Autobiographical sketch

I had to write a five-page sketch of my spiritual life as part of my application to take part in the thirty-day Ignatian retreat at the Campion Center in Weston, USA in October 2017. Perhaps one or two people may find this interesting?

My name is Richard Healey. I am the youngest of five children, with two sisters and two brothers – all of whom are married (21 – 28 years) with 17 children between them. There is eight years between us siblings. I was born in December 1968 on the far south coast of the state of New South Wales, growing up on a small dairy and beef farm some 20km north of the small town of Bega (pop 5000) – famous in Australia for its cheese. The town is about five hours south from Sydney, and 2½ hours from Canberra. My parents this year celebrate their 57th wedding anniversary, continue to practice the faith that was central to our family life, as do one brother and one sister (and their ten children between them).
Church was always important, and Sunday Mass was always a priority for both of my parents, but my mother certainly took the lead in making sure that we were all spick-and-span and presentable for the trek into either Bega to the south, or the smaller village of Cobargo to the north after a new parish priest there informed my parents that our farm was in his parish and we should be attending Mass there. So, we mostly went to Mass in Cobargo where we knew everyone and everyone knew everyone’s business. This church community, along with the wider family, formed our essential social network. Dad’s three brothers owned the farm east of us, south of us, and a few minutes’ drive down the road. Dad’s parents had lived next door to us, but they had both died before I was born (Dad was also the youngest in his family) and Mum’s parents lived on a farm about 30 minutes’ drive away to the south-west.

I went to school in Bega. For primary school, it was the local parish Catholic school (St Patrick’s) which was still staffed by a few sisters from the Josephite congregation (the order began by St Mary of the Cross MacKillop) but there was no Catholic high school, so we attended the local state high school. The environment was secular, but since many of the students came from the surrounding farming communities, they tended to have a practical faith and the fact that my family attended Mass each week was not the subject of ridicule.
It was in my final years of school that faith began to be more central. A new parish priest had arrived in Bega, along with a new assistant priest, and together they began a program of renewal of the parish, introducing things like an Antioch youth group, creating a blessed sacrament chapel under the church that was open day-and-night, marriage encounter and bible study programs. My brothers and then my parents all experienced a renewal of their faith. My parents returned from their Marriage Encounter weekend full of love and suddenly were physically affectionate, smothering me in hugs. Although welcome, I really wasn’t sure what to make of it all. When I was in year 10 (aged 15), my older brother returned from his first Antioch youth weekend and asked for forgiveness for treating me “like a little sh*t.” I witnessed this dramatic change in this brother whom I so admired and looked up to. He managed to weave together both academic achievement (my area of prowess) alongside sporting ability (my area of lack). That he so dramatically came to personal faith created an openness and a desire to ‘have what he’s having’ – although circumstances meant that I would wait until I was in the middle of year 12 – the final year at high school – in May 1986 when I would discover the love of my life.

Antioch was very strong in Australia at that time; it was based on the Cursillo experience, and walked young participants through the basics of the Christian faith and life. But although many groups were very social in focus, Bega Antioch had wonderful leadership under Fr Gerald Monaghan and the parent couples, which kept our focus strongly on the person of Jesus. During the final session on Sunday afternoon, participants were invited to make a simple, concrete expression of their faith commitment. My years of sacramental participation, head-formation, catechesis and school-yard arguments with Protestants provided the framework; the personal witness of my brothers and parents to the reality of personal faith created the desire; and the unconditional love and acceptance of the Antioch community provided the safe context. Somehow during that weekend, I suddenly knew that God was real, and that I had encountered him in the person of Jesus. So, I stood up in front of that group and committed myself to him – with the practical commitment of attending Mass during the week, and reading the New Testament that we had been given.
The months that followed were wonderful – the standard honeymoon experience. The words of scripture began to come alive. Prayer was invigorating and powerful. Hours seemingly passed in awe and wonder of God and his great mercy. I remember walking with my mother each afternoon talking about the NT passage that I had read that day. Oh, and the fact that one then another of the young ladies in the group befriended me and we would chat on the phone or in the chapel for hours between the twice-weekly youth group meetings was a great bonus.
After finishing school, I moved to Sydney to study at the University of Sydney, completing a degree in Economics, Accounting & Commercial Law, while living in a house with my two brothers who were also students at USyd. During this time, I became active in campus ministry at the university, as well as becoming an acolyte in my local parish, and being part of a young adult ministry called Paulian Youth of which my brothers were also members.

