You’ve got this faith. And if it is as central to you as you’ve come to understand and believe, then "what are you going to do about it?" That was the question that Fr Denis Stanley, Rector of the Corpus Christi College, the regional seminary for Victoria and Tasmania, wrestled with as he was discerning his priestly vocation more than 30 years ago.
‘Jesus always confronts us with the question of authenticity,’ says Fr Denis. “Who do you say that I am? Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, you do that to me… What does it profit a person to gain the whole world but lose their life?”’ They are really challenging questions. So you have to respond, I think, or you just walk on the other side of the road.’
Fr Denis grew up in Keilor and was educated at St Christopher’s Primary School in Airport West before attending Salesian College in Sunbury. He shares that he 'wasn’t from a very religious household’, but always felt encouraged to explore his faith in the company of others.
It's a timely reminder as the Church celebrates Good Shepherd Sunday (also the 58th World Day of Prayer for Vocations), a day on which seminarians visit parishes to share the story of their vocation and encourage the community to pray for more vocations to the priesthood.
Before entering the seminary, Fr Denis had already completed a degree at RMIT and worked as a librarian. 'When you're younger you have all sorts of paths to travel. And I could have. But I was in a place where the fundamental questions of life were being addressed,' he shares.
‘I was in a Catholic environment which provided the space to ask the deeper questions all the time. “What does it mean to be a human being? Is there a God? What sort of life should we live... how do we make choices? What's the place of a community of faith?”
'I’ll always be grateful that I was baptised and brought into that space.’
Fr Denis has been Rector of Corpus Christi College for the last four years and sees his role as ensuring the holistic development of those seeking to become pastors. He explains that seminary formation is geared towards developing the human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral dimensions of a person, and ‘there’s nothing we do here that can't be related back to those four dimensions.’
Throughout their time at the seminary, students participate in a range of pastoral placements in primary schools, hospitals, nursing homes, prisons and diocesan agencies. As they reach the latter part of their studies, students are assigned to a parish for a period of time (as of 2021, this placement will be for twelve months). Fr Denis believes this experience of community life is integral to the ongoing development of students.
He has fond memories of his own pastoral placement experience at St Thomas More Parish in Hadfield, where his ordination to the diaconate eventually took place in the presence of the local community.
'When you talk to people, you've got to bring your humanity to them,' he says. 'You have to use your academic work to illumine pastoral situations. You have to let your spiritual life illumine your humanity. And pastoral work is a moment where that integration happens.’
'So I think pastoral work is a great "crossroad", where a lot of those things come together and they reveal themselves in a more intentional way than they normally would.’
Assisting in the ongoing development of seminarians are formators, who accompany and listen to seminarians as they explore their vocation to the priesthood. Earlier this year, the seminary welcomed two new formators: Maria O’Donnell and Fr Brian Nichols. Maria is the first layperson to serve in the role of formator and brings decades of experience in Catholic education, pastoral care of young people and parish life. ‘She's seen the best of the Church and the worst of the Church,’ Fr Denis says, ‘and she brings her ability to pastorally care for young people and to accompany and listen.’
Fr Brian Nichols, who is also Vice Rector of the seminary, is from the Archdiocese of Hobart and has been a priest for more than 40 years. His experience as a parish priest is invaluable, Fr Denis says, as is his expertise in liturgy and systematic theology, which he teaches at Catholic Theological College (CTC).
Fr Denis is grateful that staff and students have been able to return to the seminary after what he calls a year of 'loss and gain'. This included the diminishment of pastoral work in 2020, especially in the Melbourne metropolitan area. 'It is in pastoral work – engaging with others, listening and serving – that our vocation is more keenly observed,' he says.
'Pastoral work is what allows students to address important questions like: “Is this what I want to do for the rest of my life? Do I find this ultimately life-giving? Do I have the gifts for this? Do I have a genuine concern for others? Do I know and feel that the Lord is with me in this work which is his work?”
‘We are a sacramental people. People yearn for touch and connection. That is how God made us and how he graciously stoops to be with us in Christ Jesus,’ Fr Denis says. ‘It’s good for the seminarians to see the good what happens at the parish level and that gives them some balance to address the things that have harmed the Church and address them constructively.’
Fr Denis is currently the Episcopal Vicar for Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations for the Archdiocese of Melbourne. He is also a lecturer at CTC in the areas of ecumenism and interfaith relations, as well as the Sacrament of Marriage.
He shares that he has a great interest in Reformation history as it helps him to understand ecumenism.
‘My specialty is sixteenth-century Church history. That’s the time of the Reformation and that was a very ugly time in the Church's history.’
He says he's always had an appreciation for how everything human – even the ugliest part of humanity – is accounted for in the story of faith.
'Nothing is alien to our faith. We know Christ is risen. There's no darkness that that light can't touch. That’s the faith perspective. And if that's true, then you're able to look at anything with the eyes of faith and not be afraid. Getting an appreciation for history is very important in that it gives you a sort of balance – you’ve seen it all happen before. It’s part of the whole of what Christ came to redeem us from.’
Fr Denis shares that during Lent he read a number of books on Church history and life, including the latest collection of essays by historian Eamon Duffy and A Cross in the Heart of God by Samuel Wells. But it was the short novel Homing by Jon Day that seems to have really struck a chord with him.
‘It's nature writing … but the author also weaves through the human question of, “What does it mean to make a home and to settle down in one place?”
‘I think the question of home is important because that’s a question about people, about community. It's about acknowledging humbly that our lives depend on others and that we are not independent.’
Not surprisingly, this idea has many parallels with the life of faith. ‘That’s the important thing about parish life: not just having faith but being part of a community of faith. I question the whole thing of being "spiritual but not religious" because being spiritual can also be very individualistic,’ he says.
‘Church is risky. Community is risky. Family is risky, but you can't draw away from it. You have to reconcile yourself to a life in communion with others. And that's the important work of a parish as a place in a suburb. I think it’s important, especially for students who are studying to be parish priests, to become lovers of a place – a parish – and to be with the people as their lives unfold in that parish.’
Archbishop Peter A Comensoli26 June 2022
Melbourne Catholic24 June 2022