The life of St Mary MacKillop continues to inspire many, including Fr Zaher Mhanna, chaplain at St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, who sees Australia’s first saint as a “mother of the lonely”.

Fr Zaher arrived in Australia six years ago from Syria and immediately felt overwhelmed with the new language and culture. ‘Everything was so different [from] what I had known in Syria, a poor country,’ said Fr Zaher.

‘I felt alone here in this strange land.’

Fr Zaher grew up in a small village about two hours outside Damascus, one of the world’s earliest Christian communities. He remembers wanting to become a priest at a young age but says he was encouraged to finish his studies before entering the seminary.

‘I studied hospitality and I was a sous chef and worked for two years before I went to study theology and philosophy in Lebanon.’

There are no seminaries in Syria, where the Christian population has dwindled to less than four per cent of the population, so Fr Zaher was sent to the College of St Paul in Beirut. He returned to Syria in 2008 and was ordained two years later. He was immediately assigned to a parish in Damascus which he says was a ‘very large but poor parish’.

Less than six months into his new assignment, war broke out in Syria. ‘One of the first fires took place very close to my village,’ said Fr Zaher.

It has now been 10 years since the war tore through Syria and it is believed that 90 per cent of the population currently lives beneath the poverty line. In March this year, Pope Francis called the Syrian war ‘one of the worst humanitarian disasters of our times’, calling on all parties to show signs of goodwill and for the international community to provide ‘decisive and renewed’ commitment to rebuilding the nation. The Pope lamented the ‘untold number of dead and wounded ... millions of refugees, thousands missing, destruction and violence of all kinds, and immense suffering for the entire population, especially the most vulnerable, such as children, women and the elderly.’

St Mary MacKillop: Mother of the lonely

Fr Zaher arrived in Australia in 2015, and remembers sitting down with the representative from the Australian Immigration Department. He says it was difficult to share what he had been through in Syria and ‘as I told my story, we both started to cry.’

He initially stayed with an Iraqi family in Melbourne and later moved to the Holy Cross Centre in Templestowe, where the Passionist priests helped him to learn English. He also spent time at St Luke’s Parish in Blackburn South and at St Peter and Paul’s Melkite Parish in Hampton Park. While he enjoyed getting to know the community, he couldn’t escape feeling homesick and lonely. At the time he was also struggling to learn the language and understand the local culture. And then in early 2018, Fr Zaher’s mother passed away, followed not long after by his brother.

‘In the struggles of my first years here, I felt the separation with my family.’

‘I had heard about St Mary, the first saint in Australia. She is the “mother of the lonely”. When I saw St Mary MacKillop’s statue at St Patrick’s Cathedral I was inspired by her ability to trust in divine providence. This gave me the courage to follow her example of trusting to believe that when one door closes, another door opens.’

In 2017, Fr Zaher joined the chaplaincy team at St Vincent’s Hospital and became Priest in Residence at St Patrick’s Cathedral. ‘Chaplaincy work involves saying Mass every day, visiting patients, giving communion, hearing confessions, anointing of the sick and last rites.’

Fr Zaher says that his own experiences of hardship and loneliness have helped him in his work as a chaplain. ‘These experiences have enhanced my ability to be more empathetic with others who are suffering.’ He also believes his studies in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) have given him a deeper understanding of how to communicate with patients.

‘[The] hospital is not only for medication and treatment. It’s also for emotional stuff and that’s helpful when someone opens his or her heart.’

The past year has also offered its own challenges, with both patients and hospital staff experiencing increased isolation and stress amid the coronavirus pandemic. ‘I have anointed so many COVID patients. It was hard. I said to myself: I’ve been kept from the war in Syria but it’s a different war here. But that’s my ministry.’

‘I look to St Joseph’s example of courage in adversity and I pray for his protection for all who are in need, especially in this very difficult time.’

Fr Zaher Mhanna is one of the featured voices in a video series created by the Sisters of Saint Joseph of the Sacred Heart. The videos celebrate the Feast of St Mary MacKillop in this Year of St Joseph and offer reflections on St Mary’s example and the values of St Joseph in Pope Francis’ Apostolic Letter, Patris Corde.