I loved the new city environment and the much broader horizons that were offered through life at university and the new people that I met, especially through Paulians. It was great to meet other young people who took their faith seriously and were able to demonstrate to me that a relationship with God was something that could mark and shape the whole of your life. Some of the members of the group had experiences in the charismatic renewal which opened a pathway into this form of spirituality.
On the mid-year university break during my first year, I was back home in Bega to attend one of the Antioch weekends. I was on the team, and so attended a prayer meeting with some of the parent leaders the day before the weekend. During this service, I was prayed with to receive the gifts of the holy Spirit. Although I did not have any dramatic experiences, when I gave my talk on the Saturday evening of the weekend, a number of the other participants asked me if I had ever considered becoming a priest. I answered in honesty that I had not really thought that much about it, but didn’t think that the Lord was calling me. Nevertheless, perhaps as a result of the prayer two nights earlier, I then prayed to the Lord to do his will and to be open to whatever direction he might guide me.
Over the course of the next two years as I completed this degree, I became more involved in the parish and youth group, and tried to make daily prayer and daily Mass part of my schedule – even though this often meant going an hour-or-so out of my way to get to Mass. Slowly, but surely, the Lord was becoming more and more central to my whole life, and the desire to serve him with my whole life began to direct my future. By the time I was attending job interviews in my final year with accounting firms and banks, I realised that my desire to make lots of money and be successful in business had all but gone.
In the middle of that year (1989), I was back in Bega for another break, and as part of one of the Sunday night youth groups, the parish priest was sharing about his own call to priesthood. It was the anniversary of his ordination the next day (24 years) and he reflected on his own unworthiness to be ordained. He said there was only one thing that kept him going and allowed  him to be ordained – and that was the scripture “you did not choose me, no I chose you” from John 15:16. A few months earlier, when I was on a weekend retreat preparing to join a charismatic lay community in Sydney, I had been personally given the same passage of scripture to reflect upon.
Consequently, although the passage had not spoken to me about priesthood before, as soon as Fr Gerry shared it, there was this profound response from the depths of my being with a desire to say yes to this invitation from the Lord. I realised in that instance that the potentially just pious thoughts about priesthood that I had been carrying for the last two years were now concretely a direct invitation from Jesus. Yet I felt such freedom and love in that moment. Through my tears I could say a complete yes to the Lord – which I was able to share with my parents later that evening. Thankfully they were happy with the news!

I shared these events with a priest who was part of the community that I had just joined back in Sydney. Fr Julian Porteous (now Archbishop of Hobart) invited me to be part of a formation house that he had initiated, after I finished my studies. So, on 25 January 1990 I began my long process of formation. Julian was concerned about the formation program as it was offered at the seminary, so we did a two-year pre-seminary formation, that was similar to a postulancy and novitiate.
At the end of that period, the then Cardinal offered him a new parish in the inner-city to have as a house of formation, where we lived while also studying at the seminary for the Archdiocese in Manly then Homebush (1992-1998). Lots of things happened during this period, including attempts at new expressions of community life that became increasingly at odds with the more fundamentalist tendencies of some of the leaders in the community. This led to the decision at Easter 1994 for Fr Julian to leave the community – which meant that we also would leave. It was at that time that I sought out a new spiritual director in a Discalced Carmelite priest, Fr Greg Homeming (now Bishop of Lismore), and had a priest-companion from the Emmanuel Community in Paris, Fr Dominique Rey (now Bishop of Fréjus-Toulon). This was a period of sustained mild-to-moderate turmoil in my life, with periods of wonder in exploring new models of lay community in my first overseas experience in Dec 1994 – Jan 1995 through various European countries, to moments of desolation when one-by-one my other seminary brothers left, leaving me by mid-1996 to work out how to continue to priesthood-in-community when everyone else had left. From the beginning of 1995 I had moved into the seminary and continued my studies and formation there. I also accepted the invitation from a friend to create a new World Youth Day national office and with the support of the seminary began to liaise with the Archdiocese, the Australian Bishops, and the Pontifical Council for Laity to achieve this end. This was a very enriching and rewarding experience that culminated in WYD having a national profile in Australia for the first time, and an eleven-fold increase in pilgrims taking part in the 1997 WYD in Paris. But the distraction prevented me from adequately addressing deeper issues at that time.

By the time that I returned from WYD, I had completed all my necessary studies, and undertook various pastoral experiences including working in a youth centre near the red-light district in Sydney and completing a hospital chaplaincy course. By early 1998 I was in a parish in Western Sydney preparing for diaconate – but that took a while to eventuate. That parish placement was not a time of flourishing. The pastor was not in a good space (the previous two seminarians who had been assigned to the parish both ended up having breakdowns and being hospitalised during their stay – and they still thought sending another seminarian there was a good idea?) and the cramped living conditions did not allow respect for personal space. I completed the placement in mid-1998, and although I was invited to meet with the Cardinal to arrange for an ordination date, I knew that I was not in the right space either. The events of the previous few years had knocked me around, and I dreaded the possibility of becoming a dysfunctional priest or losing my vocation entirely. So, my visit to the Cardinal was to let him know that I was leaving the seminary. He did not take the news well and berated me for not being fit for the kingdom by walking away from the plough. (To his credit, when I saw him a while after he retired, he did apologise to me for this incident.)
I spent the next six months working a series of odd-jobs, such as teaching English to young mothers from south-east Asia as part of a Young Christian Workers program, and doing advertising and graphic design for a Catholic pilgrimage company. I also went regularly on retreat to the Discalced Carmelite priory outside of Sydney. For the previous four years I had been visiting there whenever I could as part of my spiritual direction by Fr Greg, who at that time was the prior and vocations director of the community. I was a little frustrated by the fact that I was finding so much life and joy in the community and prayer at the monastery, but he had not asked me about joining. When I finally built up the courage to ask him this question, he simply told me that the very first time that we had met he had asked me about religious life, and he saw, more in my eyes then in my words, an openness – and that was enough for him. He knew that the holy Spirit would eventually prompt me to explore the question. This was needless-to-say a very different approach from other vocation directors who would be more actively seeking out candidates at any opportunity.
So, I went to the community for a live-in retreat period at the beginning of July 1998. It was a devastating period, because two of their priests, including the regional superior who were driving early from Melbourne to Sydney to meet with me and two other candidates, were killed in a car accident. They were on their way to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Discalced Carmelites in Australia. The meeting still went ahead, and it became a privileged few days of seeing a community grieve and still celebrate in trust and hope. And I knew that with all their weirdness, there was also room for me.

