FOR many men across Australia it’s just as well Robert Falzon decided to live by his family motto: Never ever give up.
Fired up by his vision for the glory of men “fully alive like fire”, Robert has plunged into the maelstrom of modern maleness with all its brokenness and desire for wholeness.
Part of this brokenness, Robert says, is around men isolated through marriage breakdown and family disintegration and, in recent years as the Internet expands, an increasing addiction to pornography.
For nearly a decade this vision has inspired Robert to work with others to start menALIVE, impacting positively on the lives of 12,000 Catholic men across Australia and New Zealand.
Acting on feedback from many of these men, he has gone on to form other groups ministering to not only fathers but also sons and grandfathers. And Robert speaks of his own positive change as “the evangeliser became the evangelised”.
Of his life experience leading up to this point, Robert said “nothing has been wasted. Everything and everyone is useful in God’s hands.”
His first sense of a missionary vocation came while he was still in his birth state of Western Australia.
His Maltese father and Italian mother were very devout although he describes his father as “a very hard worker, doing two jobs and fairly typical in his frequent absence from family life as a result”.
“In 1972 my mother coerced me to attend a Redemptorist Fathers retreat in our parish … I was about 16 then,” Robert said.
“I felt a call and a vocation to work in the Church and back then the priesthood was the main option.
“So at 17 I began my formation for the priesthood in New South Wales with the Redemptorist Fathers in Galong and then in Maitland, Newcastle.
“These were wonderful years of formation and training. However, I left after a couple of years as I wasn’t called to celibacy.”
Robert completed a degree in Arts with a double major in English literature at the University of Newcastle.
After graduating, he went to live in Brisbane to be near his family who had moved there from Western Australia some years earlier.
In Brisbane he met Alicia, to whom he has now been married for 31 years.
They have four children – Isaac, Matthias, Chiara and Shem.
In 1986, he set up a business FMCA, a furniture manufacturing and fitout organisation, with clients including many five-star hotels such as the Sheratons, Hiltons and Hyatts in Australia. FMCA also fitted out luxury yachts.
On many occasions, Robert had to fall back on that family motto – none more so than after news he received when the family was holidaying at 1770, four years after starting the business.
“There was a knock at the door of the caravan and when I opened the door there stood the police,” he said. “‘Are you Robert Falzon?’”
“I nodded, then one of them said: ‘Your building and business has burned to the ground.’ We had virtually no insurance and had lost everything. Assets, records, equipment … talk about ‘Fire in your Life.”
Yet from this time, Robert learnt some important lessons. His wife Alicia, who he describes as “a real saint” for her support in his ministry, taught one of them.
“After a few weeks of feeling sorry for myself, Alicia said to me: ‘We have only lost what can burn’.”
There was another big lesson too.
“Having come to the end of my own capacity I learnt that I’m never alone … God is with me. And I definitely recalled the family motto to ‘Never ever give up’.”
The rebuilding of FMCA followed and, with it, significant industry recognition.
Between 1996 and 2002, Robert won awards including Telstra Small Business of the Year, AIM Owner Manager of the Year and finalist E+Y Entrepreneur of the Year.
Despite all this, that call Robert had first heard as a 16-year-old had not gone away … far from it, as he discovered in 2002.
“About thirty years later, here I was feeling this same disturbance in my soul, as some of the spiritual writers would call it ‘a holy discontent’,” he said. “It’s like – I’ve got a good marriage, four children, business that’s making money, a career that’s been acknowledged and recognised in the commercial world …
“Yet here I am feeling that, ‘No, this isn’t enough; this isn’t all that I was called for’.
“So I went on a retreat, spent some time thinking about it, praying about it, then one day sitting in church started looking around …
“Then I heard the question that I would devote the next phase of my life to responding to, and that was: ‘Where are all the men?’
“And even more profound: ‘Where are all the young men?’ I looked around my parish … there were three women to every man. And I thought ‘What’s happened to all the men?’”
The question came to disturb Robert even more deeply as he recalled his childhood church where “children were crying, kids crawling over the seats … there was a semi-lack of reverence but there was this sacred community of families with fathers, men in their late thirties and early forties”.
Robert employed his university-based marketing training to come up with some answers to his question. He went to various places including the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Australian Catholic bishops’ website and looked at the data.
The data confirmed what he saw … there were five million Catholics in Australia, there were about 700,000 regular worshippers and sub-200,000 regular worshipping males.
“It was unbelievable,” Robert said.
“I went and saw then Brisbane Archbishop John Bathersby and said: ‘Your Grace, it’s a bloody disgrace – what happened?’
“We talked a bit, then I said: ‘What are you going to do about it?’ And the archbishop said: ‘Robert, what are you going to do about it?’”
Fired up by this challenge, Robert enlisted support from a friend, Peter Shakhovskoy, and together they started menALIVE.
As the group went from strength to strength it became obvious a deep need was being met.
And not only for the many men touched by menALIVE and its various offshoots including the Catholic Man Breakfast Series, and the fathers and sons event Growing Good Men.
Robert and other members of the leadership team were being changed as well.
“Just as Jesus changed Peter’s vocation from being a fisher of perch to a fisher of men, so He changed me,” he said.
“I went from being a person who was out there selling and marketing, being commercial, to someone who was going to go and influence men’s destinies in their marriages, raising their children, in their workplaces, in their Church …
“So, in wanting to do something about the lack of the masculine presence and potency in the life of the Church I actually … God actually … did something about this lack in myself.
“Up to then I’d been a committed workaholic; and that meant I was committing the sins of my father – I wasn’t home a lot, my children didn’t have a lot of my time.
“My wife said to me once: ‘You know, Robert, you just bring home the dregs’.
“‘Everybody else gets the best of you and we just get the leftovers’. I thought to myself: I can’t do this any more. I’ve got to man up and be a better husband and father.
“I started by letting my heavenly Father father me and for me then to try to be a better father to my sons and daughter and better husband to my wife.”
As Robert’s work in menALIVE and its offshoots has progressed this process of change has grown deeper.
“In the process of evangelising, the evangeliser has become evangelised,” Robert said.
“That’s why Pope Francis wants each and every one of us to get involved in mission.
“He knows not only will we save others, but we ourselves will be saved.”