Roberto Keryakos had his life all mapped out, a career in teaching, a wife, and lots of kids … or so he thought.
As a former student of Sydney Catholic Schools, the self-confessed “cheeky kid” with a voice like an angel was deliberating between a career as an educator or a musician or both until an unexpected event completely changed his career path.
Spotted by talent scouts in Year 4 at St Raphael’s at South Hurstville, he joined St Mary’s Cathedral College as a chorister where he stayed until he entered the seminary 12 years later.
Throughout his high school years, he was often told he would make a good priest which he laughed off politely saying “thanks but no thanks”.
It wasn’t until he stumbled on the UNSW chaplaincy couch while looking for somewhere to rest in between lectures that he began to think about a vocation and ultimately become part of the furniture in God’s House.
“I must admit I do like my catnaps and found the chaplaincy had a great lounge which was the perfect place for me to have a break in between classes,” he laughed.
“The guys would ask ‘who is that guy that keeps crashing here’ but as I got to know them I was so inspired by them, they had a really vibrant, dynamic presence on campus which I wanted to be a part of.
“I never grew up in youth groups and thought they would be all about jumping for Jesus so wasn’t that keen to join but when I did I was really surprised, they all seemed so normal.
“And the more involved I got the more I wanted it.”
Roberto graduated with a Bachelor of Education and a Bachelor of music but something inside of him wanted more.
“AS SOON AS I ENTERED THE GROUNDS I KNEW I WAS HOME, IT WAS WHERE I WAS MEANT TO BE”
He said God started to talk to him about the priesthood and just as importantly he started to listen.
“I thought, God knows best so it really was a win-win situation,” he said.
“If I try the seminary out and it’s for me great, if it’s not for me I can tick it off the list forever and find a beautiful girl and have lots of kids.
“It just turned out it was for me and I couldn’t imagine being anywhere that could make me happier.
“As soon as I entered the grounds I knew I was home, it was where I was meant to be.”
Throughout his discernment, Deacon Roberto has discovered his greatest strength can also be his greatest weakness and said his voice is something he has come to use with greater care.
Guided by his favourite Saint, St Joseph, from whom there are no words in the Bible, he said he has discovered you don’t have to be loud to be heard.
“St Joseph achieved such great things from the background and that’s somewhere I aspire to be,” he said.
“AT THE END OF THE DAY ALL I WANT TO DO IS HELP PEOPLE GET TO HEAVEN, THAT IS WHAT I AM CALLED TO DO AND MAKES ME VERY HAPPY.”
“I learned some great lessons from some of the Vietnamese seminarians in particular at the seminary who are very gentle and achieve great things. I am loud and very cheeky which was something I’ve had to address.
“Although at the end of the day all I want to do is help people get to Heaven, that is what I am called to do and makes me very happy.”
“Come to me, all you who labour and are burdened, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28)
Dear brothers and sisters,
1. Jesus’ words, “Come to me, all you who labour and are burdened, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28) point to the mysterious path of grace that is revealed to the simple and gives new strength to those who are weary and tired. These words of Christ express the solidarity of the Son of Man with all those who are hurt and afflicted. How many people suffer in both body and soul! Jesus urges everyone to draw near to him – “Come to me!” – and he promises them comfort and repose. “When Jesus says this, he has before him the people he meets every day on the streets of Galilee: very many simple people, the poor, the sick, sinners, those who are marginalized by the burden of the law and the oppressive social system… These people always followed him to hear his word, a word that gave hope! Jesus’ words always give hope!” (Angelus, 6 July 2014).
On this XXVIII World Day of the Sick, Jesus repeats these words to the sick, the oppressed, and the poor. For they realize that they depend entirely on God and, beneath the burden of their trials, stand in need of his healing. Jesus does not make demands of those who endure situations of frailty, suffering and weakness, but offers his mercy and his comforting presence. He looks upon a wounded humanity with eyes that gaze into the heart of each person. That gaze is not one of indifference; rather, it embraces people in their entirety, each person in his or her health condition, discarding no one, but rather inviting everyone to share in his life and to experience his tender love.
2. Why does Jesus have these feelings? Because he himself became frail, endured human suffering and received comfort from his Father. Indeed, only those who personally experience suffering are then able to comfort others. There are so many kinds of grave suffering: incurable and chronic diseases, psychological diseases, situations calling for rehabilitation or palliative care, numerous forms of disability, children’s or geriatric diseases… At times human warmth is lacking in our approach to these. What is needed is a personalized approach to the sick, not just of curing but also of caring, in view of an integral human healing. In experiencing illness, individuals not only feel threatened in their physical integrity, but also in the relational, intellectual, affective and spiritual dimensions of their lives. For this reason, in addition to therapy and support, they expect care and attention. In a word, love. At the side of every sick person, there is also a family, which itself suffers and is in need of support and comfort.
