Milestones are important. They help us to take stock of who we are and where we are going. They help us to focus on what is important and who is important to us. This is true of birthdays, anniversaries and a myriad of special occasions that mark our lives. This week I celebrated thirty years as a priest. It is one of those occasions that warrants stopping and reflecting upon. I was aided by the wonderful, thoughtfulness of parishioners who put together a very moving tribute by way of an online book of memories and thanks. Thank you to the parish staff for facilitating this. Those memories and tributes reminded me again of just why I am a priest and of the privilege it is to be a priest. So many of you have welcomed me into your lives at the most extraordinary and blessed moments. I have sat with many of you and listened to the stories of your pain as you have come to bury a parent, a spouse, and sometimes, tragically, a child. I have shared in your stories of pain and grief and also of deep appreciation and love for the lives you have shared with those who have gone. I have seen and heard your faith and your belief in the eternal love of God.
I have come together with dozens (maybe even hundreds) of you to celebrate Baptism, Reconciliation, Eucharist and Confirmation. These occasions have been immersed with the love of God and the love of family and life. At these times the central twin commandment of love of God and love of neighbour shines forth. I’ve married dozens of couples over those years too, and I am still close friends with the first couple I married in 1989 (for those doing the sums you are right – I was actually a deacon then not a priest). I have enjoyed baptising the children of many of the unions I have celebrated, and I look forward to so many more of these happy occasions.
I have also experienced a Church over the last thirty years that has reckoned with its sinfulness and its pride. I have written to you many times, over the years, about my horror and shame in relation to the institutional response to child sexual abuse, the cover ups and the diminishment of responsibility and accountability from those who were expected to be leaders, believers and those representing moral virtue in our Church. The task of healing and reform is not over. In many ways it has only just begun. The twin crisis of abuse and church governance is one that can only be overcome by an ongoing determination of good Catholic men and women to ensure that their parishes and diocese do not fall prey to a clerical and secretive culture that allowed the abuse to occur in the first place. To this end I was privileged to be part of the writing team of Light from the Southern Cross, the August 2020 report to the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference on the reform of Governance of Parishes and Diocese across the Church in Australia.
That report also picks up on a further element that has marked thirty years of priesthood and that is the ongoing cultural shift in the place of religion in Australia and more broadly in the Western world. The most recent Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data showed that just over 50 percent of Australians now identify with one or the other Christian denominations in this country. The largest growing group were those who identified with No Religion. This itself is an interesting study as No Religion covers those who have secular or other spiritual beliefs or do not identify with an institutional religion. I wonder how many of our own parishioners may have ticked that box!
So, the landscape is wide and varied when it comes to being a priest. I am embedded in five wonderful faith communities from Camberwell through to Wattle Park. We are all part of a wider culture that is undergoing ongoing change with respect to religious affiliation. We are part of a Church that is struggling to renew itself and that has failed so many of our young and innocent.
And yet I remain a priest of hope. I find the person of Jesus Christ and the Gospel, that he came to announce, as enticing now as I did thirty years ago. I do believe that the promise of hope, of forgiveness of healing of resurrection; and of life is a storyline that holds more promise to me than anything else I have known.
Thank you for all your good wishes and support for my thirtieth anniversary.