Sunday, January 13, 2019

Denis Andrew: a priest on the "run"

DENIS ANDREW: Running with God, always!

The Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish in Wentworthville in Sydney’s West is blessed with priests who bring an array of qualities and personalities to the flock. Fr John is a true-blue Aussie storyteller with a smile in every sentence. Fr Scierrie is the wise old owl and a theologian of sorts (with a smile, of course). Fr Martinho is a young man who has only just started his journey in the priesthood… a very fun guy. And then there is Denis Andrew… the leader of the gang of four so to speak. He is the subject of this interview.

Denis Andrew and nephew Michael Zammit who raised $10,000 in the Dili Marathon
Picture: Catholic Outlook

Dili Marathon: It was 6am on Saturday 18 June. My nephew, Michael Zammit and I had gathered along with hundreds of others to run the Dili marathon, half-marathon or 7km fun run. The race began at 6.30am to try to avoid some of the heat of the day. During the second half of the race the temperature would climb to 30 degrees. But for the moment it was cool in the pre-dawn at a beautiful harbour-front starting location outside the Governor’s Palace. President Ramos Horta arrived to inspire us with a speech and to thank us for taking part in such an important event for Timor-Leste. Then he fired the starting gun and we were off.

The marathon was two laps of a 21.1km course. The first lap was rather exciting as we were surrounded by the half-marathon and 7km Fun Run participants. The local Timorese were fantastic in their support from the sidelines, as were our own Carmelite students. The second lap was quite another story. The runners in the shorter distances finished and we were left to experience the loneliness of the long-distance runner. The heat started to kick in. This was accentuated by the smog of the dry season and the smoke from the cooking fires of the locals along the course. Then there were the obstacles such as the river crossing (fortunately it was the dry season and the water was low) and the odd dog and pig straying across the path but also the police let a lot of motorbikes and cars on the course in the second lap. And that’s saying nothing about our aching legs. Still the locals were highly excited, especially the children. They constantly ran with us wanting to do ‘high fives’. And one group brought my nephew Michael into their soccer game as he passed.

At long last, the harbour approached. A left turn and another kilometre along the waterfront and the finishing line was the most pleasing of sights. It was a slow race. Michael and I were both over 4 hours. But as always with the marathon, it was most pleasing to finish and a great sense of achievement. The Carmelites steered us to a seat in the shade and poured cold water down us. We spent the next couple of days recovering in our novitiate and student community at Hera. Michael is an optometrist by profession. He had generously brought his equipment with him. He set about testing the eyes of around 60 of our Carmelite priests, brothers and students along with the cooks, drivers and all the workers associated with us.

We both feel the trip was a great success. We would like to thank all who supported us both financially and in spirit. The whole venture has raised some $10,000 in support of the Carmelite mission in Timor-Leste.

Denis Andrew on a walk in Loch Lomond, Scotland

Denis Andrew was born in Melbourne, Vic. Some of his earliest memories, as a very young boy, include living with his grandmother at 22 Silver Street, Malvern. He will never forget sitting on his father’s knee or visiting him in hospital. Both memories are when he was around two to two and half years old. His father passed away when he was pretty young.

His siblings are Michael, Margaret, Catherine, Elizabeth (RIP) and Josephine.
His first day at school was probably February 1954 at St John’s, Mitcham.

Andrew is a quiet, gentle,  man. One with an economy of words and like his homilies he gets his point across without having to beat his breasts or thump the rostrum. He is also very contemplative and easy to talk to.

We share a mutual interest in running and walking: me as a former sports reporter, he as someone who has been running marathons, middle and long distance running and some of the longest and challenging walks around.

Here’s are his thoughts in his own words:

Love of running
I was always a good runner but at secondary school there were school athletics carnivals and some inter-school with a bit of success. Then Br Roberton CFC got a few of us to join Box Hill harriers and I competed as a junior.

It was probably only after I had joined the Carmelites and in 1973 I joined Box Hill Athletic club again and loved the competition and the training and came to experience running as a positive addiction. The competition at all levels was fierce enough. I made good friends with some of the Box Hill distance runners. We socialised together, especially after competition. It was a great outlet from the ‘hothouse’ of the seminary.