3. Dear brothers and sisters who are ill, your sickness makes you in a particular way one of those “who labour and are burdened”, and thus attract the eyes and heart of Jesus. In him, you will find light to brighten your darkest moments and hope to soothe your distress. He urges you: “Come to me”. In him, you will find strength to face all the worries and questions that assail you during this “dark night” of body and soul. Christ did not give us prescriptions, but through his passion, death and resurrection he frees us from the grip of evil.
In your experience of illness, you certainly need a place to find rest. The Church desires to become more and more the “inn” of the Good Samaritan who is Christ (cf. Lk 10:34), that is, a home where you can encounter his grace, which finds expression in closeness, acceptance and relief. In this home, you can meet people who, healed in their frailty by God’s mercy, will help you bear your cross and enable your suffering to give you a new perspective. You will be able to look beyond your illness to a greater horizon of new light and fresh strength for your lives.
A key role in this effort to offer rest and renewal to our sick brothers and sisters is played by healthcare workers: physicians, nurses, medical and administrative professionals, assistants and volunteers. Thanks to their expertise, they can make patients feel the presence of Christ who consoles and cares for the sick, and heals every hurt. Yet they too are men and women with their own frailties and even illnesses. They show how true it is that “once Christ’s comfort and rest is received, we are called in turn to become rest and comfort for our brothers and sisters, with a docile and humble attitude in imitation of the Teacher” (Angelus, 6 July 2014).
4. Dear healthcare professionals, let us always remember that diagnostic, preventive and therapeutic treatments, research, care and rehabilitation are always in the service of the sick person; indeed the noun “person” takes priority over the adjective “sick”. In your work, may you always strive to promote the dignity and life of each person, and reject any compromise in the direction of euthanasia, assisted suicide or suppression of life, even in the case of terminal illness.
When confronted with the limitations and even failures of medical science before increasingly problematic clinical cases and bleak diagnoses, you are called to be open to the transcendent dimension of your profession that reveals its ultimate meaning. Let us remember that life is sacred and belongs to God; hence it is inviolable and no one can claim the right to dispose of it freely (cf. Donum Vitae, 5; Evangelium Vitae, 29-53). Life must be welcomed, protected, respected and served from its beginning to its end: both human reason and faith in God, the author of life, require this. In some cases, conscientious objection becomes a necessary decision if you are to be consistent with your “yes” to life and to the human person. Your professionalism, sustained by Christian charity, will be the best service you can offer for the safeguarding of the truest human right, the right to life. When you can no longer provide a cure, you will still be able to provide care and healing, through gestures and procedures that give comfort and relief to the sick.
Tragically, in some contexts of war and violent conflict, healthcare professionals and the facilities that receive and assist the sick are attacked. In some areas, too, political authorities attempt to manipulate medical care for their own advantage, thus restricting the medical profession’s legitimate autonomy. Yet attacking those who devote themselves to the service of the suffering members of society does not serve the interests of anyone.
5. On this XXVIII World Day of the Sick, I think of our many brothers and sisters throughout the world who have no access to medical care because they live in poverty. For this reason, I urge healthcare institutions and government leaders throughout the world not to neglect social justice out of a preoccupation for financial concerns. It is my hope that, by joining the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, efforts will be made to cooperate in ensuring that everyone has access to suitable treatments for preserving and restoring their health. I offer heartfelt thanks to all those volunteers who serve the sick, often compensating for structural shortcomings, while reflecting the image of Christ, the Good Samaritan, by their acts of tender love and closeness.
To the Blessed Virgin Mary, Health of the Sick, I entrust all those who bear the burden of illness, along with their families and all healthcare workers. With the assurance of a remembrance in my prayers, I cordially impart my Apostolic Blessing.
Catholics from across Sydney gathered to welcome the relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux and her parents Sts Zélie and Louis Martin to St Mary’s Cathedral on 1 February.
At the expected arrival time of 4.30pm two WN Bull hearses pulled up to the cathedral steps which were lined with the faithful holding pink and white-coloured roses.
They were a tribute to the ‘Little Flower’ who promised to send a shower of roses in the form of God’s graces after her death in 1897.
Others waited patiently inside and as the two reliquaries, one containing remains of St Thérèse, and a smaller one bearing remains of her parents, were borne in procession down the central aisle, a shower of rose petals fell from the choir loft.
