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Hanging out with God

Robert Galea during Friday’s ordination Mass with Archbishop Paul Cremona. Photo: Photocity, Valletta

Robert Galea during Friday’s ordination Mass with Archbishop Paul Cremona. Photo: Photocity, Valletta

Nicknamed the Singing Seminarian, ROBERT GALEA, who was ordained a priest on Friday, speaks to Ariadne Massa about his rebellious teenage years, celibacy and his excitement to spread the Word of God through his music.

Wearing a black hoodie and jeans, Robert Galea paced up and down the wooden floor, his brow creasing into a frown as he tried to take in the flurry of activity at his parents’ home.

Everyone was preparing for the big day – cleaning and making flower arrangements – but the 28-year-old looked as if he was about to pick up the guitar and dash off to a jamming session.

Settling down in an armchair two days ago, his brown eyes shine from behind his black Prada frames as he shares his emotions of anxiety and excitement just hours before being ordained a priest.

There is no fear in the journey ahead, just assurance that “hanging out with God” is his right path, and once he reined in the inner demons that ruled his rebellious teenage life, there was no turning back.

“I had a moment of conversion,” he said, diving straight into the heart of what made him change course and choose a life of celibacy and devotion to God that few youngsters sought.

By the time he was 14, he was abandoning his family and his faith and hanging out with people he thought accepted him, but who, in fact, ridiculed him.

He was living a life of bitterness, hatred, anger and lies, and by the time he was 16 his relationship with his family was almost non-existent; he hardly had any friends left.

“I had a lot of anger inside and I hurt a lot of people. I felt alone. Because of the anger I had inside I used to do a lot of things that offended people, I used to lie a lot, I used to...,” he trailed off, scared of saying too much.

“It was just a time when I hated myself so much I would do anything to get the attention. It started off at 12 with smoking and things like that; then I started to get into different habits. It was a lot of anger, rage and frustration. I did a lot of stupid things; I don’t think I should mention anything,” he said.

“I had done a lot of silly things that caused me to lose my friends. I had stopped going out because it had reached a point where nobody was speaking to me. You end up doing a lot of crazy stuff and I had become quite notorious,” he added.

The young man will be very good at keeping people’s confessions close to his chest as a priest as no amount of prodding could get him to reveal what drove him into this deep despair, violence, cheating and hopelessness.

All he would say is that he has no regrets, because all those experiences helped him recognise his need for God. Dispirited and rejected, Rev. Galea started staying in, until a friend encouraged him to go along to a prayer meeting.

“It was a point in my life where I had reached the end of myself. I was desperate for friends, so I went to this prayer meeting and the main speaker started to talk about Jesus in a way that made him a friend – it really struck me at the time because I needed friends,” he said.

He felt very tense as he walked into the charismatic meeting: “Everyone was smiling and I was thinking, ‘What do they want from me?’ It took me a while to relax... the way they looked at God was a total culture shock. It’s very relational. God was not somebody you should be afraid of, but someone who enjoyed your company.”

The speaker presented God differently, no longer someone he had to obey but someone he could just enjoy the company of. So he tried it out and would go to his room, sit down and tap the chair next to me and say, “Jesus sit down, I want to talk you”, and just have a conversation or read the Bible, and it became alive.

“As I started to pray, something happened inside. I started to realise I was loved, I was accepted,” he said.

“Sometimes God offers a rose which is a relationship with Him, but so often the way the Church presents it sometimes is by holding the petals in one hand and just presenting the stem and the thorns, beating you with orders not to have sex, don’t do this, do your religion homework, whatever. By the time you’re 13 you move away because it’s painful.”

This analogy symbolises the way Rev. Galea lives his life, and he brings it up numerous times throughout the interview. He laments that very often all young people hear about is religion, rules, the things they should and should not do.

As a lost 16-year-old, these prayer meetings helped him embark on a journey of renewal, the anger dissipated and he no longer felt he had to prove himself. However, these feelings were replaced with a fear and a recognition that he could be on the path to priesthood.

“I used to tell God I’ll go around the world, I’ll preach, I’ll sing, but please don’t let me become a priest. I was so scared of becoming like the other priests. It was just a mad way of how I perceived things,” he said, smiling shyly.

“Out of the eyes of a 16-year-old what angered me the most was that I never saw them smile, but this was just a perception because, of course, priests do smile, possibly not on the altar. Just the fact that they all looked so serious, made me fear I would lose my uniqueness.”

At that point in his life he distracted himself with learning how to play the guitar. His mother, who plays the guitar, guided him through the chords, and he studiously followed musicians’ moves on MTV.

Eventually, he mastered the art, but his talent only surfaced to the fore at 19 when a 23-year-old friend died of muscular dystrophy. Broken and lost after seeing his friend’s lifeless body, Rev. Galea locked himself in his car and furiously scribbled down his emotions – they became the lyrics to his first song.

When he showed what he wrote to his friend’s parents, they asked him to play the song at the funeral.

He went on to record the song, together with three others and went on to release an album, selling a few thousand copies, which led him to believe there was something in the music people sought.

