Yes a widowed man can become a priest in the Catholic Church. Tony Pace from Gudja, Malta – a teacher, choir master, composer and fan of the Germany football team relates his story. He became a widower in 2013, when his wife Joan died of cancer. He was born in 1953 and will be ordained tomorrow, 29th June 2020, at 67 years of age.
The Call To Priesthood
It was on his wife’s death bed that it first occurred to Tony that he wants to become a priest. “My wife Joan was diagnosed with aggressive cancer and she eventually went to meet the Risen Lord in 2013 after a three year battle. Joan was a deeply spiritual person and internally she was an extremely strong woman. A day before she died she called our children and exhorted them to continue growing in good values.”
Then it was Tony’s turn. “She simply told me that I should get married again. Jokingly I told her that as regards mistakes I do them only once! On the spur of the moment, and because I was a bit confused by her suggestion, I told her that I wished to become a priest. She just gave me a queer kind of look and said nothing.”
Since then the thought of priesthood never left Tony. “I summed up courage and confided with our new parish priest Fr David Farrugia. He discussed the idea with Fr Frans Abdilla, who on his part suggested Fr Arthur Vella, a Jesuit. I met Fr Arthur for a long session and he suggested I go for discernment. Discernment ended with a formal letter to the Rector, Fr Jimmy Bonnici. The Seminary board and the Archbishop gave the go-ahead for me to begin a formation course in May 2016. I was then 62 years old.”
Was Tony’s age an issue? “Probably my age baffled the Seminary board and my superiors more than it worried me,” Tony explained. “You can look at old age as a difficulty, ‘end of work’, low energy levels, complaining about everything, becoming cynical, and looking at others’ initiative in a bad light and thinking ‘we already tried that in my age’. However you can look at old age as an opportunity, as maturity, as continuity, or ticking what you have in your bucket-list. When I finished my carrier in education. I travelled a lot.”
Tony retired from Education at 62 years. At first his superiors thought of sending him to do a formation course in Rome. “Luckily they had a change of heart and the Rector designed for me a special formation course. I attended Theology and Philosophy lectures at the University of Malta, attended the Seminary on designated days while continuing to accompany my three children, all youth, from home.”
Tony’s Faith Journey
Family of origin
Tony can trace his priestly vocation to various phases in his life when significant people around him influenced his attitudes and values. “Various people taught me how voluntary work can be satisfying, spiritually uplifting and beneficial to our communities,” he said. First it was his late parents Lonzu and Ġuża who initiated him in the Catholic faith. “My father Lonzu, a shipwright at Malta Drydocks worked hard to provide for my family. I have a brother and two sisters. But in his spare time he was extremely active in the La Stella Band Club of my native village Gudja. He played the Tuba, was active in the club’s committee and dedicated time and energy to see his favourite band club progressing. With my father I discussed politics, voluntary work, jobs, and a thousand other topics. When he retired from work he spent much time constructing a really beautiful mechanical crib. I still admire his enthusiasm for these apparently insignificant and little joys of life.”
At a young age Tony became an altar boy. “I cannot say that I had any vocation for the priesthood at that tender age, but I was kind of ‘interested’ in the life of the Church. I remember asking Fr Carm Farrugia, who is still alive, in Gudja: ‘What did you do to become a priest?’ His answer: ‘I studied and I prayed!’
But the phase that really shaped Tony’s identity was the time he spent at the Society of Christian Doctrine – MUSEUM. He was a full member (soċju) up to 24 years of age. “I was very active in both the Gudja and Ħal Safi MUSEUM branches where I was asked to help when I was 16 years old. At the MUSEUM I strived to ‘be in the world’ but at the same time I learned how not to ‘belong to the world’!”
With regards to employment, Tony started working as a time-study engineer at Malta Rubber. “My job-description was quite interesting but I was not really interested!” he said. Then he spent the next two years as a postman. “The outdoor life and interaction with communities while on the beat really suited my character. But I wanted something better and more challenging so at 24 years I entered University and studied education. Teaching carried a lot of passion for me and the challenges were all spiritually and existentially rewarding. And through my experiences in Education, I learnt how one can make a lot of difference in young people’s lives.”
After a deep internal struggle Tony left the MUSEUM and met Joan who was five years younger. “We built our house in Ħal Safi. I got married at 29 years of age. We had three children Pauline, David and Deborah. Together with Joan, I dedicated a lot of time and energy for setting up and sustaining the Sine Macula Choir of Safi. In the choir we had a sort of an extended family and the experience was extremely fulfilling. The choir was very successful and we were even invited to give concerts in Ulm, Germany and Trecastagne in Sicily.”
