When asked how she felt six years ago on learning that her son John would be entering the seminary to train for the priesthood, Maddalena Vespa needs more than one adjective to convey the joy she felt that day, offering ‘glad’ and ‘pleased’ before settling on ‘so, so happy’.

John is the youngest of Maddalena’s four children with her husband Mario. Their daughter and two other boys are all married, and Maddalena and Mario are blessed with five grandchildren.

Theirs is a family with a long and rich Catholic heritage.

‘Mum and Dad were always very actively involved in our parish community when I was growing up,’ Maddalena recalls. ‘Myself and Mario, we have been very much the same—very much involved in parish community and schools.’

Both Maddalena and Mario grew up at St Brigid’s Parish in North Fitzroy, but ‘even though perhaps our families knew each other, I did not know Mario,’ Maddalena says of her childhood years in the parish. Eventually, though, their paths crossed and they fell in love, marrying at St Brigid’s in 1969. ‘It’s just gone 55 years of married life,’ Maddalena says, ‘and we have raised our four children together.’

Throughout her children’s school years, Maddalena threw herself into serving in the parents’ and friends’ associations at their primary and secondary schools, and she and Mario have also had a long association with the Italian Catholic Federation. ‘Both Mario and myself have been very involved,’ she says, ‘probably since I was 16, and Mario also about that [age]—maybe a little bit older.’

He was always very good with people and always loved people.

As their family has grown, they have lived in different parts of Melbourne’s north, always entering wholeheartedly into the life of their local parish. ‘We started off at Holy Spirit in Thornbury, where we started our family, but then, of course, we moved here to St Mary’s in Greensborough, and that’s our current parish, where John attended all his primary school.’

Maddalena says there was nothing that particularly stood out when John was very small that would have suggested to her then that he would eventually pursue a vocation to the priesthood. ‘Probably not as a youngster, I didn’t see that. But he was always very good with people and always loved people.’

She recalls, for example, that when John was five or six years old, she would take him to work with her at San Carlo Aged Care in South Morang—at that time a ministry of the Claretian Sisters (Missionary Sisters of St Anthony Mary Claret).

‘He would come with me many times and I was truly amazed at the communication and the relationship that he had with the elderly,’ Maddalena recalls. ‘He certainly had something there that none of my other children did.

‘He used to wander around and have a lot to do with the elderly people. And they used to love him so much.’

As John got older, Maddalena was pleased to see her son growing in his relationship with God. ‘I could see he was very faithful, and I could see in his 20s and 30s he was always faith-filled and practising his faith. Although he probably never mentioned going into the seminary as such, many relatives and friends did feel that John had a bit of a calling to serve the Church somehow,’ she remembers.

We were at St Peter’s Basilica in front of La Pietà. That’s exactly where he said, ‘Mum, I just would like to tell you that I’ve applied to enter the seminary next year.’

In 2017, John travelled to Spain to walk the Camino de Santiago. Maddalena and Mario were visiting the famous shrine to Our Lady of Fatima in central Portugal at about that time, so they met up with John when he had finished his Camino. ‘I must admit, I did pray a lot for his vocation,’ Maddie says of that time together in Europe, ‘because I think it was a vocational pilgrimage.’

After they came home from their holiday in 2017, John said nothing about a vocation to the priesthood, Maddalena says, ‘but he still continued practising, going to Holy Hour, doing lots of things for the Church.’

The next year, in 2018, the entire family travelled to Spain to celebrate the wedding of John’s brother Paul, and afterwards they all travelled on to Rome. It was there that Maddalena first learnt from John about his intention to pursue a calling to the priesthood.

‘We were actually at St Peter’s Basilica in front of La Pietà’, Maddalena recalls of this poignant moment between mother and son. ‘That’s exactly where he said, “Mum, I just would like to tell you that I’ve applied to enter the seminary next year.” I’ll never forget: it was 3 August 2018 when he told me that news, and wow! He must have received some confirmation or some email from the seminary to say that he was accepted, and of course he needed to say something.’

‘It was an amazing experience,’ Maddalena says of this ‘very emotional’ moment. ‘I was so, so happy for him because I knew then it was what he wanted.’

When John entered Corpus Christi College the next year, Maddalena and Mario understood that his time in the seminary would be a period of discernment. Over this time, they have watched him grow in his calling.

‘He’s living life as a seminarian in a true and fruitful way—I can see that,’ Maddalena says. ‘When John comes home to visit, you know, it’s obvious in his mannerisms he’s growing in his vocation in a very loving and serving way.’

I pray that in all that he does, he’s able to enter more fully into the vocation that our Lord is calling him to.

John is now in his sixth year of formation, and ‘God willing, he will be ordained as a deacon later this year,’ Maddalena says. ‘I suppose, on reflection, I feel that John is at peace.’

Her hope for her youngest son is that he will continue to find happiness in his vocation. ‘I pray that … in all that he does, and especially in the next 18 months, he’s able to enter more fully into the vocation that our Lord is calling him to.’

If she could offer him any advice, she says, it would be that he continue to listen to God in prayer and ‘to always be true to his call by remembering why God really called him.’ She hopes he will remember the words of Jesus—‘Love one another as I’ve loved you’—and trust in that call.

Maddalena looks forward to all that lies ahead for John. ‘Even just at the end of the year to see him become a deacon, I think that is such an honour for a parent,’ she says. ‘Both Mario and myself, we are truly, truly honoured, and we’re really happy to have John as our son.’

Banner image: Maddalena Vespa with son John at Corpus Christi College. (Photo by Joshua McDermid.)