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Career Changers: from primary teaching to priesthood

In this second instalment of the Career Changers series, Mary-Lou Ciampa asks Andrew McCarter how he found his calling.

Andrew McCarter conducted his first baptism only a few weeks ago, before a congregation of 120 Fijians. It was for a couple he met when doing an overseas teaching round back in 1996, and he’d gone back especially. The parish is visited by a priest every second Sunday, and this was during one of the alternate weeks.

Was he nervous? ‘Not really. I just fit into the role now,’ he says.

The Reverend Deacon was ordained to the diaconate in September of last year. Not yet an ordained priest, he is not able to celebrate the full Mass, but can carry out certain ‘faculties’, such as reading the Gospel, giving the homily and, of course, the sacrament of baptism.

The 36-year-old is in his seventh and final year of training at Corpus Christi College (seminary) in Carlton, an inner-city suburb of Melbourne. It’s the only place for priesthood formation in the ‘province’ of Victoria and Tasmania.

While some would view joining the priesthood a calling rather than a career move, the way that it manifests and subsequently shapes a candidate’s life often leaves no room for another occupation. In fact, it takes the place of a career. And besides, both pursuing a profession and living a consecrated life can be definitions of a vocation.

Rev Andrew’s interpretation of vocation is a ‘dynamic process of growing into what God wanted you to do.’ When asked about hearing the call, he says, ‘It’s hard to describe, it was a sort of growing into it. I first felt the calling in primary school, but it wasn’t what I wanted’.

He admits, however, that having a priest in the family – his uncle Jack – may have planted the initial seed when he was very little. ‘The first seminary is the home,’ he says, adding that he had great role models.

Prior to seriously considering joining the priesthood, he worked for nine years as a primary school teacher in Catholic schools in Melbourne’s north. It was something that he clearly enjoyed and excelled at. And in some ways, it was not dissimilar to the skills he uses now.

He first told his parents about his decision when he came back from World Youth Day in Cologne in 2005.

‘I said, “I think God’s calling me to be a priest.”’

His mother told him that she wasn’t surprised, but that it wasn’t what she wanted him to do. She would much rather he have a family of his own. But Andrew replied, ‘It’s not going to happen.’ She has now become his greatest supporter.

Finally, he gave into the sense that ‘this was the right thing to do’ and he applied to join the seminary.

The application process was rigorous, involving four interviews, including one with the vocations director of the seminary and one with the Archbishop himself, then a psychological assessment and a health check.

Why the health check? ‘It’s just a precaution. They need to know if you have anything like tuberculosis or a previous illness. They don’t want you spreading a disease through your community,’ says Rev Andrew.

The Archbishop’s interview struck Rev Andrew particularly. ‘His message was: “I can guarantee you will go into the seminary, but I can’t guarantee you’ll come out a priest.”’

While there are 54 seminarians currently undertaking formation in Victoria at Corpus Christi, Rev Andrew has seen about 15 leave in the time that he has been at the seminary. This is part of ‘discernment’, the process of discovering if consecrated life is for you.

What’s more, in general terms, priesthood in Australia has been experiencing a decline in numbers of around 20 per cent between 1971 and 2005.

He knew this undertaking would be challenging. ‘It has its ups and downs. [But there’s] this sense of, this is what I’m meant to be doing with my life, everything else just falls away’.

There are four aspects to the training: human, spiritual, academic and pastoral formation. One or two of these become the focus each year at the seminary.

In human formation, says Rev Andrew, ‘in a sense you tear yourself apart, then put it all back together’.

An essential part of the training is ‘you realise your gifts and use these to assist people’. The training allows candidates to ‘work on these and set goals for yourself’.

‘Hospitality is one of my gifts,’ says Andrew. ‘Being pastoral’ is another way he puts it.

When asked how a Catholic priest could advise married couples in a crisis, he draws parallels between marriage and ordination, ‘in which a priest gives himself to the Church’. His Facebook status is down as ‘engaged’ as he has ‘made a lifelong commitment to remain celibate’. ‘Marriage is giving of self to another,’ says Rev Andrew.

He admits, however, ‘a priest can’t give advice on marriage from the practical life but can on relationships. To a point.’ As a pastoral practitioner, he might need to refer the couple or other members of the congregation to a counsellor. The aim, he says, is ‘let’s get this relationship working’.

On the topic of celibacy, Rev Andrew says, ‘A priest experiences intimate relationships. Sure, celibacy means not being married, but you experience relationships with family and friends. You’re available intimately for everyone. A father can’t favour one child over another.’

‘There’s a parish somewhere in Melbourne waiting for a spiritual father to come to them, to look after their spiritual needs.’

When asked about his life-changing decision, he says, ‘I’m most at ease when I feel that I’m doing what God wants me to do.’

‘Going to the seminary is to discern: “is this call authentic and is it for me?”’

Having made it to this stage, the Reverend Deacon is certain of his path. It was confirmed for him all the more at the ordination to the diaconate.

The Sacrament of the Holy Orders – of which the diaconate is one – involves the ‘laying of the hands’. Kneeling before the Archbishop at the altar of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral last September, Rev Andrew felt the heat emanating from His Grace’s hands, which were placed on his head for several minutes while a packed congregation looked on in complete silence.

The most moving part of the ceremony for Rev Andrew was the Litany of the Saints, where he and the other candidates lay face-down on the floor in front of the altar, while the saints were invoked, one at a time.

‘The saints are like champions, and they’re cheering you on.’

In September 2012 will be the bigger ceremony. All the priests will lay their hands on him, symbolising transferring whatever talents or gifts they have to give.

He took a decision some years ago and since doing so, he is ‘freer to move within that because of “duty” – when you have every option open to you, how do you choose? It’s a duty that is welling up, that you feel compelled to do.’

 For more information on this ‘Career Changers’ series, click here.

Mary-Lou Ciampa is a Graduate Diploma in Journalism student at La Trobe University, and upstart’s co-editor. You can follow her on Twitter: @zialulu.

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