Bishop Terry Curtin recently celebrated 50 years of priesthood, though he said it was many years before his actual ordination that he felt a ‘deep call’ to serve and do something profound with his life. In this article, we give thanks for the life and service of Bishop Terry and pray that he can continue to enjoy good health and be a vessel of God’s love and mercy to all he encounters.
Bishop Terry Curtin celebrated the golden jubilee of his priesthood on 28 August 2021, the Feast Day of St Augustine. Due to current lockdown restrictions in Victoria, there were no grand celebrations or gatherings. Rather, he met on Zoom with good friend Archbishop Patrick O’Regan of the Archdiocese of Adelaide and shared a gin and tonic!
He also took time to read through and reflect upon the ‘beautiful sentiments’ shared by staff and students from St Mary of the Cross MacKillop Primary School in Epping North, where he’d visited not long before the latest lockdown.
‘I met the children who were to be confirmed and we had a great time together,’ he said.
'There were over 50 Grade Six students and for my anniversary they sent me a very beautiful greeting where each child had prepared a particular page with a message on it. Some of the things that they say in it are quite lovely.
‘One of them says, “If God could see you, he would love you” and another one says, “I don’t know you too well but that speech – meaning, that class we had – says a lot about you. It feels like you don’t care what people think about you, but you get the message of God to them in a way they can relate to.” He goes on to say, “I’m not getting confirmed because I’m not Catholic, but I know that you will do it well for others. Let God be with you during lockdown and your huge milestone.” Their teachers sent this to me, and it was a wonderful thing to receive.’
Reflecting on his milestone, Bishop Terry said that the call to be a priest goes back further than 50 years; it stems right back to his childhood. ‘At about the age of eight, I had a sense of “calling” within me,’ he said.
‘At the time, things in the family were dramatic – my mother had terminal breast cancer – but I felt I wanted to do something more. I guess my mother’s illness then faced me with the deeper dimensions in life.’
Born in Cremorne, Sydney, in 1945, his parents were Desmond and Nancie Curtin. He had a younger brother Tony, who died in 2009 of cancer, the same disease that claimed his mother in 1956 when Terry was ten and Tony, eight. Following their mother’s death, the family came to Melbourne and the boys were sent to St Kevin’s in Toorak, where they completed their schooling.
Responding to the deep call that persisted throughout his secondary years, and with the help of school chaplain Fr Kevin Toomey, he discerned that diocesan priesthood would be his chosen pathway. He graduated from St Kevin’s and entered the regional seminary in Werribee in 1964, from where in 1967 he was sent to Rome for his theological studies.
He was ordained at St Patrick’s Cathedral on 28 August 1971, aged 26. His father attended the ordination Mass, and when he knelt in front of the newly ordained priest for a blessing, so too did Fr Terry. ‘I had to kneel immediately when he knelt in front of me,’ said Bishop Terry. ‘I could not stand over him.’
His first parish appointment was St Anthony’s in Noble Park, which he described as ‘an absolute honeymoon’. He ‘loved the people and the interaction’. ‘It was a vibrant parish of 2000 families with 1500 children in the school. We were baptising up to a dozen children each weekend. It was just wonderful!’ He was then appointed to St Mark’s in Fawkner and was there only three months before being appointed as head of religious education at Mercy Teachers’ College in Ascot Vale, which later became part of the new Australian Catholic University (ACU).
'Teaching was the one thing I’d ruled out when entering the seminary,’ he said. ‘I had decided not to go to the Jesuits because I didn’t want to teach and then I was being asked to teach! But I couldn’t say no, because on the day of my ordination, I lay down on the ground, put my trust in God, and promised to serve. To not say yes would be to deny what was at the heart of my vocation.’
Bishop Terry worked in academia at ACU for 28 years and, following that, was also Master of Catholic Theological College in East Melbourne for eight years. Ordained an auxiliary bishop of Melbourne by Archbishop Denis Hart in December 2014, he has particular responsibility for the northern region of the archdiocese and chairs the Catholic Education Commission of Victoria.