Despite a heatwave searing across the city people had travelled for up to nearly two hours to greet the saint whose ‘little way’ of spiritual childhood has inspired millions, and to ask for the intercession of her and her parents for themselves, their loved ones, the Church and the entire country.
They queued to touch, kiss or kneel briefly beside the reliquaries with expressions of deep devotion, a few smiles and whispered words, and for some, quiet tears.
St Thérèse’s teaching about the ordinary path to holiness, expressed in her autobiography Story of a Soul is “not rocket science” said Bishop Terry Brady who officially welcomed the relics and presided at Mass.
“In her mind, in the end, it was all about love,” he said.
“HER ABILITY TO LOVE WAS A WONDERFUL GIFT THAT HER PARENTS NURTURED IN HER.
“All of us in these special days while the relics are here, let’s make use of the opportunity to go back to, or discover, some of the wonderful writings of St Thérèse and her parents.”
Bishop Brady also reminded the congregation that St Thérèse is a patron of the Catholic Church in Australia and that seeking her aid in deepening one’s spiritual life would be a good preparation for this year’s Plenary Council.
Jana El Thoumi and Jane Xie, from the young adults’ group at St Patrick’s Church, Kogarah, said the relic’s visit to Sydney “really exciting”.
“It’s a very special occasion and an opportunity that doesn’t happen often,” said Ms El Thoumi.
“ST THÉRÈSE IS VERY SPECIAL. SHE’S A BIG SAINT, AND ALSO A LITTLE ONE.
“She’s very relatable and beloved by our youth group. She is a saint of humility, which is such a beautiful virtue but not appreciated today when everyone is pushing confidence.”
Some cathedral visitors, impressed by the events, wanted to know what was going on with such obvious deep devotion. Others had already spent time praying with the Martin family relics since their first stop on the national tour last week in Varroville where St Thérèse’s Discalced Carmelite community are based.
They included Angelo from western Sydney who is inspired by the universal application of Doctor of the Church St Thérèse’s ‘method’ of sanctification.
“We don’t have to do great things, only our ordinary daily things with great love,” he said.
Maria Henness of Strathfield had venerated Thérèse’s relics while visiting France last November. She has told all her friends and people she meets to pray with the trio while they are here.
“They have come such a long way to be with us and to intercede for us and for everything that is happening in the world today, for example, the passing of the abortion bill here last year,” she said.
On a cold, bright late Winter morning today Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP filed into St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney accompanied by 138 priests; by the time he processed out, that number had grown to 145.
As Sydneysiders strolled through Hyde Park’s leafy, picturesque grounds just across the road, and with the sound of an outdoors rock band thumping faintly in the background, one of the Church’s most ancient ceremonies played itself out over the next two and a half hours.
St Mary’s was filled to overflowing with well-over 2000 people as the Archbishop ordained seven men to the priesthood: four from the Seminary of the Good Shepherd in Homebush, two from the Archdiocesan Redemptoris Mater Seminary in Chester Hill and the seventh a member of the Dominican Order, of which Archbishop Fisher is also a member.
It seemed as if half of Sydney had turned up for one of the largest ordinations seen in years.
At 9.30am, an hour before the ceremony was set to commence, the Cathedral was already packed. Just half an hour later, hundreds were left standing in aisles and leaning against the towering neo-Gothic sandstone walls and columns of the cathedral, sitting out of sight behind the high altar or in the Cathedral Crypt where they later followed the ceremony on television.
Good-natured members of the congregation who had arrived early found themselves sacrificing seats to the elderly and infirm filtering in as the cathedral accommodated one of the largest crowds it has seen in years.
Meanwhile, the seven presented to the Archbishop to be ordained seemed more like a quickly-assembled committee of the United Nations – illustrating, in their own way, the changing nature of the face of the Church in Sydney and around Australia.
“Today,” Archbishop Fisher noted in his homily, “I am pleased to be ordaining men of Australian, Canadian, Chinese, Dominican, Irish, Korean, Lebanese, Malaysian and Mexican backgrounds … and,” he quipped, “most exotic of all, one from Brisbane.”
Diverse group represents a changing Church in Australia
Ordained were deacons Miguel Campos,33, from Mexico, Moises Tapia Carrasco, 31, from the Dominican Republic; John Jang, 33, born in Korea; Australian-born William Loh OP, 32, from Quaker’s Hill; Brisbane-born Joseph Murphy, 27, a former Redfield student; Ronnie Maree, also 27, from Campsie and Canadian-born William Chow, aged 34.