Nine years to the day after joining the consecrated brothers under Fr Julian, I arrived at Mount Carmel in Varroville (south-western Sydney) to begin my postulancy with two brothers on the feast of the conversion of St Paul in 1999. I received the habit on the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and completed my novitiate and took simple vows on the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in 2000. These were very rich days of growth in spiritual awareness and formation, as well as much growth in personal knowledge and maturity. During this time, a new ministry to young people also began, and some of the friends that I met through this ‘Young Carmelite Group (YCG)’ continue to be some of my closest. The days were also very challenging with the adaptation to a contemplative way of life. I stayed at Varroville until the end of 2002, when a new superior decided to move the students to the order’s Melbourne house of formation (where he was based).
While the monastery in Sydney had a parish, a retreat centre and the nun’s Carmel of Mary and Joseph attached, the house in Melbourne was just a small insular community which began to severely test my vocation and commitment to a contemplative way of life.
After four-and-a-half years with the Carmelites, I realised that my call to evangelisation and to minister in the local church was a more natural fit, so I made the decision to leave the Order and return to Sydney. Fr Greg wanted me just to live and to get an ordinary job for a while, until I could find my feet once again and restore my centre. Thankfully that was relatively easy: I was able to share a house with a young lady from the YCG, and another friend was working as the director of Catholic Communications for the Archdiocese of Sydney, and she created a new role for me as a communications consultant. I spent almost two years in this role (June 2003 – March 2005) and loved it. I was working alongside creative people, creating websites, doing photo-shoots, creating brochures, displays and magazines. But I also knew that as much as this ticked so many of my boxes, it was not the priesthood and the ministry that I continued to feel called to.

By the end of 2004, I knew the deep call to priesthood that I had received 15 years earlier was still very much at the centre of my life. I also knew that I had never seriously doubted that. All I needed was the right context. So, after visiting my brother on the south coast, I spent time in prayer sitting on this beautiful headland overlooking the coast and the escarpment that is the backdrop for Wollongong, and made the decision to approach the Diocesan Vocations Director, a priest who had been in the seminary with me. Things moved along fairly quickly, so I had my appointment with the Bishop on 25 Jan 2005 (15 years after first beginning as a seminarian) who accepted me into the Diocese. I gave notice at work, took a few weeks holiday to visit friends in New Zealand, and then began in the parish of Nowra on Ash Wednesday. I was ordained as a deacon that December, on the Patronal feastday of the Cathedral, St Francis Xavier, and then a priest on 24 June 2006, the nativity of St John the Precursor. That was an amazing and wonderful day.
I stayed in that parish for five years, moving to a parish that had just been clustered with the Cathedral in mid-2010, then in Oct 2011 to our largest parish of Camden for three more years – all as assistant priest. Then in Feb 2015 I became administrator of a parish that was waiting to be clustered, and in September 2015 I arrived in my present appointment, as parish priest of St Paul’s, Albion Park.

God is the source and centre of my life. I love the description that Paul gives on Mars Hill – “God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being.” Once I encountered God on that warm May afternoon in 1986, my life has not been the same. Faith at that time was very basic. My formation had been very traditional and doctrinal. As a country kid, I don’t know that I was even aware that there were other possibilities.
When I began my seminary studies, I was very wary of any teachers that I considered to be ‘liberal’ and unfortunately treated with disdain positions that in the last decade I have come to admire and deeply appreciate.
My relationship with God is no longer marked by fear. I have an ease in ‘his’ presence and know that I find mercy and love there. It is also much more inclusive and less boundary conditioned. The whole world is both more colourful and complex then I ever imagined as a young man.
My encounter with God has been always dominated by that personal encounter with Jesus, along with the formation offered through the prayer and witness of my significant mentors – especially my formators, Frs Gerry, Julian and Greg. I have increasingly discovered new depths of wonder in the scriptures, especially as I have read them as narrative rather than proof text. Jesus has certainly grown in complexity in my life. He is now a much more three-dimensional Jewish Rabbi with vibrant historical reality.
I know that I am called by name and known by God. At times, I sense this call to be very deep and beyond words. It stirs in me perhaps as an echo of that primordial call that first gave birth to my existence and to my particular expression of this call in my vocation.
I know that I am loved. I know that I am held in the grace and peace of God.

Scroll to Top