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Boy from Malta heads north for next adventure

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Not everyone meets a saint in their lifetime, let alone two, but Bishop Elect of Darwin and much-loved Adelaide priest Father Charles Gauci can claim just that and more, as Jenny Brinkworth discovered when she spoke to him ahead of his ordination in Darwin next month.

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When Maltese priest Father George Preca was canonised in 2007, Pope Benedict said the expression from St John’s Gospel Verbum caro factum est (the Word became flesh) guided his soul and his every action.

In choosing this same phrase for his episcopal motto, Bishop Elect Fr Charles Gauci is demonstrating his strong connection to the man who founded the Society of Christian Doctrine and whose legacy is the worldwide Preca youth movement.

Not only was Fr Gauci an active participant of the Preca Community as a young boy growing up in Malta, he also lived in the same street as Fr Preca and knew him well. Much later, Fr Gauci was one of 10 priests and bishops asked to concelebrate his canonisation Mass in Rome, and he has been actively involved and chaplain to the Preca Community in Australia for many years.

Fr Gauci’s other firsthand experience of saintliness was during a visit to Calcutta, India, to see his Jesuit uncle who invited him to celebrate Mass with Mother Teresa.

“I preached in front of her which made me feel very inadequate considering she is such a woman of God; I gave her communion and I had breakfast with her,” he recalled. “She was most gracious.”

As the seventh bishop of a diocese covering 1.3 million square kilometres (twice the size of France) and with one in three Catholics of Indigenous background, Fr Gauci is determined to follow Pope Francis’ call to “wear the smell of the sheep and be a fellow traveller in the midst of life”.

But he is fully aware of the challenges that lie ahead and is thankful that retiring Bishop Eugene Hurley will be close at hand to steer him through his early days. “He will be one of my chief advisers…I am very happy he is staying in the diocese,” he said.

On a recent visit to Darwin, one of his first tasks was to find a suitable vehicle to travel the rough roads to remote communities. “I’ll have an Outlander but I’ve heard about another bishop who has a caravan which might have some merit because I want to be able to stay with people without being intrusive,” he explained.

Fr Gauci is no stranger to long journeys, having travelled by ship to Australia from Malta with his parents, grandfather and four siblings in 1965.

A young Charles Gauci after his first Communion in Malta.

As a 13-year-old boy with a thirst for adventure, he couldn’t wait to explore the “great outdoors” when he arrived in Melbourne. However, his first experience of the vast Australian landscape was from the back seat of a Valiant sedan where he and his mother, aunt and grandma nursed his three younger siblings and his cousin.

In the front seat was his Uncle Peter who was driving, his grandfather and his father nursing his brother Tony who had broken his leg on the ship.

They left Melbourne at 3am and spent 12 hours on the road without stopping. “I remember it clearly,” said Fr Gauci. “We were nursing four kids, there was luggage all around us, it was madness…Uncle Peter fell asleep at the wheel and my father grabbed it and saved us all, and he couldn’t even drive!”

His maternal grandparents had come to Australia 16 years earlier with seven of their nine children. At the time his mother Violet had remained in Malta with her husband John and had not seen her parents since then.

After Malta gained independence, John Gauci decided to come to Australia for the sake of the children because of the uncertain economic future.

“He was an architectural draughtsman working in the government and he made a big sacrifice to come for his kids, he never really wanted to leave Malta.

“My mother never asked to go but as soon as my father said they were going, she burst into tears.”

It was a joyful reunion as the family moved into his grandparents’ home on Grange Road, Hindmarsh, and the children became acquainted with their many cousins.

Like most migrants, the family came with very little and had to start from scratch. His father asked if the payment of fees at Catholic schools could be deferred until he found work.

“We were two days in the country and it was Holy Week, and my father had no job yet so he asked if they could adjust the fees,” Fr Gauci said.

The Gauci family after settling in Adelaide (Charles is back left).

“The Sisters of St Joseph said yes for the girls but a Catholic boys’ college refused to do the same for my brother and I.”

Fr Gauci attended Findon High School before moving the following year to the Marist Brothers Thebarton who generously adjusted the fees.

Tragedy struck the family in their first year here when four-year-old John died of pneumonia after a heart operation.

“I was there with my mum when he died on the 8th of August 1965 at the Children’s Hospital…I was the big brother and used to look after him, I remember it as clear as yesterday,” he said.

“That night my father got us all together and said: ‘John is not nothing, he is in heaven with God and we can talk to him like the saints now’ – that was so powerful, I’ve thought of it so many times, the strong faith he had.”

His father had been a member of a religious order and on his way to the priesthood but left and then met Violet who was nine years younger. “They were each other’s first boyfriend and girlfriend, they had a real Christian marriage,” he said. “When she got sick later, it was so beautiful the way he looked after her.”

A young Charles Gauci after his first Communion in MaltaWith a Jesuit priest and two nuns already in the family, Fr Gauci had thought as a boy that he would one day become a priest. But during his school years he seriously considered a teaching career and was accepted into teachers’ college.

“I had a time of questioning my faith, even though I grew up in a strong Catholic family, not because of anything that happened, but because I said, okay I can see how good this is but is it real?

“I asked a priest lots of questions, I read books, I talked to people. I thought I won’t stay unless it can make sense but I won’t throw it away either.

“In the end, the fact that there is a God made more sense than if there isn’t; the fact that Jesus is the son of God amongst us made more sense than the alternative, and being Catholic was the right place to be.”

After his ‘reconversion’, he made a commitment to be a Brother in the Preca Community while also discerning a vocation to the priesthood. Another tragic event influenced his final choice of the priesthood.

Fr Gauci had moved back to Findon High to complete Year 12 and one of his closest mates who had come to the school that year from Kangaroo Island died in a motorcycle accident.

“We all went to his funeral and because of my faith I knew where Paul was but my friends just had no idea, they were lost – there were things like that which made me think ‘you really need to share what you have rediscovered’.

“I felt I needed to give my whole life to serving others as a priest. As a Preca Brother, it’s a full vocation in its own right but you can have a job and do other things. For me my childhood feelings and attraction to being a priest was such that I really needed to explore it in the seminary.”

As a priest in the Adelaide Archdiocese for the past 40 years, Fr Charles has served in a number of parishes and has always said ‘yes’ to what Church leadership has asked of him, including his most recent role as Administrator of the Cathedral.

When he received the call about being Bishop of Darwin, he was “dumbfounded” and asked for some time to pray and reflect.

“After a couple of days, I realised any reasons for saying no were mostly personal – I love this diocese – but I have to be where God is asking me to be. Now I am also very excited because this is what God wants and I will give it my all.”

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