He started to cultivate his music, went on to read for a degree in commerce at the University of Malta, and dated girls, but the possibility of becoming a priest continued to take root.

“I knew I should consider priesthood but I was scared; I was scared I’d lose the opportunity to play music, I’d lose my new friends. I had a lot of fears, among them being locked up in a seminary for seven years,” he said.

These doubts remained until he met a priest in Sicily who proved he could still follow his vocation and enjoy himself, without having to give up his music. By the time he was 20 he stopped dating, and a year later the young man who had never served as an altar boy entered the Seminary.

Was it difficult to take this step?

“I mean it’s even hard today to say you’re not going to be married for the rest of your life, you’re not going to have children. My friends have their children, and when you hold the baby there’s something inside you that wants this as well, but at the same time there’s a desire in my heart, a seed God has grown to give my life for others,” he says in his soft voice.

He adds: “Celibacy is impossible to live out without an intimacy with God. So if I decide to stop praying and hanging out with Him, then my priesthood and my celibacy stop making sense.”

Joining the Seminary led to another culture shock of having to ask permission to go out, and encountering people who had a very strong, different idea of God, but “then you start to realise God is bigger than your own perception”.

After some years at the Seminary he sought permission from his rector to seek experience in a parish abroad, and that was when he left for Australia, where he has remained and will next month be assigned a parish in Victoria.

Australia beckons for the young man because he sees the power of music working there more pastorally than it does in Malta, where it is more performance-based.

“Somehow it fulfils me more that I can give in that way,” he said, when asked why he was leaving Malta when there was such a need for young priests like him in an ever-dwindling congregation.

“I know there’s a lot to be done here and I love working here but somehow, even though Australia is not poor it’s very poor in faith, so I see myself as a missionary where they need help. I’m not running away from Malta,” he said, jokingly adding he would leave a CD behind so people would not miss him.

His music has proved to be a huge advantage in helping the young priest present the Word of God through an alternative medium, and he visited numerous schools and high-security juvenile prisons where speaking about God is prohibited.

“I wouldn’t speak about God, but I’d speak about the songs that speak about God and the prisoners, even the ones who thought they’re too cool to listen to a seminarian, would stop and focus. That’s the power of music – it transcends the mind and speaks to the heart.”

These reactions have spurred him on and he now has three albums under his belt, with another on the way, fast earning himself the nickname the Singing Seminarian.

Having the luxury of being familiar with the Catholic congregation in Malta and Australia, what did he feel should be done differently to lure youngsters back to the Church pews?

“It’s the culture that has to change. The Church needs to be more radical in the way it preaches and teaches, we need to be bolder,” he said.

“We’re not trying to replace the nightclubs or a way of life, but just saying there’s a God out there who wants to love you, who wants to talk life through with you, but somehow we perceive God as a condemning God,” he added.

Asked if he believed certain rules within the Church failed to reflect today’s realities, Rev. Galea did not feel it was its job to go down that road.

“We have a fundamental truth and unconditional love we’re trying to offer. Yes, the way we present it has to change... We need priests who are real, because people smell and sense authenticity.”

“If we listen to the Church, there’s a lot of depth in what it is saying. If you just come to the thorns and the stem without the rose, it doesn’t make sense, but then again the stem and the thorns hold the petals together. So you need to put things into perspective,” he said.

Asked if those who were not adhering to the Church’s teachings, such as using contraception, could still feel welcome in its embrace, Rev. Galea said the Church had to present the ideal to its believers.

“The Church is a group of hypocrites, in a sense; a group of people who know there’s something greater and know their limitations too, and they’re struggling to achieve the ideal, but it’s a journey and we’re in this together – from the biggest sinner to the one who thinks he’s the most holy,” he said.

“None of us are perfect and I’m not saying you should compromise, but we go to Church to fall in love, and then we can obey the rule.

“Priests are not moral police. We are there to help people, to provide people with the strength to make their own decisions.”

When asked what could be done with those priests who repelled people by preaching homilies of brimstone and fire, Rev. Galea laughed and said it had been a while since he had come across these types.

“The priest is a public figure, and if they’re not in love with God you’ll be bringing stale bread to the people, and they are used to fresh bread,” he said, offering an apology for speaking in metaphors.

Rev. Galea did not believe allowing priest to marry will necessarily encourage more vocations, as the Anglican experience had shown, and he felt that in certain instances having a family would pile more pressure on the clergy.

“There are pros and cons to being celibate but I believe there is wisdom in the Church-made law. For example, how are you going to financially support a family on a priest’s minimum wage?” he asked.

“At the same time it can be very lonely, but I’ve never really looked back. Celibacy could be an issue but I’m not bitter or upset about it. I know there will be times when it will be very difficult.”

What has been the hardest Church rule he had to embrace?

“I never felt forced into any rule. Ultimately, it’s all about the love and not the law. Therewill be challenges between what I understand and what the Church knows to be true... Some I have not yet understood but I will not claim to know more that I do. We do not need to understand and agree with everything. I live and learn, and learn to live life to the full: the way God intended.”

www.thatsworship.com

See excerpts of the interview on timesofmalta.com.

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