Eric Hodgens. On a Wing and a Prayer – A Personal Memoir.

Jun 24, 2014

As priests we were sent out on a mission to spread the Gospel and be pastors of the flock. But it was the secular world that formulated mission statements and pastoral care policies. We had the vocation, but it was the secular world that developed vocational training. We were good at the concepts – but slow at the application. The nuances of Scholastic theology weren’t much help once we got out. The seminary had initiated us into the clerical class but we had to learn our task on the fast track of self-help – launched on a wing and a prayer.

Charlie Mayne, our seminary rector, had convinced us that the lay apostolate was central to the future of the Church. Thanks to Gerry Dowling, my predecessor, the lay apostolate was thriving in the parish. This was an early step towards lay leadership in the Church.

Fast track learning involves reflection on the realities of life. I soon learned that this reflection was effective prayer. It produced change and growth. The seminary spiritual practices were habitual routines. Those who stuck to them religiously showed little growth.

The 60s brought the baby boom – and expanding schools. New schools needed new teachers. Enterprising priests like Fr. John F. Kelly led the move to Catholic Teachers Colleges. The laity responded, first assisting, then replacing, the nuns and brothers.

In 1968 three of us were appointed to study at Melbourne University and to be a “priestly presence” there. Fast track learning took another direction. For the first time I really studied scripture. The Word of God had very human origins. Myth was as powerful as Logos. Sociology, including demographics, taught me that you can predict outcomes which otherwise would be mystery or guesswork. Early into the 70s demographic statistics showed me the looming collapse of the priesthood.

Humanae Vitae, in 1969, became a watershed moment. Its impact on the priesthood was both immediate and slow burning. The wounding of papal authority also undermined clericalism. Laity left the Church. Priests left the priesthood. Seminary enrolment virtually stopped – not to recover. Nearly everyone recalibrated their views, firstly on sexual morality, then on the whole gamut of personal morality and Mass attendance.  Confession went into terminal decline. And the laity did this themselves, sidestepping appeals from clergy.

Taking charge of a parish in the early 70s brought new learning. Parishes must be led and managed. My generation had no business, accounting or management training. Back onto the fast track.

The response of parishioners was exhilarating. Post-Vatican II enthusiasm was at its peak. A new generation of more highly educated parishioners moved into pastoral action, and parish administration. Some studied theology and scripture; others became experts at liturgy and music. I learned that my job was to articulate the vision and enable the ministries of others, not to do it all myself. It was like St Paul’s little group in his epistle 1 Corinthians 12. Theirs were genuine ministries despite some clerical objection to the term. Clericalism continued to wane.

The 90s brought a new scenario. The routine pastoral work of the Church was in demand and appreciated by those who looked for it. But affiliation was relentlessly dropping. Gen X and Gen Y largely opted out. Meanwhile paedophilia by clergy was eroding clergy confidence. This became a bigger issue as episcopal cover-up also came into focus. Bigger names became commonplace in the narrative – e.g. Cardinal Law in the USA. Rome first suggested this was a USA problem. More cases came to light. Perhaps it was an English speaking problem. Then Fr. Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ and renowned money raiser was finally proved to be a drug user, abuser of his students and even his own illegitimate children. John Paul II accepted his gifts, made a public show of favouring him and protected him when the allegations were indisputable. This highlighted a world-wide pattern of crime and criminal cover-up going right to the top. Look at the Karadima case in Chile embroiling Cardinals Errazuriz, one of the pope’s Committee of Eight, and Ezzarti, his successor in Santiago. (See: tinyurl.com/n2m7p4f). Clerical pretentions started to look ridiculous as bishops lost their moral leadership.

As priests were dying out so was clericalism. The seminary exemplifies the polarisation. The clerical profession holds no attraction for the coming generation. Don’t blame celibacy; it is the clerical profession that is being rejected. It is 45 years since we had enrolment levels that could sustain the old clerical model. The clerical ethos and quaint devotion of the seminary appeal only to an odd minority. In practice church leadership is increasingly lay.

Clericalism is legally institutionalised by insisting that the pastoral, managerial and sacramental leadership must be in the hands of ordained priests. Already many parishes have non-ordained leaders who call on ordained people for Eucharistic and sacramental ministry. It is time to let the best leaders in their fields lead. Eucharistic and sacramental ministry – important as it is – then becomes one ministry amongst the others. This ministry could then be filled by men of good repute without clericalising them.

A new pope re-articulates the pastoral style of Vatican II. He wants to eliminate clericalism. Meanwhile a thoroughly clerical bureaucracy still jealously guards its privilege. The pope, too, is on a fast learning curve. We end as we began – still flying – but on a wing and a prayer.

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