Paul Collins paper from the "Catholics For Ministry" meeting

This is the first of a series of comments on the papers of “that meeting” last week run by “Catholics for Ministry”. I thank the website managers for putting the full papers up. It is good that these opinions expressed are now a matter of public record.

Paul Collins titled his address “Is Australia headed toward a Catholic Church without the Mass and Sacraments?”

It is worth noting that historically, the Australian Church has been without the Mass and priests before. For almost ten years, between 1808 and 1817, between the time when convict priest Fr Dixon returned to Ireland and Fr O’Flynn was appointed Prefect Apostolic of New Holland, there was no mass or sacraments. Then, between the time when Fr O’Flynn was sent packing by the Governor and Frs Conolly and Therry arrived in 1820, all the infant Church had to sustain their faith was the Blessed Sacrament reserved at the home of one Mr Davis where Catholics gathered in secret for prayer. I wonder what these faithful Catholics would have thought of today’s petitioners demanding “the right of the community to the Eucharist”?

Mr Collins told several stories—true stories about parishes in need in Australia and about priests stretched to breaking point in their ministries. In the old days, such stories would have been told as a part of a vocations drive, and would have been followed by calls to young men to give their lives to the service of the Lord in the Holy Priesthood. In fact, just such stories inspired generations of young men to become priests to serve in the mission fields. Some of these young men were the Irish priests who came to serve Australia in her colonial days. Foreign priests, every one of them… But not today. Today, such stories are used as leverage for Mr Collins radical demands that would in fact change completely the nature of the priesthood.

The stories Mr Collins tells of priestly dedication are, in the main, inspiring. But not his reference to the situation in Toowoomba. Because we all know what the situation is in Toowoomba and why. When bishops entertain “solutions” that involve

ordaining married men endorsed by their local parish community, welcoming former priests back to active ministry, ordaining women and recognizing Anglican, Lutheran and Uniting church orders

we know that they are no longer serious about promoting true vocations. I do not believe in a God who would leave any part of his church without the gift of priestly vocation. But I do believe that priestly vocations cannot develop where the Gospel is no longer taught with its concomitant radical demand for self-sacrifice. If priests do grow on trees, as Bishop Morris seems to expect, they won’t be found growing on “Anglican, Lutheran and Uniting” trees—they will be found growing on the Catholic tree.

Next Mr Collins points to the research of his friend Fr Eric Hodgens. He says that

The simple reality is that many parts of world Catholicism are facing a sacramental and ministerial crisis due to the catastrophic drop in the number of priests and in the numbers presenting themselves for training to the priesthood.

This, he notes, “is not true of every country”. It is mainly true of “the developed Western world” and parts of South America. It is an odd thing, but the decline in the number of young men presenting themselves for the priesthood has coincided with the drop in Catholic reproduction rates due to Catholics having smaller families which, in turn might be linked to the radical and unprecedented rejection of Papal teach in Humanae Vitae. Just an idea. Mr Collins could have encouraged Catholics to have larger families. “One for the Church”, to paraphrase our former Federal Treasurer.

Mr Collins and Fr Hodgens also complain of “an absolute refusal by church authorities to confront the issue” of the priest shortage. Absolute? Hardly. Several bishops—not those with whom Mr Collins or Fr Hodgens would have much sympathy or vice versa—have been pro-active in encouraging a noticeable turn around in the figures of new vocations. Mr Collins acknowledged this in the question and answer time at the meeting. Moreover, there are many young men reporting being turned away from the seminaries by those whom Mr Collins/Fr Hodgens speak well of. Again, Mr Collins acknowledged this in the question time. Why? Because they are “not the right sort”. Tell you something?

Mr Collins and Fr Hodgens say that

recruitment is down to an all-time-low

and

there is no significant sign of it increasing, despite claims of increased numbers in the Sydney, Perth, Melbourne and Neo-Catechuminate seminaries.

What gall! Each of these Seminaries has recorded a sustained rise in the number of vocations since the “dark ages” of the eighties. Not enough, of course, but a rise nevertheless. One would think that the responsible thing would be to acknowledge this and then encourage more vocations yet. But no, that would not support the ultimate purpose of Collins/Hodgens, which is to see married men and women ordained in preference to the “wrong sort” of young celibate males.

The comment that “the age of ordination has risen” should surprise noone. This is the case in every Christian church in Australia. Put it down to the voice of God being particular audible when the hearer is going through midlife crisis, I guess.

Catholics in countries like Brazil (where there is one priest to every 7000 or so Catholics) would be scandalized at Mr Collins’ horror that there is only “one priest for every 2000 Catholics” in Australia. The real horror is that about ¾ of those 2000 are non-practicing (non-believing?) Catholics, and so the number to whom Father has to minister is around 500 rather than 2000. That number is not much different from Lutherans in Australia. The census tells us that there are about 350,000 Australian Lutherans, but Lutherans themselves count only about half that many. They have about 350 pastors. That’s about 1 to 500 again. By the way, Lutherans ordain married priests. AND, they have been experiencing a troubling shortage of vocations lately. No solution there, it would seem.

Mr Collins concludes that “It was in this kind of context that Frank Purcell, Anne O’Brien and I decided someone had to take the initiative. So we drew up the petition. Essentially what we are trying to do is to get the bishops to respond to and assume responsibility for their dioceses – and the needs of their diocese rather than looking over their shoulders to Rome all the time.”

My perception is that what Messrs Collins, Purcell and O’Brien (each of them laicised from their original vows) are really “essential trying to do” is get the bishops to accept, not responsibility, but the IRRESPONSIBILITY of the measures which they suggest as the only possible alternatives to the low vocation-rate: an end to clerical celibacy and the ordination of women. And yes, if you were a bishop intending to go in this direction, you really would want to be “looking over your shoulders to Rome”, because your tenure as bishop would likely be nearing to an end.

If their real concern was simply the increase of priestly vocations, they would be going about it in an entirely different way.

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