James Kerr is the kind of person who will greet you as though he’s always known you and make you a cup of tea — before you’ve even had a chance to shake his hand. At just 30 years of age, he’s one of Australia’s youngest Catholic priests.
While most children grow up playing doctors or nurses, dreaming of becoming a teacher, or a writer, an engineer or an astronaut, Fr James Kerr grew up watching the bishop in action at Sale.
‘Growing up in a practising family, the church and the Sunday Mass was part of what we did’, he says.
‘I remember as a little kid, in, I would have been kindergarten, or prep, I used to pretend to say mass at home. ‘I had a woollen poncho in the dress ups that I’d put on as a chasuble and we had Cruskits, for the host, and if we were lucky, a bit of juice. Because we saw the bishop a lot, I also grabbed a little red bowl to put on top of my head, as the zucchetto, though I didn’t realise what it was, or what it meant.
‘So that was, I suppose, the seeds of a vocation, appropriate for that age.’
The fourth of Michael and Francine Kerr’s five children, James and his family moved from Sale to Ballarat in 1995, where his father became a boarding master at St Patrick’s College.
James said choosing a religious vocation was ‘a gradual thing all through my life’.
The late Brother Herbert Theodore Breach had a particularly big role in the young James’s life.
A Christian Brother, Br Breach would call around to visit the Kerrs on campus at St Patrick’s every Wednesday afternoon for a cup of tea, and got to know the family.
‘His example as a religious (person) had a real profound impact on me, going through primary school then into early secondary, and even through secondary school’, James says. ‘He was such a joyful man, such a prayerful man.’
Through the friendship with Br Breach, James and his younger sister Jessica became involved in a youth prayer group that he helped to run, where they met other young Catholics, learnt about the faith, and also learnt some magic tricks.
‘I still have friends from that group, even now’, James says.
Although Br Breach died in February 2013, aged 96, and did not live to attend James’s ordination, the friendship spanned 15 years and helped cement the decision to join the ministry.
‘By the time I hit, year eight, year nine, I had my heart set on being a priest, and I spoke to my parents about it’, James says. ‘There was also a family friend, at the time, going through his ordination, so I attended his ordination and thought, “you know, that could be me”.’
As he went through secondary school, the idea of the priesthood ‘cooled a bit’ and James focused on getting to university.
‘I started to study engineering science at Melbourne University’, he says. ‘But then, more or less, from the very beginning of the year, I felt the call, very, very strongly, that I was called to be a priest.’.
A year out from finishing school, James joined the seminary. He was just 19. While some may view the decision to follow a religious life in terms of sacrifice, James sees his decision and his chosen vocation differently. Life as a university student in Melbourne was full of new adventures, but the young man felt he was not where he needed to be.
‘I felt unsettled, that there was something more, and then the idea of the priesthood kept coming back’, James says. ‘Then, when I thought about it, and prayed about it, it was something that was very attractive, and I felt a great sense of peace and joy.’
The thought of the priesthood also gave the teenager ‘a great sense of freedom’ and life. ‘There were obviously a lot of things that I was afraid of, I suppose, because there were a lot of unknowns’, James says.
Marriage and a family of his own was something he took into consideration. ‘But I could see that wasn’t where God was calling me, he was calling me to something else’, he says.
After seven years at Corpus Christi College in Melbourne, James was ordained as a priest at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Ballarat in September 2013. His first placement was within the cathedral parish, which also looks after the towns of Linton and Beaufort, west of Ballarat. He has been the assistant parish priest at Sacred Heart Parish in Mildura, in north-west Victoria, since late January.
When he was first ordained, James said he had some idea of where he would be sent, and it was ‘more or less’ always going to be Mildura. ‘We were preparing to be diocesan parish. And that’s where your heart is, in a parish.’
In many respects, James said Sacred Heart Parish was a typical congregation with many older parishioners, however, it also had parishioners from many ethnic backgrounds, including new families who had moved to the region for work.
‘There are a lot of temporary migrants as well, so you’ll often get young adults, just on their own, on temporary visas’, he says.
That trend has helped bring the average age of Sacred Heart’s congregation down.
‘But it’s certainly a challenge to hold onto the young families that we have. With casual work roles, and sport, life is busy.’
While he doesn’t know what the Church will look like in five years’ time – let alone in 50 years – James said it was important to remember God was faithful. ‘You can follow census data, and you know, we do have to do that, we live in the real world, but always conscious that, the mission is beyond us’, he says. ‘It’s faith that can sustain us, whatever comes.’
Similarly, he has tried to do his own part in encouraging young men to at least think about considering a vocation in the church.
‘The heart speaks to the heart. I like to think I’ve had a good influence. But, that’s all in God’s hands.
‘And also, I’ve learnt many times, that He can do a heck of a lot, with what little we give Him.’