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Priests For The Third Millennium

Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
9 Jul 2009

What sort of priests are needed for the third millennium? Sydney Auxiliary Bishop, Julian Porteous explores this question in his thoughtful, carefully-researched and fascinating new book: After the Heart of God. Tapping into his own 30 years experience as a parish priest and his seven years as Rector in charge of priests in training at the Seminary of the Good Shepherd, Bishop Julian  chronicles the vast changes that have taken place over the past four decades and the different requirements for a priest in today's fast changing world.

As part of the Year of the Priest, Bishop Julian and his publishers Connor Court have kindly given us permission to publish extracts from After the Heart of God: Priests for the Start of the Third Millennium. With a recommended retail price of  $29.95, After the  Heart of God in complete form is now available at the Mustard Seed Bookshop, Lidcombe and other quality outlets.


A thought-provoking extract from Bishop Julian Porteous' groundbreaking new book: After the Heart of God

The world has changed much in the past forty years. There have been significant realignments in the political landscape of the world. The dominating issues in the 1960s now seem so distant as we look at what pre-occupies the world in the first decade of the third millennium. Society, particularly in Western First World countries, has changed quite dramatically. There has been unprecedented and accelerated change. We live in a world of change.

Australia has witnessed significant re-ordering of its social fabric. The cultural, moral and spiritual framework in which life in Australia is lived has evolved dramatically over the past four decades.

The context, "ad extra", in which the priesthood is now exercised, has been influenced by many factors. Some that deserve particular mention will be briefly explored. They are just a few of many that could be considered.


The processes of secularisation and the decline in practical participation in the life of the Church by many baptised Catholics are clearly evident to all thinking members of the Church. Priests who have exercised their ministry over the past forty years are only too aware of changes in the religious outlook of Catholics. We do not need to rehearse the figures that tell of significant decline in religious life in our nation. There has been a significant drop-off in attendance at Sunday Mass. There is a portion of those who could be called "the post-Vatican II generation" – those now in their fifties – who are alienated from the Church, wanting an institution more aligned with contemporary culture and contemporary attitudes to key moral issues.  Many young people are quite oblivious to the Catholic faith; to them the Faith is irrelevant to their lives. The Church faces a real challenge in winning back its members to a real participation in its spiritual and sacramental life.

Priests see this daily in their parish ministry. Couples coming for marriage, or presenting their children for Baptism, or families involved in the preparation of their children for First Holy Communion or Confirmation, want to receive the sacrament, but have no real intention of attending Mass regularly. The constant struggle with this issue can wear priests down so that they come to acquiesce to what is seen as the inevitable. This is not only demanding on the priest, but can be disheartening for his ministry. The priest can lose heart and come to his pastoral work with a simple human perspective, feeling at a loss to be able to communicate on the spiritual level. The people are simply not interested.


Our age is an age of the individual. Personal rights, personal self-determination and individual freedom are regarded as absolutes by many. Along with this view has developed an attitude that each person is finally answerable only to himself. Acting according to one's "conscience" is considered the paramount right. It is commonly assumed that persons can form their own conscientious position on critical issues and are then free to follow what they have determined as right for them. In this world view relativism has flourished and many people resent any moral or spiritual authority interfering in what they view as their own sacrosanct domain. Many hold as a matter of absolute conviction the "primacy of conscience".

Priests experience this particularly when people make it clear to them that they do not accept that the Church can, as they would see it, dictate what they should believe and do. In fact priests can encounter a great deal of antagonism, even from practising Catholics, concerning the positions that the Church has adopted on certain moral and disciplinary issues. The issue that initiated this attitude is undoubtedly that of the teaching on birth control, but it now encompasses Church teaching on homosexuality, the role of women and bio-ethical issues. Many Catholics adopt the attitude that they can pick and choose what to accept in Church teaching.


