About Our Pastor
Rev Dr Thomas Carroll
Fr Tom has been the Parish Priest at Cronulla since 2012.
Learn more about his story and vocation in this article from “The Catholic Weekly” February 2010.
Treatment for Asthma led to life as Priest
A conversation with Fr Thomas Carroll, parish priest
By Sharyn McCowen
The Rev Dr Thomas Carroll believes his good fortune in having led a “most interesting life” can be wholly contributed to his vocation.
“I’ve had wonderful opportunities to study overseas and that bought a whole series of experiences all connected, in a sense, to the fact that I’m a priest,” he says.
“I doubt I would have ever gone overseas to study had I not been asked by the cardinal.”
Fr Thomas was born in Lakemba and attended St Gabriel’s, Bexley North, and Our Lady of Fatima, Kingsgrove, as a child.
“I had asthma very bad as a child; I was being rushed off to Canterbury hospital or St George hospital once a week with these bad attacks,” he recalls.
“The GP suggested two practical things that might be able to assist: goats’ milk and breathing exercises.
“We had a very large plot of land at home so we got two goats and until I was 15 we had goat’s milk.
“Mum came from the country in Albury and was used to farm life and so we would milk the goats.
“And the breathing exercises; I learnt singing.”
A chance encounter with Mother St Roch, his Year 3 teacher at Our Lady of Fatima primary school, Kingsgrove, who overheard him singing, put him on the path to the cathedral choir and a scholarship to St Mary’s Cathedral College.
“I enjoyed being at the cathedral because I got to see a broader context of the life of the Church, but I also got to meet some exceptional priests,” he says.
“It was through this involvement with these priests, Frs Collins, Ingham and Harden, who loved their priesthood, loved being priests, and were enthusiastic about it, that I caught on to that. From a very early age I wanted to be a priest.
“I remember in my last year of high school they had an orientation weekend at Springwood, at St Columba’s, for prospective candidates. I can remember going up there and I just had this sense of ‘this is what I want’.”
It was while at school that Thomas nurtured his love of history, taking classes in both ancient and modern history.
“When I was at school I participated with the Lions Club Youth of the Year award,” he says.
“I came second in the State and I got a book voucher. All the books I got were books on history, which I still have.
“This great interest in history gave me a sense of perspective, particularly in understanding my life as a priest but I’m part of a broader organisation which has a very profound and interesting history.”
Thomas had applied for and was offered a Commonwealth scholarship in law, but turned it down to enter the seminary.
“I must confess my father was quite disappointed when I initially went into the seminary because he wanted me to become a lawyer.
“Without any sense of flattery, I’ve never doubted my desire to be a priest. And I’ve never regretted God’s invitation to share in this ministry.
“After reflecting on 30 years of priestly ministry, I recognise that in one sense I’m not the same person I was when I was younger, but I believe the sense of vocation evolves as we meet life’s challenges.
“But the foundation is still the same; it is a gift from God.”
Named for Thomas Aquinas, Fr Thomas partly attributes his faith and vocation to his mother.
“I suppose a lot of priests would say this … Mum didn’t push my vocation in any sense but she had that quiet presence about her to support my belief that God was calling me to be a priest.
“A humble person, she was always there to support me.
“Most people think I was named after Thomas the Apostle but it was always in Mum’s mind that it was Thomas Aquinas. Even though she could not look into the future, this connection with Thomas Aquinas has persisted in my study of that great theologian of the Church.”
After finishing high school at the cathedral, Thomas began his training for the priesthood in 1973, and after attending St Columba’s Seminary at Springwood and then St Patrick’s College, Manly, he was one of 10 men ordained on September 1, 1979; nine candidates for the archdiocese and one Franciscan friar.
He was approached soon after by the Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal James Freeman, to undertake further study in philosophy.
“And at that stage I actually asked if I could have five years in a parish before I began any academic work, to which the cardinal readily agreed,” Fr Thomas says.
“I left him with the understanding that if he found someone better, then he could take that person. And if he didn’t, and they still wanted me after that five years, those initial five years as a young priest, then I was perfectly happy.”
Granted five years of parish work, Fr Thomas began his priestly ministry at St Joachim’s, Lidcombe, where he was assistant priest and cemetery chaplain.
“After that I was appointed as an assistant at south Blacktown at St Michael’s, then began one day a week tutoring at Manly,” he says.
After five years, Fr Thomas’ promise was not forgotten and he received a letter from Fr John Hill, then president of the Catholic Institute, recalling his conversation with the cardinal and inviting him to take up further study.
“I still have the letter,” says Fr Thomas.
