Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
2 Feb 2010
Two near fatal car crashes have played pivotal roles in Fr Grace's life. Although the first crash occurred several years before his birth, it would influence his life and his faith. The second had even more far reaching consequences and was instrumental in his decision to become a priest and devote his life to God.
Fr Grace's story, however, begins with his parents and the country town of Gundagai where his mother, Lorraine grew up, the daughter of a devout Irish Catholic family who owned the local Family Hotel.
"My mother's faith was profound and she was praying a Novena for direction about her Vocation when she met my father at my grandparents' hotel. Dad was in banking and had been sent from Sydney to help out at the Gundagai bank for five weeks and was playing darts in the hotel when they met," Fr Grace says. "Dad wasn't a Catholic and was surprised when Mum told him a couple of days after they had fallen in love that she would never marry a non-Catholic."
"Good heavens, who said anything about marriage?" Fr Grace's father had burst out in surprise.
But his mother knew the two of them were meant for each other and to help him learn more about her faith, she gave him a Miraculous Medal and a book on Catholicism.
"The book answered all Dad's questions about the Papacy, Our Lady and the Eucharist and seven weeks later, my father had not only decided he wanted to marry my mother but also was set on becoming a Catholic. But before he converted, he wanted to make sure he was converting to Catholicism for all the right reasons and not simply because he wanted to marry my mother."
So he decided he and Fr Grace's mother should spend the next 12 months apart. During this time there would be no communication between them. But at the end of this self-imposed separation, if they still felt the same way, and Fr Grace's father's decision to convert remained unchanged, the pair would become engaged.
A Sign from God
"But before the separation began Dad wanted Mum to meet his parents in Sydney," Fr Grace says.
Which was when the first, of the two near-fatal crashes occurred.
"It was Christmas Eve and they were driving from Gundagai to Sydney when just north of Yass, a drunk lurched on to the road in front of their car. The poor man was killed and Mum was severely injured."
The fact his parents survived a crash that should have killed them was taken as a sign from God and any thought of continuing with their planned separation became impossible.
"So after Mum underwent a whole series of plastic surgery operations, followed by two court cases and Dad's conversion on the Feast of the Miraculous Medal, my parents were married in Gundagai on August 15 which is the Feast of the Assumption."
Fr Grace arrived several years later, the fourth child in a family of three boys and three girls, and says he was born just as his devout parents had finished praying the rosary for his safe delivery.
"My identical twin sisters are the youngest in the family," he says and remembers his childhood in Strathfield as a happy uncomplicated time.
Educated at St Patrick's College, Strathfield, he garnered the nickname "Bible" or "Bibes" for short.
"The name had nothing to do with my own piety but was a tease about my parents' deep faith," he says, adding that although his parents were deeply religious by the time he was a teenager, he was becoming increasingly estranged from the Church and from God.
"I would love to say my childhood devotion to Our Lady and making the Nine First Fridays continued throughout my adolescence. But nothing could be further from the truth and in fact the only remnant of my earlier devotion was a rusty pair of brown rosary beads strung over my bedpost collecting dust," he says.
Statue of Our Lady on Apparition Hill, Medjugorje
Booze, Parties and Pranks
Studying for a degree in civil engineering at UTS as a young man, Fr Grace says he became the stereotype of the "party-hard-uni student."
"For that read a self indulgent, binge drinking, decadent risk-taker," he says.
Hanging out with eight close mates, Fr Grace embarked on a wild ride of booze, parties and pranks that had them scrambling up the steep sides of Sydney Opera House at 3 am and making it to the highest point, before skidding back down again. But the escapade was not without drama and at the top of Sydney's famous landmark, Fr Grace panicked and froze. It was only the patience and encouragement of Dave, one of his close mates, that he was able to safely climb down.
"As an engineering student, I was fascinated with the testimonies of world-renowned scientists who had investigated Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where Our Lady appeared to six visionaries in 1981," he says. "After thoroughly investigating the visitation at Medjugorje, the experts found no satisfactory scientific explanation for the phenomenon."
But despite his studies of Medjugorje and the words of Our Lady, who told the visionaries: "I have come to call the world to conversion for the last time," Fr Grace says his wild lifestyle as a hedonist continued.
Finally it was a tragedy that brought him to his senses.
Dave, the young man who had saved his life the night he scaled the Opera House, was killed after he and John, another member of the group, stole a plane and took off on a joy flight.
"Things went horribly wrong and the plane crashed, killing them both," Fr Grace says remembering the funerals for the two young men and the overwhelming sense of sadness he had felt.
"Mortality and eternity had never seemed so real and the senseless tragedy of their deaths sent me on a quest for the meaning of life, and brought me back to Our Lady, to whom I had been so devoted as a child."
A successful project manager in construction, Fr Grace was not only earning good money but making successful investments in the stock market and in real estate. But he realised he wasn't happy and encouraged by his father, who pulled no punches about his son's Godless life, he returned to the Church and made his first Confession in many years.
Greatest Sin of the Modern World
"The gentle priest who heard my Confession told me the greatest sin of the modern world was pride and because of this, many people thought they no longer needed this beautiful Sacrament of healing," he says. "If only they knew what they were missing out on for no matter how hard I try, I cannot begin to describe the immense peace I felt that day, after being reconciled with God and His Church."
