Seeking together - Fifty years of questions

Fr Noel Connolly SSC

I was ordained in 1969. Those were confident and energetic times. Neil Armstrong walked on the moon a few days later. Vatican II had only just finished, and we were excited and optimistic about the changes it was bringing. We were young, idealistic and ready, if not to save the world, at least to make a significant contribution.

Like my classmates, I was prepared to make all kinds of sacrifices for the “splendid cause” we had committed ourselves to. I remember in those days the most popular verse for ordination cards was the quote from Philippians 2 about Jesus, “although his nature was divine he took on human nature and became a servant even unto death on a cross”. We too felt we were ready for big sacrifices, but what we did not expect was that our sacrifices would be far more ordinary and human. I thought that life would be heroic but simple; and that our choices would be clear. I expected physical sacrifices even deprivation. However, I have been spared that. What I did not expect was that the real challenges would be intellectual and spiritual. There have been few certainties and a lot of searching.

I thought that God would lead me more directly than he has and that the future, even if demanding, would be straightforward. A choice between the good and the heroic. But, life has been far from simple and clear.



When I look back, I believe I was both blessed and “cursed” to be ordained at the time I was. I was ordained at the peak of the wave. Our seminaries were full. [At St Columban’s Turramurra we had sixty-eight students in 1968.] Our missionaries were young and confident. Our superiors in their forties and we thought they were old, and we had no idea of paedophilia. It seems to me that just after I was ordained, everything started going downhill. [I am not taking personal responsibility. It just happened that way.] The Church has faced many crises and religion has been increasingly marginalised, moving from the centre to almost irrelevance in our secular, plural society. It has been a time of ageing and diminishment for the Columbans. We have not had an ordination since the nineties.

My whole time as a missionary priest has been a time of questioning, almost fifty years of questions. Most of us come to religion to find peace and certainty, and yet in many ways, religion provokes bigger questions.  I now think that living with questions, through frustrations and without a clear direction for the future is the way, we “empty ourselves, become human and take on the form of a servant”.

One thing I have slowly learnt is that I needed others. All priests talk about what they have gained from their people, and I am no exception. I have grateful and sustaining memories of people in my hometown, Gympie, in Turramurra, Korea, Ireland, and Essendon. Together we make up the people of God, and I have learnt as a priest that I cannot do without them. Searching together seems more important than finding the answers.

I believe that priests are ordained to the sacrament of orders, the order of the Church. As priests, we should not take responsibility for everything. Instead, we are coordinators. We try to discern, foster, encourage and promote gifts found in our communities.

I was not always good at this but am getting better in my old age. I spent over thirty years superior of the seminary, mission institute, Region and even vicar general of Columbans throughout the world. Now at Catholic Mission and as part of the Facilitation Team for the Plenary Council, I work under and with younger, committed laymen and women. It is wonderful. Status does not matter so much because we are united in our sense of mission. The mission is big, exciting and worthwhile and draws us on as a team. Clericalism is much less relevant in a group on mission.

Columban Fr Noel Connolly is a member of the Adult Formation Team with Catholic Mission Australia and is a member of the Facilitation Team for the Plenary Council 2020.

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Comments (8)

  1. Joe Barr:
    Jul 17, 2019 at 12:43 PM

    More years ago than I like to count, a Columban priest told me in conversation that he wondered if the shortage of priests and vocations to the priesthood was the Holy Spirit's way of asking the Church to involve lay people more in its work. He thought that if those people could begin to accept their responsibility and to take up their yokes the Church would develop more as Christ wanted it to be. He is still around so I won't embarrass him by mentioning his name but he is and was a wise man.


  2. Dennis Carroll:
    Jul 17, 2019 at 01:15 PM

    Congratulations, Noel.


  3. Ann Watson-Brown:
    Jul 17, 2019 at 01:35 PM

    Congrats on 50 years of priesthood . We are all travellers on the journey and it is heartening to read about your experiences .


  4. Susan Ring:
    Jul 17, 2019 at 11:26 PM

    Interesting insights there, Fr. Noel, but as a reader for 30ish years now, I have noted that the spirit is strong and the joy in giving up a parish to locally trained priests reminds me of that saying that comes up in homilies often: trust, you may never see the end of a work but you can see its beginning; what is in motion now is impossible to discern which seems to be the basis of faith


  5. Dale Dawes:
    Jul 18, 2019 at 03:31 PM

    Beautifully written Father Noel and so true. Congratulations on hanging in through the searching. God is great! I very much agree with the priest quoted by Joe. The absence of ordained priests nurtures the involvement of the laity and I am inspired by the work done by our laity. The Church needed an overhaul. We all pray that the plenary gets things going and allows the Holy Spirit to inspire us all again. I would just add one more observation re the lack of ordinations in Australia. We have been blessed by the many men and women who have left home and hearth to minister the sacraments for us and help us. We are so blessed to have them with us to give us insights into the cultures they have left. There is no Plan B as far as God is concerned.


  6. Mary:
    Jul 19, 2019 at 08:43 PM

    Thanks for all the serving you have done. So wonderful to have you. You are a very special person. As I am younger than you I have taken from your written words lots of wisdom, to help me serve in the years to come. Thanks again.


  7. Peter Mudge:
    Jul 20, 2019 at 01:57 PM

    Thanks Noel, and congratulations on 50 years at the helm of priesthood. You have made many great contributions and can clearly see some of the challenges and shifts facing the Church. Your reflections remind me of Kierkegaard's statement: "Life is lived forwards, but only understood backwards". My sense is that we are on the cusp of a New Pentecost, waiting in the upper room for the next script from the Holy Spirit. Time will tell.


  8. Phil harris:
    Jul 20, 2019 at 04:01 PM

    Noel. Thank you for an honest and relevant article.
    You have expressed what I have thought but have considered me to be a lone voice.
    Vatican Two was an exciting and relevant time which involved the laity.
    Pope John was truly inspired but on his death the new direction was slowed down and then almost stopped.
    Now the sermons seem irrelevant and almost a theology lesson with little encouragement to use our individual talents for the good of humanity.
    What we do may seem minor when we look at the evolution of the universe but each of us can make a difference and that may sometimes be discarding what the Church teaches.


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