By Tony Abbott
August 18. 1987
Source: The Bulletin
I WAS AGHAST to realise that something within me, long sickening, had quietly died and felt as a husband might feel who, in the fourth year of his marriage, suddenly knew that he no longer had any de sire, or tenderness, or esteem for a once beloved wife; no pleasure in her company; no wish to please; no curiosity about anything she might ever do or say or think; no hope of setting things right, no self reproach for the disaster… I had played every scene in the domestic tragedy, had found the early tiffs become more frequent, the tears less affecting, the reconciliations less sweet, till they engendered a mood of aloofness and cool criticism and the growing conviction it was the loved one who was at fault. Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited
As the newly ordained priests left the chapel of St Patrick’s seminary, the congregation burst into spontaneous applause. The previous evening, at rugby training at Sydney University oval, my announcement that I was quitting priestly training drew an equally enthusiastic (if more ribald) response. Three years’ grinding struggle to meet the Church’s standard was over. But a dream had died, as well – the dream that I could join that splendored company founded by Christ which has angered, amazed and enthralled the world ever since.
Since school days I had wrestled with the idea of becoming a priest. Casually suggested by a Jesuit mentor the appalling thought was not to be denied, despite degrees in Economics and Law from Sydney University, tumultuous involvement in student politics and a Rhodes scholarship which encompassed studies in politics and philosophy, playing for Oxford against the 1981 Wallabies and two blues as a heavyweight boxer. I shared fully in the ordinary foibles of youth. But why should personal ambivalence, parental misgivings and peer incomprehension hinder God ‘s plan?
“St Patrick ‘s is not the place for you,” a senior priest told me. “What are we going to do with you?” asked another after consulting my educational background. ”You are about to experience the worst years of your life,” said a recently ordained acquaintance. What on Earth was I letting myself in for?
St Patrick’s is Australia’s oldest and largest seminary. It has trained most of NSW’s and many of Australia’s parochial clergy since 1889. These priests have generally lacked heroic asceticism, great scholarship or reforming zeal. But their human warmth, quirky administration and dogged devotion to an exhausting and often lonely ministry has justly earned the love of their people. For their many qualities, St Patrick’s must take credit. Yet the seminary, unlike its graduates, has never excited much warm feeling.
In Three Cheers for the Paraclete, Thomas Keneally sensationalised seminary life of the 1950s in a lurid tale of sexual maladjustment, mindless rules and exalted mediocrity. In 1967, 29 Sydney priests – many of them Keneally contemporaries – signed a statement which declared that seminary life destroyed “the flexibility and toughness needed to cope with the outside environment” and that many left the institution “mentally ill”. Greater openness to the world in the wake of the Second Vatican Council of the mid-60s has not silenced the critics despite the abolition of anachronistic bells, soutanes and lectures in Latin.
The then-president of St Patrick’s, Reverend Dr Grove Johnson, submitted a 28-page report to the Australian Bishops’ Conference in February 1984 in which he declared that “the over introverted and celibate life of the seminary” risked producing “loyal and devoted members of the clerical club … at the expense of truly human development” and warned that seminary life was often marked by “futility, aimlessness and abiding boredom”. Johnson gave me a copy of his report late in 1984. He was about to retire as president. I had just completed my first year as a student. He gave me the report, I think, as a gesture of solidarity and a sign of hope after I had told him that I would not wish the seminary on my worst enemy.
What was it that generated such loathing’! I missed the glittering company of Oxford and the student burly burly. But mostly l felt “had “by a seminary that so stressed ”empathy” with sinners and “dialogue” with the Church’s enemies that the priesthood seemed to have lost its point.
At St Patrick’s, academic “formation” involved gradual immersion in contemporary Catholic theology. On questions such as the meaning and significance of Christ, sexual ethics and social justice issues, most major theologians seemed to be at war with the Vatican. Some said that modern theology was a courageous attempt to drag the Church into the 20th century; others that it was a cover for theologians’ lack of faith.