Now in what seemed to be a new state of being, Fr Grace began rereading the Bible. The words and Scriptures seemed fresh and new. Energised and filled with the love for God, he founded a Rosary (Cenacle) prayer group and fell in love with the Holy Mass.
"I frequented the Confessional and began fasting and at last I was living the message of Our Lady at Medjugorje and loving it," he says.
Despite Fr Grace's "conversion" back to his faith, he admits for more than a year, he remained hooked on his substantial income as a project manager together with the lucrative returns from his various investments.
"The lure of money was blocking me from God's will. But the richer I became, the more Our Lord's words echoed in my heart: what profit a man if he gain the whole world but loses his soul?'"
By now, Fr Grace had become a committed evangelist and although he cheerfully reports that his friends thought "Gracie has lost the plot," he became more and more inventive in ways to entice friends and "lapsed" family members back to the church.
"I offered $50 to my elder brother, Tim if he'd read a book on Medjugorje," he says explaining that Tim was living as a beach bum in Queensland at the time and would only return home for Christmas if his parents promised not to mention religion or God to him.
Fr Grace's mission with his brother turned out to be a great success and Tim not only made his first Confession in 15 years, but the day he chose to return to the Church was October 13, the anniversary of the miracle of Fatima, another famous Marian apparition site.
"Tim asked for another book on Medjugorje but this time he didn't need to be paid $50 to read it," Fr Grace grins, adding that Tim has since completed a degree in philosophy and theology and like Simon, has become a devoted Catholic.
As a student Fr Grace climbed
to the top of the Opera House
A Second Near Fatal Car Crash
"I always thought Simon would be the one to become a priest and I'd be the one to marry and have kids," he says remembering how a second almost fatal car crash once again intervened and became a life changing event. "It was 1993 and I was going out with a lovely girl and was hoping for a call to marriage. But God had other plans."
Fr Grace learned of these plans when a Sydney cabbie ran a red light and slammed into him.
"He rolled my Ute and by rights, I should have been killed. In fact those who saw the crash couldn't believe I was alive. They were even more amazed when they discovered the only injury I suffered was a cut to my head that needed three stitches."
But for Fr Grace it wasn't his survival that was remarkable but rather what he saw in that first instant after the crash as he scrambled from the wreck through the smashed windscreen of his ute.
"Lying in the gutter were my Medjugorje Rosary beads and they were the first things I saw."
Fr Grace's girlfriend knew he would see the Rosary beads as a sign from God.
"How could I not?" he asks today.
God Speaks through Novenas
But to make sure a vocation in the priesthood was what God wanted of him, Fr Grace decided to make his first ever trip to Medjugorje and through prayer and meditation find the answer.
There in the serenity and beauty of Medjugorje, he prayed to Our Lady, the Mother of Priests and finally knew, in his deepest being, that God had "called him" and his Vocation was to become a priest.
Fr Grace finds God speaks through Novenas and he not only used Novenas in Medjugorgje but also over his decision to enter Vianney College at Wagga Wagga to begin his studies for the priesthood.
"I looked at many different seminaries and a big part of why I chose Vianney College was St Jean Vianney, who is the patron saint of priests and for whom the Wagga Wagga seminary is named."
Ordained at St Michael's Cathedral, Wagga Wagga on 6 October 2001, Fr Grace was appointed assistant parish priest in Finley for a short time and then became assistant parish priest at St Patrick's Church, Albury. From there he was appointed to the Holy Spirit Church in Lavington, outer Albury and then as the Administrator of Darlington Point and Coleambally. Currently he is the Parish Priest at the Sacred Heart Church in Griffith, NSW.
Now in his mid 40s, Fr Grace loves everything about his life as a priest. "I love preaching, I love saying the Mass, I love hearing Confession, I love ministering to the sick and the dying, I love consoling the bereaved, I love teaching children the faith and preparing couples for marriage. I also love baptising their children."
Unusually too for a priest, Fr Grace also enjoys being the parish administrator and keeping up to date accounts as well as the parish finances in order. "I suppose that's a hangover from being a project manager but I find I enjoy it. But the first and most important things are to say the Mass well and to be readily available for Confession and to be minister to people's pastoral needs. People respond to the truth, and if everything else is taken care of, finances will take care of themselves.
For others thinking about entering the priesthood, Fr Grace suggests they pray with an open heart and to find a mentor and guide.
"My spiritual advisor was Fr Anthony Bernal who was wonderful and helped advise me and pray with me. He is an Opus Dei priest and now lives in New Zealand," he says and points out that as with other signs God has shown him, there were also signs that Fr Anthony was the ideal mentor for him.
"Fr Anthony was ordained on the same day as my birthday which turned out to be also his father's birthday. That has to mean something. Later, I found out that St John Vianney was ordained on the very same day in 1815. I was born exactly 150 years after this. Another nice affirmation to my vocation is the fact that this year is the Year for Priests and is also the 150th anniversary of St John Vianneys death. God speaks to us in many different ways. So let us listen to his call."