St Catherine of Siena once said, ‘Be who you are meant to be, and you will set the whole world on fire.’ We all have a calling in our hearts, something specific that God invites us to in our life. In our Catholic faith tradition, we commonly refer to this calling as our ‘vocation’. Through our baptism, we are anointed and invited by God to follow and imitate Jesus in a particular and unique way, thus bringing to life the love of God to others.
In ‘discerning’ our unique call, the Church traditionally encourages four types of vocation: marriage, single life, priesthood, and religious life. At the heart of this call is our ability to respond freely and generously, and in so doing, experience a life of deep fulfilment, purpose, and joy.
Within the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne, the Vocations Office has been long established to assist anyone discerning God’s call in their life, particularly those considering priesthood or religious life. Fr Jerome Santamaria is the current Vocations Director having taken over from Fr David Cartwright in November 2020. He is also parish priest of St Mary’s parish in St Kilda East and St Colman’s in Balaclava.
Fr Jerome had been a lawyer in Melbourne when he decided to move to London to complete a master's degree in law. This was despite feeling unsure as to whether he wanted to continue working in the legal field. He applied to stay at the Catholic Chaplaincy Newman House in London. Upon his arrival, not long after arriving by plane in the early hours, he underwent an interview with the chaplain to explain who he was, why he was there, and why he had chosen Newman House.
Fr Jerome explained, ‘After 20 minutes of chatting with the chaplain he asked me, “Have you ever thought about becoming a priest?” I wasn’t sure how to answer that as no-one had ever asked me. I still hadn’t been given the keys to my room at that point!’
During his time in London, Fr Jerome kept pondering the question and each time he wrote a list of what he could potentially do – if not law – he always included ‘priesthood’. When he eventually spoke to a priest about his potential call, he was invited to pray more, to attend Mass and the Sacrament of Reconciliation more regularly. He also joined a discernment group that was being held through the Newman House chaplaincy. By the end of the year, Fr Jerome felt called to ‘give it a crack’ and so he returned to Melbourne and entered Corpus Christi Seminary in Carlton in 2006.
‘By the time I got to fifth or sixth year in the seminary, I’d almost forgotten the question of “do I want to become a priest”,’ said Fr Jerome. ‘At that time, I was invited by a seminary staff member to consider more deeply, “what type of priest do I want to be?” I knew then that this was what I was supposed to be doing.’
Fr Jerome was ordained at St Patrick’s Cathedral by then Archbishop of Melbourne Denis Hart on 8 September 2012. It was a particularly memorable moment for the then 34-year-old.
He explained, ‘During the Ordination liturgy, when you are at the litany of the saints, you lay prostrate at the altar. I felt I could reach out and touch prayers. There was this thick air around me and I could feel all the prayers of vocations, all the prayers of people who love you and people who have never known you but have been praying for priests. I felt I could just touch those prayers. There was a real sense of the communion of saints in heaven, on earth. I felt the real presence of the Church around me. That was the crystallisation moment.’
Following his ordination, Fr Jerome was assistant priest at St Bede’s in North Balwyn and St Anne’s in East Kew for about 18 months. He then studied in Rome for five years and returned in September 2019. He was appointed assistant priest at St Mary’s in St Kilda East before becoming the parish priest, along with St Colman’s in Balaclava, in November 2020. Fr Jerome is also chaplain at St Mary’s College in Windsor.
Amidst all of this, in his role as Vocations Director, Fr Jerome hopes to encourage parish communities within the Archdiocese to pray for and actively engage in the promotion and invitation of young people to discern the call to priesthood and religious life. He hopes his story will inspire others to have the courage to ‘ask the questions’.
‘I really enjoy fielding questions, whether it’s in a school setting or in preparing children for the sacraments, because I’ve also tried to address those questions, myself,’ he said. ‘We want to invite people to understand how Christ is calling and inviting them, and then sending them out.’
And he’s not alone in this task. As well as Fr Jerome, there are seven vocations promoters across the Archdiocese (with another to be appointed soon), each charged with the mission of promoting and facilitating among their local communities, the call to priesthood and religious life among the faithful. In the east, there is Fr Trac Nguyen (Camberwell, Balwyn, Deepdene and Surrey Hills Wattle Park) and Fr Jerald Mariades (Doncaster East); in the west, Fr Daryl Montecillo (Corio/Lara) and Fr Sang Ho (Belmont); in the south, Fr Geoff McIlroy (Mornington) and Fr Anil Mascarenhas (Hampton Park) and in the north, Fr Joel Peart (Heidelberg).
Fr Jerome explained that the role of vocations promoters fits within the broader vision of Archbishop Peter A Comensoli’s Take the Way of the Gospel, an invitation for all within our parish communities to renew their call and commitment to be missionary disciples.
We are all invited to rediscover our baptismal vocation to become priest, prophet and king, and to be missionary disciples of Jesus,’ he said. ‘We are all called into the life of Christ, which has been shown to us through the Gospels and through his own gift of our baptism.’
Fr Jerome said that the role of praying for and promoting vocations, particularly to the priesthood and religious life is not solely ‘the work of the vocations office’. Rather, it’s for everyone in every parish to pray for and actively promote and encourage vocations to the priesthood and religious life. ‘The Archdiocese covers a big area, so each of our parish communities needs to be providing opportunities for parishioners to pray for vocations and to invite people to give it a go. Our role will be to support parish communities to implement those two aspects of prayer and invitation.’
In each of the areas, the vocations promoters will meet with parishes in their catchment areas, contacting primary and secondary schools and creating connections with youth groups, young adult groups and ecclesial movements. They will help raise awareness for the need to pray for and encourage vocations to the priesthood and religious life, and support parish communities that hope to provide avenues for connecting with young men and women and listening to what may be on their hearts and minds.
‘We want to try to reach everyone in the Archdiocese,’ said Fr Jerome. ‘So, if we can help our parish communities in the different areas to pray, promote and invite people to consider a call to the priesthood or religious life, then we have a much broader net and a greater ability to be effective.’
Speaking of his role as Vocations Director, Fr Jerome said that he aims to do the best that he can, but that ‘it’s God who calls people’. ‘God calls them through the Church and therefore we all have a role to play.’
When considering the best advice for those discerning a call to the priesthood or religious life, Fr Jerome draws upon his own experience. He suggested not jumping to conclusions and not being afraid of the questions or inclinations you might have. ‘Listen to them and try them out,’ he said.
‘Make sure you’re praying and taking advantage of the sacraments regularly. Get involved in works of charity and read the Scriptures regularly so that you’re understanding the word of God. It’s an enculturation into the divine life.
‘I also think spiritual direction is crucial – to have someone who’s gone through this journey and who is ahead of you. They can short circuit some of the mistakes or some of the assumptions that you might make and can also calm you down and keep you on the right course.’
Melbourne Catholic31 January 2022
Melbourne Catholic13 December 2021