Wollongong priest-to-be on the Church, celibacy and child abuse

‘‘I think it’s a bit rude to imply that someone who is living a celibate life, whether voluntary or involuntary, is somehow a potential child abuser’’ – Stephen Varney.

‘‘I think it’s a bit rude to imply that someone who is living a celibate life, whether voluntary or involuntary, is somehow a potential child abuser’’ – Stephen Varney.

In the wake of sex abuse scandals enveloping the Catholic Church and an ageing population of priests, Stephen Varney stepped into a seminary at age 26. Nearly six years later he couldn't be happier. He speaks to GEMMA KHAICY about his decision to be a priest.

Stephen Varney doesn't have sex.

He has made a vow of celibacy because, he says, his life is filled with a passion greater than his carnal cravings.

His deep love of God and commitment to his faith provides him with satisfaction no woman can fulfil.

Ironically, he says, this sacrifice allows him to connect with others on a deeper level as he enters the priesthood.

"A lot of people intensely feel loneliness," he says.

"They suffer from that feeling of isolation, whether they are in relationships or not.

The adrenalin of climbing makes Stephen Varney feel alive.

The adrenalin of climbing makes Stephen Varney feel alive.

"So when someone comes and talks to you about that, you can empathise.

"Not because you're lonely, but because you are alone - I think there's a difference."

Voluntary celibacy, he says, is a difficult concept to grasp in the current culture.

But the seminarian emphasises his free will in the decision.

"People have the perception that priests are somehow oppressed by the church and this is damaging to their psychological well-being," he says.

"I think it gives me a heightened sense of needing to give of myself.

"You still feel attraction to the opposite sex, but I am made for someone else.

"I am given the grace from God to live that life."

The Wollongong Diocesan priest-to-be has bucked a trend of an ageing priesthood, which has led to a reduction in masses in Wombarra, Corrimal and Bulli.

His vow of obedience can be one of the biggest challenges of Stephen’s vocation. Pictures: CHRISTOPHER CHAN

His vow of obedience can be one of the biggest challenges of Stephen’s vocation. Pictures: CHRISTOPHER CHAN

Illawarra priests have been stretched thin, with forecasts of growing Catholic populations in other parts of the Wollongong Diocese.

A diocese-wide restructure was made this year after surveys of parishioners and growth prediction in places such as West Dapto, Camden and Leppington.

Speculation both within and outside the Catholic Church has also attributed this lack of priests and the sex abuse scandals to vows of celibacy.

Italian women in love with priests sent a letter to Pope Francis last month asking him to make celibacy optional, while other proponents of overturning this rule have linked it to the sexual abuse of children.

The church, however, has rejected this argument, saying paedophilia is the result of psychological problems.

"I think it's a bit rude to imply that someone who is living a celibate life, whether voluntary or involuntary, is somehow a potential child abuser," Stephen says.

"It seems strange in my mind to think if you were going to disregard your vow of celibacy, why that would suddenly be towards children.

"It's completely abnormal."

As a priest-to-be, he says sex abuse scandals and cover ups in the church have been demoralising at times.

"I am disgusted by it and you might even lose faith in what you're doing, but that would give even more power to those who have done wrong," he says.

"I think the Royal Commission needs to happen and I am willing to be that champion of faithful priesthood and helping the victims who have been abused by priests or people in other institutions."

The 31-year-old's recent chaplaincy placement at Westmead Hospital showed him the beauty of his vocation.

He spent six months listening to stories of the sick and suffering, praying with them and helping them find some peace in their pain.

Listening without judgment was the most important part of the job.

"The first rule of chaplaincy is to be a presence," he says.

"I'm not coming in there with a cure.

"I had a difficult case with one lady where she was asking those questions about suffering and its meaning.

"Just being there and listening to her and praying for her brought peace."

Such encounters leave Stephen feeling the presence of the Holy Spirit, especially as he doesn't consider emotional intelligence his forte.

"I'm not like this, I ask how am I doing this and this person is getting so much out of this encounter. There's something supernatural going on here."

He feels the same feeling of receiving grace wash over him when preaching the Gospel.

Standing in the spotlight doesn't appeal to Stephen, but he feels it is a privilege to preach.

"When I get up in the church I am taken out of myself in a sense and get rather charismatic and speak from the heart," he says.

"It's having that opportunity to speak about how God has been in my life and can be in others."

Despite his current conviction, the decision to enter the seminary wasn't easy.

"I was angry at God for getting the call," he says. "It was confronting.

"It wasn't a lightning bolt moment but more of a stirring in me.

"I kept asking myself, what means something to me?

"What am I striving for?"

Like Jesus, he started out as a carpenter.

He left school for an apprenticeship at age 15 and worked in the building industry while completing a TAFE diploma in instructional engineering.

I've always had a technical mind," he says.

Starting engineering at the University of Wollongong in 2005 felt like a natural progression from his drafting work.

It was during the degree Stephen first felt the call to priesthood, even though he didn't realise at the time.

He had been dating his last girlfriend for a few months and they had become an item.

"We were spending a lot of time with each other and we knew a few secrets about each other," he says.

"It was developing in a healthy way and we weren't rushing into it.

"I started asking questions about what I want out of life, and I just didn't feel like I could give everything of myself to her."

In hindsight, there was something intangible holding him back.

"I hadn't even identified I wanted to be a priest yet," he says.

"It was almost mutual because she had her own questions about where we were going in the relationship."

In 2007 he approached a local priest and by the time he finished his degree a year later, had decided to join the Seminary of the Good Shepherd in Sydney.

His faith and helping others, he decided, were the most meaningful parts of his life.

"I thought it won't hurt me to go try it," he says.

A cradle Catholic from the Blue Mountains, Stephen grew up in the faith going to Mass every week.

His parents encouraged the children, three boys and two girls, to nourish a personal relationship with God through prayer.

At 18, Stephen's father encouraged him to make a decision about his faith.

"He said you have to make an adult decision about your commitment rather than following the norm within the family," he says.

Never did Stephen picture himself being ordained.

Far from the stereotypical bookish priest, he counts mountaineering and rock climbing as his favourite hobbies.

As a child he walked along a path on a cliff's edge to school every day.

"When you're on the coast you surf and when you're on the mountains you climb," he says.

He has been to West China and New Zealand on climbing expeditions and one day hopes to conquer the famous Yosemite climb in America. It's this sense of adventure that pushes him to become a priest.

"It's a very radical thing to do, you're not quite sure what's going to happen.

"I had to ask myself, God is good, do I really trust Him? Does He want me to be happy?"

Along with his commitment to celibacy, the vow of obedience to his superiors is the biggest challenge.

"You can't just always do what you want any more, it's another level of maturity."

Seeking truth and self-understanding is a life-long expedition for the seminarian.

He could still change his mind about becoming a priest, with an ordination to the priesthood about a year away.

But more than ever, he says, he is content with the decision: "I've never been more certain than now.

"I am gaining something very personal by fulfilling my destiny.

"I'm gaining happiness."