Fr Daniel Donovan recently received an invitation to the Inaugural Retired Priests' Forum in Sydney. It set him to wondering if the term "retired priest" might be an oxymoron? He suggests a more honourable term might be "senior clergy".
Does the "ontological difference" disappear on retirement?
Recently the Archdiocese of Sydney proclaimed the Inaugural Retired Priests Forum for Friday March 23 2012, at Level 5 Polding Centre, 133 Liverpool Street, Sydney. Yet the title actually employs a form of speech referred to as an oxymoron which places in one phrase two normally contradictory terms. Such is the case with "retired priest." Traditional Catholic theology of priesthood has always maintained that the ordained minister is "a priest forever" or "in aeternum." This being the case, the question arises of "retired priests?" Also the growing trend to argue, as does Bishop Julian Porteous  that ordination causes "an ontological difference" between the ordained priest and other members of the baptised community, would similarly be challenged by the concept of "retired priests." So what is "big Church" really saying when it employs this oxymoron? It would be an even way guess that again Church bureaucracy has simply adopted the language and jargon of "big Business" without any thought as to the compatibility of business speak and theological teaching.
When a person retires from work in the commercial world, he/she assumes a private persona and is no longer attached to his/her employer. Not so the priest, his years of priesthood continue to define his identity and he continues to live by Church law and discipline much as he did during his days in ministry. Maybe the correct term for priests no longer involved in parishes and the like could be "senior clergy" rather than "retired priests"?
"Foundation" on the other hand, is an unfortunate term adopted from "big Business". Corporations and sportspersons set up foundations to attract funding for specific causes such as the McGrath Foundation to provide specialist nurses for breast cancer patients. RSPCA and other organisations establish foundations to garner public interest and funding for specific works or abandoned animals. Such foundations are applauded because they draw public attention and funding to otherwise lost causes but a foundation for "senior clergy" is completely untenable. Senior clergy are in justice entitled to be supported by their Archdiocese or Diocese [Micah 6: 6-8; Lk 10:7; 1 Tim 9:13; James5:4] and the responsibility to care for senior clergy falls directly on the trustees of the dioceses and must never be considered as the impersonal functioning of a Foundation [Lk 23:31].
"Retired Priests" Foundation 2007
Prior to 2007, there was little provision for priests who were either because of age or illness or both, unable to continue in public ministry, yet other priests were forced or bullied into "early retirement" simply because they did not conform to the expectations of superiors. Three examples of a "big business treatment of priests in the Archdiocese of Sydney between 2007-2012 during the years that the Foundation has been established;
The dilemma of "wants" and "needs" is at the heart of aged care especially, in the case of senior clergy who are accustomed to consider themselves as "wantless and needless". Priests are accustomed to judge their worth or value by "what they do" rather than by "who they are". While the Foundation could be considered a step forward from "the two days in a motel" approach, it still fails to address the emotional needs of priests and their intermeshing with the clerical culture. Without addressing both the needs and wants of senior clergy and affirming their continued belonging to Archdiocesan life (apart from details of their funerals and the offer of a cremation), the Foundation is very much a work in progress which is not enhanced by the rather piecemeal approach of Archdiocesan officials. A relevant question in this context would be; how many of the senior clergy are members of the Council of Priests? If there must be a Foundation (and I am not convinced that this is an option for the Church), why would not the senior clergy themselves be invited to manage it? These men have the skills to manage finances as demonstrated by their ability over the years to keep parishes and the Archdiocese solvent while supporting major building projects.
Inaugural Retired Priests Forum: To Be or Not To Be
Last Wednesday (March 7), an invitation arrived in my mailbox for the "Inaugural Retired Priests' Forum" and I was somewhat bemused by the format which seemed to be a hastily cobbled combination of rationale and venue details. Given that the day was intended for senior clergy, it was unrealistic to expect such an audience to be at Polding Centre in Liverpool Street in the City by 9.00 am. Secondly, it would seem equally unrealistic to expect these men to be prepared to listen to "Guest Speakers" from 9.00am-4.00pm without any indication of whom the "Speakers" might be or the topics which they might address.
Later when I contacted Polding Centre to respond to the invitation, I had a conversation with the lady registering responses from invitees. Naturally, I queried the 9.00am start and was told that the time was flexible with the option of arriving toward 10.00am. Furthermore the speakers for the day had not been engaged, so it was not possible to know whether or not the speakers would address topics relevant to their audience and hold their attention for roughly 7 hours, give or take the later start and breaks for meals. The precise planning for the day was lagging especially, as attendees must register by Friday March 16. With the meeting time on the invitation incorrect and the speakers for the day not settled; I suggest that those attending bring a packed lunch just in case!
