The View from Home

 By Jackson Saunders

This has been an unusual year for all of us, myself included.

As I reflect back on my year and my studies for the priesthood, I am struck by the fact that I have had five appointments in a year.  The year began in Rome as a student of the Pontifical North American College and at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.
I recall being on a holiday with my parents, Sharon and Damien, as well as my sister, Alyce, in Montepulciano in Italy. We welcomed in 2020 and saw fireworks take off at midnight in the district from the balcony of our agri-turismo apartment overlooking wineries in southern Tuscany. It was a special time, as our days as a family on holiday in Italy over the Christmas/ New Year period came to a close. While I had hopes of returning to Australia for a month in July, at this time I had thought that I would be in Italy for at least another three years. How things change!

Before long we were exchanging farewells as my family left Italy, and I returned to the eternal city of Rome to finish the first semester of the Roman academic year with exams at the end of January.

Little did we expect that, only two months later, Italy would become the centre of the COVID-19 global pandemic; the country would be in one of the world’s tightest lockdowns and I would be returning to Australia.

I arrived home on March 21 about a week before hotel quarantine began, so it was arranged for me to undergo two-weeks of mandatory self-isolation in a secluded part of St Kilian’s Presbytery, which is known by locals as the “White House.” Here there are four bedrooms, a bathroom and a small living room. Typically, it is a space for seminarians to share. However, in these two weeks, I would refer to it as “Leprosy Land Hotel.”

Though I was in isolation, this was a special two weeks, as I reconnected with family, friends and parishioners via telephone and email, as well as continued my Roman academic studies remotely in another hemisphere. I was also blessed to be able to spend a lot of time in prayer in a chapel kindly prepared for me by Fr Junray Rayna. Those at St Kilian’s would kindly leave food for me outside on the balcony.

After the two weeks of isolation had ended, I remained at St Kilian’s for another week to assist with the live-streamed Holy Week and Easter ceremonies. I consider this time at St Kilian’s as my second appointment for the year.

Soon after Easter, I was off to Wangaratta where I had a wonderful ten weeks. This was a joyful but busy time, as I studied ten subjects via correspondence from Rome for the second semester of the Roman academic year. For the first part of my time in Wangaratta, we were still in lockdown. During these days of lockdown, we celebrated pre-recorded Masses and were confined to the presbytery. As we came out of the first lockdown, it was a joy to be able to reconnect with parishioners from St Patrick’s, Our Lady’s and Moyhu.

My stint in Wangaratta, however, would come to an end in July with the end of the Roman academic year. It was at this time that I also discerned in collaboration with Bishop Shane Mackinlay and the Consultors of the Sandhurst Diocese that it was God’s will for me to conclude my seminary studies in Australia. This also coincided with the end of my third appointment for the year in Wangaratta.

So, this meant a return to Corpus Christi College in Carlton and Catholic Theological College in Melbourne, albeit once again via correspondence. This was because, at the end of July, we were once again headed towards another lockdown in Victoria.

This time I was assigned to St Kilian’s Parish in Bendigo where I remained from the end of July until late November. It was here that I would continue my seminary studies and begin a Masters in Theology. It was also a joy to be able to assist in the daily live-streamed Masses and Rosaries, though I missed seeing people immensely and was conscious that so many wanted to be with us.

Finally, when public Masses were able to return, I thoroughly enjoyed reconnecting with parishioners. As I reflect back on this, I am thinking of a particular encounter with a retired parishioner on Facebook. During the second lockdown in the depths of winter, she asked me if it would be possible to have an armchair and a heater when public Masses returned inside the Church. When this could finally take place in late November, the forecast for that weekend in Bendigo was 42 and 33. I touched base with her and asked if she still wanted the heater, but she declined in good humour!

At the end of last month, I ended my fourth appointment for the year at St Kilian’s in Bendigo.

I have since been based in Echuca where I will remain for the rest of the year. In my initial days in the parish, it has been a joy to be able to meet parishioners at public Masses, as well as to see the vibrancy of the parish. There are many people involved in different ministries, such as the liturgy and men’s groups and parish pastoral teams. This is my fifth appointment for 2020.

As I reflect back on the year that has been, I am reminded that in the future as a priest, God willing, I will often be called to different places. The one constant will be change.

I am grateful for the ways in which God has supported me this year and I thank each of you for your prayers and support in this year of moves aplenty on a personal level. I continue to give thanks to God in my prayers for all of this.

The words of my favourite Saint, Mary of the Cross MacKillop, also resonate with me: “We are but travellers here.”


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