Reflections on sixty years as a priest .

Jul 31, 2020

The more reflective component of the Church is crying out for imaginative leadership on the ministry crisis and institutional re-organisation. But episcopal conferences seem paralysed. 

Ordained in 1960 my major anniversaries synced with the decades. I published a Golden Anniversary Reflection in 2010.

It characterised the decades as:

· The awakening 60s;

· The exciting 70s:

· The suspicious 80s;

· The depressing 90s and

· The imploding noughties.

Now at my diamond anniversary I have added

· the Counter-intuitive Teens

This decade has been notable for unexpected disruptions and reversals both good and bad but all remarkable.

First there was the election of Pope Francis. This brought a reversal of the 45 years of Restorationist policy under JPII and Benedict. Francis brought a pastoral mind and style of conversation which broke the formal kabuki-style image of the papacy. People heard the Jesus message in story and image as Jesus told it. Francis wanted to replace a self-referential church with one that looked outward and dealt with reality as it is. His vision was to replace a juridical institution with a pastoral community of service. His way to get there was synodal – with everyone equally walking the Way together

This disrupted the whole Roman administration and the episcopacy around the world. They were the pope’s pretorian guard – but now, the pope wanted them to change tack. Some were delighted. More were alarmed. The culture wars had been going on for decades, but now the leaders of the right swung into action with passive and overt resistance. Francis, though less familiar with Vatican politics, was the experienced veteran of South American intrigue. He skilfully made progress against opposing winds and gradually built up his own team. The opposition continues but Francis, following his own mantras, is still ahead.

After years in pastoral leadership and administration, he had developed four rules of thumb:

  • Unity is more important than conflict.
  • The whole is more important than the part.
  • Time is more important than space – gently, gently.
  • Reality is more important than the idea.

He is not an ideologue. Pastoral experience has softened rigidity and dogmatism. He has no time for the hard right, nor for the hard left. Reality is more important than the idea. Restorationism is over.

A second reversal grew out of the long-simmering problem of child abuse by clergy and religious institutions. Priests and religious had been criminally abusing children and the Church institution had doggedly covered it up. That was old news, but this was the decade secular society decided the Church could not be trusted to clean itself up. Australia, Ireland and the USA were in the forefront. It was the secular state that was calling the Church to account. Post-enlightenment democracies paid greater respect to transparency and accountability than the Church. They, rightly, won the high moral ground.

The Church was shamed and its hierarchy deauthorised. Who can forget the picture of four bishops answering to the Royal Commission – all speechless bar one?

Who can forget Chile’s Fernando Karadima? Or Mexico’s Marciel Marcial? Or the film “Spotlight” and the Boston Globe’s expose of church corruption?

Who can forget one cardinal being defrocked while another cardinal became prisoner in the dock? Twelve well-instructed jurors were convinced he was guilty beyond reasonable doubt. The final appeal court judged that they should have had some doubt. But would those jurors be any the less convinced by that finding?

Rank and file Catholics reacted variously. Some left in disgust, others organised reform groups, others joined proxy resistance causes such as same-sex marriage.

Catholics started to have second thoughts about the Church during the baby boomer revolution starting in the 60s. Paul VI’s condemnation of contraception in 1968 was a turning point. It began the deauthorisation of papal and episcopal leadership. JPII’s insistence on conformity to his hard line – especially on sexuality – deepened the divide and set up the culture wars which persist today. Rejection of papal teaching showed in dropping Mass attendance. The next step was disaffiliation which went on relentlessly during the teens decade as attested by census data.

The arrival of growing secularization has made disaffiliation easy. Society in general is more relaxed and many formerly strictly observed “principles” look more like Victorian prissiness. Mere habits were often disguised as values.

Finally, the decade has ended with the disruption of a fearsome pandemic. Social distancing plays havoc with communal institutions. Participation patterns are fractured. Will they ever return? Some will, many won’t. It may not be the end, but the threat is there.

Meanwhile, as Francis confidently gives the lead, bishops are not to be seen. Synodality energises the pope but seems to hold no attraction for most bishops. Episcopal conferences appear limp when everyone knows they are divided and lack decisive leadership. They are not entirely to blame because conformity, not creative imagination, was a condition of episcopal selection under the Wojtyla/Ratzinger regime. The more reflective component of the Church is crying out for imaginative leadership on the ministry crisis and institutional re-organisation. But episcopal conferences seem paralysed. No imagination limits freedom to move.

Pastors tend to service their flock as best they can with depleted numbers in constricted circumstances. Some stalwart and sophisticated laity maintain hope because of their love of the community that believes and hopes in Jesus of Nazareth and the loving and merciful God whom Jesus calls “Father”. What shape will the phoenix rising from these ashes take in the coming Twenties?

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