Starting Afresh with Christ: "Retired Priests"
Having conducted a rather close scrutiny of the Pastoral Plan "Starting Afresh with Christ" (SAC), with specific reference to Priority 2: Clergy and Religious Renewal and Priority 5: Pastoral Care, Social Welfare and Health Care, the silence on the ongoing care of senior clergy is deafening. Like other seniors in the Catholic community, these men who have selflessly served the Archdiocese, established parishes, built schools and provided pastoral care and support for the people of God are invited "to become better informed about support available to Priests at Retirement." Is this the Archdiocesan version of Centrelink? Senior priests (it could be argued), should not need "to become better informed about the support available to them," forget "support" rather the issue is justice.
David Hollenbach developed a wheel of basic human rights based on Pope John XXIII's Encyclical, Pacem in Terris. Senior Catholics whether lay, religious or clergy are all human beings with rights guaranteed by Christian traditional teaching. The jargon of "network," "aims," "forum," foundation," "outcomes," "strategies," "mission statement," "priorities" etc are all borrowed from big business by big Church which is so close to big business and big government that it has compromised its own identity as the sacrament of God's Kingdom of justice, peace, love and hope in the modern world. The vision of Vatican II has been abandoned by Church leaders to embrace the vision strategies of corporate life with a focus on profit rather than human dignity. Perhaps this compromise with big business has undermined the authority of the Church leaders with people simply not listening anymore?
Senior Clergy and the Archdiocese of Sydney
Since the arrival of Archbishop Pell in Sydney in 2001, the whole character of the Archdiocese has changed and the morale of the clergy has slumped. A parish priest expressed graphically the malaise among the clergy in the Archdiocese, when he said "I have withdrawn into my Parish and no longer, get involved in Archdiocesan matters". The training of diocesan clergy while based on a monastic model nevertheless produced "rugged individuals," men able to cope with whatever life threw at them. Men trained "to do" rather than "to be" and consequently with low self-esteem.
Since 2001 the Archdiocese of Sydney has changed, many of the European Movements and Clergy from Developing Countries have moved into parishes built up by these senior Sydney priests. Again SAC in Priority 2: Clergy and Religious Renewal; Section C "Welcoming and enabling of Clergy born outside Australia" states;
Both C1 and C2 require that the Chancellor and Vicar for Clergy develop and implement programmes to assist clergy from other cultures applying to work in the Archdiocese of Sydney. Yet parishes are still haemorrhaging members who report that they simply cannot understand the foreign priests and find Sunday Mass frustrating. Since the Chancellor of the Archdiocese does have a background in sociology, he would more than likely, be able to deal with the sociological aspects of assisting the new clergy to cope with the enculturation into Australian society. However C2 is more concerned with the theological process of "inculturation" or empowering (enabling) new arrivals to integrate Gospel faith with the Australian culture in the local Church. My own experience of the early years after ordination was of learning from the devotion and personal commitment of senior priests who loomed large on the Archdiocesan landscape as models and mentors not as "retirees".
Better than "programmes" would be a system of mentors. Senior priests could become mentors for the "new" clergy applying to the Archdiocese from overseas. Priests from other cultures would benefit if experienced senior priests became their mentors in their formation for ministry in Sydney parishes [1Thess 2:8]. It is this basic connectedness with Archdiocesan ethos and history which would achieve more realistically the expressed objectives in Section C of Priority 2 above.
"Senior Clergy" do not rate a Priority in SAC, yet there is a specific Priority 8: World Youth Day. Senior Clergy as a group however, are omitted from the eight priorities in SAC. Yet senior clergy are invited by the Cardinal to a "Forum" which would be completely superfluous were the current Archdiocese administration to realise that the Church is a people of God (intergenerational) rather than a Multi-National Business. Forget the oxymoronic labels, the Church must embrace Jesus' option for the justice of the Kingdom rather than the bottom line of business "render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God" [Mt 22:21; Mk 12:17; Lk 20:25]. Do the senior clergy have representatives on the Council of Priests and if not, why not? These priests are still belong to the Archdiocese and their experience (s) is sorely needed today in all aspects of Church life in Sydney!
The context of Jesus' pronouncement about "paying taxes" as referenced in the paragraph above is part of a wider conflict between the ethics of Herod's pro-Roman economy centred by the Lake with his capital of Caesarea. Locals were taxed to the hilt so that Herod could woo the favours of the Roman Emperor. On the other hand, Jesus opposed Herod's exploitation of the people and promoted his own ethics of the Kingdom. Taxes given to Caesar were not the issue but love of God and others was the priority in Jesus' ethics. The evangelist place the question of the taxes, in the context of the collusion between the Pharisees and "members of Herod's party" to destroy Jesus [Mt 22:16; 12:13; Lk 20:20]. The conflict between Herod's pro-Roman economics and Jesus' Kingdom ethics would eventually lead to Jesus' death. For this reason the Church must always begin its evangelisation by "being herself evangelised" otherwise the Church could be become a disciple of big business rather than the Kingdom.
Fr Daniel Donovan, submitted to Catholica 17 Mar 2012
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2012 Fr Daniel Donovan