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Books Etcetera

by Edmund Campion

One that got away: Luther's Pine by John Molony

In the late 1960s and the 1970s the Catholic Church in Australia lost an alternative hierarchy as one after the other leaderly men left the priesthood. Thereafter, we were playing our Second Eleven. Among those to go was John Neylon Molony, a product of that school of bishops in Rome, Propaganda Fide College. Anyone who knew him then expected him to rise to the top, an archbishop or at least a thoughtful, influential bishop. He never spoke without having something worthwhile to say; so that when he spoke, people listened. He became a specialist in canon law but the law did not cripple him as it crippled others. Much of his life was spent forming laypeople into self-reliant Christians in Catholic Action movements. What a bishop John Molony might have been! Alas, it was not to be.

Now he has written an autobiography, Luther's Pine (Canberra: Pandanus Books; $45), taking him up to his priestly ordination at the age of 23. Here is an addition to that growing shelf of books telling the life stories of Australian men who once wore the cassock; Morris West, Tom Keneally, Michael Parer, Chris Geraghty, Michael McGirr, Peter Brock, Gerard Windsor. . . Luther's Pine is a very sacerdotal book: I mean, a reader is always aware that the young man at the centre of this story is on his way to the priesthood: and for him priesthood means above all, the Mass. So it is an interior book, not devoid of anecdote to be sure but with its interest always focussed on what is happening in John Molony's soul.

Don't get me wrong - this is not an unduly churchy book. His early pages, on growing up in rural Victoria, are evocative and a delight to read. Often he returns in memory to that spirit country of the Mallee which keeps its claims on his affections. Even when the Depression drives the family off the farm and to the city, this remains his heartland. It is an unexpected part of the book's charm.

But the distant drums of priesthood call him, call him; and so young Molony moves in to the Werribee seminary. Where he meets Charlie Mayne, the Jesuit all-rounder who made sure that the seminarians had contact with the best of Catholic Melbourne, men and women (how different it was elsewhere). Charlie Mayne deserves greater recognition in Australian Catholic historiography; perhaps Molony's warm pages will inspire someone to write at length on him.

Then. . . Rome. Here the father figure was Felice Cenci, the college rector who encouraged his young men to find their own spirituality to live by. Molony's years at Propaganda were happy ones, marred only by persistent poor health and the enmity of a powerful theology professor. The Roman pages take up half the book and they are weakened by the author's reliance on his letters home. At this remove his callow opinions about world events lack interest, while his ever ready advice to his family is now only good for a laugh, as he seems to recognise. Years later he learned that once, when his brother had asked if there were a letter from John in Rome, their father replied, 'There's a letter over on the dresser but it is just another bloody sermon'.

After I had read the book, three things stayed sharp in my memory, so that I went back and dug them out. The first is his shrewd analysis of clericalism, the pathology that makes the priesthood into a club, a key element of which is the requirement of celibacy. It is therefore something of a surprise to be told that neither at Werribee nor in Rome was celibacy ever raised or discussed. Nevertheless, throughout the book the author skilfully asserts his heterosexual credentials: while taking for granted the nexus between priesthood and celibacy, he knew what was being asked of him, and guessed at its cost.

A second point of interest is somewhat related. One day in the college sacristy he opens an antique (early 18th century) liturgical book and finds a ceremony for defrocking a priest. One by one the Mass vestments are removed while a bishop recites back-to-front prayers in which a blessing becomes a curse and hell is substituted for heaven. The priest's hands, once annointed with sacramental oils are scraped dry. It is a chilling, barbaric liturgy; and Molony is careful to say that it is no longer operative. Then he adds, 'At the time, I was unaware that there were other ways to deal with a 'fallen' priest. Cold rejection can also cut into the heart of a man and make him feel like an outcast.'

Come to think of it, my third persistent memory of this book is also connected to these two. In those days - for all I know it may still be so - it was customary for new priests to acquire their own chalice, as a symbol of their calling. Molony falls in with custom, using funds provided by a Sydney couple he had shown round Rome. Here his prose is terse and unemotional but the paragraph ends with two sentences that sear: 'After 40 years, it (the chalice) has recently come back to me. It will, I trust, rest on my coffin before my burial.'

What a waste! I find myself murmuring. In spite of which, John Molony has achieved a rich, fruitful life - ANU professor of Australian history, author of a dozen books, ALP office-holder, father and grandfather - and in Luther's Pine has written a book that will variously delight, instruct and challenge.

Luther's Pine from:

Pandanus Books

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