By Karna Swanson
SYDNEY, Australia, 13 NOV. 2009 (ZENIT)
The life of the priest
despite the many challenges and difficulties
is above all a life that is rich in the grace of God and the
love of those he ministers to, says Auxiliary Bishop Julian
Porteous of Sydney.
The prelate is author of the book "After the Heart of God:
The Life and Ministry of Priests at the Beginning of the Third
Millennium" (Connorcourt Publishing, 2009), in which he reflects
on the identity and mission of the priest in the midst of a
rapidly changing society.
Having been a priest himself since 1974, Bishop Porteous
surveys the changing situation of the priest in modern society,
changes which he himself has witnessed.
In this interview with ZENIT, the 60-year-old bishop, who
served for seven years as rector of the Seminary of the Good
Shepherd, comments on various aspects of the priesthood, and
includes details of his own vocation call.
ZENIT: What attracted you principally to becoming a priest?
Bishop Porteous: The origins of my vocation were in primary
school. I attended a Catholic school, and I received my call
really when I was in the 5th or 6th class. I had a clear sense
then that I was to become a priest.
That stayed with me through the years of my high school, and
immediately after high school I went to the seminary to begin
studying for the priesthood. I've always sensed that this has
been God's call and I've always had that with me since I was 11
or 12 years old.
ZENIT: Has your experience of being a priest, and now a
bishop, exceeded your expectations?
Bishop Porteous: It certainly has. I always pictured myself
as a parish priest and that has always been the focus for my
understanding of my priestly life. And that is what I have
largely experienced and lived out. I've always been very content
to do the normal pastoral activities of a priest in a parish.
It's only been in recent years that there has been a
significant change, and that's when I was asked to become the
rector of the seminary, which was quite a surprise and
unexpected request from the archbishop. I served in that role
for seven years, and in the course of that I was called to be a
Both those roles were unexpected because I always believed
that I would spend my life being a priest in a parish, and
that's what I love most
doing the normal, everyday, works of a priest.
ZENIT: And do you get to still do some of that as a bishop?
Bishop Porteous: It's very hard [laughs]. But if I can, I
love to. [For example], the local priest is on holidays, and so
I've been going down and saying the morning Masses in the parish
when I can, and that's been lovely. I've enjoyed getting back to
saying a normal daily Mass for a parish community.
And other times when I get to a parish to celebrate Mass for
the people on a Sunday for a visitation or something, I really
appreciate those opportunities. It's always been for me an
expression of being a priest.
ZENIT: And now to speak about your book, "After the Heart of
God." In that book you discuss the identity and mission of the
priesthood today. Are priests currently undergoing an identity
Bishop Porteous: In the book I talk about the fact that there
have been very significant changes in the whole social and
cultural context of the priesthood, and secondly the ecclesial
situation for priests.
I was ordained in 1974, so the book really spans those years
where there have been very significant cultural changes. First,
there has been the rise of secularism and the impact that has
had on society as a whole, and on the lives as Catholics as
The ecclesial context too has changed a great deal. We think
of what the Church was like immediately after the Second Vatican
Council, for example the sense of optimism that was there then.
And then there emerged, particularly in the 1970s, many issues
and problems: a large number of priests leaving the ministry,
the whole change of religious in the Church took place,
certainly in Australia. We had many religious involved in our
schools and hospitals
that's largely changed now.
We've also seen changes that are more closely associated with
the priest at the local pastoral level. We've also seen the rise
and this has been very good, of course
of the engagement of laypeople in the various areas of service
within the Church.
And there are the changes that have taken place in the
liturgy ... there are so many things that have changed and
influenced the character of the life of the Church.
And priests have lived through those changes
especially priests my age
which they have had to adjust to the best they can.
I think there have been problems. One of the issues has been
the inter-relationship between the role of the priest and the
role of the layperson in the Church
issues related to what has sometimes been called the
clericalization of the laity, and the laicization of the clergy.
That can cause some confusion of some magnitude.
The fact that priests before would often be in the situation
of being able to live with other priests
the parish priest and one or two assistant priests
now priests live by themselves.