It is the view, for instance, of Reverend Dr David Coffey — St Patrick’s best-known theologian — that the very fullness and perfection of Christ’s humanity constitutes his divinity. For Coffey, it is a helpful attempt to grasp the incomprehensible. But, for me, these ideas tended to inflame the allure of a world I had never wholeheartedly wanted to leave.
If the Vatican was correct, I reasoned, this was a dagger aimed at the heart of the faith. But what if the modernists were right? The attractive notion that splendid humanity constituted the imitation of Christ (a perversion, perhaps, of Coffey’s teaching) steadily undermined my less-than-enthusiastic acceptance of poverty, chastity, obedience and the predominantly sacramental character of priestly ministry.
The result of theological revisionism — however necessary — and of consequent role changes has been a great deal of religious navel-gazing. After debating the meaning of “ministry” long into the night, it was difficult next morning to be enthusiastic about actually visiting schools and hospitals.
At university, by contrast, the need to defend Catholicism in a hostile environment had led me to an extremely naturalistic defence of traditional beliefs and disciplines. Abortion was wrong, because it violated instinctive respect for life; contraception, because it was usually part of a “me now” mentality. The Mass was a chance quietly to restore one’s energies; confession enabled embarrassing problems to be discussed safely before they became crippling. It was a hard-headed, worldly faith ill-wed to the “softer” kind of Catholicism predominant at St Patrick’s.
In Johnson’s time, regular attendance at Mass and prayer, reasonable diligence in study and the avoidance of obvious trouble was taken to indicate satisfactory personal “formation”. He let people find themselves and resisted attempts to probe closely into their private natures, hopes and fears. He mistrusted the “total” seminary, whether “hard” — based on rules – or effete, based on the well-meaning but debilitating deliberations of committees.
In his report to the bishops’ conference, Johnson had commented that the attempt to avoid authoritarian management on the one hand and laissez faire on the other had resulted in “endless personal interviews, staff meetings, house meetings, class meetings, prayer meetings, homilies, etc… yet the result has not been commensurate with the effort expended”.
Nevertheless, at the beginning of 1985, new president the Reverend Doctor Gerry Iverson reinforced this approach with the employment of psychological techniques including the “Myers Briggs personality indicator” and the “Progoff intensive journal”.
A surge of optimism greeted Iverson’s arrival, but in the course of 1985, 22 seminarians — more than a quarter of the total — gave up their training. Iverson believed passionately in a partnership between seminary and student in which frank and open discussion, in an atmosphere of good will, invariably would produce agreement. Unfortunately, clashing views about the Church and priesthood and seminarians’ understandable desire to be “on-side” with the authorities come what may frustrated this noble — if somewhat naive — ideal. In addition, a “cooperative” style of management ran counter to the Church’s age-old hierarchical structure. It was a year of unusual unrest and, I must say, I was happy to fish in these troubled waters. Frustration and boredom found a specious justification in liberal ecclesiology and an outlet in a more “democratic” seminary.
Confident that he could secure cooperation, Iverson proposed alterations to the college chapel. He invited all “interested staff and students to join in a community discernment evening”. For me, the experience confirmed the fear that “Let us discern together” usually meant “Let’s come round to my point of view” and that “consultation” and “dialogue” amounted to a peculiarly long-winded and disingenuous form of control. This was most evident in a squabble which bubbled over from the previous year and involved a student mass meeting, a submission to the authorities, a staff-student committee of review and a series of letters between the student members and the authorities culminating in a meeting of staff and students. None of it seemed to make any difference.
On the surface, the argument — over students’ academic assessment — was not with the seminary but with its juridically separate teaching arm, the Catholic Institute of Sydney. In the short term, this meant that the seminary could blame the institute for student dissatisfaction. But the ability of the authorities, as it seemed, to invoke different sets of rules as they wished bred contempt for the entire system in the long term.
However, to give the authorities at St Patrick’s their due, they were trying to satisfy Rome, the local hierarchy, and the different aspirations within their own ranks, as well as students. They, too, were engaged in a paralysing merry-go-round of consultations with their superiors.
