When his family moved from Hobart to Sydney in 1974, Fr Paul Marshall received the first signal he would lead a life devoted to God in the priesthood.
“To me, it was a traumatic move at that time of life. I was 17-years-old in term three of Year 11 and I had to leave all my friends behind,” Fr Paul said.
“I remember walking around the cliffs of Coogee and asking myself ‘I’ve lost everything, I’ve lost all my friends and I’m starting again and what’s constant in my life?’
“And the answer I came up with was God. God’s the constant, he’s always there with me.”
It would be a further eight years until Fr Paul joined the seminary.
Fr Paul was born in Ithaca, in New York state, and has a younger brother and sister who are twins. His family left the United States when he was three-years-old and moved to Perth for two years, and then relocated to Hobart in 1963, where he grew up.
“We weren’t an overly religious family. We certainly went to Mass at Holy Spirit Parish, Hobart every Sunday, and in those days, dad used to take us to confession every Saturday.
“I was never an altar server. In fact, the first time I served at Mass was at the seminary.
“I received communion and confirmation at Holy Spirit Parish, and I received great inspiration from one of the priests there, Fr Patrick Hanlon. He had a very caring personality and would sometimes pop in to see our family. He was a great pastoral priest, and a great inspiration in my life as a teenager.”
When Fr Paul moved to Sydney, he volunteered at several pastoral outreach services, which in turn, inspired his ministry.
“In 1976, when I was 18 or 19, one of the people in our parish [Sacred Heart Parish, Mosman] invited me to the St Vincent de Paul Society conference, which was quite progressive for its time. I was involved in visitations in people’s homes.
“From there, one of the guys in the conference used to go to the Matthew Talbot Hostel for homeless men in Woolloomooloo every Monday night, so he invited me to go with him and I would.
“I also met up with some young people who were going out on the Night Patrol, which was the van that would go out around Kings Cross, Woolloomooloo and the nearby train stations. I would help out here for six years.
“When I was 23-years-old, I received a letter from my Year 6 teacher in Hobart, Br Chris Shearer. He was a Christian Brother, and although we didn’t have a lot of correspondence, in this one letter he asked me the question ‘had you ever thought about being a priest?’
“I was kind of thinking about it at that time, and it made me take another step towards the priesthood. It made me consider it more seriously.
“Your schooling does have an impact and your teachers do have an impact, even years later,” Fr Paul said with a smile.
Fr Paul joined the St Patrick’s Seminary at Manly in 1983, was ordained a deacon in December 1987 and ordained a priest for the newly established Diocese of Parramatta by Bishop Bede Heather on 19 November 1988 at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Parramatta.
“I started my studies as a priest of the Archdiocese of Sydney. In 1986, the Archdiocese was split into three dioceses, and all the priest and seminarians were given the option of choosing which diocese they wanted to go to.
“I chose Parramatta because I could see that it was a younger growth area, it had younger families in the region. It looked more exciting – more frontier. Bishop Bede Heather had a great pastoral vision, and selfishly, I love the Blue Mountains.
“I felt the energy for me was here in the Diocese of Parramatta.
“I’ve had no regrets, and I have grown to love the people, the faith of the people, the struggles and the challenges of the people.”
His first appointment in the diocese was as a deacon at Our Lady of the Rosary Parish, St Marys, and once ordained to the priesthood, was appointed to the same parish as priest for three-and-a-half years. In 1991, he became assistant priest at St Bernadette’s Parish, Castle Hill, a position he held for four years.
In January 1995, he was called away from Castle Hill to be the Diocesan Youth Chaplain, a position he held for two years.
“It was an interesting time for me,” Fr Paul said. “I learnt a lot about myself in those two years because I had to set up an office and try and run things administratively, which was a challenge, and to reach out to parishes, which was also a challenge. But it was a good time.
“One of my biggest joys of my priesthood was during my time as youth chaplain. Because I wasn’t assigned to a parish, on one particular Easter, I took a group of young people up into the Blue Mountains on Holy Thursday, and we celebrated all of Holy Week in the bush.
“We baked the Eucharist bread in a billy on a fire and celebrated Mass around the campfire. Our chapel was the Milky Way.
“It was very powerful for the young people because a lot of them had never been out in the bush before. I found that rather than coming into to church for an hour and going home again, that the young people wanted to talk around the campfire about the issues of life. It was a time to be close to nature and close to God.”
