I am being challenged to consider and discern why I remain a Catholic in a Church whose membership is declining and ageing;whose clergy are decreasing in numbers and ageing,where many Catholics, particularly our children, are no longer attending Mass and accessing the Sacraments.Where do we go from here?
I am 71 years of age,a “baby boomer”, baptised in to the Catholic Church as an infant, who experienced Catholic education as a boarder for a decade from 1955 until 1965. I grew up through the years of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). The Church that I attended was a strict, rule driven,moralistic, monolithic organization. The clergy, in particular the hierarchy, mostly of Irish heritage were placed on pedestals.They could do no wrong as they, by ordination had a special connection with the Divine.It was insidious Clericalism.
Religious Instruction was by ‘rote learning’ .’Textbooks’ where the Green and Brown Catechisms, whose questions and responses were memorised. Nuns and Brothers ran the Catholic Schools.I left school after passing the N.S.W. School Certificate.My Faith was ritualistic, following “rules” and avoiding ‘occasions of sin’. The great changes of Vatican II had little impact in Australia congregations apart from the Mass now being said in the vernacular (English). The Altar was brought forward in the Sanctuary with the Priest now facing the people.
I worked in the public service and was conscripted and saw service in Vietnam, ( 1970-71) . Its impact on my life saw me decide to attend University .I graduated with a B.A. Dip. Ed. in 1981.
University life marked a turning point in my faith and a time of questioning. The Chaplain Peter Durning OP, was a very progressive cleric in the reformist spirit of Vatican II.He allowed us to read the first reading, distribute Holy Communion and receive the sacrament under both kinds ( bread and wine). None of these reforms were implemented in the Australian Church until decades later.
Teaching in Secondary Catholic Colleges followed. Religious Education in 1982 when I commenced my career was ‘fly by the seat of your pants’. There was no formal curriculum at my school until 1985.Many students, taught by inadequately trained lay teachers, left school with a minimal understanding of the faith. Seeing the problem, I enrolled in a Graduate Diploma (Religious Education) with the Australian Catholic University. I learnt of the great changes decreed by Vatican II. I wondered why the Australian Church still living in a Pre Vatican II world.Gradually I realised that the old ‘rules’ based model of my youth was irrelevant,an “informed conscience” was now our guide.
A Survey I conducted, of R.E. Teachers in the Canberra Catholic secondary schools, vindicated the work done by Brother Marcellan Flynn,FMS on Religious Education in Catholic Schools. Many students were not attending Sunday Mass, as their parents did not lead by example. Teachers complained of lack of example and commitment to the religious ethos of the school by other teachers. The findings led me to think why the huge expenses on Catholic Education?
After service related ill heath ended my teaching career, I moved to Pastoral work with a Far North Queensland Parish as the lay pastoral assistant to a 78 year old Parish Priest. Now I witnessed at first hand, the immense issues facing the Church.He had to minister to a large parish, indeed an amalgamation of three former parishes and two parish primary and one secondary school. The students were fortunate if they had one Mass a term, which for most was their only contact with the Parish. Most parents were ‘Nominal ‘Catholics who only came to Baptisms,First Communions Confirmations or Funerals.I used to wonder why the cost of running schools if we were losing more Catholics from the faith.After all the early Australian Church fathers, against great odds, had founded them for this purpose
The first inkling of scandal over the sexual abuse by Catholic clergy and its coverup, surfaced during my tenure in Far North Queensland. Shock, disbelief, dismay and hurt were the main emotions I felt.The subsequent Royal Commission revealed the extent of the problem for all to see. After a year away from family, the Parish Priest explained to me that while celibacy was part of the job for him, it was not for me, so I should return home to my wife . I did. I strongly endorse that offending paedophile clergy should be liacized, and subject to the Law of the Land .Superiors guilty of “cover up” should also be prosecuted and removed from Office.Secrecy must end.
While I have now retired from paid work with the Catholic Church, I continue in lay ministry as an Acolyte, to which I was admitted in 1984. Faith wise, I find great joy and solace in serving on the Sanctuary at Mass, the distribution of Holy Communion to the faithful and the visiting the sick and dying to give them Holy Communion. The sadness of loss is compensated by the joys, peace and love so evident in the families I visit.
How do I see the changes needed in the light of discussions, meetings and reading of commentary by other more informed authors ?
The leadership of the Australian Church must listen to the calls of the Faithful’s discernment under the guidance of the Holy Spirit; sensus fidei fidelium.
The Vatican should retain authority on questions of faith and morals for conformity in the Universal Church by a collegeal agreement of all Bishops.
Decisions involving local culture as reflects language translations and liturgical ceremonies, conversant with local tradition and customs should be delegated to local churches.
Bishops should be required to call regular diocesan Synods to listen to discernment in the Spirit, of the “sheep” ( their “flock”).
Bishops , Parish Pastoral leaders, lay and clerical, should be nominated from within their local community of the Faithful.
Rome should cease the direct appointment of the hierarchy, instead it should be by nomination from the local Church of suitable local candidates.
Cardinals should be nominated by the local Australian Church with confirmation by the Vatican.
We have the issue of a shortage of clergy and lack of vocations.Importation of foreign priests is not the answer, as due to lack of inculturation, isolation and loneliness, they can experience many problems .We should invite married priests back to ministry if they are able and willing.Suitable married mature men should be ordained to the Diaconate and Priesthood.Ordination of suitable mature Women to the Diaconate and Priesthood, if desired by the community should follow in due course.There is no scriptural reason or tradition barring them.
Jesus welcomed sinners into His company, yet we exclude many from the Table of the Lord because of alleged violations of “Cannon Law”. The Church should welcome with open arms to the Sacraments, divorced and remarried Catholics, same sex couples, gays and lesbians. Since when has the Clergy(and some ‘pious’, judgemental Catholics) had the right to pass judgement on these poor souls?. Jesus did not condemn the women taken in Adultery , nor should we.
I have to acknowledge the love,support and deep faith of my wife of 38 years, Esther who,as a teacher of RE , is a learned sounding board on religious issues.It is recorded that a successful man owes much to his mother and his wife, I owe both a debt of gratitude that can not be paid.
Finally in the evening of life, why do I remain a Catholic?
When God asks me; “How have you cared for my creation?”. I hope to be able to answer with a truthful heart;
“Lord , I have with your help, done my best.”
I will remain, with God’s assistance a practising, searching, questioning Catholic until my last breath!
Gavin A. O’Brien.
Gavin O’Brien is a parishioner of Corpus Christi Parish, Canberra. A retired Secondary School Teacher, who spent much of his career in Catholic Education.He holds a Masters of Arts (Theology) from the Australian Catholic University. Since retirement from teaching, he held roles as a Parish Coordinator of Liturgical Ministries in the Townsville Diocese, Secretary to the Burdekin Confraternity of Priests, Secretary to the BCLA, Ayr Qld.
He continues in his role as an Acolyte in the Archdiocese of Canberra Goulburn in his parish. He will complete 37 years of Ministry in August 2020.