Information Bulletin 93

June 2010 (No. 93)

This information bulletin is available in PDF format: 201006.pdf

Dear Brothers in Ministry

There are probably few people in Australia who know our Australian priests like Elisabeth Cowie. For twenty-five years Lis cared for priests, first at the St Peter Centre in Canberra from 1981, then working for the Ministry to Priests Program—in both enterprises with Fr John Ryan; then more recently, since 1992, for the Office for Clergy Life and Ministry with its three Directors. In 2006, Lis was awarded the Cross Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice by Pope Benedict XVI for her outstanding dedication and care for the priest of Australia over 25 years. She continues to relate to so many of us today.

This month, Lis was asked to address the Directors of Clergy Life and Ministry from all over Australia, reflecting on her experience of priests over the past 30 years. Her heart sank at the request, she said. And yet, she went on to give a most moving, inspirational, and graced presentation about us and our lives as priests. Much of it is contained in this Bulletin.

"Those of you who know me well," she said, "know I am no speaker. But I guess if there is anything that touches my heart and captures my thinking it's the lives, and the struggles of the priests in Australia, so the truth is I'm delighted to have this opportunity to look back over the past 30 odd years."

Lis paid tribute to a handful of names - bishops and priest she recalls so vividly. But here is her wisdom and her grace-filled reflections on the priesthood we all share.

With personal best wishes,
Frank Devoy, 

Lis Cowie's Address on the Priesthood

When Frank first asked me to come to this meeting I was really excited at the thought of seeing everyone again but when he said he wanted me to reflect on my experience of priests over the past 30 years, my heart sank. As those of you who know me well know, I'm no speaker. But I guess if there is anything that touches my heart and captures my thinking it's the lives, and the struggles of the priests in Australia, so the truth is I'm delighted to have this opportunity to look back over the past 30 odd years with you all.

You know, I really thought I was becoming a bit obsessive about priests at one stage when I went to a funeral and spent all my time looking at the priests on the altar and trying to work out who I knew. I knew most of them, in fact it was the last time I saw John Leahy - he died a few months after that. As most of you know he was the Diocesan Director for Sandhurst for many years.

However, this is a really good time to think back over the past because its 25 years since the Ministry to Priests Program began in Australia in 1985, and just under 30 years since St Peter Centre started in Canberra. In 1979-1980 I had been at the Centre for Spirituality in Randwick, but it was when I came to Canberra with John Ryan at the beginning of 1981 that my introduction to the priesthood began firstly at St Peter Centre from 1981 – 1985, then with the MPP from 1985 – 1993 when the Commission for Continuing Education of Priests, as it was called then, was started by the Bishops.

When I think back they were heady and exciting days. In those days the Diocesan Director for Perth was a Father Justin Bianchini followed by Fr Don Sproxton. The Diocesan Director for Broken Bay was a Father Michael Malone and the Diocesan Director for Brisbane following the lovely Fr Joe McGeehan was a Fr Brian Heenan. Two who regularly represented their dioceses but weren't appointed as Diocesan Directors, were Bishop Pat Power and Bishop David Cremin. I also remember a Fr Bill Morris attending the St Peter Centre, as did Fr Brian Heenan although that was after I had left.

When I drift back in time to the St Peter Days, one of the highlights for me was meeting, getting to know and becoming very fond of Fr Charlie Mayne who had been the rector of the Seminary at Werribee when John Ryan was in the seminary. He came as an assistant to John for the four years that we were there. Given that John is now 74, there may not be too many Victorians here who remember him now!

I remember with great fondness the bishops and priests whom I've met over the years. I remember discussing cricket with then Archbishop Clancy. I remember Bishop Ron Mulkearns and Archbishop Carroll who stayed with us many times, as well as the many parish priests, most of whom are still faithfully labouring "at the coal face". I can't help but recall John McKinnon, Mick Fitzpatrick, Bill Mills, Paul McCabe, Joe McGeehan, and Ross O'Brien, but I need stop there or I'll still be here next week! They are all wonderful men.

It has been a joy to me that out of St Peter Centre and the Ministry to Priests Program there came Seminary Rectors, Vicars General and a National Director for Clergy Life and Ministry. There were also a few who have been detained at Her Majesty's pleasure, and those who have sadly died and gone to be the Lord, and some who have lost their way – some for short time, some for longer.

