THE day Monsignor John Grace was told the Queensland bishops wanted him to be the rector of their seminary he thought someone was having a joke with him.
He was getting ready to retire, and a role like this was the last thing on his mind.
“I suppose if I had been thinking forever I would never have thought that I would’ve been asked to be rector of the seminary,” he said.
Almost one year into the job, though, he’s counting his blessings for the experience.
He’d left the seminary as a young priest at the end of 1970 and returned at the start of this year as Holy Spirit Provincial Seminary at Banyo celebrates its 75th anniversary.
“That means I’ve been 46 years, you might say, in the dark from seminary life,” he said.
In that time he has been a key player in his home diocese of Rockhampton, becoming vicar general and then diocesan administrator in between the retirement of Bishop Brian Heenan and Bishop Michael McCarthy taking over in 2014.
That was when Msgr Grace was expecting to call it a day.
“We had had a policy in Rockhampton where we were making it possible for our priests to resign from office at the age of 70,” he said.
“I turned 70 during the interregnum (time between bishops) when there was no bishop and I was sitting in the ‘hot seat’, you might say, as diocesan administrator at the time and I thought, ‘Well, it’s probably not reasonable to try and resign to yourself’ but I thought ‘Well, after a new bishop comes it might be time to move aside’.
“So I offered that, and the new bishop asked me if I would stay on as vicar general and I agreed to that. And then it was some months after that when the Queensland bishops met, and they came back to me after the meeting and asked if I would take the seminary role.
“Well, it just about winded me, really.
“I really thought I was going to retire, and … this was a strange detour to retirement.
“It took me five days before I said ‘Yes’, and I think the only reason I had said ‘Yes’ – it was my own fault I suppose – was that I really hadn’t said ‘No’ to anything that I’d been asked to do, and I thought, ‘At this stage in life I probably should stick with consistency’.
“It was a great honour to have been asked, I must say that, because the priesthood is essential to the Church, and we’ve lived through some very difficult years in the last few years, and to be asked to give some kind of leadership to the formation into the future … and what I have to offer is minimal.
“I pay great tribute to the staff that we have, but it’s a rather precious responsibility in that sense and I just could not see how I was equipped for it myself.
“But, anyway, here I am at the end of the first year … And I said to the students at the beginning of the first semester, ‘I can’t say that I’ll be any better than I was at the beginning but I’m starting to pick up a few things’.”
Surprises have always been part of the deal for Msgr Grace, even before he entered the seminary as a young man.
“I don’t have any brothers or sisters and my father died when I was finishing school and my mother was on her own – well, she was on her own for 40 years after that before she died – but I can remember plucking up the courage to suggest to her that I might like to go to the seminary,” he said.
“I really expected to get sort of a crack back like, ‘Who’ll look after me?’, and all those things.
“But all she said to me was, ‘Well, if you can’t become a kind priest, don’t bother’.
“She flattened me on the spot, really, and I’m not sure that I’ve lived up to that very well, but I’ve never forgotten it.”
After that he maybe should’ve been ready for another surprise from his mum later in life, but he wasn’t.
“When I was asked to go to study canon law – I’d been a priest for nearly 20 years then, and she was then getting up towards 80, and I’d lived back around Rockhampton just near home for many years then,” he said.
“And I thought again, ‘She won’t be too happy about this’. (But) she said, ‘If you’ve been asked to go, you must go’. There’s a great spirit of generosity there.”
The responses of Msgr Grace’s mother both times showed him how important the support of family was in encouraging vocations.
Reminded how Pope Francis says he’d been anticipating retirement before he was elected, Msgr Grace recalls a comment from seminary vice-rector Fr Adrian Farrelly who also is new to his role this year.
“The two of us came in here together – he’s the vice-rector, he’s part-time – he makes the kind of comparison – a little – to the Pope,” Msgr Grace said.
“He said, ‘He came into the top job in the Vatican never having worked in the Vatican, and we’ve come in now to steer this ship and we’ve never been sailors on it before …’
“Adrian’s been a great support to me, as have all the staff.
“I think it’s been a very valuable year for us; I just hope it’s been of some value to the seminary and to the students, but I feel that I’ve got more from them than I’ve given to them in the course of the year. I do really feel that.”
Although his appointment came as a shock, Msgr Grace said he realised he “had a mild degree of readiness for it”.
“Last year I did attend a short seminary formators’ course in Washington DC in the United States, followed by a slightly longer one in Rome,” he said.
“At least they familiarised myself with what we now refer to as the basic pillars of formation that the different seminaries follow (– spiritual, academic, pastoral, mission and faith, and human formation).
“The only thing I could say is that I do come here, I suppose, with 46 years of lived priesthood.
“And that’s been a blended mixture of pastoral life and also of administrative life, in parishes but also in the diocesan office in Rockhampton.
“I really was 25 years, I suppose, in the Chancery there. And in the middle of those years I also had the opportunity to go overseas to study canon law in Ottawa.
“So that was the sort of background that I really came here with – parish life, diocesan administrative life, and then involvement in tribunal work that the canon law had prepared me for.”
His main priority when becoming rector “was to come out of ignorance into some sort of … to get some vision”.
“I really didn’t arrive with an agenda, because I thought, ‘I’ve just got to learn this game that I’ve been away from for 46 years’.
“I’m not the master of it yet but I am mastering it, I have to say that.”
In the process he’s “cherishing the opportunity to regenerate an appreciation of the priesthood for myself”.
“It’s been an enriching year, … and I do appreciate that.
“And I hope I’m not being selfish in saying that, because I didn’t come here to be served. I came here to serve.”
By Peter Bugden