Deacons Jang, Murphy, Maree and Chow pursued their studies through Good Shepherd Seminary. Deacons Carrasco and Campos offered themselves for the priesthood in their own countries and were sent to the Neocatechumenal Seminary in Chester Hill. Deacon Loh is a member of the Dominican Order.
Like those waiting to be ordained, the diverse congregation ranging from the very young to the very old and seemingly representing every major ethnic group in the country only added to the festive atmosphere.
Meanwhile, in an ancient ceremony stretching back to the beginnings of the Church, each of the candidates was presented to Archbishop Fisher, as their formators publically attested that each had been scrutinised and found worthy of the office of Priest.
The Dominican influence
The occasion was auspicious, in every way a celebration of the priesthood. Today is the Feast of St Dominic, founder of the Dominican Order of which both Archbishop Fisher and newly-ordained Fr William Loh are members.
In early 13th Century Europe, Archbishop Fisher told the congregation in his homily, the Church had already sounded the alarm bell about the low standard of priestly formation, preaching and teaching that often saw priests ordained as mere distributors of sacraments. Often, clergy were poorly educated in theology and rhetoric and rarely expected to preach.
That situation left the baptised faithful prey to all sorts of non or anti-Christian ideas and practices; an intellectually well-formed priesthood was a vital part of the answer, one that could proclaim the Gospel with conviction for the time, he said.
The Dominican Order was a key part of the Church’s response. St Dominic and his band of mendicant preachers united by a passion for contemplating truth and passing on the fruits to others were to have a redefining effect on the priesthood as a vital force in evangelisation.
“WHAT AN EXTRAORDINARY PRIVILEGE IT IS TO BE A VOICE FOR THE GOSPEL!”
“My sons, brothers and soon fathers, Miguel, Will, John, Br William, Ronnie, Joe and Moises: what an extraordinary privilege it is to be a voice for the Gospel!” Archbishop Fisher said, “to express the eternal Word dwelling with the Father in the words of men.
“What a grace to unite the tables of the Word and of the Eucharist. To proclaim the kerygma through the cycle of feasts and readings. To open up the sacred text and relate it to people’s daily lives. To teach and catechise in other ways too. Today I welcome you to that order of preachers that are the presbyters.”
As the seven candidates lay prostrate before the high altar of St Mary’s, 2000-plus voices almost lifted the roof of the cathedral seeking the intercession of the saints as the Litany of Supplication was chanted.
Then came the moment the congregation had been waiting to see all morning as each deacon came forward and knelt in front of Archbishop Fisher. Laying hands on each, he then prayed the Prayer of Ordination over the whole group.
Sydney’s clergy then came forward to pray, one by one – over and for – their new brothers in the priesthood.
A short while later, emotional scenes broke out as each new priest was then vested in stole and chasuble – special vestments reserved for priests – by family members or fellow clergy and embraced.
The hands that would consecrate the Eucharist, impart blessings, absolve sins in the confessional, baptise new Christians and anoint the sick and dying were then anointed individually by Archbishop Fisher.
Archbishop Fisher was clearly delighted by the occasion. In his welcome he apologised for not having had enough time to accommodate Deacon Maree’s hordes of Lebanese relatives arriving from Bankstown or Lebanon by building a bigger cathedral.
Concluding the Mass he confessed that for days he had been like a child counting down the sleeps to Christmas; with the seven new priests he felt as if he had received seven “grand Christmas presents” at once.
It was an important moment for Sydney’s priests as well.
Thanking those who were present for their love and encouragement of their priests, the Archbishop turned to clergy who had participated in the morning’s ceremonies.
“To the priests of Sydney and beyond I say the people of God love you and who you are and what you do for them. Thanks be to God for the priests of Sydney and beyond,” he said to loud and sustained applause.
As the newly-ordained processed out with fellow clergy before giving their first blessings, wild cheers broke out throughout the thronging crowds.
In a horror week for Christians and Catholics that saw Premier Gladys Berejiklian clear the way through State Parliament to enable laws declaring open season on the state’s unborn children, with some critics charging the parliament was becoming a house of death, St Mary’s Cathedral was exploding with joy – and life.
From the time he was a little boy, Fr Epeli Qimaqima would ask God on a regular basis what He wanted him to do with his life. He never received an answer but he kept asking anyway.
Then one day, when he had grown into a young man, God finally answered.
Fr Epeli has now been a priest for seven years and says the “inexplicable peace” he felt upon hearing that initial call to priesthood has never left him.
