Responding to God’s call

Fr Chathura Ranmuni Silva can lay claim to the title of Tasmania’s newest priest – but only by a week.

In an rare occurrence for the state, Tasmania has seen two priests ordained within seven days of each other – Fr Steven Smith on July 24 at St Mary’s Cathedral in Hobart, and Fr Ranmuni Silva on July 31 at Church of the Apostles in Launceston.

As a youngster growing up in a Catholic family in Sri Lanka, Fr Ranmuni Silva says he contemplated joining the priesthood. As the years passed, that desire strengthened.

“As a kid I wanted to become a priest because I saw how much priests helped people,” he said.

“I entered the seminary and I realised that serving as a priest is more than helping people. It is like a response of love: how much Jesus loves me and my response to that love and to that calling. He wants me to become a priest and so this is the best thing.

“This is why I chose to love Jesus.”

Speaking before the ordination, Fr Ranmuni Silva, 29, said he was feeling excited and nervous as he looked forward to the next steps in his journey of faith – a journey helped along by fellow countryman Fr Shammi Perera.

Fr Perera is the Sri Lankan-born administrator of the Cathedral Parish in Hobart and Vicar General for the archdiocese.

Fr Ranmuni Silva’s aunt, living in Melbourne, heard Fr Perera’s account of his vocation, told her nephew about it, and the rest is history.

“My aunt knew I was discerning a vocation. I spoke to Fr Shammi by phone, he described the situation in Tasmania and I thought, ‘This is a place for me to serve as a priest and give my life to Jesus.’”

As a priest, Fr Ranmuni Silva is looking forward to working more closely with parishioners, and especially helping young people on their faith journeys.

“I want to do my best, to use all my gifts, for this service,” he said.

Church of the Apostles was also the location of Fr Ranmuni Silva’s Thanksgiving Mass the day after his ordination.

He has had a number of parish placements at Launceston over the course of his seminary studies at Corpus Christi College in Victoria. He thanked Launceston Parish Priest Fr Mark Freeman for his mentoring, support and guidance over a number of years.

“It has been an amazing journey so far,” Fr Ranmuni Silva added.

“I have only been able to do it because so many people have supported me through difficult times and joyous times, and I am grateful.”

COVID-19 travel restrictions affected both ordinations. To allow family and others to participate, the ordinations were livestreamed.

The ordinations were celebrated just prior to National Vocations Awareness Week which runs from August 2 until August 9 – a week for the entire Church to support and pray for those discerning their vocation.

For Fr Smith, 36, the thought of becoming a priest first struck him in high school, but it wasn’t until his late twenties that he embarked upon discernment of a vocation.

He grew up in Kingston and studied at St Aloysius College, Dominic College and Guilford Young College. With an interest in IT, Fr Smith studied several TAFE courses before entering retail.

Busy with work and getting weekend shifts, at 19 he stopped regularly attending Mass.

“I never stopped believing in God,” he said.

“But I did start thinking: what did the Mass mean? Do I need that? I believe in God; I have the relationship with God. Do I really need Mass?

“And the practical side [came] into it; work wanted me to work on weekends and I earned more on weekends, so bit by bit I found myself just coming away from the practise of the faith.”

When he was offered management training while working in Melbourne, he realised he’d been feeling like there was something missing from his life.

He moved back to Tasmania to study IT and Business at UTAS, but not enjoying the study he soon found himself back in retail.

Fr Smith says he still felt like something was missing, and he began wondering about his faith. He took up studies at the ecumenical Tabor College – now Alphacrucis College – in Hobart. One of his units was a study tour to Egypt, Israel and Jordan.  The poverty but kindness he witnessed in Egypt made him question his priorities and perspective on life.

“It really got me wondering about what I was doing with life, what was really important.”

When he arrived home, he started going to Mass each Sunday and occasionally during the week as well.

“I really felt like God was asking me something, and I was trying to figure out what that something was.”

He says that the thought of becoming a priest “kept coming back”.

“I thought: well, maybe this is what God is asking me.”

Fr Smith met with his parish priest, Fr Chris Hope, and with those who had been part of his sacramental formation. The idea of the priesthood began to solidify. He applied and was accepted as a seminarian. He entered the seminary in 2014, when he was 29-years-old.

Interviewed just prior to his ordination, he said what he was most looking forward to about priestly ministry is to “be there when people need you there, and just to be able to listen”.

“And sometimes be able to respond, but otherwise just [to] be that ear so that people know they’re not alone, because sometimes they don’t realise that they have someone there or that God is there with them.”

“Ordination is a gift,” he said. “It’s a lifetime gift, because it includes all these people who have prayed for me, all these people who have supported me, all these people who have probably put up with me at times … To receive ordination, to receive that gift – it just leaves me wanting to be able to say thank you to so many people.”