I remember a time when my blog posts were exclusive to my blog. Those were the days when I had much more time to write. Those were the days before I was a priest!
Now that I am a priest, time is at a much greater premium. Anything I write will end up here, sooner or later. So here’s something I wrote today for an entirely different audience.
1. Why did you become a priest?
When I was nine or ten years old, I read The Story of a Soul, by St Thérèse of Lisieux. Thérèse taught me that God wants all of us to be saints, and she taught me how to be a saint. That conviction waxed and waned over the years, but it never left me.
When I finished school and moved out of home, I started going to the occasional weekday Mass as well as Sunday Mass, and soon I fell into a crowd of young Catholics who knew their faith – and knew Jesus Christ – much more deeply than I did. My resolution to pursue holiness was renewed. This had nothing to do with the priesthood though – it just meant falling in love with God, living a good life, and starting again whenever I fell away.
For a long time, I believed I could be a saint and be a husband and father and pursue a professional career. St Thomas More was an inspiring example. When I realised, through prayer, that God was calling me to be a priest I was shocked. This was not something that I wanted, but I knew this is what God wanted, so I signed up for the priesthood. God knows better than us what will make us happy.
2. Have there been many times that you have struggled with your faith?
My faith is shaken when I’m confronted with suffering.
About half way through my seminary training, a film was released in cinemas which related the crimes and cover-up of paedophile priests in America. My bishop saw it, and he recommended I watch it. So one Saturday evening, I went alone. (It’s not really the sort of movie you’d invite friends to watch.) I don’t cry at movies, but this time I did. At the end of the film, as people moved out of the cinema, I overheard a lot of derogatory remarks about priests and the Church. I walked back to the seminary, and sat alone in the chapel. I wasn’t really alone of course – I was sitting in front of the tabernacle. I asked myself why on earth I was giving my life to an institution which was capable of the evil I just watched on film. But I didn’t just ask myself questions – I asked Jesus a lot of questions too.
This is just one example. As a priest, I encounter people suffering in all sorts of different ways. This often challenges my faith, and I have to take it to prayer. If I don’t pray about it, it becomes an obstacle between me and Jesus. I become remote from him. This is my biggest struggle with faith. I think there’s symmetry in that. Goodness – especially the goodness of the saints – inspires my faith and nourishes it; evil and suffering challenge and even undermine my faith.
Two or three times in my life I have doubted the whole thing. “Maybe it’s all made up,” I suddenly think. “My whole life is a lie.” But this is a more superficial struggle. I keep praying and serving the Lord, and as suddenly as those doubts appeared, they just as suddenly disappear.
3. If you weren’t a priest what would you be?
Before I discerned a priestly vocation, I was pursuing a political career. Maybe I’d be working for a politician, or maybe I’d be in parliament myself. I’d probably be married by now, and maybe I’d have a few kids. I was very attached to these dreams once, but now they seem distant and unreal. I may as well imagine living 1,000 years in the future, or 1,000 years in the past.
4. Have you ever regretted being a priest?
When I realised God was calling me to be a priest, I grieved a lot. I had to bury my dreams of a career and family. The day I signed up for the seminary, I was very sad. I met the vocations director in his office, near St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, to start the application process. After our meeting I walked into the cathedral and knelt before our Lord in the tabernacle. I thanked him for the grace of my priestly vocation, but I asked another favour from him. “You’ve called me to be a priest. Now help me to love that calling.” At that time, I had no love for my calling at all.
Eight months later, I finally started my seminary training. By then, my prayers had been answered. God gave me a love for my vocation. In the ten years since, I have never regretted saying yes to God. I only regret those times when I have been less generous with him. It’s not enough just to say yes to God once. It has to be repeated every day, since our circumstances are always changing, and the implications of God’s will change too.
5. What has been your best moment as a priest?
The greatest days of my life were the day of my ordination and the day of my first Mass. That was the culmination of eight years study and discernment, and the beginning of my life as a priest.
On a more day-to-day level, I think my favourite moment of priestly life is hearing confessions. People suffer a lot, but they have so much faith in God, and they come to him with a humility and simplicity that moves me. In a sense, I’m an eavesdropper, listening in on a very personal encounter between God and one of his children. I learn so much from these encounters. I learn how to grow in humility; how to become more child-like. Very often, I find myself giving someone advice which must come from the Holy Spirit, because even as I’m saying it to someone else, I’m thinking, “This is good advice! I’ll follow it myself.” The Holy Spirit is a great teacher.
