Spotlight on: Father John Grieg & Father Daniel McCaughan
This Easter is the perfect time to cast our spotlight on Reverend John Greig and Reverend Daniel McCaughan from Our Lady Star of the Sea parish in Miranda. They tell us how they were called into God’s service, and what it means to work so closely with people during some of life’s most powerful moments. From being hit by God’s sledge-hammer to miraculous coma recoveries, these two men explain why there’s no such thing as an average day in the priesthood.
CCER: What inspired you to enter the priesthood?
Father John: “I think I just wanted to do something for God, you know. And I wasn’t quite sure what that was. So, first of all I went into the Brothers, but that didn’t work out. But whilst I was in the Brothers I had the call to the priesthood. And you know, it’s not as if God comes down and says “I want you to do this”, you know. I had this feeling all the time that I wanted to (be in the service of God).
I saw a priest while I was in the Brothers and every morning walking up and down (wearing) black and saying the breviary and that was something…I thought: ‘here’s (a vocation) that would be different from teaching boys in a Christian Brothers school, it would be reaching out to all different types of people of all ages’, and that was the thing that attracted me. I wanted to be with all different types of people. It wasn’t as if I was going into the priesthood, or wanted to be a priest, because it was a better vocation or anything like that, I think it was just a call to be with all different types.
“And I think also, because (of) my grandmother – she was a special holy lady – and I think because of her prayers – that’s what got me to the priesthood too. Because she was always praying for me. I knew she was praying for me but I didn’t always know that she was praying that I’d be a priest.
Did you find out later that she’d been praying for that?
Father John: “I had a senior mass just recently and I spoke to the people there about my nan. And I told them the story about going through the church yard one day and one of Nan’s friend was there. And I said: “Hello Mrs Defina, how are you?” and she said: “Ah John. What are you doing now?” And I said: “I’m studying for the priesthood”. And she said: “Oh, your grandmother said that you would be a priest one day.” Well, I never knew that. Last time I saw Nan, she said: “Next time I see you I will be in Heaven.”
Father Dan: “I’d have to say the biggest inspiration was my mum and dad, even though they never once said I should be a priest. I’m the eldest of 11 children, so we come from a big family. We’re eight boys and three girls. One of my sisters has since gone to God, but we’re a very tight knit family. And mum and dad just lived their faith in a beautiful, natural way.
They would take us to Mass on Sundays, but they themselves would go every day. And Saturday night we’d have the rosary followed by a movie together. It was one of the family rituals. And being the eldest you sort of become the privileged witness to the sacrifices that your parents would make for you growing up…constantly saying no to themselves in order to say yes to us. And that had a very powerful impact on me.
Everyone asks: ‘Was there one key moment when you just knew?’. And for most guys there’s not. For most guys it’s a fairly organic, almost natural process, a bit like what Father John said, you know, you get this sense and then boom, the next thing you know you find you’re studying for the priesthood. For me I had to get hit over the head with a sledgehammer.
I was in high school, in fact, I was only in Year 7 and so it was early, and we were having mass in our school chapel, and so I was praying and normally I would do a runner straight after mass to go to recess. But this one day I decided to hang back and found myself alone in the chapel and, just there before the tabernacle and, it started very slowly at first, but then with an ever-increasing intensity I found myself being overwhelmed, and I mean overwhelmed, by the most sublime joy and happiness and above all, the deepest peace. And, to be honest, words are really quite useless (when) trying to describe what happened, but I have never felt so loved in my life, I have never felt so embraced, so cherished, so worthwhile.
And in the midst of this overwhelming love was one absolutely crystal-clear idea which was the priesthood. I didn’t hear any voices, there were no flashes of lightning, no thunderbolt (saying): ‘Daniel, I want you to be a priest’. There was none of that. There were no words spoken and yet I knew what I was being told.
There probably isn’t such a thing as an average day for a priest because in the space of 24 hours you can go the whole breadth of the human condition…from birth to death… But can you try to explain to us what you could be doing on, say, an average Tuesday?
Father Dan: “Well you’ve hit the nail on the head with having to traverse all of human life in the space of a few hours. I remember in 2016 we’d just had Christmas, all the Christmas festivities were just over and a day or two later, we had the Parish mass and then I get called on out of the blue to bury a stillborn.
So, I have to do a stillborn funeral, of course, that’s always a pretty hard thing when you’ve got a little coffin that size, with the family around. And so, you be with them, you comfort them, and then going to the wake afterwards, and spending a bit of time with them, especially with something as raw and as sensitive you always give a bit of extra time, so spending a few hours with the family, and then immediately getting in the car to drive off to spend time with a couple who is preparing to get married. So, then you’ve got to completely change gears and you’ve got to forget that the stillborn funeral ever happened. And then you’ve got to be with the couple. Be excited for them. Joyful for them. And then that’s out of the way, and then maybe you’ve got to sit at your desk and do some paperwork. Which I always find boring and a chore but it has to be done.
