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Thursday, 06 June 2024 20:58

Fr Joe Taylor on Half a Century of Service

“Deep, deep gratitude” is the overwhelming emotion Fr Joe Taylor says he has experienced recently as he has reflected on his 50 years of priesthood. “I feel grateful to God, and to the people I work with and minister with,” said Fr Joe. “I’m conscious that I’m in a privileged position – connecting with people; being part of their lives in moments of great joy – as well as in great sorrow – I feel such deep gratitude.”

For Fr Joe, one of the best aspects of his priesthood is the personal satisfaction he feels when working with people in faith situations. “Supporting and helping people, seeing them grow in their faith – and in their life – is really special,” he reflects.  “To accompany adults coming into our faith through the RCIA Program, for example, is a beautiful thing,” says Fr Joe noting that, for him, the sacramental baptism of adults continues to be a highlight of his priesthood.

Like any walk of life, the path of a priest also brings its challenges, but Fr Joe is definite he would live his last 50 years all over again if offered the chance. 

He jokes, “Putting together the words for a homily every week for fifty years has been a big challenge!”  Ironically, for a priest known for his poignant and memorable homilies, Fr Joe says he finds delivering a homily has not come naturally to him. “Finding the right things to say to best support people in certain situations, such as a funeral, is something I have found difficult.  Now, I find it easier than I used to, but I still have to work at it,” admits Fr Joe.

Overall, “Transition” is the word Fr Joe uses to summarise his greatest personal challenges over the last fifty years.   Transitioning in and out of life in the seminary; from parish to parish; and to and from Papua New Guinea, where he was a missionary for six years, were all personally challenging experiences.   

Fr Joe recalls it was quite a jolt to go from the private introspective life of the seminary to the public life of a priest in a parish; and before that, adjusting to the then monastic life of the seminary.  

“I struggled in the first years at the seminary,” said Fr Joe.  “I wasn’t homesick, because I’d been to boarding school, which prepares you for the trenches,” he laughed. “My struggle was one of discernment.  In high school there was a strong constant voice within me calling me to the seminary but, when I was actually in the seminary, I found it difficult. I was asking myself, ‘What does God want me to do?’  ‘What can I really do?’  Initially, I couldn’t see the relevance of what we were studying or how it applied to real life as a priest. Vatican II had happened a few years before, but the seminary hadn’t caught up and we were initially still undertaking the old monastic style of training.  I think most of the seminarians felt similarly to me.” 

Over time, things changed, and Fr Joe says the last four years in the seminary were fantastic. He found relevance in his training and developed a true sense of purpose. “After a while I developed a deeper understanding of theology and scripture, and I could see its relevance to ministry in the modern world.”  Being able to get out amongst a ‘flock’ also helped Fr Joe to identify what God wanted of him. “I used to go to St John of God Hospital for weekly visitations and I helped out at the parish in Fitzroy; I coached kids’ basketball, all that kind of thing. I really enjoyed it and it helped me to understand my purpose,” said Fr Joe.

‘Meeting people where they are’ was the kind of ministry Fr Joe felt at home in. He grew up in a family with loving parents who lived their faith.  “My mother was a ‘woman of charity’.” said Fr Joe. “She was always helping people, checking in on new migrant families and things like that.”

Fr Joe describes his family as ‘faith-filled’.  “We prayed the rosary each night and attended Sunday Mass together.  When I expressed a desire to become a priest, my parents were happy enough to encourage me.” Perhaps it was no surprise to Fr Joe’s parents for one of their five sons to feel called to the priesthood. After all, Fr Joe has an uncle who was a priest, a great uncle who was a priest and an aunt who was a Carmelite Nun. “My family is riddled with them,” joked Fr Joe.

Fr Joe spent his early childhood on his family’s dairy farm near Lockington, then moved to Echuca when he was eight.  He was educated at Lockington, then Rochester, then Echuca, before going to boarding school at Salesian College in Sunbury for the last four years of his schooling.

As a priest of the Diocese of Sandhurst he has held ten appointments, serving in eight parishes, (serving in Wodonga and Kennington twice), but has never ministered in his ‘home’ parish of Echuca where he was ordained. He has now been Parish Priest of Shepparton for twelve consecutive years. “It’s the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere in my life,” commented Fr Joe, pleased to think of Shepparton as ‘home’ and near home.  

