BLOG Article by Julia May
Such is the Galea paradox. He’s young – 32. He’s handsome – as evidenced by his selfies on Instagram. He has undeniable sex appeal – women are known to weep and scream “I love you!” during concerts. He’s a gym junkie who lifts 110 kilograms. But as well as being a pop singer and aspiring body-builder, this gently-spoken man with “Forgiven” tattooed down his well-honed bicep is an ordained Catholic priest; perhaps the world’s biggest celibate sex symbol.
Father Rob Galea is an assistant priest in the Catholic diocese of Sandhurst. He says his vocation isn’t to top the charts, but to convince young people they are loved unconditionally: “I’m first and foremost a Christian, then I’m a priest and then I’m a musician.” Only four years after his ordination, Galea is already being credited with re-energising the Catholic Church in Australia.
There’s no shortage of social problems around Shepparton: the area faces an ice epidemic, youth unemployment is five times the state average and the teen pregnancy rate is twice the Victorian average.
While Galea asserts “I love Shep … It’s where I want to be as a priest,” he discovered only last week that he will be transferred to Bendigo in the new year. He greeted this announcement with “mixed feelings” as he has an established network of friends and musical collaborators in Shepparton.
Before finding out about the move he was philosophical about the prospect of change, which is determined by the Sandhurst bishop.
“If I do have to move, I’ll move. I’ll still have my music, I’ll still run the young ministry. Just the geography will be different; everything else will be the same.” Within days of hearing the news, Galea was planning a goodbye concert for January.
There is a strange juxtaposition between the ego-driven world of pop music and Galea’s selfless Christian mission. He says he doesn’t seek fame for himself; naturally introverted, he is often uncomfortable with the attention. “My role is to make God famous. I am the instrument, the face of it very often.”
When not undertaking parish duties – Galea is chaplain at Shepparton’s Notre Dame Secondary College, visits two hospitals and six retirement homes, and manages the diocese’s youth program – he tours the world playing packed stadiums, schools and conferences with his band of hipster Christians and makes albums, which have sold tens of thousands.
His music is catchy, upbeat and gently plugs God. In Angel, from his recent fifth album, an apparently poppy love song morphs into an exhortation for God’s protection: “Let his face shine bright on you and lead you to a place called home, a home for you, my little angel.”
Though he’s virtually unknown in the secular world, Galea is eyeing mainstream audiences: his latest album is a partial collaboration with X Factor vocal coach Gary Pinto, and next year he’ll release a dance-music album with Ministry of Sound DJ George Bechara.
“I’m not producing religious songs, I’m producing positive songs that I think are after the heart of God. It’s about our human dignity and about us being loved, no matter what our feelings, our sexual orientation. No matter what.”
Galea’s tone contrasts the official church line; in mid-October a synod of 200 international bishops rejected proposals for wider acceptance of homosexuals – which Pope Francis supported. Galea says his “heart breaks” over the decision, “because being gay does not make a person less a child of God [or] less loved by God”… The church does teach acceptance but we just refuse to use the language to portray that”.
He wants to spread his message of acceptance everywhere – even to less-than-sober nightclub-goers. “Even if they’re drugged out of their brains, even if they’re drunk,” he jokes. “Whatever it takes.”
Galea, who migrated to Australia from Malta in 2007, has been both high and drunk. As a teen he bucked against his strict, Catholic parents and at 14 started frequenting nightclubs in Paceville, a hotspot near his home in eastern Malta, drinking, taking drugs and stealing.
“I wanted to be cool, to be notorious.” He befriended local gangsters. “They were the troublemakers, drug dealers, people who would start fights.” But they turned on him for spreading rumours about their ringleader, which nearly cost him his life but triggered his religious conversion.
“These guys came looking for me. I knew I was in a lot of trouble as they found my best friend and smashed his head against a hotel door. He ended up in a bad state.”
Galea became suicidal. “I was so depressed and scared.” When they finally let him be, Galea attended a youth group, where he was struck by the spiritualism and sense of community. “It was the first time I’d had a personal connection with my faith. These people talked about God like they were actually interested. They talked about Jesus as though they’d personally met him.
At 17 he took up music, showing immediate promise. “From then on I used to pray to God, ‘I’ll do whatever you want. I want to give this hope to other people, but please don’t make me a priest'” – because to him, then, priests seemed old and unhappy.
“Let’s face it, you look at a priest and think ‘oh crap, I don’t want to be like that’.” At 19 he secured a record deal and began touring Europe. A chance meeting with a young, charismatic Sicilian priest turned Galea’s heart. “I got to know this guy and thought if I could be anything like him I would consider being a priest.”
Two years later he broke up with his long-term girlfriend and entered the seminary in Malta. In 2006, during a year in Bendigo mentored by the late Maltese bishop, Joe Grech, word of his musical ability spread; he was invited back to the 2008 Sydney World Youth Day, a huge, week-long Catholic event.
With fellow singer and Christian Guy Sebastian, Galea sang for 500,000 people, including Pope Benedict XVI. Bishop Grech asked him to stay in Australia and he was ordained in 2010. “I haven’t looked back,” Galea says. “I love being here. I love the nature of the church here.”
Galea says that, ironically, the decline of Catholicism in Australia allows him to do the work he loves best. “The Catholic Church in Australia does not expect people to come in; by nature it’s an evangelistic church. It’s not afraid to send its priests out. I play in a pub. I go out on the streets and talk to people.”
In Malta, where 98 per cent of the population is Catholic, “priests are so busy with administration … Everything happens within the church so every priest is so busy administering the sacrament. As much as I love the sacrament I couldn’t live a life like that”.
