Out of Africa

Born in Nigeria into a devout Catholic family, Fr Camillus Chinenye Nwahia attended daily Mass with his mother. This seed, nurtured over time and continents, eventually led him to a rewarding position as a Catholic chaplain at the University of Newcastle and as the assistant priest of Holy Trinity, Blackbutt North.

"It was not a surprise to my parents and others close to my family when I started altar serving as a young boy,” he says. “On reflection, that was the beginning of my vocation journey."

Fr Camillus's early religious influences initially led him to join a religious community at age 20 in pursuit of becoming a priest. However, while in his final year at the seminary, his mother died and for the first time in his life he found himself at a crossroads.

"My mother was my biggest fan. After her death, I felt I needed time to be able to reflect and gain clarity about what I should do with my life." He left Nigeria to discern his future.

"I had lived most of my life as someone preparing to be a priest, and people were already seeing me as one. It was humbling, but I thought I would benefit from taking time out."

Fr Camillus, then aged 30, was close to completing his theological degree at the seminary when he reached out to a friend who had moved to Newcastle. Following this conversation, he applied to the University of Newcastle to study a Master of Education (Leadership and Management). It was accepted, and within six months he had boarded a plane for Australia.

"I did not know much about Australia. I knew about the kangaroos, of course, but did not bother much about the time difference and other practical things.” That life-changing flight more than a decade ago opened a world of possibilities.

"I arrived in the country two days before lectures commenced, and I did not have time to make friends. Initially I struggled to understand the Aussie accent and for Aussies to understand mine."

Fr Camillus spoke fluent English, but he relied on reading textbooks to get through his studies. All the while he was battling jetlag, homesickness, culture shock, differences in weather conditions, and the food. The combination of study and stress started impacting Fr Camillus's health, and an appointment at the university medical clinic was the next significant turning point in his journey.

"I thought the doctor was going to prescribe some medications," Fr Camillus says. "But instead, she asked me to tell her a bit of my story. I spoke of my friends and family and about my faith. It was following this that she suggested I visit the university's Chaplaincy Centre."

Keen to take steps towards better health, Fr Camillus followed her advice. He credits the contact he had with the chaplaincy team as changing the trajectory of his stay in Australia.

"The chaplaincy team became a spiritual guide. I also met other people at the centre, and it wasn't long before I started to be invited to dinners and events like the Diocese's 'Pints with Purpose'. Through these contacts I was asked to play on a soccer team and in a very short time I had formed a circle of friends, and all my concerns started to settle.

"Life became a little bit easier for me."

Fr Camillus still remained true to his intention of using his time in Australia to discern his vocation. In 2013, he approached Bishop Bill Wright to pursue once more his vocation to the ministerial priesthood, albeit in Australia. Bishop Bill was supportive of Fr Camillus's request and in 2016 he was ordained in front of a large crowd at Sacred Heart Cathedral.

Fr Camillus's passion for supporting others who find themselves facing a similar plight led Bishop Bill to suggest he return to the university, but as a Catholic chaplain rather than a student.

That was six years ago, and Fr Camillus still gets the same joy working as part of the chaplaincy team that supported him through those difficult early years in Australia.

No two days are the same and he spends time accompanying students and staff on their own journey, supporting them and helping them find a balance between their study and the rest of life's elements.

"Once I tell them I have been exactly where they are, they feel free to talk to me. Most of our discussions are not about faith and religion. Being a chaplain at the university allows me to be part of the spiritual and academic journey of so many, and I feel blessed that my experiences have served as food for others."

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