A more benign nature would have concluded at this point that he was in the presence of the ineluctable tragedy of the human condition, of men of good will raging impotently against each other. But I thought that there was something odious about a system in which each individual was treated like a child by his superiors and, in turn, treated his subordinates — if any — in the manner of a well-meaning but devious and manipulative parent. There was something sapping in a system which shrouded itself in flaccid jargon: “… maturing vision of our life together here… deeper awareness of our giftedness … enriching the whole canvas of seminary formation … deep optimism and joy which is the immediate fruit of our saying ‘yes’ to the God who calls”… etc. There was something disturbing, for all the real ambiguity of male sexuality under celibacy, in the ready acceptance of homosexual orientation. In a God-governed world, I thought — let alone in the Church — there had to be a better way. The system had to be changed.
Johnson’s paper had recommended that part of seminarians’ training occur in universities. At least, I thought, that would give trainee priests a real challenge. But, I came to believe, the Church’s purposes would be better served by ordaining world-proven men than by exposing untried boys to the vagaries of “formation”.
“Wait ’til you’re ordained,” older seminarians said, “then you can push these things.” “But then,” I replied, “I’d have no interest. And, besides, not to act is to be part of the problem rather than the solution.”
In July 1985,1 moved that a student meeting formally support the work of the bishops’ committee inquiring into the issues Johnson raised and request the participation of seminarians in the committee’s deliberations. This mild initiative aroused extraordinary nervousness. Notices were surreptitiously defaced.
The proposal eventually passed — shortly before the bishops’ committee was disbanded.
A little earlier, I had been appointed college infirmarian. This post was a legacy from quasi-monastic days and involved supervising the medicine cabinet and ensuring that the ill were not forgotten in their rooms.
But during winter, when up to 30 percent of the college would be down with “flu” at any one time, the infirmarian spent much of his day ferrying food and aspirin to the rooms of the sick. My view was that I knew nothing about medicine and that those too sick to eat in the dining room ought to be in hospital.
Anyway, I thought, most were malingering. So I encouraged “self-service” of medicines and suggested that meals would be better fetched by the friends of the sick. Many deeply resented this disdain for college’s caring and communitarian ethos. And, I confess, I did not have the courage to refuse room service to members of the seminary staff.
When a student paper was proposed, I wrote supporting more university education for future priests. The paper, as it happened, was never produced.
I wrote a story for the Catholic Weekly based on Johnson’s paper. The Weekly refused to run it. In response to a feature in the Northern Herald, which gave what I believe to be a simplistic view of St Patrick’s, I wrote denying that it was the difficulty of the course which caused a high dropout rate and suggested that the Herald focus on the “real reasons why people leave — which include ennui, psychosomatic illness and an unwillingness to conform to whatever model of the priesthood happens to be momentarily fashionable”.
At this point, Iverson and my episcopal superior, Edward Clancy, Archbishop of Sydney, lost patience. Iverson had asked me to see a psychologist to clarify whether the priesthood was what I really wanted. Then Iverson had asked me, along with others, to do a “pastoral year” living in a presbytery and working in a parish. After student concern that this amounted to a vote of no-confidence in those affected, he had amended his request to a suggestion. But my Northern Herald letter, the responsible authorities felt, confirmed my need for a stint in a parish and for professsional advice.
Some others shared my concerns and we comforted each other that it was really the seminary staff who needed psychological investigation. But it was seminarians who were exposed to psychological weighing of “suitability for ordination” and who had to grab for a goal upon which they had set their hearts and which the seminary authorities seemed to dangle before them like a ball on a string.
Once, we were given lumps of clay with which to model something individually significant. Then we were to tell the group what it meant. One of my fellow seminarians, who had just been asked to leave, let his model smash on the floor. “Rejected” was all he said.
The notebook I kept at the time reveals masochistic introspection of the “I should be happy to be despised and rejected for the sake of the Kingdom” type. Self-pity had not been a characteristic of mine and the realisation that I was floundering produced feelings close to despair.
In May last year, the psychologist reported that “without the warmth and trust of real intimacy” I would find “life in the celibate priesthood too frustrating and lacking in peace”.
