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Books Etcetera

by Edmund Campion

Priests in Love by Jane Anderson, To Grow a Parish by Harry Morrissey

Thirty or forty years ago a priest wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald saying that he had fallen in love with a woman and found himself bewildered: how could such a good thing NOT come from the hand of God? Discreetly, the Herald covered his identity with a pseudonym or anonymity, I have forgotten which. I never knew who he was, nor sought to find out; but the Letters Editor at the Herald was a mate of mine and a few days later I was having a drink with him, when the unknown priest's letter came into our conversation. I told my friend that it was not beyond the imagination or reach of church operatives to try by fair means or foul to discover the name of the letter-writer. The editor turned white, went straight back to the office and recovered the original letter from his desk drawer. So the priest retained his anonymity.

This little story comes to mind because of the appearance of Priests in Love: Australian Catholic Clergy and Their Intimate Relationships by Jane Anderson (John Garratt Publishing, $34.94). Here, in their own words, are the stories of some fifty Australian priests and their quarrels with mandatory celibacy. To preserve anonymity, the author gives them names from the Bible: Father Daniel, Father Samson, Father Aaron and so on. While this succeeds in achieving the desired anonymity, it somehow makes them all faceless and lacking in individuality. As one reads the book, it is quite difficult to hang on to the reality of each man and to keep each distinct in your own mind, perhaps because few details of each life are given and also because individual narratives are chopped up and scattered throughout the book. That said, make no mistake that this book records the urgent, pained and authentic witness of good men coming to terms with the demands of their lives and the claims of the gospel. Above all, it is their authenticity that cannot be lightly dismissed. You may not agree with them but you would be stupid not to listen to what they are saying. Naive? Some of them. Confused? Maybe. Deluded? Perhaps. But authentic? Oh yes, definitely.

It is a different matter when one considers the author's own comments on her research. Jane Anderson thinks that mandatory celibacy is the main obstacle to the realization of the Kingdom; and she pursues this insight singlemindedly - one might say, obsessively - throughout her book. Who's to blame? She has no doubts there either: it is the pope, the papacy, the Vatican, the curial bureaucrats who are the bad guys here - one tires of the ranting against them. This is a book with few nuances and little taste for complexity. Further, one begins to suspect that the word sin does not occur in the author's lexicon... but NO: there it is, almost at the end of the book (in a muddled paragraph on the history of theology).

One example of the author's intellectual tone must suffice here. In a quick survey of the history of celibacy she includes this sentence: 'Between 1484 and 1585, six popes fathered children.' Hmm... Intrigued, I turned back to the relevant endnote which simply gave a general reference to JND Kelly's Oxford Dictionary of the Popes. So I took Kelly's dictionary off the shelves and began to read. Ah yes, Innocent VIII, Alexander VI, Julius II, Paul III, Pius IV and Gregory XIII. But wait there...they each fathered the children before they became pope. To suggest otherwise is slipshod scholarship.

By great good fortune, as I was working my way through Priests in Love, a friend pressed on me his own copy of a book he was enthusiastic about. He has marked and annotated and underlined this book so copiously that it could be an archival document of his own journey. The book is To Grow a Parish...Unearthing the Human. That's an odd title; and the book is oddly published: by a firm unknown to me, Debut Publishing (PO Box 213, Noosa Heads, Qld, 4567. Order hotline: 1800 625 399). The author is the veteran Missionary of the Sacred Heard priest, Harry Morrissey. Ordained in 1952, Father Morrissey has served in parishes all over Australia, from WA through Central Australia to Melbourne and the east coast; and this book is the fruit of his meditations on such rich experience. He's seen it all but nevertheless his wise book is suffused with hope for the future. This is a book for people who worry about what's going wrong with their parish, but who continue to hope - I don't mean only priests. There are no quick fixes, no grand solutions anymore; but what you read here about the possibilities of energizing the parish by discovering the various communities that make up the total parish community is all good news. Basic ecclesial communities, as they are called, might even find a way to remedy the shortage of priests which strains us all. If that means a married Catholic clergy, would this be such a bad thing?

The Works:

  • Priests in Love: Australian Catholic Clergy and Their Intimate Relationships (John Garratt Publishing)
  • To Grow a Parish...Unearthing the Human (Debut Publishing)

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