The priest a diminishing figure
THE INVITATION to submit a contri bution on priests and priestly ministry at this time of crisis came as a challenge. Strangely, my usual rush for an excuse wasn’t there and straight away I found myself wanting to offer something that could help to lift up our hearts. After all, in my thirty-nine years of priesthood I have been blessed with the chance to meet a wonderful cross section of brother priests and to keep up with much of what the scholars have been saying. Surely, I owed it to my brothers to try to offer something helpful in return.
As I started to mine my memory for some gems to work into a learned commentary that might take us from where we are to somewhere brighter, my initial enthusiasm began to wane. Somehow, it seemed to me that all the clever statements had been made and what we await now is prophetic action! So it came to me to surf back over the years to remember some of the ‘gems’ that have lifted up my heart and continue to lift it up. Such surfing and searching has been a joy and led me back to many a refreshing oasis. Let me try to share two of them.
The first one comes with a man who was a special gift to many of us in the Australian Church. Maurice Duffy was a true prophet about whom books could and should be written. A genuine presbyteral brother in the Diocese of Sandhurst, Maurice became my life-time mentor when we lived together as curates in the parish of Yarrawonga in the early 1960s.
Maurice’s best and most inspiring insights around priesthood came to me via his famous donkey story. He put it together in those years that we were together and this is how it goes. Making full use of all the licence that belonged to him as a poet, he claimed that one day as he was speeding north on the Goulburn Valley Highway and listening to his beloved ABC he heard an interview with a young scholar who had just completed his Ph D study on donkeys.
The young man’s first discovery was that the donkey was one of the most popular domesticated animals on earth. Amongst different peoples and countries he found them and almost everywhere they were held in high regard. His next discovery was that while almost ubiquitous, they were regarded differently from place to place. All in all, he was able to classify them according to three main categories.
Firstly, there were those donkeys who were kept as prestigious pets. In certain places people kept them, groomed them and paraded them around not unlike the way some people keep poodles in our culture. These donkeys reflected something back to the owner which enhanced their life. You know how it is with pets! Maybe it provided company, maybe an interest to help overcome the boredom of life, maybe it reminded the owner of something or even gave an opportunity to display one’s importance or value in having such an admired pet.
In other places the same simple donkey lived a different life and fulfilled another role. These donkeys were what we would describe as work horses. They were more likely found in third world countries where there were few roads and little machinery. Here the donkey was a major means of transport and could also be found powering treadmills or fulfilling other menial tasks. According to Maurice’s retelling the researcher found the donkey to be one of the most useful, versatile and valuable animals in all the world.
The young man’s third finding described how donkeys provided salvation and protection for other animals in times of danger. The example he gave was of a paddock of pedigree horses during a storm, especially if there was thunder and a lightening strike. Left to themselves such horses in these circumstances would likely panic and stampede. They would run into each other, into the fences and other fixtures and do untold damage to all concerned. However, if one were to introduce a donkey into their midst the scene would change dramatically. As soon as the threat began the dumb donkey would make his way to the centre of the paddock and with ears bolt upright would gently move around in a distinct circle. In the presence of such intuitive behaviour the frightened animals, in this case the horses, would make their way to the centre of the field and begin to circle calmly around the donkey. The claim was that the donkey would persevere for as long as the danger persisted, and for as long as it persisted, the horses would remain safe.
Here in a nutshell was the outline for Maurice’s treatise on ministry, especially the ministry of the ordained priest.
Some of you may have already heard of Maurie’s donkey for he told it often and others spread it further. If you have heard it, then like me, I’m sure you will benefit anew remembering it. If you are hearing it now for the first time, then I hope I have told it well enough for you to be already sensing the message it carries about our life, identity and ministry as priests.
As Maurice unwrapped the image of the donkey as a model for ordained ministers he would reflect along these lines. As priests there are times and places where our value is akin to that of the donkey as pet. Just by being around people we call their attention to certain things and have various effects on them. For some people we are a nice reminder that there is more to life than what normally meets the eye. They choose different words around us, act differently and even think different thoughts.
As I write this Anne comes to mind. She is an ex-Catholic school girl who has left much of her faith practice behind. She continues to call me Father John and politely refuses to drop the ‘Father’ even when her professional colleagues do so.
I think too of one of my most precious ministries as a wandering presence at Ainslie Village in Canberra. Ainslie Village provides support and low cost accommodation for over two hundred residents many of whom are very socially deprived. As I wander, sometimes I get a pat, sometimes I become an excuse for someone to take a short walk and feel they are still of some worth. Sometimes I am invited into a conversation as a support or an authority for someone who is trying to make a point. At other times I am invited to lead a service for a resident who has died tragically from a drug overdose but who does not have any Church affiliation.
This is what I like to think of as my all-important ministry of ‘being there’, a ministry presented so brilliantly in Peter Seller’s last film. (What a great input that film would be for an in-service evening on priesthood!)