So, you do that, and then it’s into the evening, and that’s often when meetings happen because a lot of the people who sit on your pastoral council or your finance committee they’re all working professionals, so they can’t meet during the day so they have to come after work. So, a lot of the big parish decisions, and discussions and debates, they’re happening at 7.30, 8.30 at night so you’re still going. And then somewhere in the midst of that you’ve got to find time to eat. And, most importantly, find time to pray.
And I think changing gears can only be done successfully if you have a healthy prayer life. That daily conversation with God is the key. So, you always have to have a period – no matter how busy the day is – you have to have that silent time where you do not get interrupted. If the phone rings, you do not answer it. Where you’re just in conversation, and that’s where you can bring those things to God, and sometimes you do need to have a good cry, you know, I can’t be balling my eyes out at a stillborn funeral, I have to be there for the family, but if I need to cry I do it afterwards. Or you see a tragedy, sometimes I’ve seen some pretty heartbreaking things in hospital, or traffic accidents and things like that, and you’re there, and, in the moment, you have a job to do and you do that. Then, if you need to fall apart a bit afterwards, then you do that.
Father John: “I’ve had those times where you’ve had all different types of things happen to you in the one day. But you do need your prayer life, you do need quiet time every day.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of entering the priesthood?
Father John: “Just lay it on the line to them that the priesthood is something where you’ve got to give everything. It’s no use saying to God: “Look, I give my life but I want to keep this back’. It might be the girlfriend. It might be the drink. It might be money. But all these things will undo the priest. So, you’ve got to lay it on the line just there and say: ‘I give you everything’. And once you’ve done that He will give you everything. And that is the most beautiful thing of giving your heart to God.”
Father Dan: “The advice to the guy entering the seminary is a little bit different to the advice to the guy who’s newly a priest.
There’s a tension, a beautiful tension, because you go into the seminary and you think: ‘We all want to be saints’. We’re all fired up and idealistic. And you need to be like that when you’re coming in, and then you suddenly realise: ‘Oh boy, we all fall so short of the mark’. You’re lumped in with a bunch of people that usually you’d never choose to live with otherwise. The range of personalities in the seminary is so disparate and so different, and you have to mix with people from completely different cultural backgrounds, their personalities are different, and yet the seminary is this pressure cooker environment, it kind of forges you and actually creates a brotherhood that cuts through.
In the end, you become very close to the guys you go through with. And I think one of the things that is very helpful in the seminary is that you be faithful to the routine. So, you keep fronting up. There’ll be mornings where the last thing you’ll want to do is get up and go to morning prayer but you get up and you go. And they say ‘you take care of order and order takes care of you.’ And what that does… You’ll never get another chance like it because the seminary gives you the time and the space to know God and to fall in love with him. And if you have already, it gives you the opportunity to deepen that love. And because it’s also a little bit of a pressure cooker environment the seminary is no cake walk, and if it isn’t a cake walk something’s wrong.
I’m assuming that in your role of priests you’ve come across some hard stories, some very, very difficult moments. Are there any that you thought were particularly challenging or have really stuck with you throughout your career?
Father John: “I just think of my first parish. When I got there the parish priest said to me he was going to have some time off. And it was Propagation of the Faith Sunday and he left me to look after all the money, (and) he told me how to do it all. And I thought: ‘Now, will I just leave all the money here on the table now and then go off to dinner with some priests from Paddo to a club there?’ And I said to myself: ‘No, I’d better put it away’. And so, I put it away safely. (Before he left, the senior priest had) told me: ‘Leave the radio on, John, all the time when you’re out, and leave the lights on’.
When I came (back), the radio was turned off, and I noticed some glass on the other side of the table in the dining room. And I went into the kitchen and the window was up, and I went to the back door and the back door was swinging. And I thought: ‘Oh my God, I’ve been robbed!’ And so I rang the police. And they said: ‘Are they still in the house?’ And I thought: ‘Oh my God! (laughs) I don’t know!’ And they said: ‘Don’t worry, we’ll be there in a few moments’. So, that would have been the scariest thing for me. That to me was my earth-shattering thing that I still remember to this day.
