The ‘Religious Dude’ and Much More!

Deacon Mark Kelly, 23 March 2023

From the navy to the power industry to the education system to the Church, Deacon Mark Kelly has had an interesting journey. Yet all of his experiences have made him who he is, and he “absolutely believes” that the Holy Spirit has been involved in spades. 

After growing up in a loving Catholic family in rural Victoria, Mark left school at year 10 and became a navy recruit. Although he enjoyed the life, he “muddled my way through”, maintaining his Catholicity in a “pretty automatic” way. But after time in Papua New Guinea and Vietnam, Mark had a profound and new experience of church through a young adult community group. It was inspired by Vatican II, with a strong sense of mission. Mark was drawn by the enthusiasm and sense of responsibility, and the group was proactive in helping others. It was “amazing and life-changing in many ways.”

A young woman, Hilary, had an even more dramatic impact on his life, and they embarked on the journey and vocation of marriage. Mark left the navy and built up a career in the power industry. Along the way they had four sons, and Mark was inspired to “convert the world” through Catholic education.

Duly, then, Mark studied teaching, which meant finishing school before an Arts degree and a Dip Ed. In one week, Mark was offered two jobs: a promotion in the electricity field or teaching at the school that he and his wife had both attended. With great wisdom, Hilary asked Mark, “Which one is going to fulfil you?” The latter won out, even though his pay would be halved. 

So Mark began 19 good years at the school, which all his four boys attended as well. When he started teaching religion, he assumed that everyone would be starting on the same page and hold the tenets of the Catholic faith. However, he discovered that about a third were vaguely onside, a third indifferent and a third antagonistic. Mark needed to change tack, to recontextualise, to “marry a broad understanding of our Catholicity with the reality of the world that these children are living in.” He also realised that he needed to know more about his own faith.

Mark went on to study theology and get a much better grounding for teaching religion. And he came to love it, finding that his students “really do want to find a credible answer for all sorts of big existential questions.” However, they live in a different world today and often reject the religion of their predecessors.

Towards the end of his teaching career, Mark became “particularly ill” with cancer. It caused him “to do some serious existential thinking”. He wondered what he was doing with his life, and whether he was called to do more, and have a “broader impact.” At the same time, while looking towards retirement, Mark and Hilary were discussing how they could dedicate themselves more to the work of God.

Then one day, a Deacon, Tony Aspinall, was invited to preach and speak at their parish church of Traralgon. Before this, Mark had only thought of the diaconate as the “stepping stone for priests.” But Tony spoke so well and something lit up for Mark. He made a beeline for Tony after Mass, and a Sister who had been encouraging him did the same. It seemed that everyone realised that this path might be ‘it’! So Mark started his formation as a Deacon, enthusiastically and wholeheartedly supported by his parish priest. There was no formal program, but he did a lot of short courses and pragmatic training, such as in funerals and grief. Mark saw the need for more theological grounding, and did a Masters at Australian Catholic University.

Finally, in 2006, Mark was ordained by Bishop Jeremiah Coffey for his Diocese of Sale. His education background made him very valuable, but Mark wanted to keep a foot in parish ministry too. One priest was keen to get Mark to come and help set up cells of evangelisation, as he had had years of experience in that model.

The Australian deacons at Pope Francis’ Vatican Mass for the Deacons Jubilee 2016

Then, after having “bumbled along”, led by the Holy Spirit, Mark started a very fruitful ministry as a school chaplain in the parish of Warragul-Drouin. He has been here for 17 years, and for Mark and Hilary, they have “never been happier”. Across many different areas of life and ministry, Mark knows that he is doing what he is called to do. 

In the parish, Mark thinks it is all about “relating to people”, but he also assists at Mass, preaches, prepares and celebrates sacraments. Amazingly, he has officiated at over 50 weddings! Twice it has been adults who have been working at his school, and were having their children baptised. Mark suggested they might like to get married to their partners as well, and they were encouraged by him to do so. Mark also does a lot of diocesan roles – such as being part of the Victorian Council of Churches, Sale Ecumenical Commission and Catholic Social Services Victoria board – and coordinates Emergency Chaplains. 

At the school for four days a week, Mark organises and celebrates “endless” liturgies and talks in the chapel, youth and student groups. He also is an integral part of the student wellbeing team, and provides a friendly face for the students to come to for counselling. He is seen as a “religious dude, whatever that means” and is widely called ‘Deacs’. It is a role that Mark “thoroughly enjoys” and he never tires of sharing the simplicity of the Good News: “God loves you absolutely, intimately, right now. She loves you as yourself.” In some very tough family situations and teenager problems – enough to “make your eyes bleed” – Mark approaches chaplaincy like Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well. He is countercultural, on a learning curve and loves her cheekiness and bubbliness. No matter what the students bring, or their admissions of irreligiousness, Mark says, “God loves you anyway.”  

All of his life experiences and the intersections between his religious role and his educational role lead Mark to share the Good News effectively and authoritatively. Following his call to the permanent diaconate has led to blessing upon blessing. Thanks, Mark! 

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