He’s young. He’s attractive. He’s about to tour Europe and is signed with an American record label. But odds are until he appeared on TV recently you’d never heard of him.
Channel Seven’s X Factor Australia recently brought 32-year-old Catholic priest Robert Galea into more than a million lounge rooms across the nation when he dazzled the judges with his acoustic rendition of the electronic music “supergroup” Swedish House Mafia’s 2012 hit “Don’t You Worry Child”.
He’s an anomaly in the priesthood, not exactly who you would expect to see when you walk into church on a Sunday. But that’s part of the reason the youth respond so well to him.
“He definitely appeals to young people,” says Molly Dickson, a former student at Notre Dame College in Shepparton, where Father Rob once worked as a chaplain. “I’m not particularly religious but I went to him when I was in a bad situation and I’m glad I did. He listened to me and helped me see that everything was going to be okay. He gets it; he’s young and he’s made mistakes too.”
“I measured all the commitments I had already, with touring, traveling, my parish, my work and the commitment needed to stay in that competition and, if by some weird or extraordinary reason I won the competition then would I be willing to sign a contract with Sony? So I was trying to be realistic with what I could give up.”
Father Rob completed seminary studies in Australia after migrating from Malta and serves in Victoria’s Sandhurst Diocese. He is assistant priest at St Killian’s in Bendigo. Though he’s not particularly well-known in Australia, he’s topped the charts in his native Malta and performs to hundreds of thousands, spending about a third of the year touring the world.
He doesn’t describe his music as religious though he does use it as a platform to spread his message to the world. “They are integrated,” he says of the secular and sacred. “My music is very much part of what I do as priest. Music is about giving a message of hope. It’s about speaking the language of people’s hearts and that’s what I do as a priest. It’s a different platform but it’s the same work.”
Father Rob hadn’t planned to become a priest. He says that in Malta, where the legal drinking age is 16, he found himself drinking and taking drugs at a young age. “By the time I was 14, I was already very much into a corrupt scene,” he says. “In Malta there is a lot of partying and it’s also a very religious country, I suppose I was pulled between the two worlds.
“I ended up in a very dark place and by the time I was 16 I didn’t have anywhere to go, the darkness in my life, depression, anxiety, not having close friends.”
He found religion in his late teens. “At 17 in this dark place, I had my first religious experience.”
It was an experience that eventually led to the priesthood. “I experienced hope for the first time and I wanted to share this hope with others,” he says. “I didn’t intend to become a priest at first but I just wanted to serve God. At one of my concerts in Italy, I met a priest, he was someone approachable, who could understand me and was down to earth, and so I thought if I could be anything like this guy I’ll consider priesthood.”
At the time, Father Rob also found a passion for music. “I had an encounter with a Catholic community and I started to integrate myself with this community and into my faith,” he says. “They needed someone to play at church in a youth group. So I started to play for them.”
He credits MTV for teaching him how to play the guitar, having taught himself by watching and copying the chords.
Father Rob now plays for various audiences. “There’s a festival that we’re playing in Adelaide in December and there will be thousands of young people from all across the country there,” says Joseph Moorhouse, a musician in his band. “That will be a high energy show for sure. In contrast, when we visit a new town we will generally play a concert in the evening that’s open to anyone and people of all ages will come along. Whole families will be there and probably bring their grandmas along as well.”
Father Rob’s musical talent is undeniable. Yet he remains endearingly modest. “Mostly the people I look up to are the people whose level I could never reach,” he laughs. “Like Guy Sebastian, for example. When he sings I’m floored, I couldn’t imagine myself ever singing anything like that.”
He doesn’t just admire Sebastian’s voice but has collaborated with him. They performed the official World Youth Day Song, Receive the Power, a highlight of his musical career. “I got to sing for the Pope and half a million people,” he says.
Father Rob also considers his short time on X Factor to be one of his highest achievements musically. “It was great on many levels,” he says. “One being the post experience, the attention that came after that. It was incredible that I could be of such influence to so many people with such little effort in a sense.”