Fr Dishan Candappa, the new Vocations Director for the Archdiocese of Melbourne, says that even after 13 years of priesthood, his joy in being a priest is ‘still growing’. Prior to entering seminary, the Sri Lankan-born priest worked as a civil engineer. Initially he suspected that becoming a priest would be like any other job and that the initial ‘honeymoon’ joy would eventually taper, but his experience has been just the opposite.
‘It’s still growing, the sense of joy. It still hasn’t plateaued. Thirteen years down the track, I didn’t expect to still be thrilled by being a priest,’ he says.
His journey to the priesthood was long and involved a lot of sacrifice. Although he sensed a calling to the priesthood at the age of six, he didn’t understand what that meant. His parents always made it clear that when it came to a career or vocation, he was free to choose whatever course in life he wanted. Their main concern was ‘to see God’s will done,’ he says. ‘The rest they didn’t worry about.’
When he was 15, his family migrated to Melbourne, and it was here that he studied to become a civil engineer. He also met a woman and became engaged to her.
But even then, the sense of being drawn to the priesthood didn’t leave, and he thought, ‘I’m in trouble.’ Fortunately, he was blessed to be with a woman who saw this too. ‘[She] could see that my heart was still with the priesthood and, after about six months of engagement, gave me the freedom to go down the track of priesthood.’
It was huge. Huge for her. A lot of suffering. Huge for me, too. I knew it was the right decision, but it was difficult as well.
One moment stands out as a turning point in his discernment. During a conversation with his fiancée, when she said she knew his heart was still with the priesthood, it felt as though he were having another conversation at the same time—with God. In that moment, Fr Dishan says, God made it clear he was being called to the priesthood. He also knew God was saying, ‘But I’m not going to force you.’
‘This was a beautiful experience where God made it very clear that I was free to choose. I got the sense he was saying, “I’m still going to be with you.” I did feel it would be Plan B if I kept going on the path of marriage, but I was very confident God’s not just going to desert me because I’m not going down Plan A.’
So, at 29 years of age, after more than 20 years of discernment, and having come very close to marriage, he entered the seminary.
When asked what his advice might be for young people discerning their vocation, Fr Dishan says, ‘I would give them the same advice I give myself. It depends on how much you want to give God.’
‘Not everyone is willing to work hard to become a doctor or engineer. You might desire it, but there’s a lot of hard work to reach that goal. People are driven. They put in.’
Fr Dishan admits to being quite a competitive person, and this drive helps him to seek God’s will and to know when his life isn’t matching up. The example of elite sportspeople, who give so much of themselves for their sport, really inspires him.
I love that [drive], and sometimes I compare the fact that I’m not putting in as much as they are, and they’re doing that for secular glory, and God’s calling me to the salvation of souls and I’m not working as hard as they are.
Fr Dishan wonders whether sometimes we set the bar too low for people, whether we perhaps fail to show them the heights of happiness to which they’re really called and what it might take to get there.
‘We should say, “Hey, this is the bar that God sets you,”’ he suggests. ‘It’s a difficult bar. It’s tough. But God won’t call you to something you can’t do. With his grace, you can get over this bar, and over this bar is true happiness. Anything below this bar, and you’ll settle for transient, shallow happiness that disappears and leaves you feeling dry.’
This is one of the great graces of the priesthood, he believes. Ordination is ‘a beautiful sign of contradiction’ in today’s world—an opportunity to witness in a radical way that there is more to life than ‘doing whatever you like when you like’. Priests have a chance to call people to something higher, especially at a time when the superficiality of what ‘the world’ promises is becoming clearer to people. ‘That emptiness reaches people at a younger and younger age.’
For Fr Dishan, this is what ‘accompaniment’ is all about. While we must meet people where they are, accompanying them means journeying with them along the path to doing God’s will.
‘Jesus never encountered someone and said, “Stay there.” He always had that deeper calling of where they should be,’ he says. He wonders if perhaps we’ve become too worried about creating conflict with people. Maybe this prevents us from loving people in a deeper way and, at the right time in the relationship, telling them the truth.
Spiritually, sometimes I think we’re reluctant to point [out] the truth to people because we think we’re going to offend them. But they will be offended at the end of their life if they realise, ‘Well, you knew all of this and you didn’t tell me. Why didn’t you tell me the truth?’
‘I love reading the prophets in the Old Testament. Most of them are hated by the people, but they had their task, which is to point out the truth, and then obviously people have their God-given free will to choose, to walk along that path or walk the path they’re currently walking. God respects that, and we have to respect that as well,’ he says.
The same freedom Fr Dishan’s parents showed him, and that God showed him, we must also show to others.
Along with being a diocesan priest, Fr Dishan is a Third Order Carmelite. Ever since he was a child, the Carmelites held a fascination for him. ‘My mum’s sister was a Discalced Carmelite,’ he explains. ‘I remember visiting her with my family and thinking, “What are you doing in jail?” because they live behind bars. But I saw how happy she was. It didn’t make sense, because they lived like in a prison.’
This Carmelite spirituality is a source of constant nourishment for Fr Dishan, and he has a deep love of the famous Carmelite saints, including St Teresa of Avila and St Thérèse of Lisieux. But he also has a devotion to St Catherine of Siena, who has a special place in his prayer life. His parents loved St Catherine, and when Fr Dishan had to choose where in Italy to study Italian, he chose Siena, even when everyone else chose Assisi.
Although St Catherine’s writings can be intense, her descriptions of the love of God are vivid and unforgettable. ‘She calls Jesus a “madman” in terms of his intense love for us,’ he says. This sense of the profound love of God has guided Fr Dishan to where he is today, giving him a deep sense of peace.
‘I can’t compare the peace I feel now,’ he says. ‘When you’re doing God’s will, and you know you’re doing it, the tremendous peace you feel, it’s very hard to articulate.’
Fr Dishan wants to help others find this peace also, to journey with them to discovering the God who invites them into true, authentic happiness. ‘It’s a challenge,’ he says. ‘It’s a lot of dying to self.’ But in the end, what could matter more than this?
Melbourne Catholic27 April 2023
Melbourne Catholic26 April 2023