6. Is there any advice you could give to anyone thinking about becoming a priest?
Anyone contemplating a priestly vocation should first resolve to be a saint. A saint is someone who loves God more than they love themselves. This is what we’re created for, and God gives everyone the means to become a saint. The world needs saints.
Spend time with Jesus. Get to know him – by reading about him and thinking about him, but especially by talking to him.
Fall in love with God. That’s my advice.
Here’s something for Father’s Day! You might recognise the story from Facebook or one of those chain e-mails which makes the round, but in fact it predates the Internet by several millennia.
Here’s Aesop’s take, circa 500 BC:
A farmer being on the point of death, wished to be sure that his sons would give the same attention to his farm as he himself had given it. He called them to his bedside and said, “My sons, there is a great treasure hid in one of my vineyards.” The sons, after his death, took their spades and mattocks and carefully dug over every portion of their land. They found no treasure, but the vines repaid their labor by an extraordinary and superabundant crop.
And here’s the modern take, not so much a lesson on the fruits of hard work, as it is glurge about a father and son. But sometimes glurge is good — especially on Fathers’ Day!
Outside Da Box have just produced a great new video which really captures the existential angst that accompanies the serious end of discernment.
I was 23 before I was anywhere near ready to hear God’s call, so I was spared the double whammy of vocational angst and teenage angst. I think this is an accurate — and light-hearted — portrayal of what that looks like. But it also includes some serious and sound advice.
I also love the depiction of multimedia tasking. How true.
Sydney’s Catholic Weekly featured an article of mine this week, which I had entitled Fools and children speak the truth. The editor, who knows a lot more about attracting readers, changed the title to the above.
Ironically enough, the revised title was out of date the very day it was printed, since I shaved my beard yesterday. (I still have no intention of getting a girlfriend.)
Several months after ordination in 2011, I started my first permanent assignment just in time for the school year. My first official duty was to celebrate the Opening School Mass. Next day, the grade ones were invited to write a story about their weekend. One of the students wrote this:
“On Sunday, I went to church. I was running late. My dad and [my brother] came with me. I was very excited … We sang a song, then I listened to the boy who was talking.”
In the course of correcting her work, a teacher made some enquiries about this boy. Was he one of her classmates chatting during Mass? “No, I mean the boy up the front.”
You mean one of the altar servers? “No. The boy was dressed in Fr Paddy’s clothes.”
News travels fast in the country. By the end of that first week in the parish, the nickname had stuck. I was now ‘The Boy.’
I had also learned one of the most valuable lessons in life: “Fools and children speak the unvarnished truth.”
More recently, I had occasion to visit this student’s class — they’re grade threes by now — and speak to them about the Holy Spirit and the Church’s mission.
The lesson was formatted as an open Q&A, with me in the hot seat. I fielded many of the questions one expects in this situation: “Why did you want to be a priest?” “How long does it take to become a priest?” “Which footy team do you support?”
But there’s always a few curveballs lobbed in such circumstances, and one question especially struck me with its poignancy.
“Why are priests so kind?”
This question was asked by a nine year old who has encountered four priests in his life. There’s Fr Paddy, the parish priest; ‘old Fr John,’ who is a retired priest in residence; ‘young Fr John’ (otherwise known as ‘The Boy’); and Fr Mark,who is chaplain at the MSC secondary school next door. We three diocesans priests make every effort to be in the parish school every week, and the students frequent weekday masses.
So this child’s question — “why are priests so kind?” — was borne from the experience of priests who had only shown kindness to him, to the credit of those four priests I enumerated.
My own childhood view of priests was more complex. I esteemed the priests in my parish because I observed my parents listen attentively to them at Sunday Mass. But I admit I was dark on one priest: Fr George Pell.
Fr Pell was school chaplain when I was in grade prep, and I vividly remember a school mass at which he preached, and preached, and preached some more. Or so I thought at the time — a view I shared with my cousin, who was sitting next to me.
Unfortunately, our teacher caught me in the act, and not content with simply moving me some place else, she humiliated me some more back in the classroom, where I was singled out for bad behaviour. Being something of a goody-two-shoes (just ask my long-suffering brother!), I was not accustomed to such treatment. As hotly as my cheeks burned red, that incident burned into my memory. In my childish malevolence, I absolved myself and blamed Fr Pell’s loquaciousness for my humiliation.
Not long afterwards, Fr Pell was appointed rector of the seminary in Melbourne, so he ceased to be our school chaplain, and it was many years before I met him again. In the meantime though, he was denied any opportunity to demonstrate priestly kindness, so as a grade one at least, my view of priests was not as universally positive as this grade three’s.