Lack of sensual intimacy is something that priests have always had to handle. In my case, this had become a heavy burden because I was not naturally drawn to the life of the priesthood and because the modern Church — by minimising its mystique and spiritual elan — had eroded any other basis for its undertaking.
The seminary authorities were concerned at my continuing attachment to “worldly” things — rugby, Rostrum and friendships from school and university days. They were anxious to inhibit my writing on Church issues to prevent trouble with the Archbishop who was not only my epsicopal sponsor but also their immediate superior. But they did not seem to understand that, the more they played up lay ministry and ecumenism and played down the unique role of the priest in the one true Church, the more the struggle seemed pointless and the more I wanted to participate in worldly activities which were much more to my taste.
In February last year, I began pastoral duties at Emu Plains in Sydney’s far west. This involved teaching scripture in local schools, talking to parents who wanted their children baptised, helping to run the parish youth group and occasionally commenting on Sunday’s Gospel. None could ever bring themselves to refer to my talks as sermons. After one, a parishioner was overheard to remark: “That bloke ought to be a bloody politician!”
After some initial nervousness, I settled in well. It was a great privilege to immerse myself in the round of school and parish, as constant as the seasons, and to touch the joys and tribulations of those decent people who are the unseen pillars of the Church and the greatest glory of God.
But I found it difficult to believe that this was meant to be my life.
And the institutional Church could not be ignored. Archbishop Clancy had informed me that my re-admission would depend upon satisfactory completion of the pastoral year.
In July, he wrote that a change in the diocesan boundaries placed my parents’ home outside his jurisdiction. Therefore, I was no longer his seminarian. “May I suggest,” he wrote, “that you take the matter up with Bishop Murphy.” But Patrick Murphy, the new Bishop of Broken Bay — covering Sydney’s north — had other ideas. “Along with others,” he wrote, “I admire several qualities which you obviously have shown. However, there are some radical attitudes about Church and priesthood … which will have to be worked through before you would be accepted for the diocese or profit from seminary formation.”
Bede Heather, the new Bishop of Parramatta, eventually agreed to accept me as his student. But how was I to continue my training? My this preference was to live at Emu Plains and to study theology at Sydney University. Alternatively, I wanted to study at St Patrick’s on a part-time or quasi-correspondence basis.
Heather offered a return to St Patrick’s on a full-time live-in basis or studies at the Marist seminary at Hunters Hill and residence at another presbytery within the diocese. By the Church’s lights, it was a generous and radical proposal. But I think I had subconsciously stipulated that the Church needed to forget the usual considerations of prudent caution and simply agree, just once, to what I wanted. I think I knew then that I would never make a priest.
When I finally quit, on March 27, no one seemed surprised.
Looking back, it seems that I was seeking a spiritual and human excellence to which the Church is no longer sure she aspires. My feeble attempts to recall her to her duty — as I saw it — betrayed a fathomless disappointment at the collapse of a cherished ideal. The same sense of boundless human potential, of man soaring to God’s right hand, which led me toward the priesthood led me away in the end.
Perhaps it was a vainglorious and impossible dream — certainly one mocked too often by reality. But I remain deeply convinced that without some sense of bravura, of being larger than life, no amount of theological radicalism or conservatism can sustain the priesthood and the Church.
If this were simply the story of how one man discovered his unsuitability for the priesthood, it would be something of an indulgence — a curiosity to some, perhaps, a warning to others. But if it truly raises questions of the nature and value of seminary training, then it must concern all who love the Church or the spiritual values of which she is the champion.
This is not a story which reflects much credit on its protagonists.
On my part, it is a tale of impatience and a rather hubristic yearning for something bolder and braver than the life of the parochial Church. The seminary, for its part, lacked imagination and virility. But, if I discovered much to regret in myself as I grew to detest St Patrick’s, I never entirely lost faith in the Church. It is because I desire that her mission be more successful that I want her to face the truth.
If I have seriously misunderstood the reality of St Patrick’s, let that be explained. If St Patrick’s does represent the coming Church, let that be plainly stated. But if St Patrick’s is simply the best that the Church can provide at the moment let that be squarely faced so that something better may promptly take its place.
Source: The Bulletin, August 18. 1987