In 1997, Fr Paul applied for an appointment at both Riverstone and Luddenham-Warragamba parishes, and was given Luddenham-Warragamba. It would be his first appointment as a parish priest, and he would stay at Luddenham-Warragamba for ten years.
“There were four churches to look after – Luddenham, Warragamba, Mulgoa and Greendale. I was younger then, and I was used to driving around and living in my car.
“My home base was Luddenham, but when I started, I didn’t have a presbytery to live in. So, I rented from the Christian Brothers at Mulgoa for seven years.
“In the end, it worked out well, because I was in a community with the Christian Brothers and felt supported. I think if I were living on my own, it would have been really difficult.”
After Luddenham-Warragamba, he arrived at St Anthony of Padua Parish, Toongabbie, where he was parish priest from 2007 to 2014. Then, in September 2014, he was appointed parish priest of Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish, Greystanes.
“When I was asked to move to Greystanes, there was a big shuffle around the diocese. I think they were looking for someone with a bit of experience because it’s a big parish.
“I probably could have spent a couple of more years at Toongabbie, but the bishop had the big picture and the need was here.
“We live in a multi-ethnic reality, and that is true in our parish house. Fr Chukwunonyerem [Akamadu] is from Nigeria, and our new assistant priest, Fr Joseph Lam is Vietnamese.
“It’s good working with my assistant priests Fr Chukwunonyerem and Fr Joe because they’re different. Fr Chukwunonyerem brings a sense of joy to his ministry, he works closely with the Nigerian community and has a good relationship with the parishioners.
“Fr Joe is only new here, but he brings a sense of enthusiasm, he has the ability to stir people into action, he has a solid academic background, so he’s very informed. My hope for him is that he will help us look at a few ways of moving forward as a church in terms of evangelisation and ‘synodality’.
“Synodality is about accompanying and walking with people on their faith and life journey. I would love that to be a lived reality for the parishioners here in Greystanes.
“I always believed my ministry is a two-way street. I’ve never been one to think that my priesthood is above the people in the parish, so I welcome advice and I actually need advice at times, as I don’t always know where to go with things. I rely on ministries in the parish like the finance committee and the pastoral council to help me formulate a vision.”
During his 30 years as a priest, Fr Paul has held various ministries as a priest of the diocese. Between 2012 and 2013, he helped write the pastoral plan for the Diocese of Parramatta, was appointed the Episcopal Vicar for Clergy in early 2014 and is currently the Dean of the Central Deanery.
“As Vicar, I was looking after the needs of clergy across the diocese. I was their representative to the bishop and their support. The role was also to provide ongoing clergy with formation and their renewal.
“The Dean role, on the other hand, is a bit more local. My role is as a convenor for clergy deanery meetings, where we discuss issues affecting us such as what’s affecting the priesthood today, and how we manage Masses and how we help priests and coordinate Masses whilst they’re away on leave.
“We try to share resources – both personnel and ideas – across the parishes in the deanery.”
When asked about his hopes for the future of the church in Australia, Fr Paul believes that the church is on the cusp of something new and exciting.
“The Australian church has been crippled in many ways by the revelations of the Royal Commission.
“In this post-Royal Commission era, we need to maintain hope and help energise and empower the people of God to step up and be church as well.
“It’s a time of change and transition in the church, and I can see an evolution happening quietly of the people and the clergy and I think the two need to come together a bit more than they are.
“I think we need to look at shared ministry in a role of co-responsibility, as Pope Benedict XVI said.
“I think the Plenary Council 2020 is challenging all the faithful not to be superficial Catholics but to dig deeper into the nature of ourselves, our parishes and our wider church.
“As an Australian church we’re starting to walk forward into the future, not as triumphant kings, but as a battered, bruised and more humble church.
“I think it’s great to have a bishop of Bishop Vincent Long’s calibre here in Parramatta because he is actively building towards a more synodal church.”
Throughout his 30 years of ministry, a few key phrases have stuck with Fr Paul that have shaped his priesthood.
“I’ve had a number of inspirational and influential spiritual directors who have given me great advice over my years.
“During my studies in the seminary, Fr Patrick Ryan said to me ‘when things get tough, keep on paddlin’.’
“Fr Joe Walsh, a retired priest from Castle Hill would say ‘do your best and leave the rest.’
“My current spiritual director told me ‘this isn’t my parish, it’s the Lord’s parish, and we’re all here to help the Lord.’
“That’s very freeing to me.”