Yes, a widowed man can become a priest in the Catholic Church. Fr Tony Pace from Gudja, Malta – teacher, choir master, composer and fan of the Germany football team relates his story. In 2013 he was widowed when he lost his wife Joan to 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 at his wife’s death bed that Tony first felt his call to priesthood. “My wife Joan was diagnosed with aggressive cancer. She eventually went to meet the Risen Lord in 2013 after battling with the disease for three years. Joan was a deeply spiritual person and an extremely strong woman. A day before she died, she called our children and exhorted them to continue fostering their good values.”
Then it was Tony’s turn. “She simply told me that I should get married again. Jokingly I told her I make a mistake only once! On the spur of the moment, and because I was somewhat confused by her suggestion, I told her that I wished to become a priest. She gave me a queer kind of look and said nothing.”
Discerning and Following the Call
Since that day, the thought of priesthood never left Tony. “I summed up courage and confided in our new parish priest Fr David Farrugia. This led me to go through a process of discernment. Discernment ended with a formal letter to the Rector, Fr Jimmy Bonnici. The Seminary board and the Archbishop gave me the go-ahead to begin a formation course in May 2016. I was 62 years old then.”
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.”
Tony had retired from his career in education at 62 years. After his retirement he had travelled a lot. When he was accepted to start his formation in priesthood the first plan was that he would go to Rome for a formation course. “Luckily my superiors had a change of mind. The Rector designed a formation course especially for me. I attended Theology and Philosophy lectures at the University of Malta, and the Seminary on designated days while continuing to reside at home to accompany my three children, who were all still in their youth.”
Tony’s Faith Journey
Family of origin
Tony can trace his priestly vocation to various phases in his life when significant people influenced his attitudes and values. It was his late parents Lonzu and Ġuża who first initiated him in the Catholic faith. “Then, various people taught me how voluntary work can be satisfying, spiritually uplifting and beneficial to our communities. With my father I discussed politics, voluntary work, jobs and a thousand other topics.”
Tony’s father was an important source of influence. “My father Lonzu, who was a shipwright at Malta Drydocks, worked hard to provide for a family of six. I have a brother and two sisters. In his spare time he was very active in the La Stella Band Club of my native village Gudja. He played the tuba and was an active member of the club’s committee. My father dedicated a lot of his free time and energy to see his favourite band club progressing. When he retired from work he spent a lot of his 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 and lives in Gudja: ‘What did you do to become a priest?’ His answer: ‘I studied and I prayed!’
The phase that really shaped Tony’s character 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 to pursue my studies in education. I was passionate about teaching and the challenges I faced in that time were all spiritually and existentially rewarding. Through my experiences while working 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 old. We had three children Pauline, David and Deborah. Together with Joan, I dedicated a lot of time and energy to set up and sustain the Sine Macula Choir of Safi. The choir was like an extended family and the experience there was extremely fulfilling. It was a very successful choir 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. “My relationship with Joan was not perfect. We had our fair share of problems and difficulties. There was attraction and love between us. Furthermore, 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.”
Tony and Joan were both teachers. In 2010 they visited the Holy Land together. They also travelled to many countries with their children, Pauline, David and Deborah. “We visited many countries with our children such as 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 organised by the Hospice Movement, with his daughter Deborah. “I also went to cooking classes and learned how to cook, or at least tried to! Joan’s spirit and love is still very 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 to become a priest with the Missionary of the Society of St Paul(MSSP), 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 and so does the priesthood.”
Tony’s Hobbies – Football and Walking in the Countryside
Tony speaks about his passion for football. “Football was always 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 to get to know the result when it is over!” 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
Tony worked in the educational sector for many years. He was a Primary school teacher, then taught History and Social Studies as a Secondary school teacher. He was Head of Department for History and also worked as an Education Officer for Primary Education ensuring quality education. Together with his late wife Joan, he authored the Merlin English, Malti, and Maths series. Many of his past students have described Tony on his Facebook page as a kind, caring, humble and professional teacher.
Together with other teachers, Tony introduced practical work in the syllabi for students learning Social Studies. “In my opinion, the crucial quality of any educational experience is relevance. What we don’t see as relevant we simply don’t engage in. We also need to move out of the classrooms and enjoy learning and teaching outside 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 civic education. We introduced fieldwork and projects as part of the final assessments. This brought a lot of joy, interest, motivation and satisfaction in the learning of 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 age and as a youth 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 meets God spiritually through the Creation and in music. “The 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 also ‘feel’ God when I listen 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.”
Can a Widowed Man Become a Priest?
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 the life of others . He is very grateful for the time he spent in the seminary and for the way that other seminarians accepted him as one of them, despite the differences. He is also grateful for the people who still trust the priest. “The people still trust the priest. I confirmed this during house visits. The great majority of people whom I met welcomed me, showed trust and spoke at length with me. My biggest wish is to make a difference in the life of our communities, even if it is a very small difference.”