At the end of 1984, Fr Thomas travelled to Belgium where he undertook graduate studies in philosophy and theology at the Catholic University of Leuven.
While living in Leuven he resided at the American College, a seminary run by the American Bishops Conference.
It was while living here that Fr Thomas learned of the challenge facing the US military in procuring Catholic chaplains.
“They had plenty of Christian chaplains but getting Catholic priests is rather difficult,” he says.
“The Protestant chaplain came to the college because there were American priests there as well doing graduate studies.”
The chaplain was in search of a Catholic priest to assist in establishing a chaplaincy, celebrating Mass, and providing ongoing pastoral support for a new nuclear missile base at Florennes.
“None of the Americans was interested, but I must confess I was curious, so I put my hand up and said I would be interested.
“Myself and the wing commander were actually the first two people on the base. It was built from the ground up.”
Spending his week days at university and weekends at Florennes, he says “there was some hesitation that the work would impede my studies, but I must say it was the opposite … I was more energised when I got back, to hit the books”.
Following three years of chaplaincy at Florennes, he was then approached to look after the sister base, the 486th tactical missile base in Woensdrecht in the Netherlands.
While in Leuven he was asked to join the university’s football team, the Leuven Lions.
“I used to run around with the guys on the Air Force base on the weekends playing American football,” he says.
“One of the difficulties on the base was the fact that there were 1600 Air Force personnel there. We had 16 nuclear warheads on the base, and 1200 men were there to guard them. Then you had 400 regular Air Force personnel.
“There were a lot of young guys and they were just stuck on the base. We had a lot of violence, fights from living in confined spaces, and the problem was that if they did have the opportunity of going out it was in a French-speaking area in little villages.
“Back in Leuven word got around that I could play American football.
“At that stage in the European SuperBowl you were allowed to have three ‘foreigners’, which basically meant three Americans on the team, and they used to wear an F on the back of their helmet.
“My presence caused a bit of a problem in the sense that at that stage they weren’t playing American football in Australia so I was considered a Belgian.”
Although other teams often protested on hearing the team address the footballing chaplain in English, Fr Thomas “loved it; I was a Belgian”.
“Many of the university students were a little surprised that a priest would be joining them in their sporting activity. However, I said this was quite usual in Australia for our priests to be involved with people in all their life activities.
“The trouble with Belgium is that the faith is not that strong. My impression, and that’s going back to the 80s when I was first there, is that there isn’t that level of pastoral activity, namely contact between the priest and the people he serves, which we take for granted here in Australia.
“People were surprised that I was a priest playing American football; that was a shock for them that a priest would do that. They just stayed in the presbyteries.
“One strength of our priestly ministry here in Australia is that we’re with the people.”
On his return to Australia he joined the Catholic Institute, then based at St Patrick’s College, Manly, as a lecturer in philosophy, specialising in metaphysics, philosophy of religion and philosophy of the human person.
After 10 years of lecturing in philosophy Fr Thomas joined the chaplaincy team in 1999, a move which he found “very refreshing”.
“It involved putting into practice a lot of things that I was teaching from an academic point of view,” he says.
“While living in Camperdown, over the four years I was then approached to be a member of the human ethics committee of Sydney University, so I sat on that for about six years.”
At the end of 1991 Cardinal Clancy approved his appointment to begin doctoral research in Leuven.
In 2003, Fr Thomas was appointed parish priest of Ashbury, where he performed his first First Communion and where he hopes he will be reappointed for a second term.
“I was here for a couple of years and Cardinal George Pell asked me then to look after Campsie, which is an interesting form of ministry as well, dealing with shared parishes.
“This was not my first experience in dealing with the dynamics of two parishes, respecting the traditions and interests of each parish.
“Back in 1992, while pursuing doctoral research in Munich and living in an outlying parish in the archdiocese, I first encountered partnered parishes.
“While living in a parish on the outskirts of Munich, when the parish priest was on holidays I filled in for him and in those circumstances experienced ministry to two parishes.”
Fr Thomas returned to Ashbury last week after a three-month sabbatical in which he spent time in Belgium working on his book on metaphysics, The Missing Manual: Catholic Thought into the New Millennium.
“I had always planned to write a book,” he says.
“That’s why I went back to Leuven, to the American College there; they have a sabbatical program to pursue further research.
“In speaking to you I’m aware of the many opportunities I’ve had to meet people and particularly to serve God in these circumstances.
“These are moments of grace which I as a priest am privileged to participate in, and I look forward to many more.”
Cronulla parish priest Fr Tom Carroll blesses the new mosaic commissioned for the Year of Mercy. Photo: Patrick J Lee , Catholic Weekly