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A Curious Calling: Father Peter McGrath

A Catholic priest, a recovering alcoholic and a closet comedian – doesn't get more curious than that

Written by . Published on November 14th 2011.

A Curious Calling: Father Peter McGrath

MEETING Father Peter, you may not instantly recognise him as a priest. In his fire chaplain’s uniform, he could easily be mistaken for a pilot or a Navy veteran. Or Crocodile Dundee. He greets everyone with a tirade of affection and anecdotes from the whole world’s outback. But Father Peter’s Catholicism is based on exactly that – sharing love and stories. And he shares them with everybody. Even the waiter who brought us tea during the interview shouted over, laughing, “You’re like Jesus – you love everybody!”

Father Peter travels to parishes around the world to further the Passionist Family Group Movement, that he founded in 1973 as a way of getting people from the same parish to spend time together, “helping us become brothers and sisters again.” In a time where Dawkins and Hitchins are fervently reducing the parameters of what God and religion can mean, such an all-inclusive Christianity is both inspiring and attractive. Especially when it’s so struck through with laughter.

I think the only thing that really matters is love. Not romantic love – that just fades away when the winter comes. But true love – that’s in the roots of the tree.

When did you become a priest?
I came from a Catholic background so I’d always had this idea that you should make this sacrifice and work for God, with people who are in great need. I come from Blacktown, Sydney, from a very working class family. My father and mother couldn’t afford to send me to college, but I got a bursary and then a Commonwealth scholarship, which meant I could go to university. I thought – I’ll go and join the order, but I know I’ll be out in a couple of weeks. They’ll be too tough and I’ll be too bad and they won’t want me. But I stayed.

Was it really tough?
Initially, I found it was fantastic. The second year was tough but at that stage I thought well, Jesus had it tough, and why should you run away? You get up at two in the morning, sleep on straw, wear sandals in the winter. Try and become compassionate towards people, understand their problems and difficulties. Encourage them. That’s what I’ve been doing, basically, since then.

Where do you meet people?
Everywhere. I was sitting in the monastery in New York, the Thursday before 9/11. All of a sudden a fire truck appeared. This was the Bronx. The fellas got out and Captain Dan Daly said, ‘Father Peter, we’ve come to check the boilers.’ I said, ‘Go ahead, Captain Dan, and when you come back,’ I was joking, I just made it up, ‘check the refrigerator because we’ve got cans of Holy Water in there, and they’re not getting cold.’

He came back and said, ‘Father Peter, I’ve looked in the refrigerator and there’s no cans of Holy Water.’ I said, ‘Really?’ He said, ‘There’s only cans of Bud.’ I said, ‘What’s Bud, Captain Dan?’ He said, ‘Bud is Budweiser, a beer.’ I said, ‘Glory be to God, Captain Dan. It’s a miracle in the monastery!’ I was off the drink because I’m a recovering alcoholic but I gave them all a can of beer and they rejoiced. Half an hour later they came back and gave me an FDNY cap.


Were you there on 9/11?
I was in New England and I came back down and they made me chaplain with Captain Dan. I went down to the hole when they worked and tried to give them some consolation. When we had a meal, they’d ask me to say grace. But they wouldn’t want the usual you know ‘Blessed be to God’. They were big guys, heroes. Two of the guys that’d visited me had disappeared. They never found their bodies.

How does a priest become an alcoholic?
Priests drink a lot! As I got older I was resorting to it as a crutch. If you get close to people you get close to their pain. Marriage break-ups, violence, criminal activity. I’ve carried a little baby in a coffin in my arms in the middle of the storm. Even though I’m not a married man, I still have a father’s heart. And you don’t go back to anyone to talk about it. All the fellas are out there doing the same thing. You just get on with it. But the trauma’s there.

How do you keep your faith?
I think the only thing that really matters is love. Not romantic love – that just fades away when the winter comes. But true love – that’s in the roots of the tree. My greatest seeing of God is talking to a mother with a baby. Ask a mother how she feels about her baby and they’ll all come back to unconditional love. Sometimes the dad’s just say they feel like the wife, ditto, so I ask them, ‘Would you die for your child?’ And then they get emotional. They say, ‘Of course I would. A hundred times!’ And I say that’s Christ’s love. That’s the love of God. Your love is God’s love. Water’s water. Air’s air. Love’s love. You can’t put it under a microscope, but it’s a spiritual reality. It just doesn’t abide with Christians or Muslims. It’s in everybody’s heart.

Why are there so many other rules then?
Because people get away from love, from the two rules – love God and love one another. Because they don’t put those into practice, they don’t love their enemies, they don’t try and reach out in compassion. Jesus came to take away the rules. If you’ve got love you’re not going to do the wrong thing. You’ll get angry and all that business but basically you’re going to say, I’m a human being, I’m sorry. God comes from left field. It’s a different sort of religion, it’s based on giving over.



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