But as for anything else that’s challenged me in my priesthood…hospital ministry for me was a most beautiful ministry. I saw many miracles happen there. When I say many, it was probably a few. I remember one particular woman, she was very religious, would have to have communion every day, at RPA, I was chaplain to RPA and the Children’s Hospital. And this dear lady I can remember, she had great devotion to Our Lady, and I had just been there and anointed her, and she sat up – as if she saw Our Lady, and then she went straight back and then died. There was that experience. And then another experience was down in the Children’s Hospital and they had this little girl, and she was the most beautiful little thing. I used to go and see her, and she said: ‘Father, there’s Jesus’. And I turned around and I couldn’t see Jesus. And the mum was there too. But she saw Jesus, and I believe that that was true. Because she was a very special little girl.
And then there was another experience where I was called down to the Children’s Hospital and this very young man, he came up to me, when I walked through the door because I came in (dressed) just like this with a collar on, and he was almost kneeling down and he said: ‘Father, Father, I want you to pray for my daughter’. And it was just quite moving at the time. And he said: ‘she’s dying Father, she’s dying. She’s got a tumour. I want you to pray for her’. And I said: ‘We will go and pray. We’ll celebrate the Mass now. We’ll pray for your daughter before she has the operation.’ And so we celebrated the Mass and then he took me up to see her and as she was going (into surgery). And when I went up, I anointed the girl – she didn’t need the anointing – but I anointed her. At the time, she would have only been about five years old, and now she’s a doctor. And (her father) writes to me every Christmas and he has never forgotten me.”
Father Dan: “When you’re preparing to be a priest, the things that you’re most terrified of – or the things I was most terrified of – have actually become the most enriching. I was terrified of hospitals, going through as a seminarian, and now I love them as a priest. As Father John says, they’re beautiful places. I’ve had two distinct cases where I can honestly say it’s been miraculous. Both those cases have involved people waking up from comas during the Rite of Anointing. So, I’ve had one –it was a Friday, and the very next day I was going to be doing my sisters’ wedding. It was a big time for the family. That night we were having a wedding rehearsal, all of the excitement was going on. And I was here in the parish and the phone goes off, and I’m told: ‘Father, there’s a lady that’s dying, can you come and see her?’ And so, I go: ‘Sure’ and grab the oils and head off. I get to her house and in living room they had a hospital bed set up. Her husband and two adult sons where there and she was lying sort of unconscious – even her hands were folded like she was ready to go – her hands were folded on her chest. And her husband said: ‘The doctors have said that she’s not going to wake up, this is it, we’re saying goodbye, can you anoint her please?’. And I said: ‘No worries’. I went up and I put my hand on her hands, and I said to her husband: ‘You never know, she might be able to hear me’ and as soon as I said those words her eyes popped open, she looked at me and said: ‘Yes Father, I can hear you’. And then the husband collapsed on the floor in shock! So, she was with me through the last rites, which was beautiful. And then what happened was that she remained conscious for another two days and she was able to say goodbye to all the family members she hadn’t been able to say goodbye to because she’d been unconscious. And only after she’d said her goodbyes did she die, and then I got to do the funeral, which was an absolutely, unforgettable funeral. I’ll never forget that.
“On the second occasion, I’d been out playing touch footy with my parish footy team. I see the phone message light is on, on my house phone. It was someone asking: ‘Could you please come and anoint my dad, he’s dying’. So, I got out of my footy gear and change into my priest gear, fly down to Concord Hospital. By the time I got down to Concord Hospital, visiting hours are over, all the lights have been turned off in the wards except for this one light that was on in the end of the corridor. So, I went down there to what was an absolute shoebox of a room. It was the only room in the ward that had only one bed in it, and in it was this fellow on life support, and the whole family crammed in around him. I came in and he had apparently been unresponsive for the last 24 hours, and all his vital signs were almost flat-lining – heart rate, blood pressure, breathing. He was alive, but only just. So, as I came in and his wife was treating him like he could hear everything, and she said: ‘Darling, the priest is here’. As soon as she said that, his eyes sort of popped open, and I’m like thinking: ‘here we go again’ and then he tries to talk, and the family is trying to settle him down. His granddaughter is a nurse actually, and is trying to calm him down (saying): ‘That’s ok. Just relax’. So, I was able to give him his last rites and pray with him and the family. I would’ve stayed at his bedside for about an hour, just with his family.
When you walk into these moments, especially when there’s a lot of family members there, and it’s a very emotionally charged situation, and that’s when you’re really praying to the Holy Spirit. To have the right words to say. Usually less is more. But it’s more of your presence that counts, and so I was with them, then I left. That’s when you wait for the phone call to come through to say that they’ve died and that could you do the funeral. The next day, no phone call. The day after that, no phone call. The day after that, still no phone call. Days after that, no phone call. Then finally there was a phone call, and it was the wife. She said: ‘Father, they’ve had to check him out of hospital, because they’ve got no reason to keep him’. And I was like: ‘Really?’ (And she said): ‘They said that he’s not well but he’s well enough that there’s no point in keeping him at the hospital anymore.’ So they sent him home.
