Congratulations to Fr Gerard Dowling OAM DE, who celebrates a momentous milestone this year: 50 years on air as a radio broadcaster. Since 1973, Fr Dowling has hosted a regular spot on RSN 927 AM (formerly 3UZ) every Sunday from 10pm to 12am called The Family Counsellor. It is the longest running show of its kind in Australia. Fr Gerard’s achievement was honoured last week with a celebration among friends, family and colleagues, hosted by RSN at Parliament House.
Fr Gerard Dowling is a prolific writer, radio host and counsellor, and a priest of 65 years. Later this month, he’ll celebrate his 91st birthday, but this isn’t stopping him from what he’s been doing for decades. Each Sunday evening, he is picked up from Justin Villa in Balwyn and taken to RSN’s studios in Melbourne’s CBD. There he and on-air partner and producer Philip Tuzel take calls and field an array of questions over the two hours.
In the five decades that Fr Gerard has been hosting the show, he says, there has often been a current theme running through people’s hearts and minds. ‘Because it’s a religious program, people are usually trying to discern what the Church represents and what faith means,’ he says.
It’s nice to have the word ‘faith’, but in reality, what is it like in their day-to-day situation? That’s basically what it’s all about.
The callers ‘are fairly regular people’ according to Fr Gerard, and come from all walks of life, backgrounds, ages and life situations. ‘I think it’s helped people in their everyday lives. I just go in on a Sunday night, but I think it helps them for the rest of the week as they live out their faith in their working, home or school situation.’
Fr Gerard was ordained a priest at St Patrick’s Cathedral in July 1958, served as assistant priest in Burwood and Altona parishes between 1959 and 1961, and completed studies in social work and counselling at the University of Melbourne in 1963. He joined CatholicCare Victoria (originally known as the Catholic Social Services Bureau) as a counsellor that same year.
He credits the success of his tenure on the radio show, and his writing career, to the experiences he’s gained in his priestly ministry as a counsellor and as chaplain to various organisations, including Stella Maris and St Vincent’s Hospital.
I’m very fortunate that the things I’ve been involved in—the radio and the writing—are expressions of my priestly ministry.
‘Counselling is a natural flow-out from my priestly work and is deeply enriched by this. For the many years that I’ve been a counsellor, it’s been extremely fulfilling work.’
Fr Gerard shared a moving experience he had during his time at St Vincent’s Hospital as chaplain, which gave him ‘really wonderful insight’. A patient who was there for a fairly routine treatment died, completely out of the blue. ‘The nurses in that particular section of the hospital had never actually experienced a patient die,’ he says. ‘And so I walked alongside them as we discussed what happened, and quietly listened.’ The man had a wife and children, too. Following the death, Fr Gerard maintained contact with the staff, helping them to work through what had happened. ‘It was one of the most extraordinary moments,’ he says.
Along with the weekly radio show, Fr Gerard shares his priestly experiences, insight and wisdom through his writing. He says he was ‘discovered’ by the editor of The Advocate, the original publication of the Archdiocese of Melbourne, not long after he’d been ordained. At the time, newly ordained priests were tasked with giving the homilies at St Patrick’s Cathedral. ‘The editor must have been impressed,’ says Fr Gerard, so he was asked to contribute a regular piece. Originally known as ‘Timely Tip’, his monthly column later became known as ‘Perspective’ and is something he still writes and contributes to Catholic media today.
Reflecting on the various expressions of his ministry, Fr Gerard says most of his work is really about affirming people. ‘A lot of people are not really affirmed by others,’ he says. ‘And so I see my role as affirming people and helping them to realise their own personal dignity.’ He also emphasises the importance of listening and hearing people, and helping them to deepen their relationships with God ‘ultimately’, and with one another.
People really yearn to be listened to.
‘Sometimes I’m counselling a couple and I find that one or the other, or both, really yearn to be listened to, but it doesn’t seem to be happening. So I can listen to what they’re saying and perhaps open their minds to thinking about things in a different way. I can provide a different perspective on things.’
Fr Gerard is grateful that he has ‘a capacity to relate to people as they are’. It is this, he says, that has greatly helped in his ministry. ‘It’s one thing to be called a priest and another thing to live that vocation in everyday situations,’ he says, ‘and to have contact with people in the ordinary suburbs and parishes.’
But at the heart of Fr Gerard’s ministry is love. ‘I know it sounds like a corny word, but it’s about love,’ he says. ‘If I don't really love you, if I don’t love the person I'm ministering to, or listening to, well, it’s just doing something. But if it’s love, and I genuinely care about the wellbeing of that person, then that makes all the difference.
‘I think people really got the message that I care about them. They can feel, “I’m important to you”.’
Fr Gerard was born in Essendon, in the northern suburbs of Melbourne, to Jack and Cathy Dowling. He had an older brother, and his twin sister, Mary, was born the day before him. Sadly, Mary died three years ago, which was a big loss for Fr Gerard as they were very close. Speaking of his family, he says, ‘I was very fortunate. I grew up in a very close, positive family, and there were a lot of interesting things in the life of the church, and in the life of the suburb that we lived.’
Though he grew up in Essendon, Fr Gerard is an avid North Melbourne football supporter. His father was ‘born about a dropkick from the North Melbourne ground’ and used to take the family ‘to the north’. ‘So it was just a logical follow on,’ he says. Fr Gerard has written a couple of books about the history of the North Melbourne Football Club.
As his 91st birthday approaches, along with the official 50-year anniversary date of his commencement on radio—Sunday 3 September—Fr Gerard has much to reflect upon and give thanks for. He says, ‘There are a lot of things you do in life, and you marvel at what you actually do.
If you’re really committed to something, you find the time. And if you're given a project, it's surprising that you rise to the occasion.
Despite a cancer scare early in his priesthood, Fr Gerard is also grateful for the ‘good health’ he has enjoyed in subsequent years. While he may have slowed down, he looks forward to his continued ministry of counselling on radio, his writing, and to the visits and phone calls he receives. It’s obvious to anyone in his presence that Fr Gerard still has a lot of listening, love and affirmation to share.
Fr Gerard Dowling was honoured at Parliament House on 17 August with a Golden Jubilee celebration. Seventy-five guests attended, including family, co-workers and friends. Guests were welcomed by the Hon Anthony Carbines, Minister for Police, Minister for Crime Prevention and Minister for Racing, with speeches given by family and colleagues, including Phil Touzel, Fr Gerard’s long-time producer and co-host, and former North Melbourne player and coach Denis Pagan. Fr Gerard Dowling will officially mark the 50-year anniversary of his radio broadcasting career on Sunday 3 September 2023.
The photos in the first gallery are courtesy CatholicCare Victoria; the photos in the second gallery are courtesy Morgan Hancock and RSN.
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Melbourne Catholic08 December 2023