Last month, the Holy Spirit Community of Carnes Hill held a special mass to celebrate a double silver jubilee -- of principal Br Nicholas Harsas for 25 years as a Patrician Brother and parish priest Fr Joseph Le Trong for 25 years of priesthood. It's unusual for both a principal and a parish priest to celebrate silver jubilees together. Br Nicholas's 22 years of being a principal have been serving four Catholic schools in Liverpool and Fairfield. We asked him about how his faith had grown, and been tested, during that time.
How old are you now and where are you based? I'm a young 54, based in ministry as principal of Holy Spirit Catholic Primary at Carnes Hill. And I'm a member of the Patrician Brothers Community at Fairfield.
How old were you when you felt called to religious life? It came at an early age, when I was at school. I attended high school at Holy Cross College at Ryde, which was founded by the Patrician Brothers. The Patrician Brothers who taught me and those whom I came in contact with at school had a positive influence on me. I did not respond to "the call" immediately but eventually after graduating as a teacher and teaching for a few years.
How old were you when you became a Patrician Brother? I joined the Patrician Brothers at 25 when I began initial training as a postulant and then continuing training as a novice. In 1994 I made my first profession as a Patrician Brother taking the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
What schools or parishes have you worked at in the last 25 years? The schools where I've been in ministry have been Patrician Brothers' Primary Fairfield, St Therese Catholic Primary Sadleir-Miller, Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Primary Fairfield and presently Holy Spirit Catholic Primary Carnes Hill. All these years have been in senior school leadership, with 22 of the 25 years as principal.
Looking at the quarter-century since then, how has your personal commitment to the religious life changed? My personal commitment to religious life 25 years ago this year has certainly evolved. The excitement and naivete of the initial commitment has deepened over the years. The people I've met, students I've taught and families I've come in contact with have all had a profound influence on me and how I live my religious life. It's certainly developed with a deepening personal prayer life, a greater understanding of people and their diversity, I'm more aware and accepting of people's differing beliefs. Religious life has also given me the opportunity to make a difference to the lives of those in need in my community.
Maturing involves dealing with disappointment. What are some of your standout personal disappointments in the last 25 years and how did you work through them? What did you take away from them? The disappointments I've mostly experienced have been the sharing of others' disappointments and doing my best to support them and advising them of the best avenues to recovery. Personally, the greatest disappointment for me has been the shame faced by the Catholic Church regarding the sexual abuse of minors. It continues to take a lot of prayer and thought to try to work through this and help others with it, too. I've dealt with it by being even more aware of how to prevent such situations ever arising in a school where I'm in leadership and to keep my faith focus rightly on God, and not on other people.
On the other hand, what answers to prayer have you personally seen in your own life? Why were they significant? I always find prayer is answered in some shape or form if we trust in God's love and care for us. The more we trust in God, the more we recognise and appreciate God's presence and work in our lives -- often in ways we don't expect. It's spending time in prayer and sensing God's plan for me that culminated me in taking on the principal position at Holy Spirit Primary this year. Prayer led me to the school!
A young man newly committed to the Church is often marked by zeal, passion and perhaps naivete -- how would you characterise your first years in Church life, compared with now? Exactly like that -- plenty of energy and zeal, passion and perhaps naivete. I think most of these qualities are still with me but they happen at a slower and more reflective pace!
What are the personal qualities most apparent to yourself that have come to mean more to you as you get older, wiser and more experienced? I've discovered the importance of being an active listener, to be more accepting and understanding of people's varying views and beliefs, to be more tolerant of children's mistakes as they're usually a reflection or projection of something greater that's going on. Leading by example has probably come to be of the greatest importance. At the same time I've tried my very best to share and instil these qualities in others -- students, teachers and others -- so they, too, can become leaders.
What specific Bible verses continue to mean a great deal to you on a daily basis? The Bible verse "Do not be afraid" [Isaiah 43:1] is the one that resonates with me so strongly. Words such as these are found in the Bible about 365 times! It's reassuring to know in biblical times men and women needed to trust more in God and not be afraid. And thousands of years later the scene is much the same! I take heart in this Bible verse and face whatever the future may hold -- immediate and long-term -- with courage, hope and strength.
Over the last 25 years the Church at large across the globe and specifically here in Australia has had dark corners exposed. How do you react to that? It's become a major stumbling block for people seeking to live a life of faith. The shame faced by the Catholic Church in regards to the sexual abuse of minors has been a dark time for the Church. It continues to take a lot of prayer and thought to try to work through this. It's true this has been a major stumbling block for people living a life of faith. My advice to people who've asked for my support and guidance with this is to keep your mind fixed on Christ, not on people. God didn't cause this horror in the Church, people did, and our faith is on God and shouldn't be on men and women.
As a Patrician Brother who's a school principal, you have a position of influence in the community. As such, you'd be aware of contemporary pressures which affect people. In your experience what most causes anxiety or stress in people's lives? Anxiety seems to be one of the biggest pressures facing society at present. It's felt by children and adults. In children I see anxiety being bred in families as parents try to make everything perfect for their children. Children need to be able to make mistakes, experience failure and build resilience, independence and confidence. When children are robbed of resilience, anxiety takes over. Parents then overly take on their children's worries, issues and anxiety and the vicious cycle continues.
Here in the South-West we're blessed to live in the most multicultural region in Australia. What have you found to be the biggest benefits of that? It's a wonderful region of Sydney to live and work. It broadens our perspectives and lets us meet, know, befriend and work with those we may otherwise not have the chance to do so. The food, culture, music and history of a multicultural city such as Liverpool or Fairfield make it so much more vibrant and interesting. It also celebrates diversity and, especially for the young, helps them appreciate that all people, regardless of language, dress, colour or creed, are people -- we're one people and all made in the image and likeness of God. Racism is reduced in the South-West as we proudly celebrate diversity and inclusivity; there's no racism to be found at Holy Spirit Catholic Primary.