From Winnipeg to Williamtown, the long way

From Winnipeg to Williamtown, the long way

When Fr Stéphane Sarazin is asked about his ministry, he plays his cards close to his chest at first. "The official version is that I work for the military. We don't go into specifics, mainly for security reasons. You always have to identify who you're talking to, in any circumstance, it doesn't matter who you are."

"Later I will tell them I'm a military chaplain at Williamtown's RAAF base with various Units," Fr Stéphane continues. "Then their next question is, 'what does a military chaplain do?'

"I'm just like a parish priest but working in a specialised ministry, similar to chaplains working with police and fire services."
Yet Fr Stéphane identifies some significant differences between his current role and his former ministry as parish priest: "Our youngest member on the base at the moment is 18 and our average age group is in their 20s or 30s. In a parish you have very young children. You don't have the middle group and you get the older generation.

"At the same time we're 'front line' ministry. While staff are working on a plane or a car or an engine we can go to them where they are. In a parish, you only see people when they come to Mass or for functions."

Fr Stéphane's role focuses on assisting members of the defence forces with "issues faced in their everyday lives like relationship difficulties, conflict resolution and financial planning. Sometimes we're just a sounding board so they can talk through their decisions or worries."

As part of a chaplaincy team serving over three thousand staff, I asked Fr Stéphane how he felt his Catholicism and priestly vocation influence his ministry.

"I hope, when people are sitting in front of me, they know that I am not judgemental. It doesn't matter if they are atheist, Wiccan, Anglican or Roman Catholic. They can speak to me as God's representative."

In Canada and Australia, chaplains have to undertake the same training as our military personnel. Like their military colleagues, chaplains are also often deployed. Fr Stéphane has been to Europe, the Middle East and Afghanistan.

On 11 September 2001 (9/11) Fr Stéphane was on board a Canadian Naval frigate as part of a crew of about 225. "At first we thought it was an exercise, as we had no communication. Then after about four days we realised what had happened when someone posted a video to the ship. We were in Europe and we had to head straight to the Persian Gulf. We had to do lots of training, and the anxieties became really high."

What brought Fr Stéphane from his home in Canada to Williamtown was one of a number of unexpected turns in his life which he has embraced willingly and with a spirit of trusting adventure.

About the time of his fortieth birthday, Fr Stéphane felt restless and was considering what he should do next. Aware the Australian Air Force was recruiting chaplains, a role he had held previously in Canada, he wondered if this might provide the change he sought. "I said to God and to myself: if I can sell my house and car and if my Dad and the Bishop say yes, I'll go to Australia."

Fr Stéphane sold the house and car in 72 hours and received his father's blessing. The longest wait was for Napoleon, his then two-year-old Chihuahua to be accepted into Australia.

When he arrived in Australia, another unexpected event occurred. "When I said yes to the posting, I thought I was going to Williamstown in South Australia. I was a little confused when we headed north from Sydney. My confusion increased when I found myself on the F3 Freeway with nothing around me. By the time I got to Hexham I realised there had been a mistake but it proved to be worth it."

The first major event which would shape Fr Stéphane's future happened when he was 19. Like many of his fellow graduates, Stéphane was unable to obtain work after completing his degree in political science, so he enrolled in a Canon (church) Law course he saw advertised. The dean of the faculty laughed when Stéphane approached him to ask why he had to study theology for his civil law course.

Later, another significant situation shaped Stéphane's future. Working as a canon lawyer for the Diocese of Winnipeg, the then bishop asked Stéphane to join the priesthood. All was going well until, during his seminary training, the bishop felt Stéphane could improve his English by moving to an English speaking seminary. "Being French Canadian, French was my native tongue and I was concerned about studying theology - which is so important to the priesthood - in English. I wasn't even confident that I'd pass!"

His bishop was adamant and gave him an ultimatum: change to the English speaking seminary or cease his studies.
Stéphane phoned some friends for advice and soon found himself in Ottawa speaking to the Military Bishop of Canada. The bishop welcomed him to his French speaking seminary and recruited him for the Defence forces. "I am very grateful to the then Bishop for rescuing me after what I call 'the fall!' Fr Stéphane jokes.

Having ministered to the military for almost fifteen years, Fr Stéphane is down-to-earth about the reality of loss and grief and its impact on the military community and beyond. "Losing one of our members is like losing a member of your family. It's a tragedy, whether it's due to a motor vehicle accident in Port Stephens or active service in Afghanistan."

Fr Stéphane's contract as chaplain, on loan from the Canadian Military Ordinariate to the Australian Military Ordinariate and the RAAF, ends in 2014. In the meantime, like most visitors to Australia, he's seeing as much of the country as he can during his holidays. Next stop? Alice Springs and Uluru.

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