It’s a long way from Fr Prakash Menezes SVD’s home in India to his parish of Santa Teresa in the Central Australian desert country, but it is exactly the kind of Christ-led and people-centred life he hoped for when he signed up to be a missionary priest.
Fr Prakash joined the Divine Word Missionaries in India and undertook his theological studies and formation in Melbourne, where he made his final vows and was ordained to the priesthood in 2014.
His first assignment was to Central Australia, and he has now been living and working as Parish Priest in Santa Teresa, about 80km from Alice Springs, for about two years.
“First, I went to Alice Springs Parish, where I assisted the parish priest and got to know the people, the culture and even the weather of Central Australia,” he says.
“During that time I would occasionally visit Santa Teresa, so I came to know some of the families. So when the time came for me to be assigned to Santa Teresa, they knew me and I knew them and I could easily say Yes to taking it up.
“But having said that, coming to Santa Teresa was getting into a different culture again, because the people here are Eastern Arrernte people, so some of the customs and ways of doing things are different to the people in Alice Springs.”
One thing that was different was the language. The first language of the people of Santa Teresa is Eastern Arrernte and English is a second language for them.
“So in practical terms that means that I make sure to use simple translations, including in the Mass and simple words in speaking with people,” he says.
Fr Prakash, who speaks six languages, is also constantly trying to learn the Arrernte language, which is notoriously difficult to master.
“It is hard,” he says. “But I just keep listening to it and trying to pronounce it and make an effort to learn.
“I have to have patience with it. And the people are very patient with me.”
Fr Prakash says no two days are quite the same in his ministry, although from Tuesday to Friday, he generally spends the morning working on different activities in the parish office with parish assistant Sr Liz Wiemers SGS and Bill Ryan, the parish secretary.
“In the afternoons, I might visit people and prepare for the Home Masses we celebrate on Tuesdays and Wednesdays,” he says. “I’ll also make visits for the Sacrament of Anointing and Fridays are dedicated to preparing for the weekend Masses.
“We also have some accommodation here, which we rent out to people and take immersion groups from schools and other places, so that people can come and experience life in our community, so there’s plenty of work around all that.
“The immersions are becoming more popular. It’s only a week, but that’s’ more experience than many people have of living in an Aboriginal community.”
On Sundays, after Mass, Fr Prakash visits the sick in hospital and the elderly and he spends his day off on Monday in Alice Springs, doing errands and spending time with the SVD community there.
“One of the important things we do in Santa Teresa is have a stakeholders’ meeting in the community,” Fr Prakash says.
“That’s when members of the community come and gather in the parish office and we talk about what is going well, what challenges there might be, issues like child safety and training in that area, and things like that.”
Once a month, he visits the small outlying community of Titjikala and celebrates Mass for the Catholics there.
He says working in Central Australia isn’t always easy, but it is deeply fulfilling.
“I think that in first coming here, one of the toughest things to get used to was the weather. I didn’t know it gets down to the minus range in the winter and above 45C in the summer, so there are big extremes,” he says.
“And of course, learning the culture in any new place is always challenging. I’m still learning what is appropriate and how to behave, so that I don’t impose my own cultural belief system on the people.
“Also, the language is definitely tougher than I thought it would be.”
But Fr Prakash says the challenges are balanced out by the many blessings of living in this Aboriginal community.
“The best thing is the faith of the people,” he says.
“I really appreciate that and it is encouraging to me as a priest and as a Christian.
“The people here have a deep trust in God and that is visible, including in the children in the community here.”
Fr Prakash says the community has painted murals for the Church which combine a Christian understanding of God with the Aboriginal understanding of God.
“They’re really beautiful,” he says.
“It’s a very active community. Every adult is engaged in one way or another in activity, whether its artists or the men making things in the Men’s Shed or women working in the creche, or at the women’s aged care centre, at the arts centre, or for the Shire and the school.
“We won the National Tidy Towns award this year which is a statement about the pride the people take in their community.
“I feel really blessed to be here.”
This article was first published in In the Word, the e-News of the Divine Word Missionaries AUS Province.