He said that there have been a number of challenges throughout his vocation, however, the main challenge he faced in his teaching years was ‘how to communicate the faith in a way that works with the situation that people are in at that moment’. ‘Not to be thinking that they must be a certain kind of person or that I have to make them be “that”. No, I need to meet them where they’re at and to find the grace that is at work in that situation.’
'God is at work in the world, and part of the challenge of faith is to see where God is at work. I think the great thing with our faith is that it speaks to and enhances our humanity. It calls it forth. In our faith, there’s no situation that is foreign to God and therefore we come into that with that sense of “guide me, teach me, enable me, let me learn, show me”.’
Along with challenges, Bishop Terry said there had been many moments over his ministry that have ‘surprised him’ and deepened his own sense of faith and trust in God’s presence.
‘I discovered that there is a faith, where you least expect it. ‘Sometimes we can be a bit quick at drawing a line and thinking there’s nothing here when there really is,’ he said.
One of the experiences he’ll ‘never forget’ took place in his second year at St Anthony’s in Noble Park. A woman rang asking if Bishop Terry could take communion to her husband, who was sick at home with terminal cancer. He visited the young man, and each time when invited to say a prayer of thanksgiving after Communion, he would say the Our Father. ‘As his illness progressed I said to him, “I come by here every day. If you like, I could bring you communion every day, would you like that?” He replied, “I would, it gives me strength”.’
‘When he died, his brothers and sisters said to me, “We are amazed he had any connection with the Catholic Church at all.” They said, “The only connection we ever had was that, as children, we were sent to school at St Joseph’s Collingwood”.’
Bishop Terry explained, ‘But to me, that told me that during that time, someone taught him the Our Father, he would have made his Reconciliation, his First Holy Communion and have been Confirmed. And what I could see, at the end of all that, was, despite the external appearances, the faith was there. God was there. The seed had been sown, and at the end of his life, he had everything he needed; he could say the Our Father and Communion gave him strength.
'That, to me, is very precious, and it tells me in whatever pastoral situation we’re in, leave a margin around the page for what God will do with this. Trust, always.’
As the first assembly of the national Plenary Council begins, along with the work already underway within the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne through Take the Way of the Gospel, Bishop Terry hopes the people of God will be renewed in their faith, ‘to be clearer, as it were, about what it asks of us, and then what forms and shapes that might take now and into the future’.
‘We need to be able to name the realities that we live in in Australia, which is a highly secular society and therefore, how do we engage with that society in a way that will also be of service to other people, whether they share our faith or not, but at the same time, not to lose our own? Another challenge will be, how do we then pass that faith on to the next generation.’
Speaking of the Archdiocese’s Take the Way of the Gospel, ‘Some have said, “Wouldn’t it have been better to wait until after the Plenary Council?” but I think, no, the realities are right there now. Hopefully one will work with the other and indeed be fed or supported or challenged by the other, so that then, something further can be done. To sit back and wait, is not the answer at all.’
At 76, with good health, and no immediate retirement on the horizon, Bishop Terry hopes to be ‘part of this new re-envisioning of our parishes’, which he considers ‘very special’. ‘I would like to be part of that encouraging and moving forward. I’d love to think that we’ll soon have more freedoms from the COVID restrictions, so that we can actually meet and converse and discern [in person].’ Whatever may come, Bishop Terry hopes that he can continue ‘to serve’.
‘In the words of St John Henry Newman, “I ask simply to be used,”’ he said.
Bishop Terry Curtin received a letter and blessing from Pope Francis on the occasion of his golden jubilee (English translation). During Bishop Terry’s priestly ministry, he’s had the pleasure of meeting three popes: Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II, and Pope Francis, twice. Pope Francis is a great source of inspiration to Bishop Terry, as was his father and brother, who both had a strong sense of faith. Though his mother wasn’t Catholic, her practical and ‘straight talking’ manner, was a source of inspiration to the bishop, along with his Godmother, Anne Imray, who lived to 102. To this day, Bishop Terry carries in his wallet a reflection written by Saint John Henry Newman, which was passed onto him by his father.
Fiona Basile14 October 2021
Melbourne Catholic14 October 2021