However, whatever about the heights or depths that different ones reached, what have I learnt about priests over the years?

Firstly, I don't believe any man entered the priesthood with anything other than the highest of motives; with a deep desire to serve God, to be a good priest for the Church, and to be of service to the People of God, and somehow that call is always there.

I've learnt from experience that priests don't talk about such things freely and I think it's a pity that at times you don't go back and bathe in the memories, the experiences, that led you to become a priest and that are very much a part of your walk with God.

I remember being out to dinner one night and meeting a fairly young priest who had been a journalist and who had played cricket at fairly high level – he had played for an English county but I can't remember now which one. Now he has a passion for the poor, in particular the mentally ill who are homeless. I remember looking at him with wonder and saying, "So, Peter, why did you become a priest?" He looked taken aback and muttered something about "deep questions" and didn't answer it.

I really think it helps to look back at that time and remember the circumstances around your "call" to the ministry. Most, it seems to me, can remember a time when they knew they wanted to be a priest – they can point to a specific time or place when the "call" to priesthood became crystal clear. For others maybe, it was a more an unfolding of a desire to be a priest over time. However you came to it, I don't believe any of you drifted into priesthood but if you did, you wouldn't have stayed as long as you have because drifting into a vocation doesn't sustain you for the long haul.

Having said that, no matter how strong or otherwise that "call" might have been, it hasn't made you immune from the struggles and disappointments you have faced over the years, which I suspect include the discouragement that comes from the fact that:

  • There are fewer and fewer practising Catholics, and most who do have grey hair.
  • There are fewer and fewer priests and the ones coming through the seminaries are often a cause for concern.
  • As a result, your work load is increasing so that many of you have 2, 3, 4 and more parishes to look after or amalgamate.
  • Finally, I guarantee none of you realised what you were taking on when you embraced the celibacy rule! I'm sure none of you expected to fall in love or long for the intimacy that comes with that. Nor did you anticipate the loneliness that comes with a celibate lifestyle, especially these days when celibacy is appreciated less and supported less.

Although there always seems to be great camaraderie when a group of priests get together, I suspect again there is still an ache in the heart and an aching to belong that often goes unfulfilled.

In spite of all this, I never cease to be amazed at the qualities I see in priests.

You have an ability to put yourselves aside and go out to meet the needs of the person in front of you. I've seen priests under a great personal load, respond to a call as if the other person is the only person in the world.

The mere fact that you are here today points to a faithfulness and resilience and patient fidelity that is remarkable. I know you have withstood a lot of, what have been for you, distressing situations, but you have kept going.

You also have an ability to mix with people from all walks of life.

I always remember one priest friend of mine attending a family gathering of, interestingly, another priest. In the family there was a mentally handicapped boy. No one went near him – he sat on his own to the side but my friend made a point of sitting with him and talking to him. Maybe the others were like me and just awkward. Whatever it was, I never forgot that.

People remember little things you do that may mean nothing to you. There was a girl in our office who was on a gluten-free diet and who couldn't eat the normal biscuits we used to have for morning tea. One day Brian Lucas went out and bought some gluten-free biscuits just for her. I always remember her saying to me, "He's so kind". He's probably forgotten all about it but I guarantee she will never forget that.

People never forget the priest that married them. They always remember your visits to the needy, the lonely the sick and the dying. They might have been a chore for you at the time but they meant so much to them – they will love you forever as they remember how "Fr visited Mum when she was dying". It's as if you are the face of Christ to them.

By your very presence, because of your ordination, you can be a sacrament of life to everyone you meet and it's that very reality (the sacrament of your life) that is so important for your formal sacramental ministry. I know all of us, by virtue of baptism, are to be life to all we meet, but your special charism because of your ordination, makes your gift especially effective.

You bring a God-dimension into people's lives that people are hungry for and so appreciate. It's not like anybody does it – it's as if your charism – your grace – makes way for you and touches lives in a very special way. You have all done that and continue to do it.

When I was trying to put this talk together I asked Kim Davis (she is the ES to the BCCM) who is in the office next to me at work, if she was asked to say something encouraging to a group of priests, what would she say. She said, the way they bring the religious dimension into all aspect of life, and hold them together for us.

