Friday, February 25, 2011

Holy disorder
The Essay: Holy disorder Chris McGillion and John O'Carroll
February 26, 2011
.Many Australian priests find themselves alienated from Rome.

IN June, Pope Benedict brought to a close the Year of the Priest he had declared 12 months earlier by inviting every available priest from the more than 400,000 worldwide to attend a special gathering in Rome. For three days a small army of priests bivouacked in and around the Vatican, attending Masses, testimonials, prayer meetings and conferences designed to celebrate their vocation and renew their commitment to serving Christ and his church.

The gathering culminated in a spectacular Mass in St Peter's Square for an estimated 15,000 priests – the largest Mass ever concelebrated in that arena. Speaking of his "joy for the sacrament of the priesthood," Benedict oversaw waves of cassocks rising and kneeling in perfect unison during the celebration. Never before had there been a display of clericalism on this scale and to all outward appearances it showed a priesthood firmly united in fidelity to the Pope and his curia.

The reality, however, is somewhat different.

Advertisement: Story continues below In the course of their everyday parish work, Catholic priests have to deal with problems ranging from the mundane to the frustratingly bureaucratic, to the challenging and often plain bizarre. Few people ever truly learn about these aspects of the vocation because priests largely work outside the public glare. We surveyed more than 540 of them in Australia, and interviewed another 50, to shed light on their activities and their inner thoughts. What we discovered was a world rich in commitment but also in complaint, disillusionment and dissent.

Many of the priests believe the Vatican exercises far too much control in the life of the church, expects far too much regimentation and allows far too little room for local variations in expressions of the faith. They believe that Rome fails to understand the nature of Catholicism in Australia and does not appreciate the challenges facing priests here.

The attitudes of priests towards Benedict and his predecessor, John Paul II, are mixed and, occasionally, highly critical. Many priests bemoan the lost momentum for church reform that grew out of the 1960s and the trend towards the restoration of a more centralised, conservative and rigidly disciplined church over the past 30 years. A majority see the need for a Third Vatican Council to build on the church's engagement with society that was achieved by the Second Vatican Council.

More generally, in their everyday ministry priests are caught in the conflict of mediating Vatican directives and official church teachings to a laity that is more educated, more sceptical of authority and more willing to think for itself than at any time in the church's history. Priests must nuance black-and-white moral prescriptions in ways that make pragmatic sense in the increasingly complex lives of their parishioners.

They are expected to enforce church rules but also relate pastorally. They must balance the demands and ideals of the universal church against needs and realities at the local level. When in Rome, priests might do as Rome expects its priests to do. But that certainly doesn't imply they agree with everything the Vatican says or does or that they automatically fall into line with its dictates.

The Vatican performs three roles: it is an expression of the unity of the faithful, the most important source of their leadership (understood in terms of providing a vision for the whole) and the church's central system of governance (issuing authoritative rules for its members and appointing senior personnel, including the bishops of local dioceses). Almost without exception, priests view the first two roles as essential, comparing the existence of the Vatican favourably with respect to other Christian denominations that lack this kind of central focus – most obviously the Anglican Communion. The Vatican, said one priest, is like the "bones" of a living thing, giving form and substance to the entire organism.

On the governance issue, however, many priests are far less enthusiastic in their appraisal of the Vatican's performance, particularly when it comes to its relationship with the church in Australia. Two-thirds of priests surveyed felt that the Vatican did not understand the challenges facing priests today (just under a quarter thought it did). A greater proportion still felt the Vatican often failed to understand the nature of the local church in this country. Well over half felt Vatican directives in recent years had sometimes restricted the contribution the church could make in Australia while almost as many thought the Vatican exercised too much control over the local church.

"The Roman Catholic church I have almost no time for any more," one West Australian priest said. "No time. I have to tolerate it as a few of us have to because it's a means to an end, but anything that's unjust or dishonest about it then I have no hesitation in speaking out about it."

A NSW priest wrote that he was disturbed by a Roman curia trying to drag the church back into the past. Describing the contemporary Vatican as a "bully-boy", he added: "I want no part of it." Another wrote that the community "is more important to me than the ecclesiastical system which, at the higher levels, is completely out of touch and too dismissive of the mass of Catholics".

