Bishop Vincent Long OFM Conv, Bishop of Parramatta – Address at the Manly Reunion Gathering at DOOLEYS Lidcombe Catholic Club, Lidcombe, 30 August 2017
THE PRIESTHOOD IN AUSTRALIA
Reflections on its future in the light of the Royal Commission
PART 1: INTRODUCTION
Thank you for this opportunity to share with you some of my reflections on the future of the priesthood in Australia. I am conscious that I am a kind of Johnny-come-lately rather than a native born Australian and that many of you here have a breadth of pastoral experience far richer and deeper than mine. Nor do I claim to have better knowlege of this subject. For I am yet to feel any ontological advantage of my episcopacy (!).
There is a story about a black preacher who came back to his poor Afro-American neighbourhood church after earning a degree at Harvard. He tries to show off his newly acquired knowledge by using very sophisticated language. He begins by saying: “Brothers and sisters, I sense in this congregation a certain existential angst”. The people nod their heads partly in approval and partly in bewilderment. “Right on, brother” they mutter. Then he continues: “I see this is caused by a deep seated phenomenological challenge”. “Talk about it” they urge him. So he goes on “And at the bottom of this there is an eschatological depression”. At this point, an old lady at the back gets up and shouts: “Reverend honey! You’d better put those damned cookies on the lower shelf”.
Well, you won’t have to reach for my cookies. I just hope they are worth sharing. Thus, I offer my reflections mindful of my limitations and hopeful of your enrichment.
What a strange time we Catholic clergy are living in! On the one hand, we know we are in a big mess. We are up the proverbial creek without the paddle. We bear the brunt of public anger and distrust in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis. It is one of the hardest times to be a priest. Yet paradoxically, it is also one of the most exciting times that we, as ministers and messengers of the Gospel, are privileged to live and to make it known to others. It is precisely in this Kairos that we are given the unique opportunity to accompany our people in a spiritual exodus that I believe will lead to a new dawn for the church.
When Pope Francis appeared on the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome after the conclave, it came as a shock and a welcome sign to us. He eschewed the usual trappings; he introduced himself as “bishop of Rome” and – surprisingly or prophetically – he bowed and asked the people for their blessing. The image of the Pope bowing in silence before the euphoric, then hushed, crowd at St Peter’s Square was truly the prophetic sign of the century! It signalled not just a new papal style but a whole new era for the church. With that humble gesture, the Pope exemplified a model of ministry which would correspond with the signs of the times, the needs of the people and the creative power of the Spirit. It signalled that the time had come to set aside old wineskins and reach for new. Pope Francis would later say that we are not simply living in an era of change but in a change of era.
By this, I think, he means we cannot go on the way we have, because the ground under our feet has shifted. There needs to be an attitudinal change at every level, a conversion of mind and heart that conforms us to the spirit of the Gospel, a new wine in new wineskins, not a merely cosmetic change or worse a retreat into restorationism.
Part 2 will be published tomorrow.