“I never knew such happiness was possible this side of heaven,” he told The Catholic Weekly.
“I never knew it was possible to know so much love in one’s life, from God and from his people.”
Fr Epeli is currently the Director of the Vocations Office for the Sydney Archdiocese. He grew up in the semi rural village of Naibuluvatu, Kalabu, in Fiji. He is the eldest of four children in the only Catholic family in the village.
Even as a little boy he felt the desire for priesthood. Often, he “played” at being a priest, covering himself with a blanket—with a hole in the middle for his head—that served as a chasuble and using potato chips to represent the Holy Eucharist.
But it was when he visited a remote mountain village for holidays with his family that the young Fr Epeli first realised the importance of the priesthood. Because there was no priest in the village, Catholics could only attend a Communion service led by a local catechist who was Fr Epeli’s uncle.
“I can still see in my mind that little boy in that church looking at this relative of his and thinking, why is uncle doing that when he’s not a priest? That was my first realisation of the unique role the priest has in the community and his connection with the Mass.
“As I thought more about that I started asking the Lord to show me what he wanted me to do for Him and His people. That prayer became more prominent once I got to Year 6 and whenever I thought about being a priest, that’s what I’d say to God.”
After completing his secondary schooling, Fr Epeli attended teacher’s college in Suva, and that’s where God finally answered his question.
He went for his usual “Rosary walk” after dinner one evening, praying as he walked around the college oval. He once again asked God the question he’d been asking since childhood,
“Lord, what do you want me to do for you and your people?”
“Being a romantic, I think God chose his moment, because the college is right on the water so there was this beautiful sunset and I heard this very, very quiet gentle voice in the depths of my heart saying, ‘Priesthood. I want you to be a priest’.
I believe that was the voice of God because of the effect it had—an inexplicable peace that is still there.”
But how did he respond to God’s will?
“Well, I said to God, ‘I’ll do whatever you want, whenever you want it, and wherever you want it. But please give me 10 years. I want to finish teacher’s college, I want to work for a while and I want to see my baby sister grow up’.
It was probably the most honest prayer I’ve ever said. And I didn’t think anymore about it. I finished my Rosary and went back to the dormitory”.
God granted Fr Epeli most of his request, giving him nine years before he entered seminary.
“He was generous, he gave me nine. I don’t know how to explain it but I knew God had given me nine years.” After finishing teacher’s college Fr Epeli moved to Australia in 2002 and worked as a teacher until he entered the seminary. He was ordained in 2012.
He says one of the wonderful aspects of priesthood is the privilege of sharing in people’s lives.
“At the heart of it is seeing that someone has been able to have an encounter with God, with Jesus, just by [the priest] being there. Visiting an elderly person in their home, someone who’s lonely, or someone in their sick bed, children at their First Holy Communion.
“The excitement in the faces of children at their First Reconciliation, their fascination, that wow, Jesus really has forgiven them.
“That could only be possible if the priest is there to give the sacrament … I’ve seen God at work in ways that were just beyond me. I think we put God in a box but He’s got the universe in His hands.”
After his ordination, Fr Epeli served in three parishes—Mosman, Bonnyrigg Heights and Broadway and says priesthood involves a special kind of friendship, with God – and with God’s people.
“It’s got to be one of the highlights of my priestly life so far, the friendship that Jesus offers you and the friendship that the people offer you.”
Being constantly on-call with parishioners, anytime of day or night, to visit death beds, sick beds and family situations, is the demand of children for the love of their spiritual father, he said.
“It’s the demand of children for their father’s love, a spiritual father’s love and care… I could be so tired on a Sunday afternoon but then you get a phone call to say so and so is in the hospital and you go and you return fulfilled, just in time to say the evening Mass again.”
Serving as Director of Vocations over the last three-and-a-half years has been an enormous encouragement for his own vocation, seeing young people coming forward, still wanting to answer God’s call.
This year six priests and six deacons will be ordained for the Sydney Archdiocese.
“God really has not abandoned us. I still meet with young people responding to what is in their hearts.”
“Given the circumstances we find ourselves in especially in Australia and around the world, with the actions of a few people in the Church, I think this is a very good opportunity for us to stop and pause and reflect on what the gift of the priesthood is to the Church.
“This is an opportune time to not be too hasty to speak of married clergy or women priests or whatever. This is a time to appreciate and rediscover what the gift of the priesthood is for us to the Church and to the world. Then we will see profound renewal I think in many ways in the life of the Church.
“The Church is a lamp on a hilltop. Thank God it’s still burning. The light is still burning despite the storms of time. So I’m full of hope.”