The popularity of distance running peaked in Melbourne during the 1970s. This was due to a number of factors: success of Rob De Castella; Frank Shorter (USA) winning 1972 Olympic marathon in Munich (CF: I was there and became the first journalist the world to interview athletes trackside. Frank Shorter told me “he hit a wall” but somehow got to the finish.) and repeating it in 1976 in Montreal; the inaugural Melbourne Marathon which attracted 7000 entrants by the late 70’s, Filbert Bayi’s 1500m world record at the Christchurch Commonwealth Games in 1974 etc.

Inter-club athletics in Melbourne competition peaked in the 70’s. In the summer, track competition was held at about six tracks around Melbourne including at Box Hill. Box Hill was a very strong club and won the A grade premiership for about 12 years in a row. There were teams of three in each event for each grade. For instance, Box Hill had about seven 1500 metre teams across four grades which means you needed to be able to run about 4 min 12 sec just to get a run in C grade. We had a number of Olympic representatives.

Ditto the Winter cross country/road season. There were many events but there were seven major races open to the whole state and very competitive. Three cross countries: 8km, 12 km and 16km. Three road races: 10km, 15 km and 25km. The cross countries along with the 10km and 15km attracted fields of up to 700 runners. Then there was the State marathon championship. There was a Winter championship. For instance, the first six runners home for Box Hill comprised the A grade team, the next six  home were the B grade team etc.

So plenty of memorable races:
06.08.77 the 16km Cross country Sunbury: 32nd out of 620 entrants in 58min 5sec (a tough tough hilly muddy course in grounds of Salesian College agricultural college)

Big M Melbourne Marathon 12.10.1980: 45th in 2 hours 38 min

18.12.79 Track at Olympic Park: Emil Zatopek B Grade 10,000 metres: 6th in 31 min 38 sec.

17.03.79Track Interclub B grade grand final at Olympic Park 3000 metres steeplechase 9th in 9 min 48 sec.
24.03.79 Track at Olympic Park 5000 metres: 15min 14 sec.

Victorian Marathon Club at Princes Park (road) 10 miles: 2nd in 54 min 43 sec.

VAAA 25km Road championship Lara: 28th out of 400 in 88 min 2 sec

23.06.79 VAAA Victorian Marathon Championship Point Cook: 25th in 2 hr 37 min.

Runners who inspired me
Ron Clarke – blazed new frontiers in distance running. His 27min 39 sec world record at Oslo on 14 July 1965 was incredible and broke the previous record by nearly 40 seconds. I remember Peter Snell saying at the time that you would have to be a distance runner to realise how good that run was. Ron was inexperienced at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo and ran quite a slow time for third I think in the 10,000 metres. In 1968 he had no hope with the altitude at the Mexico Olympics. Ron mostly ran on the old cinder tracks which makes his accomplishments even greater – the new style tartan tracks have to be worth a second or two a lap.

Lasse Viren was a great runner with memorable feats at 1972 Olympics but always had the blood doping question mark about him. I saw him run in Melbourne, but he was past his prime.

Gordon Pirie (GB)  was an English long-distance runner. He competed in the 5000 m and 10,000 m events at the 1952, 1956 and 1960 Olympics and won a silver medal in the 5000 metres in 1956, placing fourth in 1952. Born in Leeds, Pirie grew up in Coulsdon, Surrey, and ran for the South London Harriers.

Herb Elliott : Many Olympic athletes have won more gold medals than Herb Elliott. But few people have ever exercised such absolute authority in any branch of sport as Elliott did in middle-distance running. In 42 races from 1957 to 1961, he was never beaten over 1500 metres or a mile. Testimony to his greatness is the fact that, although he won the Olympic 1500m in 1960, his winning time then would have still been good enough to win gold medals in Seoul (1988), Barcelona (1992) and Atlanta (1996).    
Peter Snell (when I read his autobiography I realised he often did not feel at his best in some of his 800metre/1500 metre races but he gritted it out and fought to the finish and won).

Brendan Foster (GB) British former long-distance runner who founded the Great North Run. He won the bronze medal in the 10,000 metres at the 1976 Summer Olympics, and the gold medal in the 5,000 metres at the 1974 European Championships and the 10,000 metres at the 1978 Commonwealth Games.

Murray Halberg (NZ) handicapped with a withered arm and won 5000m in Rome Olympics 1960.