There is a way we provide a sense of comfort to many people just by being there as we are and representing what we do. We become a kind of substitute contact with God and/or things holy. Of course one does not have to be an ordained minister to do these things and others can often do them better. However there is a way that I do them which is a ‘priestly way’ and it has a special ‘donkey’ value.
With the second category we come to those jobs only I can do, my clearly special contributions. As with our donkey friends this is an important part of our vocation. Currently, as ministries evolve and our Church becomes more a Church of the laity, this touches into a critical area of our lives. It is here that I think of myself leading Eucharist, celebrating Reconciliation, Preaching and maybe there is not much more that is specific. Nonetheless, these are important parts of my life as priest and while the extent of my contribution under this heading may vary from place to place and time to time, I need to keep forming myself and skilling myself to perform them effectively. Especially in these days of mass media and technology one can become boring and meaningless in doing those things which only we can do and as a result people cease being interested in doing them with us.
The third category was the one that excited Maurie most, and me too. It is here, in the spirit of that marvellous document of Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, that we are reminded how we live in a world where the Spirit of God is variously at work. We are in that world with our special charisms to be of service to those sisters and brothers whose joys, hopes, griefs, anxieties and afflictions we share. There is nothing genuinely human that should not attract us to be part of it to enjoy and to enhance. Into all of those life situations we are sent with our Gospel message constructed to produce life and produce it fully.
Life as we experience it unfolds through a series of providential dilemmas and at each point of growth there is a corresponding possibility of decline or death. In those moments we, like the donkey, are called to the centre of the arena. There too with raised ears we are to listen for a tune that will inspire us to move with hope, love, peace and creativity. We are called to hear that tune not only for ourselves but to share with our fellow citizens. What an exciting vocation this is in a world where there is nothing in which God and goodness cannot be found. Here is a call that has no limits. Wherever we are, we are called to position ourselves in the presence of our brothers and sisters and serve them with a word that will bring life. Wherever we are, we are called to be ‘God men’.
In all of these different ways we are called to be sacrament. Sacrament, in so far as we indicate and help to bring about what we point to. Above all else, as priests and as sacraments we are called to dialogue with whatever and whoever is around us and to inject into that conversation our special piece of graciousness. To do this we need to be keen students of those places where we live and the ‘languages’ that are spoken there. Like the fellow traveller on the road to Emmaus we are called to attach ourselves to the group which is our part of humankind on its pilgrimage. There we are asked to enter into the conversation as we find it, to give it a new direction and so a new beginning.
As Karl Rahner was so keen to say, the challenge today is to find the way to draw religion out of people not pump it into them. The redemption has happened, the Holy Spirit is in the human person and we are called to help them become what they are. Maurie’s donkey image can help us do that.
Just as the donkey can serve in different ways so too can we as priests. Now it may be one way that predominates, at another time another way. However, always in whatever way we are functioning, we will be functioning as priest and something of all of the ways will be present in each of them.
I promised to share two gems and have obviously got carried away with the donkey. May I at least make note of the second gem because the more I touch back into it I see it has a particular value as we strive to find our way between a Church and a priesthood that is dying and one that is still struggling to rise. Between a Friday crucifixion and a Sunday resurrection, are we not still somewhere early in our Saturday struggle with Mary whose job it is to help us to keep the faith?
My second gem has an uncanny link with the image of the donkey! It is an ordination address given by Michael J Buckley SJ to the ordinands at the Jesuit School of Theology, Berkeley some years ago. Again I’m sure that many, if not all of you, will be aware of it. Briefly, what made that homily so memorable was the prophetic stance that Michael took in saying that for him the important qualification for an ordained minister was his weakness. For him the question was ‘is this man weak enough to be a priest?’
How important is this for us today in the midst of so much clerical failure? I suspect that even as we struggle to respond to this challenge of our failures we are still trying to equip ourselves through qualifications, strength and power. Often I am uneasy with approaches we take, as I certainly was with the recent one taken by the American Bishops with their catchphrase of ‘zero tolerance’. I worry obsessively that we may well be trying to heal our problems by making use of the kinds of ‘medicines’ that gave rise to these sicknesses originally.
The priests who most graced me over the years were men who had experienced salvation and knew Jesus as their saviour. They knew the Gospel as Good News; often enough as too good to be true, but true nevertheless. To be such men there had to be a healthy sense of one’s limitations, weakness, failures and even sins.
To go further with this line of reflection is not possible at present. What continues to come to me as I return to those prophetic words is the conviction that I can well do with more of this stuff. Enough now to note the ‘gem’ that is there in that homily of Michael Buckley. As we work to dismantle that diabolical curtain of secrecy that is still out there and engage in more open discussion, his words could be a good place to start.
John E Ryan is a priest of the Diocese of Sandhurst. He founded the St Peter Centre for Clergy Education and with Fr Vince Dwyer introduced the Ministry to Priests and Ministry to Religious Programs to Australia.