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.
- Read more from The Far East, September 2019
- Read more from the current Columban eBulletin
- Click here to read from a collection of reflections on Plenary Council written by Columban Fr Noel Connolly