04 Aug 2017
Family and marriage focus for long-serving priest
Mgr John Swann
An unmarried priest counselling couples preparing to wed about their relationship and demands of family life might seem a contradiction, but for Monsignor John Swann it has been a hallmark of his 60 years in the priesthood.
Celebrating the diamond jubilee of his ordination on July 20, Mgr Swann said his work in marriage education, marriage counselling and family welfare had been one of the most significant contributions of his varied ministry, along with his service as a priest in the Tranmere, Adelaide Hills, Parkside and Mount Gambier parishes.
In addition, over the past six decades he has sat on numerous Catholic councils, committees and commissions – including the Diocesan Finance Council for 12 years – served as a chaplain for the Army Reserve and for more than 40 years has been closely involved with the Teams Movement. He also had a close association with the media, as a regular columnist for The Southern Cross, guest on the Catholic Hour radio show and producing Catholic television programs.
Ordained on his 23rd birthday in 1957, Mgr Swann spent his first years as an assistant priest in Mount Gambier which was an excellent fit given he was a country lad who had spent his formative years in Kapunda before heading to boarding school at Rostrevor College.
The South East offered him the chance to become immersed in community life through his work with youth and playing football and tennis with the locals.
“I always feel very grateful that my first six years were in Mount Gambier with Mgr Redden, who was the rector at the seminary when I first went there. We had a very good working relationship and he was very much the one who helped me become the priest I became.
“It was really full time youth work in Mount Gambier – there were 20 country State schools we would visit every week, so every morning was working in schools and then there was also the Marist Brothers college and Mater Christi college, and the YCW and YCS.
“Parish visitation was an important element of a priest’s works in those days too.”
After such a seamless transition into the priesthood, his next move to the Parkside parish was difficult in comparison.
“It was a total contrast… I’d never lived in the city before and I felt like a fish out of water,” he recalled.
Luckily one of the other strong influences in his life, Archbishop James Gleeson, was able to offer help and support.
“Archbishop Gleeson paved the way for so many of those activities I became involved in. I used to work closely with him and over a number of years I would meet with him regularly. I was the first one ordained by him and that was the beginning of a special relationship.”
His work in family welfare started in 1969 as deputy director of the Catholic Family Welfare Bureau (now Centacare) and later as director of the Catholic Family Life Services. He was also director of the Catholic Immigration Centre (1972-1988) which would often see him at Outer Harbour, boarding the ships and providing pastoral care to the migrants who were making their home in Adelaide.
One of Mgr Swann’s major achievements during this time was initiating marriage counselling courses. Together with colleague Carmel Clancy (now Devonish), they trained volunteer married couples to deliver the course to thousands of people, with the model being so successful it was later adopted in other dioceses.
“I can’t tell you the number of times I have bumped into people today who will say, ‘we came to your marriage education classes’,” he laughed.
Although he was an unmarried priest, Mgr Swann said he always made a conscious effort to stay informed about the needs and challenges facing families of the day.
“When I was working in family welfare and family education I used to make it a policy that when I went on holidays I stayed with a family with young children, just to get a feel of family life. That helped me with my involvement with Teams and was an asset with the work I was doing in marriage counselling and marriage education,” he explained.
Another outstanding contribution of his ministry has been serving as the chaplain for the Teams Movement for more than 40 years and on a personal level, his involvement as a member of Team 7 in Adelaide.
As fellow member John Fanning noted, Mgr Swann has been “truly loyal and inspirational”.
“He has baptised and married many of our children and grandchildren, he has joined us on holidays and special occasions with enthusiasm and positive involvement.
“But possibly his greatest contribution to our team is his sharing of what he gains from our discussions on often sensitive issues that bring him into very close relationship with all of us. He displays this connection with humility and authenticity and indicates most clearly that he is willing to learn from us as well as pass on the wisdom and deep spirituality he has to share for our benefit,” Mr Fanning said.
Another highlight of Mgr Swann’s work was his involvement with the University of Adelaide’s Human Research Ethics Committee from 1984 to 2007, and providing the view of the Church on what were often controversial issues.
“In the early days it was pretty tense because when I first joined a lot of the stuff around IVF was at the forefront and a source of tension,” he said.
In 2013 he was awarded an OAM for his service to the community as a diocesan priest, although he admitted that initially he “hummed and hawed” for some time before accepting the honour as he didn’t want to be seen as “blowing his bags”.
“But in the end I saw it as an acknowledgement of the work I did with so many other people, both in Teams and the area of family life.”
In a life that has now gone full circle, Mgr Swann returned to live in Kapunda, when he retired in 2010. However, retirement is a loose term as at 83 he continues to be as busy as ever, assisting in the Northern Light parish and maintaining his connection to the late Archbishop Gleeson though his pastoral work as chaplain at Gleeson College. He is also still actively involved with Teams, is a member of the Clergy Care Council and chair of the Senior Priests Group.