Driven by his conviction that the Catholic Church needs a new social movement led by young people and centred on “humanity and its common home, earth”, Adelaide priest Fr Bob Wilkinson has documented his involvement in the Young Christian Workers (YCW) movement founded by Belgian priest Joseph Cardijn.
New Visions of Priesting, an interview with Bob Wilkinson, published by ATF Press, looks at the different ministries Fr Bob has had in his almost 70 years of being a priest, the common element of which has been working with lay people as they participate in the life of the Church.
The book was launched in September after editor Hilary Regan conducted a series of interviews with Fr Bob as part of the Cardijn Studies journal.
Some of the 89-year-old priest’s reflections, influenced by his background in sociology, reflect on what could be called the glory days of the 50s and 60s, a time when “being Catholic was like being Australian, for better or for worse”.
“You lived in that Catholic world, it was so strong,” he said in an interview with The Southern Cross.
“We weren’t a persecuted minority but we were still energised by overtones that we had been (persecuted) and that we were coming to the top.
“There was a great sense of solidarity, we’d reached the middle class through the Catholic schooling system and we were taking our place socially.”
But the former editor of The Southern Cross insists the book wasn’t motivated by nostalgia for the past, rather by the “precious lessons” to be learnt from the YCW, Young Catholic Students and other lay movements to which he was chaplain over many years.
In fact, he is all too aware of the realities of today, claiming the drop in church attendances dates back to the 70s but is only being faced up to by clergy and leaders now as the churchgoers on Sunday become the “departing end of the Church as we know it”.
Most importantly, he is concerned about the absence of young people.
“Denying the fact of youth abandoning Mass would seem wilfully negligent. ‘Absent from Mass’ is not everything in a person’s spirituality. Most young people still consider themselves spiritual, rather than religious. But having less than five per cent Catholic young at Mass calls for thinking beyond individuals. A social perspective is essential.”
Fr Bob acknowledges the temptation to despair but his mantra of “it’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness” helps him to see it as another “revival” moment in the life of the Church.
“My main point of the book, what encourages and preoccupies me, is the urgency of a global youth movement around ecology, the whole Catholic contribution to ecology and ecology’s contribution to the Church,” he said.
“I really think it’s on the scale of Catholic education, what Catholic schools were at the time of Mary MacKillop.
“A global youth movement to help save the planet is the crucial thing facing everybody.”
He stresses that it’s more than being ‘green’.
“At the centre of every green issue is the human issue and I think that’s where the Church is vital,” he explained.
“I think the great model for this is the Good Samaritan…the priests and the Levite on the way to the temple missed a half-dead man…I think we’ve got a half-dead planet and we are called to be the Good Samaritan.”
While the global YCW movement had its roots in the neglected working class of Europe, Fr Bob said this became more of a symbol than a key element of the “vigorous youth movement” in Australia.
“What YCW communicated most was Cardijn’s truth of faith that every person is special to God, with a contribution to give,” he said.
“Shining the light on people’s lives was the key thing – work, home and leisure. The young factory workers were a precious resource, a treasure of society and Church, not a problem. Like the 19 out of 20 young people not going to church in Australia.
“The Church has been presented to young people as an inward-looking organisation that does some outside good.
“The fact is that our destiny is inseparable to the destiny of those around us. This hasn’t been stressed enough. Once you see that the struggle is for humanity and our common home, questions of the Church will sort themselves out.”
This inextricable connection with the world mirrors his own “progress in the priesthood”.
“I used to see the work of the priest as helping Catholics to live their lives to get to heaven, to put it crudely,” he said.
“The rest of the world was thought of as a quarry to make Catholics out of. I very much now see the Church as standing with the world and having a vital contribution to make.
“The role of the priest is to animate people to take their part in that struggle.
“Cardijn didn’t start from massive action, he always started with ‘who are you and how are you’ at the factory gate, that interest in the life of people.”
Other topics covered in the book include the fallout from the Church’s position on birth control, the impact of Vatican II on the laity, the Vietnam War and Basic Ecclesial Communities.
While it is not a biography, there are fascinating insights into Fr Bob’s early life growing up in foster care after his parents broke up, meeting his father for the first time just hours before his death.
New Visions of Priesting, an interview with Bob Wilkinson is available from ATF Press (www.atfpress.com) for $24.95.
Jenny Brinkworth is the Editor of The Southern Cross and the Director of Catholic Communications in the Catholic Archdiocese of Adelaide.
Reproduced with permission from The Southern Cross, the news publication of the Catholic Archdiocese of Adelaide.