Kip Keino (not really a fan but an admirer but saw him run in Melbourne and beat Ron Clarke).

Henry Rono a great distance runner. I saw him break the Australian 10,000-metre record at Olympic Park in Melbourne in an incredible time of about 27 min 30 sec, but  I think he was sadly troubled with alcoholism later in his career.

Mo Farrah, the best surely. I saw him run 5000 metres on the Olympic Games track in London in2016.

I got my first taste of wilderness walking on a 3 day walk around Wilson’s Promontory National Park in Victoria when I was a seminarian in about 1974. I loved it. The camping, the views, the bush. I did a number of camping trips with my family. But I fell on my feet when I arrived at Park Orchards-Warrandyte parish in Melbourne on 15 August 1998. There was a group of about 6 men who were into some serious walking and I climbed aboard:

Walls of Jerusalem/Overland Track Tasmania.

Croajingolong National Park in South East Victoria.

Mt Jugungal region in Snowy Mountains.

Victorian Alps.

Grampians Victoria.

Airey’s Inlet Victoria.

Wilson’s Promontory a few times.
Great Ocean Road walk in Victoria.

Coast to Coast walk in UK

Offa’s Dyke walk in UK

Camino de Santiago in Spain.

Some of the walks were quite demanding and challenging. It taught me a lot about being a male and making decisions in the wild respecting the weakest member of the group.

Since then I have done others:

Great South West coast walk in south-west Victoria, Portland - Nelson.
South West Coast Path in England by myself.

(Denis is still competitive and can be seen in action at the athletics track in Blacktown, Western Sydney.)

I have no particular favourite but the remote ones I am particularly grateful for as I could never do them by myself in the Australian wilderness. You inevitably find yourself unsure of where you are and you need good map reading skills to be able to find your way, something I do not have. But camping in your tent and having a meal surrounded by the glorious bush settings in the remote Australian bush is just a wonderful experience.

How did God win against athletics?

It is definitely not an either/or. Both are aspects of my life. In the 70’s while a student at Whitefriars Monastery at Donvale Victoria, athletics was an outlet, a sport. I loved the camaraderie of the distance running fraternity at Box Hill Athletic club, I loved the competition. After Ordination I have managed to keep competing in Sydney and Brisbane while stationed there. A side benefit of the distance running competition is the fitness. Ministry in a parish can be quite demanding and I have always felt that the fitness and health that training brings has helped cope with both the physical and mental demands of ministry.

I grew up in Melbourne and joined the Carmelites in 1972. Ironically I was educated by the Christian Brothers at Aquinas College Ringwood which was a ‘rival’ school to Whitefriars. I have often mused as to whether I would have joined the Carmelites had I gone to Whitefriars!

Many of you will recall the church of the seventies. It had a renewed vision following Vatican II. Seminary numbers were at their peak in the Western world. Priesthood was still a very mainstream life choice. Yarra Theological Union in Box Hill had recently been established. Seminary life was also changing. They were no longer enclosed self-sufficient worlds. They were open to society and vice versa.

After Ordination in 1980 my first appointment was to Wentworthville, our Carmelite parish in Sydney. Basically, I spent the next 30 years in Carmelite parish ministry around Australia. So it was a bit of a shock to the system to find myself being invited to take up the quite different role of Provincial following our Provincial Chapter at the end of April.

Carmelite life, along with the Church, society and indeed the world has changed considerably over the past 30 years. Australia has become very multi-cultural. Cultural diversity has brought religious diversity. We live in an increasingly secular and pluralistic society. Church attendance in the Western world has declined. It is not surprising that the church has reacted against these forces by becoming much more conservative, demanding conformity to a central doctrine.

At the same time faith, religion, the church and vocations seem to be flourishing in the developing world.  We Carmelites in Australia experience ourselves as ageing and diminishing in numbers. Our Carmelite life is increasingly shared with lay people connected to us interested in the Carmelite charism. We have been blessed by Carmelites in Timor becoming members of our Province. This has brought new life and energy. Many other Religious Orders and communities have similar links with members across Asia and Oceania. Our Province works ever more closely with Carmelites in Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam and India.

Despite 30 years of change religion remains an important force in Australia and the world, even if in quite different ways. All of this makes for an interesting mix and a challenge for any Provincial and Council to guide the Province in these times.

