Fr Anil Mascarenhas considers his priestly vocation a ‘mystery and miracle’. The 40-year-old from the state of Karnataka in India, has been a priest in the Archdiocese of Melbourne for almost five years. He was appointed to St Andrew’s in Werribee for three years and has been Assistant Parish Priest at St Kevin’s in Hampton Park since January 2021. His passion lies in engaging young people and families, so that they can understand the richness of faith life and God’s unconditional love as he experienced it himself growing up in his own family.

Fr Anil says he was ‘born into a poor family’ but one that was rich in faith. His devout Catholic family practiced their faith with daily prayers and daily Mass – the day started and ended with prayer, he said. He was also surrounded by extended family members and cousins who were priests and in religious consecrated life. And so, the influence and desire to become a priest began early in childhood.

However, when Fr Anil was 13 years old (in Year 9), he dropped out of school and started working on a farm. He did this for about five years to help contribute to his family’s income. He eventually ‘realised the value of education’ and returned to school. He attended secondary college in the evening and started working in an ice cream factory. At the same time, he was working as a kitchen hand, as a receptionist and as a sacristan.

He said this background helped him to ‘realise the value of life’ and how to overcome the struggles and challenges in life. ‘God was with me in the struggles and joys of life, and remained my priority. Wherever I went, God was always with me,’ he said.

Fr Anil completed his secondary studies and went on to complete a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Mangalore in India. During his university days, he had an opportunity to spend time in a Jesuit mission camp, which made him think more seriously about his future. ‘Witnessing the Jesuit fathers’ missionary work was amazing. Their life and example, especially in reaching out to the poor and giving their best, and the joy they had in their faces, really inspired me to pursue the priesthood,’ said Fr Anil.

During this period, I seriously reflected on God’s many blessings throughout my life and how the Spirit worked through others to bring me to this point. I was convinced that I had a call to priesthood and that through this vocation, I could serve God and my neighbours in the best possible way.’

He spoke to his local vocations director, who suggested he take up further studies. He went on to study philosophy and then completed a master’s in social work, specialising in medical and psychiatric social work. He went on to do an internship in counselling, and during this time attended a youth retreat where the call to become a missionary priest was still strong.

During the retreat, Australian bishop Christopher Prowse spoke of the need for priests in Australia and reminded the young people gathered of the example of St Francis Xavier and St Thomas, who brought Christianity to India.

He called on all of us to think about how, if St Francis or St Thomas had not come to India, where would we be? And those words struck me,’ said Fr Anil. He was also struck by the invitation to ‘serve beyond the Indian sea shore’.

‘There’s real meaning in serving where there’s a need, so I spent two or three days in prayer and adoration during that retreat reflecting over this and I thought, “OK, if St Francis Xavier had not come to India, I don’t know whether I’d have been a Catholic or my parents or grandparents or five generations back”.’

Upon his return home, Fr Anil told his family that he’d decided to become a missionary priest in Australia and applied through the Vocations Office Melbourne. He received a positive reply from then Vocations Director, Fr Binh Le, and with support from the office, he arrived in Australia on 21 September 2012 to experience ‘life in the Australian Catholic Church’. He spent time at St Patrick’s Cathedral, the seminary and then nearly two months at St Mary’s Parish in Ascot Vale with Fr Justin Ford. He was then accepted by then-Archbishop Denis Hart for the Archdiocese of Melbourne in December 2012.

The following year he began his studies at Corpus Christi College in Carlton and after five years of study, at the age of 34, he was ordained for the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne on 9 September 2017. ‘It is by God’s grace and God’s blessing that I was ordained,’ he said, ‘And everything is a mystery. My vocation is a mystery as well as a miracle. Priesthood is an immeasurable divine gift and miracle for me.’

Focus on young people and families

Fr Anil was assistant priest at St Andrew’s in Werribee between 2017 and January 2021, followed by St Kevin’s in Hampton Park, which is in Melbourne’s outer south-east. Throughout his ministry, he has been particularly focussed on engaging young people and families in his parish. He’s always inviting children in the parish to be altar servers and is proud to share that he currently has around 100 altar servers at St Kevin’s. He also had nearly 70 young altar servers in his Werribee parish.

‘We often think of the youth as they are the future, but ignore them now, in the present,’ he said. ‘So, my passion is to reach out to young people and families, to give them faith and try my best to bring them closer to Jesus. I want them to know that God loves them and is always there with them. God has a plan for each of them, so I hope God can be a priority for them in their journey.

‘Also, if they realise the value of faith, whenever challenges or difficulties come up in their lives, they can always go to Jesus and pray.’

Fr Anil is ‘proud about young people’ and has a ‘very vibrant youth group at St Kevin’s’. He has also started an online Rosary group via Zoom. This was an initiative he started in Werribee, too, given the onset of COVID-19 and lockdown restrictions. The Werribee group continues to this day, meeting every day at 7pm and is coordinated by parish volunteers. And now at St Kevin’s, the daily online Rosary is held at 6pm.

‘We have nearly 35-40 families, sometimes 50 families, who participate,’ said Fr Anil. ‘And each family has at least two or three people, and sometimes four or five children, saying the Rosary together. We have at least half an hour of prayer time together. So, these are the things that I try my best to bring families together and to build faith life in families.’

‘I want to reach out more to families to create one parish family community and put faith in their journey. That’s really important.’

We all have a role to play in promoting vocations

Fr Anil is one of seven vocations promoters across the Archdiocese (with another to be appointed soon), charged with the mission of promoting and facilitating among his local community, the call to priesthood and religious life among the faithful. In the south-east, Fr Anil is joined with Fr Geoff McIlroy (Mornington) and in the east, there is Fr Trac Nguyen (Camberwell, Balwyn, Deepdene and Surrey Hills Wattle Park) and Fr Jerald Mariadas (Doncaster East). In the west, there is Fr Daryl Montecillo (Corio/Lara) and Fr Sang Ho (Belmont); in the south, and in the north, Fr Joel Peart (Heidelberg).

Fr Anil explained that ‘every one of us has a role to play in encouraging others to be a priest or to discern their vocation, because God has called everyone’. Within his own parish, before daily Mass and weekend Mass people pray a prayer for vocations, as well as in the online Rosary gatherings. He will include prayers for vocations ‘at any opportunity’.

‘It’s important to increase prayers for vocations and to raise awareness for the need for more vocations,’ he said. ‘And for the young people, I try to accompany them in their discerning. Last year, I took 13 young people to the seminary to show them how we live and where men are being trained for the priesthood. It gives them exposure.

Young people often think they can be a doctor or an engineer or a policeman when they grow up, but we want them to know that they can be a good priest, too. Unless we tell them and ask them and provide opportunities for them to know this is a positive option for them, it will remain hidden. We can throw out the seeds and leave it to God to sprout.’

Fr Anil hopes that ‘realising God’s unconditional love in one’s journey and eagerness to grow in holiness, and our exemplary life witness will help inspire people to draw closer to God’. He said, ‘especially accompanying our young people and praying for them will help them to consider the priesthood. For me, I try my best to be a good priest, to reach out and love like God has loved me.’

Though he feels as though he ‘struggles’ in his language, he said, ‘God uses me through other things – through my witness and my life of service for the people of God. I can joyfully say that I try my best. I’ve enjoyed every moment as a priest to be with God’s people. I am grateful to God for the greatest gift of priesthood and prayers and encouragement of God’s people to do my ministry in my life journey. If I wasn’t a priest, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to reach out and touch so many families. God has an incredible plan for our life and listening to His call is worth it.’