A 53-year-old priest from NSW commented that "left alone, a parish could grow, but belonging to a church hinders rather than nurtures". A younger Queensland priest (47) wrote that the only thing he had ever wanted to be was a priest but "given the state of the church today, I look forward to the night when I go to sleep and just don't wake up again. I realise that this is depressive thinking and I do suffer from that ailment but the state of the church today makes it worse."

Some priests expressed the view that all Catholics should simply unite behind the Pope and not question Vatican directives, while some pointed out that the church was not – and was never intended to be – a democracy. A perception that the Vatican only listened to those who said things it wanted to hear was common. "Denial is an issue that confronts Roman bureaucracy," wrote one priest. "The local church should be heard by the Vatican," insisted another, implying that this was not the case.

THE Vatican's most comprehensive intervention in the affairs of the church in Australia occurred towards the end of 1998. In November, the seven metropolitan archbishops of Australia together with the chairman and secretaries of several national bishops' conference committees held a series of meetings with Vatican officials who exercised responsibility for Catholic doctrine, clergy, worship and the sacraments, bishops, religious orders and education.

A summary of their deliberations, known as the Statement of Conclusions, was circulated among all the Australian bishops who were in Rome at the time for the Synod for Oceania. In a hastily arranged consultation before a scheduled meeting with Pope John Paul, the bishops were asked to assent to the document – which all did, though some reluctantly – and it was made public as an official view of the state of the Catholic church in Australia and a blueprint for its immediate future.

The Statement of Conclusions praised many things about the church in Australia but also claimed to identify weaknesses in it that were the subject of the document's main concerns. Chief among these was a "crisis of faith" existing in Australia, stemming from the "tolerance characteristic of Australian society".

Priests and laity were warned that individual confession is the "sole ordinary means" by which one is reconciled with God and the bishops were told the Third Rite of Reconciliation (also known as communal confession), which had become popular in Australia, was "illegitimate" and had to be "eliminated".

After a meeting in Sydney in February 1999, 75 priests and religious brothers and sisters signed a letter to the bishops rejecting what they saw as the Vatican's "overwhelming negative estimation of Australian Catholicism". In their view the statement passed over complex moral and social problems that afflicted many Catholic families and ignored the "deep shame" of clerical sexual abuse.

By re-emphasising the individual nature of sin as distinct from structural injustice and immorality, the statement would make it difficult for the church to contribute to critical issues concerning national reconciliation, particularly between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians, the signatories to the letter argued. They also said the statement's call to eliminate the general use of communal confession would be a disaster and close off a "profound and transforming" experience in the life of the church.

ASKED, 10 years on, whether egalitarianism is the defining strength of Australian priests, almost half of those surveyed agreed it was, just over a quarter disagreed and almost the same proportion were undecided.

The Vatican has given no firm instructions on how Australian priests should be addressed or attired, yet both are obvious ways in which priests in other countries publicly affirm their particular identity and authority. But "standing out" from the crowd has little appeal among Australian priests.

"The Catholic Church has had to struggle to be where it's at in Australia," said one priest. "And we still have to struggle. We're not a religious country. We're different." It is precisely on the issue of distinctive dress, this priest added, that you can see the difference: "The Australian clergy dropped the clerical collar very quickly after Vatican II, whereas in other countries it's still used."

The larger issue – as with the Statement of Conclusions – is the degree to which priests feel the Vatican understands, and is sufficiently sensitive towards, the cultural characteristics of Catholicism in Australia. One priest was critical of what he saw as a tendency to inflate "our local identity at the expense of what we are part of – the universal church – and that our Australian identity is not more important than our Christian identity". But most were highly critical of the way they were perceived by the Vatican. The hierarchy in Rome, said another priest, seems at times oblivious to the fact that Australia is not a "Catholic country" and as a result "a lot of the realities that they experience are very different from . . . ours".

This is an edited extract from Our Fathers: What Australian Catholic Priests Really Think About Their Lives and Their Church, by Chris McGillion and John O'Carroll. Published March 25, John Garratt Publishing, $29.95.

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