Fr Geoff McIlroy is a man with a big heart who is most at home with those on the fringes of society, and on the back of his Harley Davidson. The 59-year-old parish priest of St Macartan’s Parish in Mornington is no stranger to life on the edge, having rebelled against his parents and abandoned his Catholic faith for at least 20 years, before allowing the ‘seed of God’s love’ to grow and flourish.
At 53, he became a priest within the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne and has recently been appointed one of seven vocations promoters, charged with the mission to help support priests and parishes in the south to pray for and encourage vocations to the priesthood and religious life. As priest and promoter, he hopes to share the transformative power of God’s mercy, and the love and joy of Christ, which has been at the heart of his ministry.
Fr Geoff McIlroy grew up in Keysborough in Melbourne’s outer south, having arrived in Australia at the age of five with his English-born parents and sister in 1968. As a family they were heavily involved in the local parish life, and throughout his early years of high school Fr Geoff was an A-Grade student and captain of the chess team. He was often dux of the class and ‘somewhat a nerd,’ he explained, but at the age of 16, discovered ‘girls, alcohol and drugs’ and started to rebel against his family. He bought a motorbike and became an ‘easy rider’ enjoying the freedom and lifestyle it afforded.
He then left school and was ‘kicked out of home’ and stopped practicing his faith. Being homeless and sometimes living in halfway houses, he worked in factories and hospitality and had a stint as a musician. He ‘tried everything’ until eventually enrolling in university where he gained a qualification as an industrial chemist. Having worked professionally for 25 years nationally and internationally, his business success afforded him the continued ownership of his beloved Harley Davidson motorbikes.
Fr Geoff recalled that throughout this time, he was constantly asking himself, ‘what do I want to do with my life?’ This question changed following the opportunity to help his very sick younger sister, Susan, who he said, ‘developed in me a servant’s heart.’
No longer was it about me. It was about how can I help her? And that led me back into the Church after a 20-year absence and it changed my question to, “Lord, what can I do for you?” That was a turning point for me because no longer was I looking at what I wanted to do, but rather, “Lord, what can I give to you?”’
Returning to his faith and Mass, and questioning how he could be of service to the Lord, Fr Geoff started volunteering in nursing homes and joined a range of faith-based prayer groups. He also ran a halfway house on his property for drug and alcohol offenders and a Christian counselling service.
‘To me, faith is practical. I’m not a book reader and one to theorise about faith. I need to do something. Yes, I pray, but my faith must be active. Faith is a verb.’
As Fr Geoff’s relationship with God deepened, he started praying for direction and when considering how to be ‘most effective as a Christian’ he started ‘watching people intently’. He volunteered to go on mission overseas with a Baptist community, which focussed on bringing the Word of God to people. ‘I was amongst evangelists and missionaries, and I was always watching to see how they communicated their faith and brought it to life.’
The answer came to him, however, by way of a priest who attended his sick father’s bedside in hospital to administer the last rites. It was a moment that he’d never forget. ‘My father was suffering, and I didn’t want him to die, but to see the priest bless and anoint my father, was so beautiful. That stayed with me.
And then I realised that I loved inviting people to pray and to open their hearts to the Holy Spirit. I wanted to foster in others a relationship with the Lord because I knew how it affected me and I wanted that for them, too.’
Filled with enthusiasm, Fr Geoff began speaking to several priests. He said he wasn’t ‘called to the priesthood’ as such, but rather, he felt called ‘to follow Christ’.
‘Christ is the one who led me to where I am today,’ he said. ‘I had a willingness to want to follow Christ and to say yes.’ Having spoken to the then Vocations Director, Fr David Cartwright, Fr Geoff was advised to go on a spiritual retreat and to get more involved with his local church, which he did. In the following 12-months, his faith ‘grew exponentially’ and ‘felt even stronger’. He understood that the wisdom of the guiding priests rang true – he needed to develop his relationship with the Lord, first, and then see where that leads.
Fr Geoff was 48 when he entered the seminary. Though considered a ‘late vocation’ and concerned about his ‘chequered history’, Fr Geoff believed he was able to answer God’s call at that time due to his heart being ‘open and ready’.
‘That’s the most important thing – it’s about having the right heart. If I’d let my head decide, I would never have become a priest; it must come from your heart. That’s when God calls you and that’s when you learn your vocation – God’s unique plan for each one of us.’
This is the message that Fr Geoff hopes to impart upon those he encounters not only as a parish priest but as one of two vocations promoters in the southern area of the Archdiocese of Melbourne.
To me, it’s about sharing how to recognise God’s call for you. From baptism onwards, we’re all part of God’s family and every one of us has a unique role to play in God’s master plan. We’re all different pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, each with a different role to play. And if one of us isn’t playing our role, then a piece in the jigsaw is missing.
‘I especially want young people to know that they’re all part of God’s masterplan, that they’re all unique and perfect in their own way. That doesn’t mean to say that we’re always perfect in our mannerisms or in what we say or do, but rather, we’re unique and perfect in who we are. There is no other you in the world.’
He particularly loves listening to young people, and to paying attention to the ‘questions that they don’t ask’.
‘It’s all about letting them feel comfortable to ask those questions that are deeply connected to their heart, to really get to know their own spirituality and to open themselves up,’ he said. ‘God does the converting, not us. We’re there to prepare them, to help them open their hearts and be honest and real with themselves and to really trust in the Lord and letting Him work within them. That’s what it’s about.
‘And I’d say, “Don’t ever be afraid to follow that deep call”. Your faith and spirituality will enrich everything else in your life, whether you’re called to be a diocesan priest or a religious or a single person or a married person. Faith is integral no matter what you do.’
Today, you’re just as likely to find Fr Geoff on the back of his whiskey-amber Harley (Heritage Softail Classic 1700cc), or on the local streets of Mornington and surrounds, as you would in his local parish Church. He feels very ‘at home’ with those on the edge, who ‘dip their toe in, but don’t jump all the way in’. His Harley is part of his ministry, giving him ‘street creds’ among people that he might not otherwise encounter.
‘I had a priest ask me once, “how can the Harley be a ministry tool?” I said, well, whoever gets on the back with me suddenly learns how to pray! That’s been a bit of a joke, but it’s true too. Having the bike allows me to communicate with other groups and people out there; we all come from different backgrounds, beliefs and cultures and we respect that in each other.’
Being among the community is where Fr Geoff blossoms. He has been a priest now for five years, and he said they’ve been the best years of his life.
All my other experiences in life pale into insignificance in the time that I’ve been a priest. I’ve experienced so much joy because I’m part of other people’s lives and I’m helping them to connect with God.
‘I’m a vehicle for the Lord’s forgiveness through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, through his blessings and grace, and through his mercy. It is such a privilege every time I have an opportunity to go out there and help. People often wonder about all the things I gave up in being a priest, but there’s not one thing that I left behind that I miss or regret. I only think of all the things I’ve gained, and everything is pointing forward because that’s where Christ leads me.’
Images by Fiona Basile for Melbourne Catholic.
Fiona Basile24 February 2022
Fiona Basile03 August 2021