Bishop Julian Porteous on the life and
ministry of priests at the beginning of the third millennium
To coincide with the
start of the Year for Priests, Bishop Julian Porteous, one of the
Auxiliary Bishops of Sydney and Episcopal Vicar for the Renewal
and Evangelisation within the Archdiocese of Sydney, Australia, has
released his latest book which was launched by Cardinal George Pell,
Archbishop of Sydney, at Cathedral House on 24 June . Following is
an excerpt from the book.
Bishop Julian Porteous,
After the Heart of God: The Life and Ministry of Priests at the
Beginning of the Third Millennium. Ballan: Connor Court, 2009; pp.
170. AUS$ 29.95. ISBN 978-1-921421-22-3.
The world has changed much
in the past forty years. There have been significant realignments in the
political landscape of the world. The dominating issues in the 1960s now
seem so distant as we look at what pre-occupies the world in the first
decade of the third millennium. Society, particularly in Western First
World countries, has changed quite dramatically. There has been
unprecedented and accelerated change. We live in a world of change.
Australia has witnessed
significant re-ordering of its social fabric. The cultural, moral and
spiritual framework in which life in Australia is lived has evolved
dramatically over the past four decades.
The context, "ad extra", in
which the priesthood is now exercised, has, been influenced by many
factors. Some that deserve particular mention will be briefly explored.
They are just a few of many that could be considered.
The processes of
secularisation and the decline in practical participation in the life of
the Church by many baptised Catholics are clearly evident to all
thinking members of the Church. Priests who have exercised their
ministry over the past forty years are only too aware of changes in the
religious outlook of Catholics. We do not need to rehearse the figures
that tell of significant decline in religious life in our nation. There
has been a significant drop-off in attendance at Sunday Mass. There is a
portion of those who could be called "the post-Vatican II generation"
those now in their fifties
who are alienated from the Church, wanting an institution more aligned
with contemporary culture and contemporary attitudes to key moral
issues. Many young people are quite oblivious to the Catholic faith; to
them the Faith is irrelevant to their lives. The Church faces a real
challenge in winning back its members to a real participation in its
spiritual and sacramental life.
Priests see this daily in
their parish ministry. Couples coming for marriage, or presenting their
children for Baptism, or families involved in the preparation of their
children for First Holy Communion or Confirmation, want to receive the
sacrament, but have no real intention of attending Mass regularly. The
constant struggle with this issue can wear priests down so that they
come to acquiesce to what is seen as the inevitable. This is not only
demanding on the priest, but can be disheartening for his ministry. The
priest can lose heart and come to his pastoral work with a simple human
perspective, feeling at a loss to be able to communicate on the
spiritual level. The people are simply not interested.
Our age is an age of the
individual. Personal rights, personal self-determination and individual
freedom are regarded as absolutes by many. Along with this view has
developed an attitude that each person is finally answerable only to
himself. Acting according to one's "conscience" is considered the
paramount right. It is commonly
assumed that persons can form their own conscientious position on
critical issues and are then free to follow what they have determined as
right for them. In this world view, relativism has flourished and many
people resent any moral or spiritual authority interfering in what they
view as their own sacrosanct domain. Many hold as a matter of absolute
conviction the "primacy of conscience".
Priests experience this particularly when people make it
clear to them that they do not accept that the Church can, as they would
see it, dictate what they should believe and do. In fact priests can
encounter a great deal of antagonism, even from practising Catholics,
concerning the positions that the Church has adopted on certain moral
and disciplinary issues. The issue that initiated this attitude is
undoubtedly that of the teaching on birth control, but it now
encompasses Church teaching on homosexuality, the role of women and
bio-ethical issues. Many Catholics adopt the attitude that they can pick
and choose what to accept in Church teaching.
Many forces have combined to foster the view held, by so
many today that there are no longer any absolutes. The spirit of the age
is that there is no absolute truth
there is "your truth" and "my truth". All things are seen to be in
constant flux so that
we see today will be
different tomorrow. There is the promotion of the subjective view of
reality over the objective truth of things. People favour a plurality of
opinion rather than the pursuit of what is right. Even religions are
considered relative to one another: Christians have Christ, Muslims,
have the Prophet Mohammed, Hindus have Krishna. "We are all going the
same way" is often the view about the comparative worth of the different
religious traditions. According to this way of thinking the great sin is
to be convinced about one's faith or religion, and thus viewed as a
Pope Benedict has been a vocal critic of this
"dictatorship of relativism". The words of the then Cardinal Ratzinger
rang out at a Mass on 18 April 2005 just prior to the Conclave to elect
the successor to Pope John Paul II. His words are worth offering here:
How many winds of doctrine have we known in recent
decades, how many ideological currents, how many ways of thinking. The
small boat of the thought of many Christians has often been tossed about
by these waves
flung from one extreme to another: from Marxism to liberalism, even to
libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to
a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism and so
forth. Every day new sects spring up, and what St Paul says about human
deception and the trickery that strives to entice people into error (see
Eph 4:14) comes true.
Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the
Church is often labelled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is,
letting oneself 'be "tossed .here and there, carried about by every wind
of doctrine", seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times.
We are building a
of relativism that does not
recognise anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely
of one's own ego and desires (Mass "Pro eligendo romano pontifice").
This relativism has become all pervasive. The priest in
the course of his pastoral work encounters this on a daily basis when
people claim that there can he no definitive teachings, and the Church's
position on any issue is seen as just one perspective, competing in the
marketplace of ideas.