Path to priesthood
When you join a Religious Order in the first instance you are joining the Order and not necessarily joining to be a priest. With the Carmelites, you can be a Brother or a Priest, and this would be the case with many of the Religious Orders of men.

Joining an Order is a gradual process. Typically you might spend a year as a postulant which might involve some ministry, study, living in the community. This would usually be followed by a year as a Novice. A year where you study the charism of the Order. At the end of this, you would normally take first vows, which could be for 1 year or 3 years. After some years in temporary vows, you might be invited to make application for Solemn profession which is lifetime vows and commitment to the Order. The whole process is designed to help the candidate sense whether this is the right place for him, and to help those entrusted with Formation in the Order to look at the student over the years and discern whether he is right for the Order. Along the way if you were preparing for priesthood you would study, usually for a Bachelor of Theology which for Carmelites would be at the University of Divinity, and over time receive the ministries or reader, acolyte, deacon and then priesthood.

Your own journey, observations as a Carmelite?
Religious life is no different to life in the wider world: change. The Order I joined in 1972 is not the Order as it is today. The church I was a member of when I joined in 1972 is not the church of today. (For example in 1972 to join the priesthood and/or Religious life was still a mainstream thing to do. It is certainly not today). The world I grew up in during the 1950s and 1960s is not the world I live in today. Life continually evolves and changes. I have had three periods of working in Wentworthville parish: February 1981 to February 1986, January 2004 to May 2010, and December 2016 to …….
The parish I came to in 1981 was a very different experience to the parish I came to in 2004 and in 2010. In the 80’s it was a very Maltese area with parishioners typically being White Australian with an Anglo or European ancestry. Now Wentworthville is an Indian area with other parishioners being largely from Asia.

The world has shrunk. With the development of media, communications we are all aware of what is happening in other parts of the world. Carmelite life has become much more global. We are no longer the isolated Australian Province. We are the Province of Australia and Timor Leste and we attend many international meetings of Carmelites and there is much more interaction and help between the Provinces in our region and in our world.

The Carmelites are having to train their own priests… in East Timor for example? Does this signal the end of the Australian bred priests, who are a vanishing breed?
Yes and no. This is an ambiguous question in many ways. Priesthood and Religious Life has experienced a general decline in numbers in Western countries. At the same time, there has been a rapid increase in numbers in other Carmelite Provinces around the world such as Asia, Africa and South America. In our region, this would include the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and India. Indonesia is our biggest Province with nearly 300 members. In Australia, most of the Religious Orders have experienced a decline in Australian vocations and experienced new life and growth by being involved with members of their Order in other countries in our region. The Australian Province incorporated the Carmelites of East Timor into our Province in 2000 after the county voted for independence from Indonesia and the war and destruction that followed this. But Australia is surely the most multi-cultural country in the world, so how do you define “Australian bred priests, who are a vanishing breed”? If most of our priests now seem to come from overseas so does the person who runs the Post Office, who runs the bank, who drives the trains etc.

You have a couple of decades to go yet, but what do you look forward to in retirement? When do you plan to hang up those walking shoes? You still jog a little at the moment?
This is a vexed question. All my friends I went to school with are retired and living quite full lives. As indeed are friends from the parish here. With the shortage of priests there tends to be pressure for you to keep working, especially if you are reasonably healthy and reasonably sane. The issue becomes complicated. The position of parish priest has become much more onerous. With various regulatory bodies across Carmelites, the Diocese, the Church, State and Federal Governments life has become much more transparent and accountable and the red-tape has multiplied. Now, this is rightly so following developments such as the Royal Commission into sexual abuse of minors by Institutions and various other developments like what the ‘Me too’ movement has revealed. You have to be thorough in providing a safe working environment.

Many of us want to keep active in ministry, and Anthony Scerri at 88 years of age is a shining example in Wentworthville parish. He makes a valuable contribution. Many of us as we become older want to be active and continue doing ministry in the church eg. Masses, funerals, weddings etc. but we do not want to be burdened by the responsibility of finance, maintenance, compliance etc.

And again you need your health to be able to do this as you find yourself in the ’70s and ’80s. So I have no plan to hand up my walking shoes. I am still competing in distance events during the winter season and I run about 5 days a week at 5am for an hour.

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