Catholics learn by doing without really ever looking into the ‘why’.
“I’ve been blessed to be taught by gifted, learned people.
“Study isn’t always easy for me but I try and toil away at it as best as possible.”
Tom said a neurological condition allows him to live the perspective of Christ Jesus.
“My condition puts further challenges in my path but it is the cross the Lord has given me so I accept it with obedience and humility,” he said.
“I wish to contribute what I have learned with a community but want to complete my studies before I do this more formally.
“I’ve a passion about everyone, whoever they may be, to have access to offering their gifts.”
In that vein Tom said, “We are called to birth and new life, to live among one another in a lifetime of commitment and service… (and) in our moment of death we return to God, our Creator.”
He credits worship as “integral to our lives as Christians … recognising the dimension of ‘mystery’ in all of reality”.
Tom began serving the Church as early as was possible, at every interval of his emerging life, including overseeing liturgy at the Sydney Convention Centre for WYD08.
His lifelong affinity with worship and choirs began when awarded a grade 5 to 12 choral scholarship at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney.
“In those days, we had about six rehearsals per week for choir, both before and after school and would sing high Mass at the cathedral each Sunday,” Tom said, adding “tennis, squash and footy sports were challenging to fit in”.
“It’s difficult to put into words the impact and gifts I received during this time as a chorister in the cathedral choir,” he said.
“It was a big influence on my formation as a Catholic and as a musician for over 20 years.
“I grew up in this very rich liturgical environment, seeing how important the liturgy is, utilising all aspects of the rite with incredible choral music which had the power to move people’s hearts and minds to be more open to the Spirit.”
As well as working in insurance, other musical roles beckoned including as cantor in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne, as Arts Administrator of Western Australian Opera and for Opera Queensland, Brisbane.
Involvement in parish life also continued and on a return to Sydney, Tom was particularly enamoured by the outpouring of gifts evident in God’s people.
“I put together a week of Masses and reflections with different prominent people, as part of the Year of the Eucharistic we celebrated in Kiama,” he said of the south coast postcode.
“There were many great moments of worship and praise to God during my years there, giving life to each of the different liturgies to be celebrated in the life of the Church, showing the enormous commitment people had for our faith by the gifts they were willing to share.”
It was in Kiama that Tom “felt a call to discern priestly ministry”, eventually leading him to studies in Rome and then to Holy Spirit Provincial Seminary, Banyo.
His encounter with Ralph Morton was the coming together of two kindred spirits, Tom saying his friend and musical mentor is “greatly missed” and “comes to mind every day”.
“Ralph gave life to liturgy,” Tom said.
“He had a very profound impact on my life and many others, a generation of young singers and musicians whom he guided, inspired and directed, as a living legacy (that) can never be underestimated.”
Choosing to live as a “single celibate” in Our Lady of the Angels parish, Chermside, Tom eagerly awaits “greater inclusion of people with a disability in the Church”.
“I believe we need to do all we can for those who have a physical or mental disability or incapacity,” he said.
“I think we need to do better at building our relationships and working out the best way to allow people to use their gifts.”
An example Tom offered was allowing greater access to the sanctuaries of our churches.
“Sanctuaries need to be modified so that a person in a wheel chair can get up and down so they can be an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion or readers,” he said.
“Another would be their participation on the Parish Pastoral Council where their voice can be heard so we remain and do better at being transparently inclusive.
“This focus in facilitating liturgical participation for all people, including those experiencing a disability, is important to me.
“People who are affected by a disability do not readily come forward and need support and encouragement to actively participate by offering their gifts.”
While Tom accepted the scholarship with his unique brand of humility, he encouraged thinking towards the 2020 Plenary Council “to centre on careful theological thought, an essential task of the Christian life”.
“Theology leads us to thinking and involvement in issues of inequity, injustice, environmental degradation, the sharing of natural resources, racism, violence and more,” he said.
“Our world needs more theologians challenging assumptions, building bridges, informing policy, championing theological ethics and finding practical solutions to address social issues of our time.”