Passionist’s 50 year journey comes full circle
Father Denis Travers has made an enormous contribution to the Passionists in Australia and around the world over five decades. The affable parish priest spoke to JENNY BRINKWORTH after celebrating his golden jubilee on January 21, in the same church where he made his first vows.
In his myriad of ministries as a Passionist priest Fr Denis Travers has been guided by a vision of God as “nothing but kindness and compassion”.
Attributing this vision to the founder of the Passionists, St Paul of the Cross, he said “that’s how I’ve tried to speak of God and live my own ministry and membership of the Congregation”.
Within the Passionist Holy Spirit Province Fr Denis, 70, has served as a formator, retreat master, spiritual director, parish priest, superior, provincial consultor and provincial superior – most of them a number of times.
He was only 27 years old and two years ordained when he was appointed head of the seminary at Templestowe, Melbourne, an early indicator of the strong leadership qualities that led to his election in 2007 as a General Consultor based in Rome. For the next 12 years much of his time was spent visiting English-speaking Passionists working in Africa, India, northern Europe, the United States and Canada.
Living in the Monastery of Saints John and Paul built atop the temple of Emperor Claudius adjacent to the Colosseum, Fr Denis described his days there as “being in the middle of faithfulness”. The Basilica of Saints John and Paul was built 1700 years ago above a small ‘house church’ constructed in the third century to honour the two martyrs.
“I used to go down into the house underneath the basilica, sit quietly and think that in the early 300s the two brothers were executed by the Emperor basically for being Christian and that the early Christians kept the brothers’ bones in a little coffin inside the house and then built a house church,” he said.
It’s a long way from the suburb of Edwardstown where he grew up in a family of eight and spent much of his childhood helping his parents run their air conditioner business.
Educated at St Anthony’s School and Christian Brothers College, Fr Denis said he was especially grateful to Mgr Harry Skene, his parish priest as a child and teenager, whom he described as “just a wonderful, pastoral person” and to the Christians Brothers who were “wonderful at promoting vocations”.
His knowledge of the Passionists came through their ‘missions’ to St Anthony’s and their occasional celebration of Sunday Mass. He also participated in Passionist retreats while at CBC and the family attended Eucharistic processions at The Monastery.
“I didn’t know so much about the charism, I knew more about the desire to be a priest,” he said.
“I think I had that (desire) for quite a long while, not that I wanted to admit it because it looked like a bit of a hard life.
“I intuitively went towards a religious order because of a sense of family connection. Our family was an inter-connected, extended family; relatives were important, cousins were important…I grew up in a family that loved reunions just for the sake of catching up with each other and being together.”
While his parents were supportive of his decision to join the Passionists, it wasn’t easy for his mother to say goodbye to her first born as he left for the juniorate in Sydney at the age of 16.
“Mum felt I was a bit young, but I was really just going into Year 11,” he explained. “The rationale was that if you decided it’s not for you, you haven’t lost anything.”
After completing his secondary schooling he decided to continue and moved to the seminary at Templestowe where he studied theology alongside young men from other religious orders and shared “the best lecturers from each”.
His academic ability, which earned him a scholarship to CBC, was matched by his sporting prowess, having played football for the first XVIII in Year 10 and competing in inter-collegiate athletics carnivals. While he continued with athletics and played footy for a local club at the seminary, he said it gradually became more difficult.
A unique feature of his six years at Templestowe was that from day one every student worked in part-time employment.
For Fr Denis, who had never been employed before, this involved driving trucks, working as a builders’ labourer, in a factory and a department store.
But the experience that left the biggest impression on him was being a theatre orderly in a hospital.
“We used to do the weekend shifts…the orderly was the least qualified person in the operating theatre,” he said, “yet, you would spend the most time with the patient. I would take them up to surgery and explain what was going to happen, reassuring them, and then I would help set up the theatre, even tying up the surgical gowns. Then after surgery finished, I would take the patient back to the ward.
“There was a sense of ministry in the work.”
The seminarians’ wages went into a communal fund from which they drew for particular needs of the students themselves such as new clothing or an outing to the pictures.
Fr Denis said it was good training for community life, and it also meant they weren’t “kept in a little bubble”.
“If you’re going to meet someone and fall in love, you’re going to go that way whether it’s while you’re a student or later,” he said.
“Paul of the Cross wanted us to be close to the people, of the people.”
After taking his first vows in January 1973 and final vows in 1976 he was ordained a deacon by Archbishop James Gleeson and a priest by Bishop Philip Kennedy in 1977 at St Paul’s Church at The Monastery.
His father was dying from cancer at the time but managed to attend the ordination. Sadly, his youngest brother died in a car crash at the age of 18 while Fr Denis was parish priest at Glen Osmond.
“My dad’s funeral was my first one and I also did my brother’s, it was very hard,” he said.
His first posting was to Marrickville parish in Sydney and two years later he was put in charge of the seminary in Melbourne where some of the seminarians had been students with him.
“I haven’t had too many times that I wasn’t responsible for something since,” he said.
Four years later he was appointed parish priest and community leader at The Monastery, returning to Sydney after five years in Adelaide and then two years later he was assigned to the community in Templestowe and ran the retreat house for seven years.
Then it was back to Adelaide before being elected leader of the Province of Australia, New Zealand and Papua Guinea (now Vietnam as well) for two terms of four years each.
After two six-year terms on the General Council and “seven Australian prime ministers later”, Fr Denis came home in 2019 and was given a few months to settle in before returning to Glen Osmond as parish priest and community leader.
He is enjoying being back in a pastoral role but said “sometimes my ideas are running ahead of my body”.
Speaking at his golden jubilee celebration at St Paul’s Church he said “Adelaide has always been home”.
He paid tribute to “all along the journey who have helped me to be a better man and minister” and said if he was to choose a title for his life story it would be ‘Family, Faith, Friends and Founder’.
“Family because they have given me all the foundations of my life…love, support, belonging and a home whenever and wherever we meet,” he said.
“Faith because it’s a bit like osmosis; it fills you from every direction and even when it is silent it remains within you and God is still there. For me that is how I make sense of life and find meaning in the world.
“Friends because they have carried me and kept helping me to see who I am through their eyes and reminding me of the way to be true.
“I would choose ‘founder’ because of Paul Danei…who had a vision of God being nothing but kindness and compassion.”Jump to next article
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