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Older, lonelier and more out of step with Rome - the trying life of a Catholic priest

The Pope greets pilgrims in Sydney in 2008. AAP/Greg Wood

Two news items in as many months about defiance and disappointment in the ranks of the Catholic clergy in Australia suggest a profound professional crisis is unfolding within the Church.

In February, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that at least a dozen priests would refuse to use the new English translation of the Missal (which outlines the liturgical celebration of the Mass) because they considered it outdated and less inclusive than the existing version. These were only the priests who had gone public: according the head of the National Council of Priests (NCP), hundreds of NCP members were “steamed up” at the Vatican’s failure to adequately consult on the translation.

Earlier this month, the auxiliary Bishop of Canberra-Goulburn, Patrick Power, announced he had written to the Pope last November about the troubled state of the local church. Power had received no reply and said that he was considering retiring next year – five years short of the canonical retirement age of 75 years – because he was disappointed at the way the Church had “retreated into fairly narrow positions” and had squandered “the potential we had to be a source of inspiration within the whole community”.

With an entire generation of priests nourished on the hopes raised by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s now approaching retirement, the time is surely right for an appraisal of how these men feel about their Church, their parishioners, and their own personal lives and achievements.

We sent surveys to all priests engaged in parish ministry in Australia (and 542, or almost a third of them responded) and interviewed fifty of them across the country. We wanted to know how they felt about being a priest today, how relevant they felt their message was to modern life, how they felt about the way their Church looked after them, and what they thought of the leadership as they experienced it of the Vatican and the local bishops.

The results were sobering.

Priests live a life apart, a group of celibate men whose average age now approaches seventy years and whose numbers are in critical decline. Many chose to become priests in the days when the parish priest was one of the most important social figures in the community – but is often today regarded as a curiosity tending a band of leftovers from another era.

“Where are they all?” asked one priest, reflecting on the fact that even at Christmas time, the great proportion of parishioners no longer come to Church. And when the parishioners don’t come, he went on, “you think ‘Well, what am I doing wrong?’” For priests, the Mass is something that is communal in nature, and the absence of mass-goers means people are finding their own individual paths, many of which take them away from the Church.

Yet the Church itself has behaved until recently as if there were no real problem. Ironically, it is the very decline of regular practice that allows this to happen. As one priest put it, “We’re dying in some ways…the number of parishioners is hiding [the priest shortage] a bit.” For while the population of nominal Catholics has more than doubled in the last 40 years (to well over five million) the weekly Mass attendance rate has collapsed (from 51 percent of all Catholics in 1971 to less than 14 percent today).

It is perhaps remarkable that the overwhelming majority (90 percent) of priests who returned survey questionnaires nevertheless felt positive about the path they had taken. But many felt overburdened by the weight and changing nature of their parish responsibilities. Forty-seven percent agreed that their workload was excessive and several priests in their fifties said they felt as though their middle years had been devoured by work and were determined to leave active ministry well before they turned 75.

An astonishing 70 percent of respondents believed that celibacy for priests should be optional. In interviews, some felt that bishops should be celibate, others that only monastic orders should be celibate, and one that priests should be celibate - but only for the first five years.

Many priests wrote of loneliness – often connecting this to the absence of a family they could have had if not celibate - even though we did not put this question on our survey. “A lonely life, especially as one gets older,” wrote one in a comment that in interviews, we found repeatedly.

The survey responses demonstrated a deep disquiet with the way Rome exercises its authority. More than half the respondents (58 percent) felt the Vatican exerted too much control over the Australian Church and nearly three-quarters (70 percent) said it didn’t always understand the nature of the Australian church.

But this disquiet at authority also had a local dimension. Only 35 percent of respondents thought Australian bishops were doing a good job of managing the church and many wrote comments to the effect that the bishops were poor leaders and too eager to please Rome.

“I believe the gulf between the laity and priests…and the hierarchical church is widening at an alarming rate,” said one priest. Overall, a clear majority (63 percent) judged that the bishops were too conservative in church matters.

Our study reveals, probably for the first time, the extent of the gap between priests and the hierarchy on the Church’s moral teaching. For instance, a mere 19 percent of survey respondents agreed that it is always a sin for a married couple to use artificial birth control. The respondents were equally divided over whether it is always a sin for unmarried people to have sex. And they were split on the question of whether practising homosexuals should receive Holy Communion with 36 percent agreeing that they should not but 45 percent saying that they should.

The Catholic Church is not a democracy and there is only so much that can be achieved at a local level. Still, with the views of a good many priests – a good many mainstream priests – now in the public domain, it is to be hoped that the bishops will respond not by burying their heads in the sand and hoping this study will soon be forgotten but by open up channels for honest expression and frank debate with the Church.

Read more: Chris McGillion and John O'Connell’s book: Our Fathers: What Australian Catholic priests really think about their lives and their church, is published by John Garratt, Mulgrave, 2011.

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