Indian priest finds inspiration in Adelaide
Fr Santiago Fernandes SFX
Father Santiago Fernandes SFX is pleased that besides a trip to the Holy Land, his first journey outside his home of India has taken him to a place where his “inspiration” – St Francis Xavier – has a strong presence.
“I am proud to be under the patronage of St Francis Xavier at the Cathedral here. His incorruptible mortal remains are in my home state of Goa, close to where I spent the first few but precious years of my priesthood and he has been an inspiration for me,” he told The Southern Cross.
Fr Santiago, 50, and fellow Indian priest Father Jeevan Gabriel SMM, recently arrived in South Australia and will spend the next four years working in the Adelaide Archdiocese.
Born and raised in Goa, Fr Santiago is from the Society of the Missionaries of St Francis Xavier, commonly known as the Pilar Fathers. An indigenous society established 130 years ago, its mission is to spread the word of God to non-Christians.
One of 11 children (he is ninth in the pecking order and one of his sisters is a nun), Fr Santiago grew up in a family with a strong Catholic faith and went to a Catholic school, but becoming a priest wasn’t always on his radar.
“I really wanted to be a mechanical engineer and thought that was God’s call. But when I finished tenth grade I was reflecting on what I should be and praying to God to communicate to me – and He did.
“So when my brother asked me, ‘do you want to pursue engineering?’ I told him instantly that God was calling me to be a different type of engineer and that I was planning to join a seminary. He broke the news to our parents and they were very happy.”
Ordained in 1997, Fr Santiago spent the earlier part of his priesthood working for the Society at its Mother House and as a parish priest and later as Provincial Treasurer. Most recently, he was located in the “remote nooks and crannies of India” as a chaplain in a village of Goa and director of seminarians doing university studies.
“I was in a very small place, there were only about 35 Catholic families – but each and every Catholic would turn up for Holy Mass or anything that was organised for them, which was a wonderful thing.
“My parish boundaries included many non-Christians, whom we often had interaction with in various ways.
His ministry also included spending time at a large diocesan farm in the area.
“Our aim was to green the minds of people, especially the young,” he explained.
In line with Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’, the farm, which subsequently became a tourist centre, serves to educate visitors about issues concerning saving Mother Earth’s and its rich biodiversity and unique ecosystem.
Part of his work there involved teaching people to love trees by educating them about their medicinal value. That paved the way to empower people with home remedies using local herbs for various common ailments, and his most treasured ministry of leading them for inner healing by using biblical spirituality.
“It was a great job and I cherished those years,” he said.
When he was invited to join the Adelaide Archdiocese, Fr Santiago said he took to the internet to learn more about his new home.
“I saw that Adelaide is a city and I’m coming from a countryside, so it’s a big change. It appears there are less Catholics participating in the Church here and the social work will be different altogether, so I will have to do a lot of realigning.
“As a priest, part of my work is inviting God’s people to be charged with fire of faith – that is what St Francis Xavier did to my country and our Society has taken as its name and what I take inspiration from. I think God is inviting the younger generation of Adelaide to be afire with the Holy Spirit and in that sense my Society and my ministry has something to do here.”
As part of his assimilation into the Australian way of life, Fr Santiago is looking forward to visiting local landmarks, enjoying the “colours of nature” at the beach, seeing a kangaroo and like most other Indians, keeping check of what’s happening in the world of cricket.