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Focus on beauty becomes a new habit for Fr Joe McKay

Fr Joe McKay: “I believe that when you start to do what Christ did, you’ll start to feel what Christ felt and then you’ll start to love like Christ.”

A ROOM with a view was a life-changer for Franciscan Father Joe McKay.

Being struck by the sheer beauty flooding that view one morning was what made the difference.

In his 30s at the time, he was living in Wollongong, NSW, working for BHP as a chemical engineer, and enjoying the happy and fulfilled life of a young professional.

But then that view grabbed his attention.

“I literally woke up one day – beautiful day in front of me – and I looked out the window and I went, ‘Oh, thank you God for this day, what can I do for you?’,” Fr Joe, now living in Brisbane as vocations director for the Franciscan Friars in Australia and working as a chaplain at Padua College and the University of Queensland, said.

“And I literally was, a couple of hours later, going, ‘I’m taking that question seriously …’ and from there is where I started asking, ‘Well, how can I live my life in more of that way?’”

Fr Joe said that day when beauty changed his life was no different to any other.

“I was looking at the same view that I always looked out my window at and it was just the recognition of beauty before me that touched me,” he said.

“And it was only afterwards that I learned that, as Franciscans … ‘beauty’ is one of the names of God, that St Francis calls God – ‘You are Beauty’ – and it’s that sense of God keeps giving things to us.

“I’d looked at that view hundreds of times.

“It was just a beautiful day – the sunlight. Where I was I looked across from my place to a hill with an escarpment, and the yellow rocks were glowing in the sun, and the clouds …

“It was just a beautiful day – simple as that. That was it, nothing more, but that was enough.”

It took him by surprise, moreso because it came at a time when he was so happy with his life, so satisfied and content.

“Yes, because I’d been doing a lot of things,” Fr Joe said.

“I enjoyed engineering, I was involved in Engineering Australia and the professional engineers’ bodies. I really did enjoy what I was doing.

“I’d bought a house, paying it off and I was actually looking at refurbishing it, so it wasn’t like I’d planned, yes, I was going to go into religious life.

“It was all quite a challenge in many ways.”

He remembers saying to his parish priest at the time, “I don’t know what it really means”.

“And even the first year with the friars, I was saying ‘I don’t know what it means or where I’m being led to, I just know I have to be here’,” he said.

“And it’s that sense of walking into a mystery was part of it as well.

“I literally got to that point where I went, ‘Any of the questions that I had about religious life I could not answer unless I chose to live it’.”

At the time God’s beauty turned his head one morning, Fr Joe said he had been “doing other things of service in the Church”.

“And it was about, ‘Well, what’s important? What’s important in life?’, and even those bigger questions, ‘What’s life all about? Is it just about yourself?’,” he said.

Even before that, Fr Joe had been moved to serve others.

“My involvement in Church came about because I finished university and I decided I should give something back to the community, so I went and volunteered at a St Vincent de Paul conference,” he said.

“Initially they didn’t know what to do with a young person, and then this marvellous older guy who was president of St Vinnies for the Wollongong area said, ‘Joe, come and help in the homeless men’s shelter’.

“It was there that I saw the Gospel being played out, both in the volunteers of St Vinnies and the people that were ending up in the hostel.

“You could see the Gospel stories being played out, and that actually led me to go back to church more … because it touched … it said the Gospel’s being played out now, we are being invited into Jesus’ life now, and that made the Gospel and the Scripture more … well, it brought it alive, and really started to nourish my life.”

It helped him to see how the Gospel “relates to our daily life and also our service to others”.

“It’s that connection between worship and life that I think’s really the important thing,” Fr Joe said.

“It’s the one that we struggle here at school about.

“The young people know the Gospel stories, they know worship at church but where they struggle is how do they connect it with their daily life, what does it really mean to them?

“And, for me, that’s the bridge that we’re dealing with in our society at the moment and particularly in the notions of evangelisation.

“Because the whole notion of being of service to others was the way that I came into Church, it’s the area where I’m passionate about.

“It’s about, as a Church, we need to be seen as the Body of Christ, we need to be seen as going out and caring for the community around us.

“And I think if the Church is seen doing that and the young people see us doing that, then they’ll start to realise again what the Gospel stories is for them.

“That’s one of my passions – it is how do we as a Church, how do I individually show the presence of Christ in my life?”

When he first started searching out the call to priesthood he went to a Sydney archdiocesan vocation retreat and spoke to other religious congregations but he found his home with the Franciscans.

It was “that great sense of community and a great sense of prayer” that attracted him, and still appeals to him.

He’s also found the Franciscans are about constantly “telling the Gospel stories in new ways and then trying to live it”.

“For me, that’s the heart of it – a sense of community, a sense of prayer and then a sense of being (that) we’re called to live the Gospel,” he said.

A Franciscan for 12 years, Fr Joe loves wearing the familiar brown habit of those following in the footsteps of St Francis of Assisi.

And he loves wearing it when he’s out and about because it gives people on the street the chance to talk to someone about God, the Gospel or any other question of faith.

“Wearing the habit is to give other people permission to say, ‘Let’s talk about God ..’,” he said.

“That’s what I’m there for.

“And the Franciscans have a tradition of we’re quite down to earth about our spirituality and so I think people realise that and are happy to ask us any question.”

And they do, “all the time”.

“I think it’s needed. I think people do have a thirst for spirituality, a thirst for the divine in their lives …,” Fr Joe said.

“Hopefully I’m there to answer the questions that people are asking.”

Fr Joe’s also involved as a spiritual assistant to the lay Franciscan movement, the Order of Franciscans Secular (St Francis’ Third Order) – lay communities gathering in small groups.

“They are truly a Franciscan community where lay people in their normal lives come together to share the Gospel and to work out how do they individually live the Gospel and be Christ to others,” Fr Joe said.

“It’s one of my joys to be one of the national spiritual assistants for that movement.

“One of my joys over the last couple of years has been giving retreats and nourishing the Franciscan spirituality of that community.

“The rest of my time is looking at how we can involve young people in the Church and give them opportunities to volunteer in Church services, to volunteer and be the hands of Christ for others, because, for me, I believe that when you start to do what Christ did, you’ll start to feel what Christ felt and then you’ll start to love like Christ.”

Written by: Peter Bugden
Catholic Church Insurance

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