The People’s Priest

Second Year seminarian Samuel Pearson, interview’s new First Year Formator Fr Edward Moloney, discussing Family, Faith and Formation.

“It’s the best office in the seminary” says Fr Ed happily, quoting the Rector, as we walked toward A-block which houses it and the first years. “It’s certainly got the best view”, he says. Indeed, it overlooks a rather typical Carlton streetscape of renovated terrace houses and large trees lining the median strip. Their leaves shift haphazardly in a gentle breeze, which on this sunny Thursday afternoon, all seem to emphasise the laidback and gentle nature of the man sitting opposite me in his new office.

Father Edward Moloney (or Father Ed as we call him), is the newly incumbent formator of the first year students here at Corpus Christi. He comes to the seminary community from the Diocese of Ballarat, having grown up on a dairy farm in Terang. After working on the family farm, he entered the seminary and was ordained priest in 1999. He then served as Assistant Priest in the parishes of Horsham, Nhill, Mildura and Merbein and then as Parish Priest in Wycheproof, Quambatook and most recently in Maryborough , with some connection with Gordon. He has also been a member of the Ballarat Vocations Team.

It’s a “good way to get in touch with nature”, he says of his childhood in Terang. “The small communities were a wonderful support and I still treasure that. It’s a privilege of the country life”.

It must have been hard though, getting up so early to milk the cows, I inquire. “Oh yeah, getting up at twenty to five every morning, three sixty-five days of the year…Christmas day, Easter you name it. We milk the cows all year round. I milked cows for ten years. It was a good discipline, I’m one of the first up here [at the seminary], I still get up early”.

Second of four children, with an older sister and a younger sister and brother, he cherishes his time knocking about the family farm. It was amidst this idyllic, yet no less demanding country life, that the young Fr Ed would grow in his faith.

“Mum and Dad, they passed on the faith. Dad used ta kneel down every night before he went to sleep, it would only just be a one minute…I don’t know what he said but that was it!”, he chuckles. “But he would never miss it and it left a big impression on me as a kid I think”.

“I always prayed every night”, he says. It was in this context of family faith and personal prayer, that he slowly discerned his vocation to priesthood. “I always thought in the back of my mind, since I was little, about it. I was in the St Dominic club, but then when I was go’in to the local Catholic Regional Secondary College, I was thinking I was go’in to be on the farm, but the thoughts just kept coming, just kept coming back and finally I couldn’t get away from was just there”.

Eventually he would enter the seminary, which mirrored the country lifestyle of his childhood, with its good times, but also the very tough.

“...we certainly had a lot of fun [in the seminary]..we certainly made good friends we worked hard, but we made life good.”

“I did two years [in the seminary] then left, because dad got real sick and then died. So first couple of years I was struggling with the new way of life and the study, coz I’d only done till year ten…left school at fifteen, then worked on the farm till twenty-five, then I came to the seminary”.

“ was a big change, didn’t know if I’d fit in..I was worried about home, I didn’t know if I could do all this study”.

“But I after dad died, I sorted myself out, came back and knew I was in the right place…you know when something’s right. Yer feel fulfilled ‘n happy. But I don’t think the challenges go away”.

His Ordination to the priesthood, took place at Glenormiston Agricultural College, for the Ballarat tradition, is for priests to be ordained in their locality rather than the Cathedral. “I was out among the cows really”, he says of the day.

But Ordinations are just as much about the people as they are about the priest. “Because I think with vocation, so many people give so much to get ya to where ya it’s their celebration too, not jus mine, it’s the churches celebration and the people wan’it...and it’s good for the local people and especially with the farming community [it]…gives you a sense that priesthood is a shared thing between the community (the people of God) and the person. That’s what the essence of priesthood is, it’s for the people they want to be able to share in it and they do”.

“That’s what the essence of priest hood is, it’s for the people they want to be able to share in it and they do”.

Serving God’s people though, is not without its challenges. He recalls the bishop taking him out to lunch and being informed of his first parish assignment.

“I had always dreaded this place Nhill. We [seminarians] drove through it on our way to Seven Hill for our retreat and I thought, “Oh God I never want to end up in this place”. My year mates would stir me that I would end up in Nhill. And the bishop, during the conversation said to me, ‘Oh I want you to go out to Nhill’. I din’t wanna finish my meal! Jus cancel everything I thought” he says, laughing.“Nhill’s out in the middle of nowhere, no way I’m gonna go out there! But once I got there, the people are always good”.

Yet again, he is quick to extol the virtues of his country flock and what emerges is a man very much at home ‘with the smell of his sheep’, as Pope Francis famously put it.

