Senior confreres - living mission in retirement


The senior confreres of the SVD AUS Province might have stepped away from missionary duties in Papua New Guinea and other places, or full-time ministry in Australia, but you’ll still find most of them up and out of bed by 6am and continuing to pursue mission in different ways.

The seniors, who among them all have hundreds of years of missionary experience, live in the Province’s Marsfield community, pursuing their personal interests, various small ministry activities, and shared prayer and meals.

The earliest riser among them is Fr Anton Bulla, who hits the deck at 4.30am every morning and kicks off his day with 45 minutes of praying his breviary (morning prayer of the Church) and then 45 minutes of yoga and stretching, before he heads off to Mass with his confreres in the small chapel they share.

Aged in his 80s, he still goes into the city to work in the Marriage Tribunal for the Archdiocese of Sydney, where he sees his ministry as “healing broken and wounded relationships”.

Apart from exercise, he also enjoys keeping on top of Vatican news and he spends his evenings preparing a meditation for the following morning’s Mass readings.

Fr Anton says he loves coming together with his confreres each day for common prayer.“Common prayer is very important for me,” he says.

Fr Kevin Cantwell, aged 90, rises at 5.30am and does an hour of meditation before Mass.

“After Mass, I have breakfast, then feed the birds, read the newspapers for an hour and then surf the TV to watch the news,” he says.

After lunch, it’s prayer and siesta before more news, some “serious reading” in all sorts of topics from ecclesiology to liturgy, morality, the Church sexual abuse scandals and other current topics.

“Then it’s afternoon prayers, supper, more news, more reading, some TV and by 10pm I’m done,” he says. “We also have a shared Bible Study which I prepare for and enjoy.”

Fr Don Grant wakes early and listens to the news until he rises at 6.15am for Mass.

“My very important ministries are to feed the fish and pick up the mail,” he laughs.

But his confreres jump in to say he is also “a born carer” and spends time each day with Fr Jim Knight who, following a stroke, needs extra care and help.

“Yes, I do accompany Jim, I’m a companion to him because it’s essential that we’re not feeling alone and forgotten,” he says.

“I also try to get in a couple of phone calls each day – it’s a sort of ministry to people I know who appreciate that.”

Like his confreres, Fr Don also walks regularly and does other exercises, prepares homilies or reflections for Masses he celebrates, enjoys the common prayer times, as well as other devotions such as the First Friday Holy Hour, and keeps busy trying to keep up with all the reading that comes in. He is also writing his missionary memoirs.

Fr Ho Bach Tran’s interests see him working in the Provincial Archives as well as indulging his love for gardening. He’s in charge of the Arnold Janssen Chapel and regularly celebrates Mass there for the chapel community members. He also takes care of Mass rosters and the cooking roster for the community, celebrates two Sunday Masses for local Vietnamese communities and joins a Cursillo group once a month.

One of his important tasks is to act as the community barber, giving haircuts to his confreres, a skill he was forced to learn in Communist Vietnam and continues to put to good use.

Fr Dom Flores was away in Queensland, providing relief help at the SVD’s parish in Marsden-Kingston when this article was prepared, having recently returned from three months home leave in the Philippines. He frequently does supply work in parishes for confreres who are away, and also keeps busy with Bible sharing groups and lay partners.

Fr Frank Gerry says his main ministry is to be “a quiet presence” in the community.

“I like the place, the beauty of the grounds, which are so well cared for. I appreciate that very much,” he says. “I help Jim with meditation once a day, just a quiet session of centreing. But mostly I enjoy the space and read.”

Fr Frank, who celebrates his diamond jubilee this year, also skypes and calls friends in Hong Kong and China, including SSpS Sisters and Sisters of St Paul de Chartres, and writes poetry and reflections, including a regular contribution to the gospel reflections on the Province website.

And Fr Wim Valckx is up and off early a couple of days a week to celebrate the Eucharist for the Sisters living at St Catherine’s nursing home, nearby. He also celebrates Mass there on Saturday evening for a larger community, for which he works throughout the week on his homily.

“I take care of the flowers here, with Ho,” he says. “It’s something I enjoy. I also play a role in the house council here at Marsfield. I’m the contact between this group (of senior confreres) and the house council.”Fr Wim says one of his hobbies is to follow Vatican news and share it with his confreres and he also spends 40 minutes each day walking and doing lifting exercises.

“So as you can see, every one of us does his own thing here,” he says. “The amazing thing is that we keep doing what we’ve been doing for the last 10 or 15 years of our active ministry.”

And while the senior confreres enjoy doing their own thing, they also value their community time together.“Our main times together are meals and prayer, and over the evening meal we have conversation on all sorts of topics, quite often about PNG and our mission experience,” says Fr Kevin. “It’s a very lively discussion. We’ve got all sorts of characters here.”

Like all SVD communities, the seniors community is made up of a range of different nationalities and cultural backgrounds.

“We’re all so very different, but we accept one another,” Fr Wim says.

And one thing they all agree on is that they are in the best of care.

“We’re very well cared for here,” they say. “Yen is a wonderful cook and all the carers who come in do a fabulous job.”

Rector of the SVD Marsfield community, Fr Mikhael Loke, says that caring for the senior confreres is an important ministry within the Province.

“Previous rectors have set things up and put systems in place with the carers, so that our seniors feel confident and happy to come here. And having Br Martin de Porres here full-time, to do what’s needed, care for the seniors, be with them, and even take them on outings is very important,” he says.

“These guys have given all their lives to the Society. They deserve good care. This is their retirement. They’re supposed to enjoy it.”

PHOTO (from left to right): Fr Frank Gerry, Fr Ho Bach Tran, Fr Anton Bulla, Fr Wim Valckx, Fr Don Grant and Fr Kevin Cantwell.

AUS Province