She went on to explain that one of her Council members, Jo, had recently lost her mother. About a fortnight after, they had a meeting in Canberra. During Mass the first morning Bishop Malone had woven into the Mass Jo's mother and her life and the grieving family in such a way that profoundly affected at least Kim. I wasn't there but I remember Kim telling me at the time how wonderful it was. She called it bringing the secular and spiritual together. I would probably call it, bringing God into our everyday lives.

I often take phone calls at the Secretariat from someone saying, "Fr X married us 25 or 50 years ago or baptised my baby or married my daughter etc. He was so kind and we would love to see him again. Can you tell me where he is now?" I remember one call in particular.

A woman wanted to find an Irish priest who, she said, had been like a member of her family years before when her children were growing up. Then she and her husband had moved away from the area but they still exchanged Christmas cards every year. Last year she hadn't heard from him and now she was desperate to find him again. I had to tell her that he had died in Ireland at the end of last year. She was so upset. I managed to track down a video of his funeral and sent that to her. I hope it brought her some comfort.

In spite of all the discouragements that could assail you these days, you are priests, called by God, and you gave your life to Him when you lay on the cold marble floor of the Cathedral or Church the day you were ordained. He didn't call you, ordain you, and then leave you to struggle alone. In all my years of knowing priests around the country the ones who survive the best seem to be the ones who have embraced Jesus as their friend. I know, I know he doesn't play cards and He doesn't have skin on!! But He is with you always, He knows every difficulty you are facing and He loves you deeply and nothing you can do will change that. Eventually we will all have to give an account of our lives and it will be before the Lord Himself so it makes sense to me to cultivate friendship with Him while we can. After all, He is the Pearl of Great Price.

Did any of you see the ABC program on Fr Des Reid, the priest in the West at Port Hedland, I think. He was an alcoholic and had been through tough times. I always remember Andrew Denton asking him how he had survived it all. He just smiled, pointed up and said, "He is my best friend".

At this stage of my life, I've met a lot of people but priests I have known are among the most impressive I've ever met – they include great men known for their humility, and humble men who have greatness stamped all over them.

When I received the Papal award at the end of 2006, which was a great honour, completely unexpected and which took some months to come to terms with, I remember saying to the group who were there—all priests except for one other woman, that I saw them as princes among men and that my great privilege and joy in life was to know them and work with them, and I say the same to you all here. Sure, you are all card-carrying members of the human race and have your struggles and hang-ups and eccentricities, mid-life crises, like everyone, but your dedication, your commitment to God and His people is so admirable, so humbling that I thank God for His goodness in allowing me to have a part in your lives.

You have earned our gratitude and love. You deserve our ongoing support, encouragement and forgiveness at all times, and I ask you to forgive us when we haven't done that for you. Thank you and may God bless you and your brother priests and keep you close to His heart.

Over the past few years, Commonweal has published a number of articles, editorials, and letters to the editor that comment on the new generation of priests and seminarians. Unfortunately, most of the comments have not been very encouraging.

My generation of the 1990s

My generation has been described as intellectually second-rate, theologically deficient, arrogant, blindly loyal to Rome, authoritarian, and out of touch with the laity. If these descriptions are accurate, the future of the priesthood looks bleak indeed. On the other side of the ideological fence, conservative journals and blogs praise the same generation of priests and seminarians for their orthodoxy, courage, fidelity, zeal, and pastoral charity. These observers joyfully predict that the new generation of priests and seminarians will restore what has been lost since the Second Vatican Council and reinvigorate the church through strong and determined leadership.

So which is it? Are we part of the problem or part of the solution? That all depends on what one expects us to be.

More in common; both generations "rebelled"

I think it is discouraging to many older priests that we aren't more like them, but we have more in common with them than one might think. It is true that we often read different authors, pray in different styles, have different heroes, and emphasize different doctrines, but we celebrate the same sacraments, preach the same gospel, and share the same priesthood. It is also true that both my generation and theirs rebelled against a previous generation. Perhaps "rebelled" is too strong a word, but both generations did want to improve, by reformation and restoration, the weaknesses we inherited in order to serve better the people of God.

  • Created: 01 June 2010
  • Modified: 23 February 2012