‘Every one of us has a special vocation that God has planned since the beginning of time,’ Fr Cameron Forbes, Rector of Corpus Christi College, reminded those who gathered on Friday 1 September at the 23rd Archbishop’s Dinner. Around 450 people came together at Moonee Valley Racecourse—the largest turnout in many years—raising $77,000 in total in support of seminarians.

A fixture in the calendar of the local Church since 1999, the dinner is hosted each year by the Knights of the Southern Cross Priests Support and Education Fund to raise funds for the education of seminarians at Corpus Christi College, the major seminary of Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania, and for those studying for the Catholic Military Ordinariate of Australia to become chaplains in the Australian Defence Force.

The event is a wonderful opportunity for Catholics from across Victoria to get together, hear from an inspiring speaker and enjoy a delicious meal and lively conversation, all while raising funds for seminarians through a major raffle, a silent auction and open auctions.

Before saying grace, Archbishop Peter A Comensoli offered some words of welcome and thanks to those gathered for the dinner, sharing how the experience of meeting Pope Francis at the Vatican with a group of young and emerging leaders in the lead-up to World Youth Day (WYD) last month was one of the most ‘extraordinary’ moments of his life.

Scheduled at the last minute, when another speaker came down with COVID, the audience with the Holy Father was, he said, ‘an extraordinary opportunity’ for these young people, ‘some, I hope, who might be here at dinner next year or the year after as seminarians’.

He spoke enthusiastically of the almost 600 young pilgrims who have returned to Melbourne from WYD 2023 ‘alive with the gift of Jesus Christ and able now—and I suspect deeply willing—to bring what they have received into our local communities of faith’. Looking forward to the Australian Catholic Youth Festival, to be hosted by Melbourne in December 2025, and to the next WYD in Seoul, South Korea, in 2027, he encouraged those present to support the young people in their communities.

‘Keep them in your prayers,’ he said. ‘Get in behind them, invite, encourage, and know that there are young Catholics in our diocese stepping up and stepping forward, wanting to live a life in Christ and to live that in our communities.’

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Archbishop Peter A Comensoli welcomes guests to the Archbishop’s Dinner. Photo by Frank di Blasi.

As their entrees were being served, guests were treated to a performance of the Corpus Christi College Schola, after which Barbara Ralph presented bursaries to two seminarians, Jean-Sebastien Gery and Tue Pham, which will enable them to travel to the Holy Land as part of their formation. Responding for both of them, Jean-Sebastien said, ‘I experience this gift as grace, for grace is granted regardless of my achievement … It’s grace for me, and grace for Tue too … And because grace is transformative, I am forever grateful for this life-changing experience.’

In one of the evening’s highlights, Fr Michael Gallacher, Parish Priest of St Roch’s Glen Iris and a self-confessed ‘Carlton tragic’, engaged Carlton footballer Matthew Kennedy in a conversation about the ways that Matt’s Catholic faith guides and sustains him not just through the ups and downs of his professional football career but in the whole of his life.

Matt explained that before he plays, he writes three Fs on his wrist to remind himself of his purpose and priorities, ‘and that’s faith, family, and footy’s third … and that lines up everything well for me. If footy is not going well, then it’s not the end of the world.’

Far from detracting from his enjoyment of the game, he said, these priorities have helped him recover his love for AFL.

‘Once I’d found that purpose, I really enjoyed the little things and the hard work and the grind of AFL, because it is a pretty big commitment, and I’ve definitely learnt there’s a lot of ups and downs in footy … So if you just rely on footy, you’re in for a tough run. So I feel like faith just balances my life out.’

After dinner, guest speaker Fr Forbes reflected on a significant question from the Book of Isaiah, ‘Whom shall I send?’ (6:8), and on the uniqueness of each person’s experience of vocation, reminding his audience that ‘each of us, in our own way, says to God, “Send me Lord, I come to do your will.”’

Telling the story of his own journey, via baptism in the Anglican Church, to ordination as a Catholic priest 14 years ago, Fr Forbes mused on the mysterious ways of God, explaining that the Anglican school chaplain who had first prompted him to consider baptism and then, later, the priesthood had eventually become a Catholic priest himself. In fact, a couple of years ago, 23 years after receiving that first encouragement towards his priestly vocation, Fr Forbes found himself appointed as parish priest to the very parish where his former school chaplain was working.

Another surprise was in store for Fr Forbes when, last year, Archbishop Comensoli asked him to become the new Rector of Corpus Christi College. Happily settled in his parish, he initially hesitated. ‘I can’t,’ he said. ‘I have a dog.’

Fr Forbes’ ‘lame excuse’ was politely rejected by the Archbishop, who pointed out that it would be good for the seminary to have a dog, and now Irish terrier Felix has made himself thoroughly at home as Corpus Christi’s only canine resident, even celebrating his birthday recently at a special party organised by the seminarians.

In light of Vatican II’s affirmation that we all share in a common priesthood through our baptism, Fr Forbes observed that ‘We all have a special responsibility to live the Gospel. But there’ll always be a need for the ministerial priesthood to celebrate the sacraments and to be invited in all humility into the most intimate moments of people’s lives. Our life of faith is an effort in cooperation … We all work together in the great commandment God has given us. Each of us plays our part.

‘And so I say it unashamedly: I love being a priest … It was so inspirational tonight to hear from Matt Kennedy how important priests have been in his life. Well, I say the same thing to all of you: how important the people that we serve are to us as well.

I love being a priest and I can’t imagine doing anything else. I can’t imagine doing anything which would fulfill me more.

At the end of the evening, the State Chairman of the Knights of the Southern Cross Victoria, Mr Paul Mitchell OAM, presented the Archbishop with a cheque for $75,000, to be split equally between Victoria’s dioceses and the Military Ordinariate. Following the presentation, an anonymous donor contributed another $2,000 to the fund, bringing the total funds raised by the 2023 dinner to $77,000 and pushing the overall funds raised over the dinner’s 24-year history beyond the $1.5 million mark—a remarkable achievement and testimony to the hard work and faithful generosity of the Knights of the Southern Cross and their supporters over many years.

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Archbishop Peter A Comensoli is presented with a cheque for $75,000 by State Chairman of the Knights of the Southern Cross Victoria Mr Paul Mitchell OAM. Photo by Frank di Blasi.

Banner image: Seminarians Jean-Sebastien Gery and Tue Pham are presented with travel bursaries by Barbara Ralph. (Photo by Frank di Blasi.)