Tony’s Married Life
Tony was married to Joan for 31 years. He still cherishes moments when they were in each other’s presence, doing different chores but being present for each other. “My relationship with Joan was not perfect. We had our fair share of problems and difficulties. There was attraction between us. There was love. There was also a belief that in a relationship two persons help each other to grow and mature. Joan was a prolific reader, an excellent cook and she sewed clothes marvellously. I composed music. We would simply do different things in each other’s presence.”
Both Tony and Joan were teachers. They visited the Holy Land together in 2010. As a family, with their children, Pauline, David and Deborah they travelled to many place. “We went on holidays to Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Scotland, The Lake District, London, Spain, Slovenia, Rome and many other places. The countryside and mountains remained our favourite destinations.”
After Joan passed away Tony attended a bereavement course with his daughter Deborah. “The course was organised by the Hospice Movement. I also went to cooking classes and learned how to cook, sort of! Joan’s spirit and love is still so much present in my family, in the choir and at St Benedict’s College where she taught Geography, English and European Studies!”
Today Tony’s children are young adults. Pauline is a teacher, David is in a formation course as a Missionary of the Society of St Paul(MSSP) to become a priest, and Deborah is a physiotherapist. Tony is a firm believer in the value of commitment when it comes to both marriage and priesthood. “I strongly believe that if one is not fit for a relationship in marriage, he is neither suitable to exercise priestly ministry as a celibate person. Marriage entails commitment/s and so does the priesthood.”
Tony’s Hobbies – Football And The Countryside
Tony can’t bear to watch very important games when Germany is playing – for example in the final stages of the World Cup – because he gets so tense! “Football was my passion. My favourite club is Bayern Munich and my favourite team is Germany. I feel so passionate that when Germany reaches a late stage in a World Cup I become too tense. I prefer not to watch the match and just learn about the result!” he said.
Another hobby which Tony really enjoys is being in the countryside. “The countryside helps me stay healthy and fit. I try to do two-hour walks around Safi’s countryside twice a week. I also enjoy holidays in picturesque countryside such as that of Switzerland and The Black Forest in Germany.”
An Education Of Relevance
For a very long time, Tony worked in the educational sector as a Primary teacher, a Secondary Teacher teaching History and Social Studies, a Head of Department for History and an Education Officer for Primary Education ensuring quality education. Together with his late wife Joan, he authored the Merlin English, Malti, Maths series. Many students on his Facebook page have positively described Tony as a kind, caring, humble and professional teacher.
Together with others, he introduced practical work in syllabi of students learning Social Studies. “For me the crucial quality of any educational experience is relevance. What we don’t see as relevant we simply don’t engage in. We need also to move out of classrooms and enjoy learning and teaching outside classrooms/schools. As an Education Officer I was tasked by my superiors to carry out reforms in Social Studies. At Primary level Social Studies included Geography, History and Civics. We introduced fieldwork and projects as part and parcel of final assessments carrying 20% of the total final marks. This introduced a lot of joy, interest, motivation and satisfaction in the subject.” Tony’s efforts at Social Studies reform can still be viewed at a website he created https://primarysocialstudies.skola.edu.mt/.
Tony Meets God In People, Nature And Music
Tony’s image of God has changed along the years from a negative one to a positive one. “At a tender and young age I feared God a lot. I remember paintings at my grandparents’ house depicting the bad death and the good death! They were really frightening. But this idea of God gradually gave way to an understanding of God as Creator who is always ready to welcome back, to forgive and to guide me to fresher and newer paths.”
Today, Tony spiritually meets God in his Creation and music. “I visited the Swiss Alps various times and countryside and mountains make me feel really close to my Creator. I go for walks in the countryside and there I literally experience God. I ‘feel’ God when listening to a good piece of music like Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus from the Messiah.”
Above all, Tony sees God most intimately in his family and his neighbours. “Helping others and making even that little difference in other people’s lives means ‘bringing God down to Earth’! Recently I experienced again the God of miracles with the birth of a grandson and a granddaughter. Birth is a miracle. “
Tomorrow is a special day for Tony. It will mark the start of a new service to the people. “Monday 29th June will be a beautiful moment of grace. This special Ordination grace carries an ‘added value’. During my life I received abundant graces from the Lord through my work in the MUSEUM, through interaction with my wife and children, my friends and the students I taught. This Ordination grace does not exist in isolation. It forms part of God’s plans for me. Then, if the Lord gives me the grace to say mass at least once in my life, this will be a great grace. And if I will see my son David ordained as a priest, this will be another grace.”
Tony’s biggest wish as a priest is to make a difference in one’s life. He is very grateful for the time he spent in the seminary and the way that seminarians in his year accepted him as one of them despite him being different in many aspects. He is also grateful for the people who still trust the figure of the priest so much. “The people still trust the priest so much. I have confirmed this in house visits I made. The great majority welcome you, trust you and dialogue with you for a long time. My biggest wish is to make a difference in the life of our communities, even if it is a very small difference.”