As a friar in the Order of Preachers, Father Matthew Boland considers it a “great privilege” to be able to preach to young people from many different backgrounds at Blackfriars Priory School.
“Not many people have an opportunity to preach to people of many different faith backgrounds,” he told The Southern Cross.
“I don’t mean in the sense of converting them, but engaging with them.”
With more than 900 students, of whom about half are Catholic, enrolled in the ELC-Year 12 college, Fr Matthew has been busy familiarising himself with the many aspects of school chaplaincy taking on the role in May. He replaced Father Karl Emerick OP who has been appointed parish priest of North Adelaide/Prospect, following the departure of Father Alex Vickers OP who has moved to Brisbane.
Although a relative newcomer to the priesthood, Fr Matthew’s his journey to the altar began in his twenties when he quit his job managing pubs and travelled to Spain to walk the Camino.
“I was about 25 and I enjoyed my work – it was great fun – but I didn’t feel like it was my life calling,” he said.
Part way through the pilgrimage, he was praying in a Benedictine chapel in the village of Rabanal when two monks invited him to come and stay in their monastery for a few days when he’d completed the walk.
“One of the hardest things about doing the Camino is finishing it,” Fr Matthew explained.
“You just want to keep walking, especially in my case because I had shut the chapter on my other life.”
So he decided to go back to Rabanal where the small Benedictine community was trying to establish a retreat house for pilgrims.
“They were so kind to me, I was a complete stranger but they saw me in their chapel when I was passing through…I stayed with them for a couple of weeks and I was overwhelmed by their example, they treated me like their brother, even though they didn’t know me.
“I thought ‘that’s what I want to be like’.”
While his perspective on life had changed dramatically, Fr Matthew said he realised a religious calling was a “radical change in direction” and not a very “socially normal thing to do”.
After a few weeks at the monastery he went to England and worked in a pub in England. Although he knew it was time for him to make a decision, Fr Matthew said he “procrastinated”.
He returned to Australia and completed a science degree which he had started before working in pubs. During these two years at university, he visited a number of religious orders, spoke with diocesan priests and read about saints.
One of the biggest influences on him was the chaplain at Sydney University who was a Dominican friar. It wasn’t his first encounter with the Dominicans; his father – a cradle Catholic – was a lawyer with a passion for philosophy and as a young man he had studied at the Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome. He went on to teach philosophy part-time and instil a love of Thomas Aquinas in his son.
“I always had that connection with this very famous Dominican,” Fr Matthew explained.
“I felt very comfortable about studying his thoughts and philosophy for the rest of my life.”
Fr Matthew said the Dominican Order also appealed to him because of their “wonderful spirituality and charism”.
“We don’t advertise it very much but having spent time in the order, it has this wonderful wholeness and a very balanced life of monastic observance and living in community.
“You choose a way of life where you have time to dedicate to study and prayer and then you give the fruits of that to others.”
Fr Matthew spent four months in Adelaide as a postulant in Adelaide, a year in the novitiate in Hong Kong and about six years at the University of Divinity’s Catholic Theological College in Melbourne.
Although the initial decision to enter the priesthood was “weighty”, there was a constant process of recommitting and reassessing “until death”.
Fr Matthew said the Order’s strong intellectual tradition and commitment to community life, prayer and service fitted well with the school context.
“It’s about educating the whole person, not just academically but spiritually and socially,” he said.
Before his ordination, Fr Matthew did a six-month pastoral semester in the North Adelaide/Prospect parish. While he is enjoying being back in the founding community of the Province, he misses his parents and sister who has three daughters and a son due on September 19.
“We’re a very close family – they’re a very important part of my life,” he said, adding he treasures the four weeks he spends with them.
“Family doesn’t diminish when you join religious life, in some ways it’s more important. It’s a great blessing to partake in my sister’s family life.”
His approach to school chaplaincy is to “do my best with the opportunity”.
He is very aware of the multi-faith make-up of the school and the fact that there are many challenges facing Catholic families in today’s society.
“I certainly never water down the faith but try to communicate it in a respectful way,” he said. “I’m very comfortable with our Catholic identity here, but try not to put boys in a position which would make them uncomfortable or feel belittled.”
“On a personal level, I try to preach the truth in a way that I think Christ would preach it, without watering it down but with love and with the welfare of the people I am preaching to in mind.
“And I always rely on the grace of God.”
He said it was important to be “authentic”, particularly with boys and young men. “You try to practise what you preach, give them truth in a direct way and be happy to answer their questions,” he explained.
“For example, with various aspects of modern social issues – sometimes very controversial issues – I don’t deny what the Church teaches in order to avoid scandal, but I try not to be overly dogmatic.
“Young people are exposed to all sorts of things through social media, often on very adult issues – in some ways they have lost their youth.
“St Thomas had a great emphasis on nature, you don’t necessarily have to appeal to God to have an understanding of human nature, and what that means for how we should act.”
As well as helping out in RE classes, Fr Matthew’s degree in science (majoring in maths) means he is able to assist in maths classes where the students get to see him as a human being, “not some distant, alien person”.
Some students also have been surprised to learn that together with four of his fellow seminarians, Fr Matthew has developed a Catholic trivia app. Since it was launched a year ago, it has been downloaded by 18,000 Android phone users and Fr Matthew is in the process of making it available through the Apple store. He also is developing a new Bible quiz app for a broader audience. (Search for ‘Catholic Trivia’ on the Google Play store to download the app.)