Fr Robert Stewart was born in 1960, professed his First Vows in 1989 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1996. He has lived in most fraternities. His primary ministries over the years have been Vocation Director, Postulant Director and Post-Novitiate Director of formation. He is currently the guardian and rector of St Anthony's, Hawthorn and the Vicar Provincial. The autobiography below was written in the late-1990's.
When I reflect back on the journey of my vocation and decision to join the Capuchin Franciscan Friars, I realise that it was not a simple and straightforward step. There was not one earth-shattering event that led me to make the choice to join the Capuchins. The influences were many, from various sources and over a long period. Always though, quietly in the background the Lord was inviting me. However, I was so slow to listen to His invitation and respond to it.
The greatest and earliest influence on me was my family. I come from a large family of four boys and two girls. I wouldn’t say that we were an overly religious family, but going to mass every Sunday and praying the Rosary now and then were a regular part of rhythm of our life. I can still hear dad walking up the passage early Sunday morning trying to get all of us kids out of bed to get ready for Mass. With six of us, it was quiet a task and an exercise in motivation.
Dad was a Stationmaster in the Railways in South Australia. This meant two things as I grew up; we shifted a lot, and I grew up in small country towns. For some of those years as we travelled around, I attended Catholic schools. I have the honour of starting school in Penola where Mary MacKillop started her school on 1866. The Josephite sisters taught me most of my primary school years. Their example of living a dedicated religious life, serving the church inspired me from an early age.
When I was about eight years, a Franciscan priest came to our parish for a short while. I was an altar boy at the time and I still remember the care he brought to that little country church. He started a choir and brought new hymnbooks. He motivated all the ladies to renew the altar linen, fixing up vestments and polishing the brass. He organised working bees to clean up the churchyard. He bought all new vestments for the altar boys and taught us how to serve the mass properly and to understand the different parts of the mass. This son of St Francis made a deep impression on me.
However, as I left primary school and entered my high school years, the desire to be a Franciscan was slowly swallowed up by a myriad of different attractions of what to do with my life. Yet, as I neared the end of my schooling, I still had no real idea what I wanted to do with my life. However, when I really sat down and thought about it I knew deep in my heart what I felt called to do. Although by this stage I had begun to deny it. There was no way I could be a priest! I convinced myself of this with a string of excuses: I was not smart enough, I would never be able to handle the studies; I was not good enough; I was too shy; I would never be able to stand up in front of people and preach on Sunday or preside at Mass. Still, the desire sat quietly and waited. Every now and then in a more reflective moment, I would take a peak into my heart and it would be there, waiting.
After school, I worked in a bank for several years but I knew that I would not dedicate my life to this career. I began searching for different options that I might take. I was attracted to a career in Horticulture or a similar field, for a while. I even thought about studying music. Although these were all my interests, I could never see myself perusing them as a career. I began to become restless not knowing what I really wanted to do. Deep down within my heart, however, I knew what I wanted to do; what I felt called to do.
One day when I was twenty-four years old, I decided to stop denying the desire within me to be a priest and pursue it! I had no idea where to start or who to ask.
The next day after mass, a visiting priest came up to me and said, "why aren’t you a priest?" I felt like St Peter; I denied it and blurted out my old excuses. He listened to me patiently then said. "Don’t you know God can write straight with crooked lines"! We talked for about two hours after that. I realised that I did not think I was good enough to work for God. I failed to see it was God who was inviting me. He already knew me more than I could ever know myself. He had a plan for me that I did not realise. I accepted what I had been ignoring and denying for so long.
Things did not fall into place straight away. I now had to discover which Order would suit me. I started writing away to various Orders. They all had something about them that attracted me, but there was not one that really clicked with me. I wrote one day to the Capuchin Franciscan Friars in Adelaide. I knew about the Franciscans but had never heard of the Capuchin Franciscan Friars. Fr Francis wrote back a letter encouraging me and inviting me to come and visit the friary.
When I arrived at the friary and entered I felt as though I had arrived home after many years away. Words cannot really describe what I felt that day, but I knew that this was the Order for me. The friars welcomed me in and made me feel very much at home.
What attracted me to the Capuchin Franciscan Friars? It was the warmth and simplicity of their life. I could see nothing pretentious about them at all. It seemed to me that almost accidentally, they were able to bring the Gospel into their everyday life and the lives of those around them, in the most unassuming way This was what I was looking for. To belong to a community that did what Francis did in his day, which was to make the Gospel live again for the people of his day. He made the gospel live for them by living it with them. This is why I am a Capuchin Franciscan Friar.