‘The bell tolls for Pell and the church I knew’

Jan 23, 2023
Young Priest praying with rosery in his hands

As some gather to honour the passing of Cardinal George Pell, I lament what the Church has become under clerics like him. When I was a priest (1975-1980), the Church had a credible voice, and priests were respected as pastoral leaders. With some hope for the future, my feelings lately are of sadness.

The recent gushing adulation of Cardinal Pell in the Murdoch press bears testimony to a different Church. Pell is praised as a martyr for being incarcerated, while the red ribbons that victims and their supporters have placed on the fences around St Mary’s Cathedral are being removed. It’s business as usual – deny, suppress, ignore. Sad and predictable.

Pell and his sympathisers decry a synodal Church, and espouse a hierarchical Church. Pell has been outed as Demos, the author of an anonymous memo highly critical of Pope Francis whom he accuses of being ‘disastrous’. Pell’s true colours as a cleric are evident, and for those who have known him, have long been on display. The memo is all about ‘restoring’ the Church to its traditional past. For Pell, the Church is militant on the way to being triumphant.

A Priest in a Synodal Church

We were not trained as clerics. We were expected to be priests, that is, pastoral leaders. I wore formal clerical garb only at official ceremonies. Mostly, I wore ‘civvies’ with small crosses on the collars of a white shirt. Apart from baptisms, weddings and funerals in a Church building, I celebrated home Masses and officiated at park weddings.

During my (albeit short) 5 years as a priest, apart from sacramental duties, I was running youth, golf, tennis, squash, and guitar groups. I was about to establish a judo club when I had gained my brown belt, and could find a wealthy benefactor to donate a dojo. I was dining three nights a week with parishioners – I usually brought a 6 pack of beer or a tub of ice-cream.

We were called ‘Microwave’ priests: when we got home from visiting hospitals, we’d heat up a ‘Lean Cuisine’ meal for one.

Pastors are not better than the people: they are closely involved in the local community. As Pope Francis said, pastors know how to ‘be shepherds living with the smell of the sheep’.

A Cleric in a Hierarchical Church

Clericalism is a false and sycophantic esteem for clergy. Pope Francis has decried clericalism as an ‘ugly perversion’, and it ‘takes root when priests seek comfort instead of the people’. He has insisted that ‘laypersons are not our peons [low-ranking day labourers]’.

A cleric expects the best and to be treated as special. A cleric wears the ‘dog’ collar, even on holidays and days off. A cleric enrols for post-graduate studies at University as ‘Father’. A cleric has overseas holidays, has a great wine cellar, dines at expensive restaurants, has the latest electrical appliances in the presbytery, never visits parishioners, doesn’t know them by their first names, and never stays around long enough to talk with them after Mass.

These were called ‘Widescreen TV’ priests – they rarely left their presbytery, except to say Mass.

In some non-Australian cultures, the cleric even has a maid, a driver, and their own mothers must refer to their ordained sons as ‘Father’. Any wonder some priests feel elite and special, and clericalism has become so entrenched in Catholic countries.

I understand and accept that the High Court acquitted Pell, and that he has unfortunately become a ‘lightning rod’ for those sexually abused by paedophile clergy and for those whose plight has been ignored by many Bishops. However, Pell and his like represent a clerical, hierarchical, patriarchal, and authoritarian Church.

Francis represents a pastoral, synodal, collegiate and consultative Church – one that I knew as a priest/pastor.

The Church as the People of God

Until the Bishops accept that we, ‘the laity’, are equals as ‘the people of God’, nothing will ever change.

Many older Catholics are disillusioned and disenchanted, while a few of us retain some residual engagement.

Among my ex-priest colleagues, most of our adult children have stopped ‘practicing their faith’ long ago.

Even if we send our children to Catholic schools, once they reach adulthood, most of them don’t stay or come back ‘to the Church’.

Some of them have asked us, their parents, why we remain in a toxic institution when they wouldn’t tolerate such a culture in their own workplaces.

The Way Ahead for a Revitalised Church

For me, the Jesus story remains current and powerful, even if the Church as a pathway towards spiritual enlightenment has diminished. I subscribe to Father Bob Maguire’s colourful metaphor that Jesus is God’s ‘app’.

Unless the ‘People of God’ attend to the cultural issues of secrecy, exceptionalism, hierarchy, and clericalism, there will continue to be reduced membership, reluctant engagement, and few vocations.

Bring back the ‘pastors’. Retire the ‘clerics’. Ordain women. Allow male priests to marry if they choose. Ask for help – now that’s a thought.

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