17 Nov 2022

Clocking up combined century of priesthood

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The Southern Cross | November 2022
Clocking up combined century of priesthood

Fr Tony Densley and Fr Michael Brennan were ordained at a time of great excitement and hope for the Catholic Church as the reforms of Vatican II were being implemented around the world. Fifty years later, they reflected on their experience of priesthood with JENNY BRINKWORTH.

Father Tony Densley was happily working on his father’s farm in Keith when his “guardian angel” kept nagging him about becoming a priest.

“If your guardian angel is poking you, you can resist for a long time but in the end you’ve got to say yes,” he told The Southern Cross.

That guardian angel had an ally in his mother Ella Densley who practically “built” the Keith church by raising money from street stalls.

Determined for her seven children to have religion in their lives, she sent the four older boys and two girls to boarding school in Adelaide.

Before eldest son Tony departed for Sacred Heart College, Ella advised him to go to Mass every morning to make up for all the Masses he’d miss when he was back farming.

Young Tony did what he was told and was publicly praised by the headmaster for his daily attendance, except it was on the one day that he happened to sleep in!

He returned to Keith after Year 10 and spent five happy years on the farm, but the words “priest, priest, priest” refused to go away.

When the short-sighted Tony paid one of his regular visits to the eye specialist on North Terrace, Dr W. G. Gunston questioned why someone who had passed intermediate would still be working on the farm.

“It set me thinking that if someone like that thought I should have a go at something else, perhaps I should,” he said.

Entering the seminary at the age of 20, Fr Tony said one of the hardest parts was having to give up the car he owned with his older sister.

While his mother was happy with the decision, it was a different story for his father who came from a strong Protestant family and didn’t convert to Catholicism until the last few weeks of his life.

When Fr Tony asked him why, after all those years, he had changed his mind, Donald Densley replied “it’s what your mother wanted me to do, and at this stage you shut up”.

He described Donald as “a brilliant farmer” who started off with “practically nothing” and ended up with four farms.

“My uncle was in the Legislative Council and because of that the scientists came to his farm to do some of the early experiments with trace elements,” Fr Tony recalled.

“The copper sulphate, zinc sulphate and superphosphate transformed the near desert country into very productive land. Since Dad’s farm was next door he got in right at the beginning.”

Fr Tony’s four brothers remained on the farm but his two sisters, Mary and Helen, both joined the Sisters of Mercy, Mary becoming the principal of Mercedes College and Helen working with single parents and abandoned children. They are now retired in Adelaide.

After his ordination by Archbishop James Gleeson, Fr Tony’s first appointment was at Elizabeth North under Fr Neil Kelly, his former parish priest at Keith.

He remembers being told to go and visit people in their own homes.

“I dutifully went and knocked on the doors of all the people we had listed as Catholic,” he said.

“Now I think my memory is completely accurate in saying not one of them invited me in.

“I thought this is a weird kind of world I’m coming into.”

He returned to the South East to be assistant priest at Millicent and Kingston where he was encouraged to join the local football team. At six feet five and a half inches, he was no doubt targeted as a promising ruckman.

But that wasn’t to be. Having always preferred learning and studying to playing sport, except for some B grade basketball and running up Mount Lofty while at the seminary, Fr Tony conceded he was “not good at it at all”.

“I still remember being stood on the sidelines and thinking why on earth did I let them con me into coming here?”

After a short stint at Christies Beach, Fr Tony received his first appointment as parish priest, heading back to the rural diocese of Tailem Bend in 1980.

In 1983 he was made a priest of the Adelaide Cathedral parish and it was around this time that Archbishop Gleeson asked him to take on the position of Diocesan Religious Education coordinator based at the Catholic Education Office (CEO).

It was a natural fit for the scholarly Fr Tony who went on to undertake a masters, which turned into a doctorate, at Fordham University in New York.

Arriving in the Big Apple with no accommodation organised, he rang the local priest and asked him if he could stay with him for the weekend.

“God looks after me in interesting ways,” he mused.

“The parish priest didn’t have an assistant so he let me stay on and do a bit of priest work to pay for my supper.”

Despite being his first time overseas, Fr Tony said he wasn’t overwhelmed and living in the parish helped him to feel at home.

Returning to Adelaide he continued his ministry in Catholic education and was coordinator of the Religious Education Team until 1996. He began lecturing at the University of South Australia in 1996 and was program director of the Master of Catholic Education until 2015. As program director of the Graduate Certificate he helped hundreds of Catholic school teachers achieve their qualifications and he wrote a number of research publications.

