03 Jan 2023

Privileged to be present in people's lives

BISHOP GREG 60th anniversary new sm.jpg

It should have been one of the best days of his life. After 14 years of Jesuit studies and preparation for the priesthood and the day after his ordination on December 9 1972 in St Ignatius Church, Norwood, Fr Greg O’Kelly was celebrating his first Mass at Holy Name Church, St Peter’s, when tragedy struck.

Two Jesuits, seminarian Dr Marc Playoust, who was due to be ordained the following month, and Fr Bill Holland, were killed in a car accident while driving back from Sevenhill to attend the Mass.

News of the accident reached other Jesuits attending the Mass but was kept from Fr O’Kelly until he had given his final blessings.

“It changed everything,” the now 81-year-old Bishop O’Kelly said ahead of his golden jubilee celebrations in Adelaide and Port Pirie. “My mother had set up a marquee on the front lawn…instead of being festive it was a very stricken gathering.

“I spent the first week after my ordination going to requiem Masses. It was sort of a sacrificial element to the priesthood; if this had cost so much, then I’d better be worth it.”

It wasn’t the first time Bishop O’Kelly had experienced the loss of someone close to him. His younger brother David was struck down with encephalitis while his parents were away visiting him in the novitiate in Sydney. Sadly, David died six weeks later.

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And after being apart from his parents and sister Jennifer for nine years, he returned to Adelaide and the new Saint Ignatius’ College Athelstone campus for his ‘regency’ (internship), only to have his father die the second night he was home.

As a priest he has shared in the sorrow of others but also moments of great happiness.

“I regard it as an enormous privilege to be close to people in intense moments of their life, the joy of their marriage and the birth of a child, the grief of sudden loss or young death, highly intimate experiences into which the priest is invited, where his presence is appreciated, even though it’s not a matter of words,” he said

“The priest is anointed by his vocation to be between the common place and the sacred, serving the people of God.”

Bishop O’Kelly’s journey to the priesthood began when he was in secondary school at Saint Ignatius’ College in only its second year of operation.

“I was very impressed by the Jesuits, they seemed to like each other’s company. You’d see them crossing the yard and they would joke and talk, there was a strong sense of rapport amongst them,” he explained.

Like several other young men in his parish who became diocesan priests, he was also influenced by Fr Jim Kelly who he described as “a wonderful, much-loved parish priest”.

But he remained drawn to the Jesuits, partly because of the range of ministries they were involved in, from science and communication to astronomy. “They had a history and an adventure about them,” he said.

Like all Jesuits, he didn’t get a choice and the ministry he was assigned to was teaching.

After his ordination he finished fourth year theology in Melbourne while doing pastoral work with the disadvantaged and was then appointed assistant to the Master of Novices in Sydney.

In 1975 he was transferred back to Saint Ignatius’ College in Adelaide and after two years in the classroom he was made rector. In 1978 the headmaster, Fr Philip Hosking, volunteered to go to the Indian mission and the Provincial appointed the 36-year-old
Fr O’Kelly as headmaster.

“It was interesting because several of the staff had taught me, two of the Jesuits were former headmasters, including one who’d been my headmaster, and suddenly I was theirs. But that’s how they do it in the ‘Js’, you’re a rooster one day and you’re back in the ranks the next.”

Asked what contributed to his obvious leadership qualities, he humbly replied: “Someone once told me I’m a fairly relational character, so I was able to relate to a cross-section of people and to the boys.”

Being involved in the lives of students and their families made being a headmaster a “very priestly role”, he said.

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