Twenty-eight years later, none of this crossed my mind as I contemplated the question before me. “Why are priests so kind?” What did occur to me — and perhaps it occurred to every other adult in the room too — was the question’s correlative: “Why aren’t all priests kind?”
“A priest’s job,” I replied, “is to be just like Jesus Christ. Actually, that’s everyone’s job. We’re all called to be holy. God wants us all to be saints, and we do that by loving as Jesus loved. So if a priest is kind, he’s doing his job well. He’s acting just like Jesus, who was always kind.”
The grade threes and fours faithfully transcribed my answer, and apparently took it to heart. A few weeks later, I returned from my holidays sporting a beard.
The 3/4s whole-heartedly approved: “Jesus had a beard, and your job is to be just like Jesus, so you should keep the beard.”
The grade fives and sixes, however, who hadn’t had the benefit of my theological reflection, were more divided in their opinion of the beard. ‘Fools and children,’ you will remember, ‘speak the unvarnished truth.’ One grade five girl — who’s no fool (in all seriousness, she sometime startles me with her spiritual depth) — ventured her opinion.
“No offence Father John,” she said. No offence? I steeled myself.
“No offence Father John, but if you want to get a girlfriend, you have to shave the beard.”
Fools and children.
Adi Indra, a second year seminarian for the diocese of Sandhurst, has applied his considerable talents to the production of a short film promoting Corpus Christi College.
Having credited Adi, I don’t want to diminish the work of the priests and seminarians which collaborated with him. The result is an engaging and informative glimpse into seminary life.
One of the seminarians featured in the video is Rev Michael Romeo, whom Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson will ordain to the priesthood this Friday. Keep him especially in your prayers!
Dublin’s Archbishop Diarmuid Martin made news earlier this month for his remarks about a young priest wary of ‘the Francis Effect.’ His words as reported — and the response from Ireland’s Association of Catholic Priests — were, I think, justly criticised.
To be fair, I haven’t read the Archbishop’s speech in full. It seems to me that his broader point about ideology was a good one, but his example was imprudent. Be that as it may, when Archbishop Martin speaks, I listen. His 2011 address at the University of Cambridge related to the state of the Church in Ireland, but it is equally applicable to the Church in Australia.
More recently, he shared a compelling vision of what the Church can become in the wake of the clergy abuse scandal:
The Church must not just be transformed into a place where children are safe. It must also be transformed into a privileged place of healing for survivors. It must be transformed into a place where survivors, with all their reticence and with all their repeated anger towards the Church, can genuinely come to feel that the Church is a place where they will encounter healing.
Ireland co-hosted the 2014 Anglophone Conference in Rome, which brought together bishops from all over the world who shared best practice on how to respond to clerical abuse. I think Archbishop Martin’s introductory speech is worth reading in its entirety. Here’s another worthy extract:
The words of Jesus about leaving the ninety-nine to go out to find the one who is lost, refers also to our attitude to victims. To some it might seem less than prudent to think that the Church would go out of its way to seek out even more victims and survivors. There are those who say that that would only create more anguish and litigation and that it would be asking for trouble and would be more than a little ingenuous. The problem is that what Jesus says about leaving the ninety and going out after the one who is lost is in itself unreasonable and imprudent, but, like it or not, that it precisely what Jesus asks us to do.
Cardinal Burke arrived in Australia last night, and will attend several public functions during the next week.
Cardinal Burke, you probably already know, is Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, which makes him the Church’s chief canonist, after Pope Francis who is Supreme Legislator. In some ways, he could be likened to the Chief Justice of a nation’s highest court.
He is also a refreshingly outspoken prelate. You’ll never hear Cardinal Burke indulging in the beige and politically correct messaging that afflicts so many bishops. Just google “Cardinal Burke” if you doubt that.
He is primarily in Australia to address the World Congress of Families in Melbourne next Saturday. But as I said, he will also share his wisdom at several other functions in Sydney and Melbourne. I’ll meet him on Thursday, at an ACCC-sponsored event for priests.
Other notable events include:
- Benediction at St Mary’s Cathedral. Followed by drinks in the Cathedral Crypt. 5:30pm, Tuesday 16 August.
- Q & A at the University of Sydney. 12 noon, Wednesday 17 August.
- Pontifical Mass in the Extraordinary Form at St Mary’s Cathedral. 7pm, Wednesday 17 August.
- Theology at the Pub conversation at the Pumphouse Hotel in Melbourne. 6:30pm, Friday 20 August.
- Pontifical Mass & Confirmation in the Extraordinary Form at Bl John Henry Newman Parish, North Caulfield. 10:30am, Sunday 22 August.
For more information on the Cardinal and his visit, go to Oriens.