The most unique parishes Fr Joe has served in are those in the Diocese of Mendi in Margarima in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea, where he spent six years. “I told everyone I was hand-picked for the job, but I think I was probably the only one who volunteered,” laughed Fr Joe.  “There have been five priests from Sandhurst who spent time in Papua New Guinea; I went in 1979 just after Fr Michael Grace came back.”

Fr Joe says he learned a lot about himself during his time in Papua New Guinea.  “When you enter another culture, everything is totally foreign. It throws you back on yourself and opens your mind and heart to people from other places.  I think it has made me more empathetic towards migrants and refugees, and our overseas priests,” explains Fr Joe. “I certainly felt when I came home, that I would carry the experience of Papua New Guinea within me for rest of my life.”

The Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea were very remote, and it had been only two decades or so since the first missionaries set up in the area. Fr Joe spent four years looking after 18 churches in 18 communities and oversaw the establishment of four schools.  The population was predominantly isolated and dispersed throughout the area.  “I did lots of walking!” remembers Fr Joe.   “To get to the more remote places I would drive for half a day, then walk for half a day; sometimes I’d use a motorbike.  I think it was the fittest and healthiest I’ve ever been.” 

“There were two different language groups in the area, ‘Wola’ and ‘Huli’; I had to learn enough of these languages to say Mass and celebrate weddings and funerals. Initially, I relied on Melanesian Pidgin, the bridging language. They were very new Christian communities so, understandably, there wasn’t much depth of faith, but the people had good faith. They had a beautiful energy and drive and ‘ready to go’. The liturgies were fantastic; they were great singers,” remembers Fr Joe.

The last two years in Papua New Guinea Fr Joe taught first-year seminarians at a local seminary. “I taught Mark’s Gospel and Liturgy and another priest taught spiritual direction and other things. This was a very different experience again; we were working with forty well-educated students from Papua New Guinea, the Soloman Islands and Vanuatu. A very different experience from working with people in the Papua New Guinean languages.”

Returning to Australia was a huge transition for Fr Joe. “I really felt dislocated from my own culture – there was so much I just didn’t know how to do, yet people expected me to know things, like how much a stamp was, for example. 

“I was appointed to Kerang when I returned to Australia and the priest before me at Kerang, Peter Quinn had been in Peru just before he came to Kerang. He reassured me, “They’re used to breaking in old missionaries here’– I thought that was good!”

Fr Joe now feels very much at home and truly connected to parish life in Shepparton.  “The people are great; they take initiative, they have drive and energy. We have 260 volunteers in the parish; there’s a sense of mission; there’s an amazing diverse culture.”

Fr Joe’s 50th anniversary of priesthood was well celebrated at St Brendan’s with at least three events.  The diocesan Jubilee Mass was held on 24 May at St Mary’s Echuca where Fr Joe had been ordained a priest over 50 years ago on 18 May 1974.  This year, Fr Joe was the only Sandhurst Jubilarian.  The late Fr Steve Bohan, who had been ordained in Benalla the night before Fr Joe, was no doubt missed by Fr Joe at the Jubilarian Mass.

Fr Joe recalls, “Bishop Stewart ordained Steve, then travelled via Melbourne to Echuca to ordain me the next day.  He had to go the long way around due to flooding. My ordination was a quiet celebration because the roads from Mooroopna to Shepparton were flooded, and people couldn’t get to Echuca. It was quiet, but it was great.” 

 FrJoeTaylor Ordination




















Thinking about his ordination, Fr Joe notes, “When I was ordained it was a normal thing to do. Now, it’s counter-cultural to be ordained, and faith is becoming more and more counter-cultural.”

There are many reasons why this has become the case and Fr Joe who hopes the changes Pope Francis is implementing will help more people to feel at home in the Church.  “The church is moving – we don’t drive cars the way we drove them fifty years ago and we don’t parent the way we used to, so it’s good to see that the Church is moving, too. Pope Francis’ encouragement of ‘synodality’, his ideas to move back to our scriptures, to the village Church, are all initiatives which encourage and inspire me,” said Fr Joe.

The young boy from the dairy farm near Lockington possibly could never have imagined the changes he has seen in his lifetime, and especially over fifty years of priesthood.