Today, being a Catholic priest is not a satisfying career option for most young people.
But as Australia’s youngest priest, 24-year-old Father Nathan Webb is challenging stereotypes about the clergy.
“If I went to school and asked the priest what it was, they would say, ‘It’s an old man in a white dress who reads a book on Sunday’,” Father Nathan said.
“It’s not inaccurate, but it’s not all it’s possible.
“I think it’s refreshing for me and for them.”
After years of dedicated study, Father Nathan was ordained in the Catholic Diocese of Toowoomba earlier this year.
So far, he admits, the job has been a bit of a roller coaster ride.
“It’s weird to say, but I really like funerals,” he said earnestly.
“I’m happy to accept death and be honest with it. Baptism is fine too, but I’ve done everything from playing football with school children to sitting with family at the end of a loved one’s life.
“It’s an adventure.”
Australia, like other countries, has a severe shortage of priests, so Father Nathan believes his youth is an advantage for a job dominated by older men.
“I’m just a 24-year-old with bright eyes and a bushy tail, what do I know about life?” he said.
“I’ve spent years researching to give myself the best chance at ministry, but I’m not going to claim to have all the answers.”
Serve God with his blood
Serving God seems to be the bloodline of this strict Catholic family, where one of his 11 siblings is a nun and the other a capuchin monk.
Father Nathan remembers the first time he thought about the clergy when he was five years old, but the decision was solidified years later.
“When I was a teenager, I thought my parents wanted me to do it, so maybe I didn’t want to do it because who wants to do what their parents thought they should do?” he said.
“I went to TAFE to do gardening. I loved it. I could walk around and say weird facts.
“I went to university, studied music, then English literature and business law, but overall I don’t think that’s where I should be.”
Still, Father Nathan knows the sacrifices that come with choosing to live alone.
“I didn’t go into it naively. I thought it was part of offering something and relying on God,” he said.
“I also let other people know that there is hope and peace in life without a significant other. I can still be without a partner.
“There’s a difference between being alone and being alone.”
While Father Nathan’s journey is still in its infancy, Toowoomba Senior Father Hal Ranger has seen 64 years of change in the Roman Catholic Church.
Father Hal may not be Australia’s oldest Catholic priest, but at 87, he has his own take on the church’s place in the modern world.
At St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where he serves as curate, Father Hal leads Mass, or what he calls a “team meeting.”
“The game is in the world,” he said.
“You bring the team together, refit yourself to the spirit of the team, listen to God’s Word and talk about it.
“Then you get out of the house and live in the essence of the real world.”
64 years later, still committed to the Catholic Church
Father Hal attributed his reluctance to retire to a meeting many years ago with Belgian Cardinal Joseph Carlin, who was 88 at the time, telling him: “If you have health, energy and a little adrenaline, Then why not?”.
Like Father Nathan, Father Hal’s faith was sown as a child.
He remembers his mother getting a job at Willowburn Asylum in Toowoomba, working with “broken, isolated people the rest of the world didn’t want to have anything to do with”.
Father Hal said the existence of “people who are struggling to find meaning in life” has become a theme in his life, but has also put him at odds with the rigid traditions of the Catholic Church.
“Sometimes I think hard about how I can really live meaningfully, peacefully, and be alive in the system, so I kind of rebel against it,” he said.
“But it never occurred to me to throw the whole baby out with the bathwater.”
According to Father Hal, the biggest barrier between the church and the people it wants to connect with is the church itself.
“It can feel a little heretical, but I think the building we’re in and the other church buildings and the institutions that the church itself is locked into is almost incompatible with the Gospel,” he said.
“If Jesus were here today, I really don’t think he would have built a church.
“If there’s value in gathering a large group of people, use a town hall. Once you build something like this, I think it sends a message of isolation from the rest of the world.”
Despite his frustrations at times, Father Hal insists that the Catholic Church is “more flexible than maybe 20 percent of Catholics would like”.
“They’re against it because it’s exciting, but it’s also scary to jump out of clear parameters and treat everyone and every situation on its merits,” he said.
“But like all freedom, it’s worth having.”