Retiring from the CEO in 2015, Fr Tony continues to serve as parish priest of Albert Park/Pennington where he has been posted since 2010 and has no immediate plans to retire.

“If they start to say ‘Tony your sermons don’t make any sense at all’ then I’ll go,” he said with his typical dry wit.

Reflecting on the past 50 years, he said what stands out is the “opportunities I’ve had in so many ways”.

“You can think of priesthood as just turning up for Sunday Mass but I’ve had incredible opportunities for studying and teaching,” adding that for 10 years he wrote theology for the Echoing the Word website.

While the reforms of Vatican II “made sense” to him he conceded that “there’s an empty aching void in that we haven’t been able to connect with children and families”.

“I’m at somewhat of a loss to know why we haven’t been able to do that,” he said.

“My experience is that young people in schools are open enough to religion and prayer but Sunday worship has gone out as a social contract.

“Vatican II might have done what they wanted it to do but it hasn’t had the effect of making the Church relevant for the people of today.

“It’s something that I think we the Church should do a whole lot of research on – why is it? Is it simply that the culture has moved on, that people don’t have that immediate sense of God, or is it that the stresses on family life are so much greater that there isn’t the time to go to worship.”

Asked if he had any regrets, Fr Tony said he could give “several pages of regrets”.

“But then I’d have to give you an extra page of benefits and gifts that I’ve received as part of this life.”

Father Michael Brennan

It took Father Michael Brennan a while to work out that being a priest didn’t mean having to save the world, let alone the Church and everyone in it.

The first hint that maybe he was trying too hard came the year after he was ordained when he went to visit Bishop Philip Kennedy.

“He said your hands are shaking and I said ‘that’s why I’ve come to see you’,” Fr Michael recalled.

After rattling off all his tasks in the Edwardstown parish where he was based, such as visiting schools and factories and running marriage groups and youth activities, Bishop Kennedy told him to go to the beach every day for two hours.

Fr Michael tried to politely suggest that wasn’t feasible but the Bishop insisted and by his third visit to the beach his hands had stopped shaking and he thought “this is actually okay”.

“That was me being a young priest running around trying to be a saviour,” he explained in a frank and at times emotional interview.

Recently, during an eight-day retreat at Sevenhill he met Marist Brother Des Howard. Fr Michael shared  that he was about to retire and that his doctor had said “whatever you do, don’t live alone”. Br Des responded by offering to check with his fellow Brothers at Sacred Heart College (SHC) about Fr Michael residing with their community.

The Brothers agreed. Fr Michael now sees the wisdom of living in community, describing it as a new and rich chapter in his life. An avid cyclist, he rides twice a week with a group of friends from Emmaus parish, averaging 40-45kms per ride, and he plays golf once a week with Fr Richard Morris and Fr John Herd.

While he’s had a couple of falls off the bike, he has retained the fitness that enabled him to twice walk major sections of the Camino de Santiago and, closer to home, the Heysen Trail.

Since moving to Somerton Park one of his favourite pastimes is driving down the road to the beach, parking and reading books for a couple of hours.

Reading has always been close to his heart and while his “go to” author is Franciscan friar Richard Rohr, his decision to become a priest was deeply influenced by the writings of Thomas Merton, an American Trappist monk and theologian.

He came across Merton when he was completing a four-year apprenticeship as an electrical fitter with the Railways and was taken by his “openness”

“It was a spirituality where you didn’t have to work at reaching God but in the calmness of things God came to you,” he said.

It’s the same spirituality that drew him to nature and to those people who, in his words, “aren’t full of their own agendas, they haven’t got life all sewn up”.

The importance of vulnerability and having a “sense of sacred in ordinary life” were themes that emerged strongly when Fr Michael undertook a PhD in Sociology, based on the thesis, ‘Enchantment in an Age of Disenchantment: A Study of Australian Catholics’.

But his priestly theology was also shaped by his working life and he recalled an incident at the Railways that still clearly affects him today.

“While I was in the workshop, the wife of one of the guys was critically ill and needed money for surgery, (sorry I’m a bit emotional) anyway, the other guys passed the hat around and were putting big money in and I thought ‘my God, God is bigger than the narrow Church stuff that I was brought up in’.

“I was moved that there was such goodness in people, a sense of the sacredness of the ordinary, there’s love there, they’ve already got God.”