In the past, you had a structure to presbytery life. Now it's
a lot less. Many priests don't have a live-in housekeeper. Some
don't even have a housekeeper.
So there have been many changes in the character of the
living situation of the priest, and also there's been an
increasing demand being made upon the priest.
Whereas before, assistant priests or sisters helped with
sacramental programs, now we see that so much more of this is
coming back to the priest. Life has become more complex. Priests
are under a lot more pressures, and a lot more is being asked of
a lot more range of responsibilities.
I think priests are feeling the pressure of the changed
circumstances in which they are finding themselves today.
ZENIT: Is that a positive pressure, or a negative pressure?
Are the changes preventing the priest from fulfilling his
Bishop Porteous: I think the increased demands on a priest
sometimes makes it difficult for him to focus on the principal
tasks, and I think there are a lot of management issues to have
to deal with. These can take away from the more direct and
immediate pastoral and spiritual role of the priest.
Priests can be distracted from their essential tasks, [and]
these pressures have made life more difficult.
One of the issues I feel is very important is that a lot of
priests are forced to live alone. That is not necessarily the
best human environment for a priest, who doesn't have a
living with him, as companionship, to be able to hear about the
daily experiences, to talk about issues, etc. All of these
things have affected the quality of life of priests, and these
are the realities and the circumstances we find ourselves in
I do think we need to look for ways to support and assist
priests more effectively so they are able to be the pastors that
they need to be, and that the parishioners need them to be.
ZENIT: What advice do you have for parishioners who are
looking to support their priests, and to help them in general to
be faithful priests?
Bishop Porteous: We want our priests to be priests. We want
our priests to be men of God. We want our priests to be first
and foremost spiritual men.
And, therefore, we want to do all we can to encourage that
and acknowledge that by saying, "Father, this is what we really
need you to be. We need you to be this man of God in our midst.
We need you to be able to be a man who is able to guide us
spiritually, to preach in a way that encourages and builds up
Therefore, what we want to be able to do is to try to support
the priest in doing this. Maybe this means we work at taking
burdens and pressures off priests in areas that aren't
essentially their pastoral ministry.
ZENIT: What role does the priest have in a society that is
becoming more secular?
Bishop Porteous: The priest has the role of being a man of
God in society. I think it's very important for priests to have
a confidence that
despite a lot of secularization and consumerism, and despite the
fact that there has been a lot of attention on living for this
deep down in every single person there is a spiritual thirst and
a spiritual need.
First and foremost, priests need to be those who can reach
out to touch that need and assist people in finding God, and
assist people in being able to develop a relationship with God
and to give to people a vision of life that is grounded very
solidly in faith. Priests have a unique role to play in that.
Despite the fact that many people might be far from faith, I
think there is a fundamental need for priests.
These days, the priest doesn't have the same status as he had
in the past in society as a whole, but the priest still has an
essential role to play. Also, I think the priest has a vital
role to be somewhat of a prophetic voice in society, reminding
people of the deeper, spiritual and moral ideals of life, and to
live life more in terms of eternity, and less in terms of the
immediate present. That's a very important message
and a witness
that priests can give.
People want priests to be priests, and to live fully our
identity and the nature of our life. Priests shouldn't be
ashamed of what they stand for, or what their lives are about.
ZENIT: What advice would you give to a young man who is
discerning a vocation?
Bishop Porteous: The first thing I'd say to any young man is
to see one's vocation fundamentally as a call from God, a call
from God that is a gift from Christ. The young man who is
looking at the priesthood should search his heart for the call
of God. To recognize that this is what God is asking from him.
And then to be assured that God is with him in this. He doesn't
walk the journey of priesthood alone. It's a remarkable way that
God's grace is with him who gives his heart to serve as a
The other thing is that the life of a priest is a life of
joyful service. In embracing the priesthood as service one
experiences a rich gift of love from those that he serves. A
priest's life is rich in the experience of love and support,
especially from those he ministers to.
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On the Net:
"After the Heart of God":