Many forces have combined to foster the view held by so many today that there are no longer any absolutes. The spirit of the age is that there is no absolute truth – there is "your truth" and "my truth". All things are seen to be in constant flux so that what we see today will be different tomorrow. There is the promotion of the subjective view of reality over the objective truth of things. People favour a plurality of opinion rather than the pursuit of what is right. Even religions are considered relative to one another: Christians have Christ, Muslims have the Prophet Mohammed, Hindus have Krishna. "We are all going the same way" is often the view about the comparative worth of the different religious traditions. According to this way of thinking the great sin is to be convinced about one's faith or religion, and thus viewed as a fundamentalist.

Pope Benedict XVI has been a vocal critic of this "dictatorship of relativism". The words of the then Cardinal Ratzinger rang out at a Mass on 18 April 2005 just prior to the Conclave to elect the successor to Pope John Paul II. His words are worth offering here:

How many winds of doctrine have we known in recent decades, how many ideological currents, how many ways of thinking. The small boat of the thought of many Christians has often been tossed about by these waves – flung from one extreme to another: from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism and so forth. Every day new sects spring up, and what St Paul says about human deception and the trickery that strives to entice people into error (see Eph 4:14) comes true.

Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labelled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be "tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine", seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognise anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires.
This relativism has become all pervasive. The priest in the course of his pastoral work encounters this on a daily basis when people claim that there can be no definitive teachings, and the Church's position on any issue is seen as just one perspective, competing in the marketplace of ideas.

The spirit of democracy

Along with an emphasis on the rights of the individual goes a belief that societies are best governed by a democratic process. The "free world", led by the United States, actively campaigns for the establishment of democracy as the most just form of political life. The general experience is that democracy, despite all its faults, does ensure that those in political authority are accountable to the country that they govern. If an individual or party fails to meet the expectations of the people then they can be removed through the ballot box. The exercise of democracy does ensure that governments do not become self serving or seriously abuse power.

There is a growing chorus of voices that calls on the Church to embrace a more democratic form of government. Often the Church is viewed as a political organisation and authority is seen as the exercise of power. Such views often fail to see that the Church has been established by divine authority and is, according to its nature, hierarchical. Those critical of the Church's hierarchical structure often fail to appreciate that authority in the Christian dispensation is seen as an act of service, as the Lord so clearly taught .

Those who believe that the Church should become more democratic call for more participation in the decision-making processes at the local level through means of parish councils and diocesan councils and assemblies. Priests can sometimes find themselves under some pressure to allow for more "consultation" in their decision-making. Some parish councils can demand that matters be put to the vote, with the priest expected to accept the result. Those ascribing to the democratising of the Church often are critical of what they see as a clinging to clerical power. Priests can sometimes find it difficult to answer these charges.

Search for God – emergence of the New Age

Despite all the tendencies towards a secular way of life and the fact that many people live as "though God does not exist" , there is in evidence a search for the spiritual dimension of life. Often people who have rejected Christianity turn to esoteric spiritual teachings. This is firstly a challenge to us in the Church: how have we failed to show people the nature of the spiritual life and introduce people to the rich resource of spiritual teaching in the Church? And secondly it is an encouragement that despite all the attractions of a secular existence deep within each person is a thirst for God and things of the spirit. The Apostolic Exhortation, Pastores dabo vobis, expresses it thus:

The thirst for God and for an active meaningful relationship with him is so strong today that, where there is a lack of a genuine and full proclamation of the Gospel of Christ, there is a rising spread of forms of religiosity without God and the proliferation of many sects. For all children of the Church, and for priests especially, the increase of these phenomena, even in some traditionally Christian environments, is not only a constant motive to examine our consciences as to the credibility of our witness to the Gospel but at the same time is a sign of how deep and widespread is the search for God.

The profusion of forms of spirituality drawing on ancient pagan cults will be a passing phenomenon, taking the shape of "fads", but they are a challenge to the Church. We have the experience and the wisdom concerning the spiritual life and yet have failed to communicate it.

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