The vow of obedience and trust in Divine Providence belonging to the outgoing rector of St Charles Seminary will leave an indelible mark on the priests who have graduated and are still to graduate from it. Anthony Barich spoke to the man, Fr Don Hughes, days before he parted ways with the institution on March 8, once his three-year term was up.
As a priest of over 51 years, Fr Don Hughes OMI says he carries himself with the dignity of one consecrated to a life of service to Christ and His people, and he expects the same of the young men in his charge.
When he entered the minor seminary before being ordained in 1957 in the Oblate of Mary Immaculate Seminary in Ireland, he did so as a young teenager. He and others of his ilk often did so with a great respect for priests and what they did. Often the admiration was directed at a particular priest prominent in their youth who was a clear witness to Christ in their lives.
He may have had a similar impact on the hundreds of students he educated as the founding principal of Mazenod College while a priest, and his decades as parish priest in Lesmurdie, Fremantle, Auckland, Victoria and South Australia.
But the men whom he has formed for the past three years have entered St Charles’ of their own free will. This gives the challenge a new twist. Though Vincentians ran St Charles’ for over 20 years earlier last century, it is unusual for a Religious to be asked to be Rector of a diocesan seminary.
But Fr Don has taken a vow of obedience, and after consultation with his Superior, he took on the role, and has come to be described by seminarians at St Charles – many of whom are from overseas and need a friendly face – as compassionate and easily approachable, while being a strict keeper of schedules and a “great witness to Christ and the priesthood”.
Being a rector has great responsibility – he is forming men who will touch countless lives through the ministry of the Church in the ensuing decades.
It is a great responsibility, he says, not just overseeing the academic studies (though St Charles does have a Dean of Studies), but because of the pastoral role. Students come to him with their personal concerns, worries, hopes and dreams, and he must be accessible to them, while maintaining the master-apprentice relationship.
“I’m conscious that I don’t stand off from them,” he says. “I am given – and I expect – respect as leader. I wouldn’t go out (to functions or pastoral responsibilities) wearing tennis shorts and I expect to see them dressed for the occasion.
He doesn’t demand respect by just asking for it, his actions do the talking. Such is the role of the priest, he says, and he hopes the students realise this.
“Due to my age and experience I don’t have to preach about my position; by my conduct I get that respect,” he says.
But boys will be boys, and the young men in his care are not expected to change their personality, but mature into men of stature in the role of pastor.
“There’s always some who will not change greatly, but living in formation for seven years, they receive much from the experience of not only the priests and Brothers working here but those they come across outside the seminary. They need to realise the dignity they have been given and they should carry themselves as such.”
The students living in formation at a seminary share much camaraderie, and he likens their unity to that of a sports team. But he encourages them to rise and accept the great responsibility of the role they are in training for – the royal priesthood.
“The important thing is not to let the side down. People respect and look up to them and the way they act should reflect that dignity as well,” he says.
As the seminary is at all times a period of discernment – not guaranteed priesthood – Fr Don is a firm believer that whether a young man decides to stay the path or that the priesthood is not for him, or even if the decision is made for him, he will come out of it a better man.
“They’ll never be sorry for the years they spent in seminary life,” he says, “they’re better people for it, and we need those better people as lay in our Church.”
If students do leave, “it’s so important they leave with a good vibe about the community, and keep in contact”. Peter Geers discerned that the priesthood was not for him and they farewelled him with a Mass.
Fr Don admits he was saddened – as he is with any student leaving – as Peter was a “great leader of men, compassionate, kind and popular”; “but you accept that it is God’s will”.
“If there’s not people joining and leaving seminaries, then there’s something wrong,” he says. Better such discernment of God’s will is realised before ordination than after. A similar tinge of sadness impinges on Fr Don as he leaves St Charles – as it does whenever he leaves an institution, be it a parish, or as Rector of the Oblate Seminary in Melbourne, the place where he will return in due course to guide a new group of novices. “It always happens when you leave a community where you get to know the guys well,” he says. “Probably in four or five years I might return here and there won’t be anyone here I know.”
Though aged 76, he shows no signs of tiring. Bypass surgery 20 years ago did not slow him down, and, only last week, one seminarian told The Record that he can’t see Fr Don slowing down any time soon.
“I know I can’t do the things I used to, but that’s part of maturity,” Fr Don says. “I hope I don’t hang around just to wear out. I hope to be active for as long as possible.”
For Fr Don, the finish line is nowhere in sight. “But tell me a person who can see it,” he says. “They think they can…”