Then next Sunday, well, blow me down if he wasn’t sitting in the congregation at the Mass. I said: ‘Well, I’ve got Lazarus here in my congregation’. There was a lovely, funny twist to that story: the following week or so, I’m off playing touch footy again. I’m walking to my game with my gear on, and I see a girl walking in front of me. I said: ‘Gee, she looks familiar. Ah goodness, it’s one of the granddaughters of the guy that had the miraculous recovery’. So, I ran up to her. Her name was Emma, and I said: ‘Emma, it’s Father Dan!’ She didn’t expect to see me in footy gear, and then she just opened up. She said ‘Father, you’re not going to believe it. When you walked out of the room, he tried to get up and have a shower and a shave and wanted to do everything. We had to fight to keep him down in his bed. Then in the end, they had to let him get up and do all these things, and we said that we couldn’t believe it!’
What kind of things do you do to prepare for Easter?
Father Dan: “All the liturgies and stuff. There’s a lot more of them. So, each one has its own, like Holy Thursday. There’s the practicalities like having volunteers for the washing of the feet, having all the lectors; people who are going to read, because the passion is usually read in three parts, so here on Palm Sunday, the primary school kids do a passion play, dramatising the passion of Christ, so there are a lot of rehearsals going on.”
Father John: “They’ll have the donkey on Sunday.”
You really have a donkey?
Father Dan: “In my old parish, we had two live donkeys.”
Father John: “We have had a live donkey here. Then last year, they couldn’t get a live donkey, so they made their own donkey, and he’s very good. He’s an excellent donkey.”
Father Dan: “He’s a well-behaved donkey.”
Father John: “The kids love it. We have a jumping castle here, and we have a sausage sizzle, and people come in droves. They love Palm Sunday. I think that’s one of the days like Ash Wednesday, everybody must be ashed, and everybody wants to get their palms. I still have mine from last year. I remember when I was a little boy, my grandmother used to say ‘John, the palm is a sign to ward all evil off the home. So, we must have the palm.’ When I was nearly ordained, I went to my scripture scholars and my parish priests, and I said: ‘Harry, have you ever thought of the palm to ward all evil off the home?’ ‘Oh no, John, I’ve never come across that’, he said, ‘that was one of the Franciscan thoughts many years ago probably’. He said the palm is part of showing our fickleness. Human nature. One day they were with Jesus, the next, they wanted him crucified. That’s the way we are, in our nature. I said: ‘Well Harry, you’ve hit the nail on the head, that’ll be the basis of my Sunday homily’. I’ve often gone to those. It does talk to us, as human beings. We’re not all good people. Sometimes we’re good, and sometimes we’re bad: hot and cold.”
What is something that only a priest would know?
Father Dan: “What people have told him in confession! (laughs)
“I think, on a personal level, what would only a priest know? I mean, I think many people don’t think about or realise how much priests wrestle with exactly the same thing that everyone else in the pews wrestles with. Questions of trusting God, faith, moral struggles, everything like that. We’re human as well. We don’t grow on trees. We’re flesh and blood.
People think that because we’re professional Catholics, that for us, it’s all simple. But the fruits of our ministry and everything comes from our own ‘wrestling’, and it comes out of our own struggle, and ultimately comes out of our own prayer. But to think, because I’m a priest I just go in there and I just turn into a Carmelite mystic and I start levitating, it couldn’t be further than the truth.
Nine-point-five out of ten, prayer is sheer, bloody hard work. You don’t get any mystical experiences or anything like that. At least, I’ve realised that. I think for me, I think if I struggle sometimes, especially in prayer, and I’ve got the attention span of a squirrel, I sometimes can’t give God more than 30 seconds of undivided attention at a time. Nevertheless, every time I get distracted, I keep coming back. It’s amazing how often all the things that are concerning you come up and disturb you right when you want to sit and be quiet. That every time I go to prayer, I know that I’ve been with God, and He’s been with me.
That’s the most reassuring thing, but I don’t think people realise that often how vulnerable priests are. And I think we can always look like we’ve got it together, and maybe we can preach strongly, and maybe we can give beautiful advice in the confessionals and maybe we can have those words of comfort; that’s God working often in spite of us. We’re fumbling and stumbling along, and he just takes us, weak instruments that we are, and continues to do great things with us. Which is a humbling thing to have as a priest, because you realise that I don’t deserve this vocation, I haven’t merited this, it’s just been given to me. It also means I have a greater responsibility to try to live up to it. I also need to take comfort in the fact that, look, at the end of the day, the mission is Christ’s, not mine. I’ve been given things on loan, on trust, and I have to use them the best I can.”
Father John: “I couldn’t ask for a better answer.”