His own Catholic upbringing in a working class family at Prospect was typical of its time: altar serving; schooling by Religious at
St Dominic’s, Blackfriars and Marist Brothers at Thebarton; Sunday Mass and saying the rosary as a family.

Michael had two older sisters Catherine and Mary Anne, a younger sister Dorothy Anne who died at seven months and a younger brother John who also entered the seminary but left after 18 months.

His dad John was a tram conductor and barman and his mum Dorothea was from a large Catholic family of 12, one of whom became a nun.  Dorothea had “breakdowns” and Michael always considered it his responsibility to try and “save” her. She died in 1966, six years before he was ordained.

While working for the Railways on North Terrace, Michael would go to Mass in the Cathedral during the week and it was there that he came across a pamphlet on vocation to the priesthood.

When he spoke to Fr Bob Shannahan and told him he was a 20-year-old apprentice, the response was “you’re exactly the type of guy the Church needs”.

Vatican II was wrapping up the year he entered the seminary: “There was a passion for the world, the guys teaching us were furiously reading the latest documents coming out and then teaching it, they were struggling a bit but at least it was open-ended; it wasn’t legalistic, it was exploration.”

“YCW leaders used to come out and get us together and talk about workers’ lives and finding God in the workplace. There was a dignity in the mundane, the ordinary,” he added.

Even today when he celebrates the Eucharist, he is reminded that while Jesus is in the bread and wine, it’s also “the work of human hands that becomes Christ” which, he said, is “shorthand for what Joseph Cardijn was on about, people’s lives are sacred, if only we’d just stop and permit it to touch us.”

His first appointment was assisting Fr Bill Collins at Edwardstown where “the YCW was flourishing, youth were everywhere, lots of big dances, football clubs”.

Fr Michael played footy for the YCW team during his three years at Edwardstown, and when he was transferred to Mount Gambier he joined the South Gambier football club and rode horses in the local hunt club. He was enjoying himself so much that when his three-year term was up he managed to persuade the bishop to keep him there for another two years.

After two years assisting at Salisbury parish, he was made parish priest of Tailem Bend from 1983-87. During this time he began studying at Flinders University. In 1988-95 he served as chaplain to Flinders University.

He began his Masters in 1990 and completed his PhD in 1999. The PhD involved interviewing more than 54 lay Catholics about their faith and why they still practised.  Based at St Mary’s for the first four years, he then moved to the Barossa Valley where the parish was smaller and quieter than most, giving him more time to put into his thesis.

In 2000 he returned to the city and was parish priest at Albert Park/Pennington for eight years. His last posting was at Emmaus parish which comprises the three parishes of Goodwood, Colonel Light Gardens and Kingswood.

Looking back on the past 50 years, the 77-year-old said as a young priest he “took on being Christ instead of saying Christ is already in that situation”.

He also had to learn to “let God love me”. An American psychologist once told him to “kneel down every morning and stroke your arm” while imagining Christ asking him ‘Michael will you let me love you more today?’

“That was 40 years ago and I still do it every morning.”

But he admits that it hasn’t always been easy and in becoming close to people he “inevitably fell in love”.

After becoming close to a woman while studying, he went to see Archbishop Len Faulkner.

“He listened to me non-stop for about 40 minutes; I thought I’d never met a bishop who would not talk or intervene,” he said.

“He helped me get in touch again with something which was even deeper.”

Another time when he was struggling with his faith Fr Michael went on a 30-day retreat and confided in another priest “I’ve lost God, I haven’t got God”. One morning he woke up early to the sound of a magpie chortling and told himself to “get out of your bed, get out on that road, sing some hymns and you’ll find God”.

“It was a full moon, drizzling with rain, still dark,” he recalled.

“I thought if someone comes along they’ll take me to the funny farm.”

He tried a couple of hymns but nothing happened.

“Then there was a scarlet piece in the dark cloud rising in the east, it was the sun trying to break through in the dark. Suddenly I physically felt an embrace and I burst into tears, and somehow I knew it was Christ. I thought ‘wow, I am loved, it’s okay’.”

“That sense of wonder, that is the key. We are already loved and we don’t have to be perfect.”

Picture: Fr Michael Brennan and his sister Mary Anne with Fr Tony Densley and his mother Ella at a luncheon after their ordination in 1972. Picture: Archdiocesan Archives.The Southern Cross | November 2022

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