Living in Australia also affords him anonymity. While he is well-known in Catholic countries like Spain (where he needs a security team), Malta (where his first EP broke sales records and his ordination made national headlines), and even India, he can walk the streets of Shepparton as a regular person; a regular priest.
After his conversion, youth ministry became Galea’s calling: upon arrival in Australia he was shocked by the “sea of beautiful white hair – and shiny bald heads” at mass. He told Bishop Grech he wanted to bring young people back.
A 2008 survey of mass attendance in Australia found in the decade to 2006, attendance by people aged 15 to 34 fell by 38 per cent, to 83,800. Galea acknowledges that distaste for the church’s handling of child abuse has contributed.
“It’s horrible, absolutely unacceptable … Our apology has been plastic and artificial. In the grassroots of clergy, not the spokespeople, there is a sincere sense of remorse and sorrow. Behind the scenes we’re working very hard to bring healing.”
However, Galea doesn’t criticise the church’s position on issues such as contraception, the ordination of women or abortion. Indeed one of his earlier songs, What do you say?, was commissioned by Pro-Life Malta. Written from the perspective of an unborn child pleading with its mother, the video-clip depicts young women at a clinic contemplating terminations, and shows footage of a foetus moving in the womb.
While Galea is strongly pro-life, he “would never turn my back or heart away from anyone who chooses to go ahead with an abortion.”
He likens unpopular church doctrine to thorns on a rose. “You choose a rose but you never look at it and say, ‘Oh, look at that stem, with the thorns’ which would deter you. You look at the petals which are perfect, it smells right. It’s the beauty of the rose which I call the relationship with God… The media often portrays [Catholicism] by just looking at the stem and the thorns, but I as a priest never think of the thorns.
From just a handful of teens who attended a retreat in 2008, Galea’s diocese youth program has burgeoned to a 180-strong group called Stronger Youth. Members attend rallies and meetings known as D-groups – with “D” standing for “disciple”.
Galea’s boss, Shepparton parish priest, Father Joe Taylor, says Galea has had a “profound effect on the church in Australia”; has shown a deep commitment to his calling and has a unique ability to lead. “Wherever he goes, whatever he does… he always takes people with him. He forms leaders and musicians in a new way of faith. He is not a loner in ministry.”
Paul Collins, a writer, broadcaster and ex-priest, says it’s not unusual for the church to produce celebrities – citing 1940s tenor John McCormack and American televangelist Fulton Sheen as examples – but Galea’s ministry appears “of substance”.
“I notice he is moving in the direction of talking about social justice and equity issues at the down-to-earth level. He is interested in the kinds of problems that young people are encountering. If it’s just crooning and hip-hip-hooray stuff, that has no long-term effect.”
There’s no shortage of social problems around Shepparton: the area faces an ice epidemic, youth unemployment is five times the state average and the teen pregnancy rate is twice the Victorian average. That doesn’t deter Galea, whose location is determined by the Sandhurst bishop. “I love Shep … It’s where I want to be as a priest.” But there is a strange juxtaposition between the ego-driven world of pop music and Galea’s selfless Christian mission. He says he doesn’t seek fame for himself; naturally introverted, he is often uncomfortable with the attention. “My role is to make God famous. I am the instrument, the face of it very often.”
But surely he must have a healthy ego to stand up in front of thousands of people and promote himself on social media? “The way I see humility is not hiding and being meek, but understanding who you are and living that loudly. If I have a gift and say, ‘Hey, I’m not going to use it because I don’t want to point at myself’ that is an act of pride because you’re taking something which God has given you and you’re hiding it. I’ve taken what God has gifted me with and I’m bringing it forward, not for my glorification but to give a message.”
That message has been taken up by Stronger Youth “disciples” such as Chris Gilroy, 19, from Shepparton. Though from a Catholic family, until 2012 Gilroy didn’t attend church and viewed Catholicism as merely a label. He says after attending his first rally, “being Catholic felt cool”.
“It fascinated me to see a young, enthusiastic priest who could sing. I was pretty intrigued by Father Rob and also by the atmosphere that came from the other young people there.”
Two years later, though Gilroy plans to study radiography, he is open to “being called” to the priesthood. “It’s something that I ask myself a fair bit; it’s something that I’m praying about. If God wants me to go that way I’ll go that way.”
Like other Stronger Youth members, Gilroy respects church doctrine and isn’t fussed by not marrying, nor by being celibate. “To live life as a Catholic now, you’re supposed to be celibate until you’re married anyway.”
Galea, who took a vow of celibacy, says he expresses his sexuality through music and exercise. He takes his physical health so seriously he’d like to compete as bodybuilder. “I don’t see [celibacy] very differently from a married man who doesn’t get sex whenever he wants … I don’t see myself as sexually frustrated but I see my energy redirected.”
But Collins warns: “It’s easy to be smart-arsed about celibacy but it’s a bit like the seven-year itch in marriage: after the romance has worn off comes the hard slog of commitment.” Priestly work is repetitive, relentless and solitary. “Once you’ve been doing the same thing in parishes for 30 or 40 years, it’s then that the quite corrosive loneliness can set in.”
Galea admits, somewhat bashfully, that both straight and gay people have professed their love for him, sometimes saying that God decreed they should be together. “I say, ‘Thanks for telling me, and I’ll wait to hear from God as well. If he tells me I’ll let you know’.” To date, he hasn’t had word.
One young woman Fairfax Media spoke to approached Galea for advice after a break-up. A non-practising Catholic, she’d never spoken to a priest. “He’s young, seemed approachable, and took the time to speak with me and give me a blessing,” she says. She giggles. “But yeah, he’s really hot.”
Julia May is a Melbourne journalist.
Article was published on The Age and Sydney Morning Herald websites on 26 November 2014