“... the thing you find with the country people, they haven’t got much, they’ve got little communities, they have to do a lot themselves...because they haven’t got enough priests, but their faith is really deep. They work hard to keep it and they celebrate it together…and they struggle with nature, with drought, they have hard times but their resilient in their faith… their good people”. He laughs, before adding, “Maybe I’m a bit biased being a country boy!”

“...yer say yes and the rewards come. God looks after that”.

As a city boy myself, I’d struggle with country life and Fr Ed doesn’t shy away from confirming my worst fears. The “first couple of months can be quite isolating, because you don’t know anyone. The people are there, but they don’t know you and you don’t know them. That can be a bit’s not they’re not trying…it’s just that bridge” that takes time to build.

“...the diocesan priest, he’s the people’s priest that’s what we’re called to. Shepherd of the community, in a particular way…We give life but we also draw life from them.

But from his experience, a sense of loneliness is not characteristic of rural shepherding. The country possesses distinct values that secular big cities don’t have. “Your very much part of the community, you’re not just for the Catholic’s. You become a part of everybody’s life .You go to the footy nights, because that’s what’s get involved in the tennis...and then yer have yer mass and meetings and all that, so your mixing with all the community not just the Catholic’s. They know you’re the priest and they respect that. They want us around, if you’re not there, if they haven’t got priest in the town, that’s a big thing for them”.

All this, is in stark contrast to his latest assignment. From quite country towns, he’s now amidst the hustle and bustle of Melbourne and Carlton, with its cacophony of cafes, filled with self conscious trendies. “It’s not that I’m not happy, I’m fulfilled and enriched by the experience…but sixteen years to this, it’s a big change”. But despite this, he retains his characteristic optimism; “...yer say yes and the rewards come. God looks after that”.

He doesn’t struggle, nor hesitate to count his new found blessings. “We’re really blessed here. I really believe there is not a fuller or integrated education that anyone could receive”.

He chuckles, “’s certainly a challenge, certainly a challenge! But you see the goodness in the students and their all basically good people and they’re doing the best and giving their life. Their giving their lives to give this a go, I mean their gonna be good blokes! And they are. It’s a privilege and sometimes I feel I’m inept!”, he says laughing. “But that’s alright, that’s fine too, I feel very welcome here. It’s a privilege really”.

He has a particular interest, in the integration of what seminarians learn, with their own pastoral experience, affirming not just the wisdom in philosophy and theology, but also that of their local parishioners.

“Their giving their lives to give this a go...”

 “Once you get out into the parishes you’ve got the wisdom of the people, their experience is so rich and they can teach you so much about faith and commitment and the hard times and struggles of family life... they teach you a lot, just by being with them. So we need both, not only academic formation, but our pastoral formation as well and we gotta be able to integrate both...especially for diocesan priests, the diocesan priest, he’s the peoples priest that’s what were called to. Shepherd of the community, in a particular way…we draw life from the people and when you’re in the middle of nowhere, ya have to. We give life but we also draw life from them”.

“I’ve always been a community person. I just love people…my grandmother had that gift too, always had people round for cups of tea”.  

“I think I’m pretty good at reading giv’em that confidence to be who they are, not something else. If that bloke’s got that gift, and another can do this, just to get them going, God will do the rest. Just gotta encourage them, I think that’s my job”.

“The role of the church is to encourage people in their goodness”.

While arguably, the totality of his parish experience (and working with other priests, religious sisters, school and parish staff), provides its own preparation for Fr Ed’s new role, he undertook a course in Rome and another in England before coming to the seminary.

“My interest has always been human formation, so my studies weren’t anything new…but together with parish experience it did prepare me”.

It’s about integration of the education we have, our experience, our own spirituality and prayer life, the support and the wisdom of the can’t go wrong!”

“One thing I can guarantee, is that I’ll give a hundred per cent of what I’ve got...that I’ll do!”

The afternoon sun, now shone a little brighter through the window overlooking Drummond street, as it sunk, ever so slightly, closer to the roof tops of Carlton. Though he’s been at the seminary for the better part of only one semester, Fr Ed, whose sitting opposite me below the window, seems quite content with where he is at this stage of his priestly journey. In a church that is still reeling from the sexual abuse crises, it seems almost miraculous, that such a happy and humble priest, should now emerge to prepare those whom God is now calling to “feed my lambs” (John 21:15).

I ask him, for any final thoughts and after pausing for a moment, he says; “People are good, they try their best. The role of the church is to encourage people in their goodness really…basically, people need to be encouraged and also in their faith, to live it out, because it’s the last thing that stands”. 

(An edited version of this article first appeared in Vivere, for which it was written)