THONGS worn underneath his altar servers’ “black smock” paved the way for a “comfortable fit” in the Church for media and wine expert John Briffa.
The former Sky News producer resumed an equally comfortable “farm lifestyle” when he and wife Bev moved to Forest Springs, on the Eastern Darling Downs, in 2000.
“Bev and I wanted to raise our children with the value of a ‘stay at home’ parent and in an environment that we had both enjoyed as children – a farm in the bush,” John said.
“Realising that my career was no longer my first priority I was prepared to become the ‘Mr Mum’ and Bev was happy to be the main wage earner.”
The duo made the move from London to a 40.5ha (100-acre) property in Forest Springs, south-west of Brisbane, with children Oliver, now 13, and Emily, almost 12.
Able to “get a transfer to just about anywhere”, Bev resumed teaching at Clifton State School and John turned to his love of winemaking. He had developed his skills in this field under the guidance of his Maltese grandfather.
“I had been making wine under the house in Brisbane for some years,” John said.
“It seemed like a good idea that when we moved to a farm I should plant a vineyard and make wine on a slightly larger scale.
“We needed to make some money from the farm but we didn’t want it to dominate our lives – Bev and I wanted to put our family as the first priority.”
The importance of placing his family first was realised when John became a dad.
“The birth of (Oliver) was a ‘Damascus Road’ moment for me,” he said.
“As a spiritual person the ultimate experience of God the Creator would have to include witnessing new life and realising that you share a part in it.
“For me, it (becoming a dad) changed my life, changed my priorities, changed what I valued as being important and brought me to where I am today.”
Today John, who was born in Brisbane, seems confident he’s exactly where God wants him to be.
“Each day, as I relished and cherished this opportunity to fully embrace my family and the place where we live, I took time to be with my God,” John said of making the move and first planting his vineyard in 2001.
“I became more aware of God’s presence in my life. “During my professional career I never lost my spirituality but I didn’t make the time to develop it.”
Now John’s developed one hectare of fruit on the property with half the orchard of 650 vines planted with three varieties of red grapes.
The other half contains figs, mulberries and oranges from which he also produces wine with an aim to “be as organic” as possible.
While life has certainly been bountiful, the Briffas lost their total wine crop (of about 2000kg) as “a result of the extreme wet” late last year and in early January.
It didn’t deter John however – having witnessed his father Joe’s commitment to providing for the family.
“In 1972 my family moved to Monto to share-farm a property with the family of an uncle,” John said.
“I loved being close to the bush and I developed a great love of nature and all things related to the environment … (but) in 1975 economic pressures forced my family to move off the property and Dad returned to his occupation as a motor mechanic.”
That move to Toowoomba was “a tough period” as his parents “had to start from scratch”.
John’s Mum Ingrid worked as a housekeeper at the cathedral parish “for some years” and converted to Catholicism in 1993 although, before that, she “was always supportive” of the family’s Catholic roots.
It was in St Theresa’s Church, Monto, that his altar server’s career kicked off and continued to flourish in Toowoomba.
“(In) my teenage years I spent a lot of time around the Church,” John said.
“Together with a mate from school I was a senior server for (then) Bishop Kelly … (and) with Mum in the ‘inner sanctum’ I had the opportunity to develop some meaningful friendships with many of the priests who passed through the cathedral during those years.”
Such friendships allowed a growing “awareness of a calling from God”, John said.
With Church involvement, scouting and the environment then among his priorities, John delved into movie-making, leading to “a spot as a ‘gopher’ on a local television station”.
Employed by Darling Downs TV from 1982-88, John found himself producing, filming and editing various pieces, and work in news and current affairs in Brisbane soon followed.
London, or more specifically UK Sky News, ITN News and the London bureau for America’s NBC News, then called. He was 26.
By early 1992 “the money for TV production in Britain had dried up” as a result of covering the 1991 Gulf War and John headed homewards with an African and Middle Eastern stopover – a time to find out “who” he was and more about such “fascinating places”.
Back in Brisbane John worked on programs such as Total Recall (Channel 7), Wildlife (Channel 9) and Totally Wild (Network 10) followed by a stint with ABC TV from 1996-2000.
Proposing to his “long-suffering girlfriend” Bev and the arrival of Oliver helped him “turn the next corner”.
Now, not only does John make wine and is “Mr Mum” but he also heads the pastoral leadership team of the St Patrick’s Parish, Allora, and is the local school chaplain.
“I consider myself very blessed to have had the opportunity of being a ‘Mr Mum’,” he said.
“At 13, Oliver constantly reminds me that we don’t even have a motor bike yet (but) he gives me a meaningful hug each day.
“Emily asks why we don’t live in town – because of all the time I spend at the church – yet she loves waking up to a lawn full of wallabies and other wildlife.”
There are blessings and challenges on the parish front, too.
“In 2006 the Allora community had to face up to the reality of ageing and retiring (ordained) priesthood,” John said.
“We could either amalgamate with a neighbouring parish that still had a resident priest or we could strive to maintain our own identity by accepting the challenge of lay leadership.
“In choosing to retain our own identity, Allora acknowledged that to continue the mission of Christ in our community, we would use the gifts and talents of those within our parish, to the best of our ability.
“We work closely with our priest director – currently Fr Thomas Areekuzhy … (and) all the work required to maintain our parish both pastorally and administratively is performed by volunteers.”
Likeable John, who has undertaken studies in theology and Christian ministry, said he “sees the Spirit of God at work”.
“I now realise that our experience in Allora has provided an opportunity for my calling to be awakened and created an avenue for me to respond,” he said.
“(And) when the chaplain’s position became vacant in 2010 I somehow knew that I was meant to apply – again, I felt the Spirit leading me.
“I see chaplaincy as an extension of parish ministry … (and) I can’t help but think on my chaplaincy days I’m just working in a vineyard of a different kind.”
With daily prayer and reflection on the menu, the Briffas are looking forward to a continued life of grace and comfort in God’s vineyard.
“Whenever people hear about us building a vineyard they immediately imagine huge sprawling acres of neat rows of grapes, cafes and bus-loads of tourists,” he said.
“Our vineyard is nothing like this. Our plan was never about the size or the money, it was about doing something we care about in a way that is in harmony with other facets of family life.
“My life today is a product of and expression of my spirituality and my relationship with God.”
The Catholic Leader is an Australian award-winning Catholic newspaper that has been published by the Archdiocese of Brisbane since 1929. Our journalism seeks to provide a full, accurate and balanced Catholic perspective of local, national and international news while upholding the dignity of the human person.
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