In the Name of the Father - the Burden of the Good Priest in a Time of Shame
By John Elder
Sydney Morning Herald
March 5, 2016
|Balwyn parish priest Father Brendan Reed. Photo: Josh Robenstone|
Pope Francis has talked about the Church as a field hospital for the wounded. It's a message with conflicting and complex resonance, not only in this time of reckoning in the paedophilia scandals – during which the clerical collar and lighted candle has become a staple of TV parody – but for an institution that has suffered through many a dark history.
Throughout that history, there have been the good priests, and the people who love them. The idea of the field hospital, says Father Michael Casey, 72, is a fitting way to describe parish life. "We have to expect the unexpected; the doorbell, the phone call, it can come at any time," he says.
Father Michael has been the parish priest at St Ambrose in Brunswick since 1997. He was ordained at 25. Years ago, to maintain a personal prayer life among the demands of running outreach programs, saying mass, attending to all manner of crises, baptisms, marriages and funerals – plus endless book work – he decided to start each day 5.45am, just to fit it all in. Three years away from official retirement age – although the option to keep going may be afforded him – Casey finds that 9.30pm is when his energy runs out, when he hopes to knock off if possible.
And yet he's busier than ever. There's the food bank, the soup kitchen, the Iranian asylum seekers with whom he shares his home, and the female asylum seekers living in a parish home. And never too far away, somebody in acute pain. Just this week, two victims of child sexual abuse came to talk. And last Sunday, well aware that his parishioners are suffering with the shame and sadness of so many children being abused by so many priests, Casey spoke at Mass. "I talked about having to face our wounded past and hopefully we will grow through the pain that we are all feeling."
He says, as a priest "you feel it in a particular way. They were one of us, the [abusive] priests; we do feel that aspect. It's complex ... because they have betrayed in a very deep way, but our call in life is to forgive everybody."
And then there's the shadow, the priest as a figure so easily under immediate suspicion. "I'm a bit lucky because I've been here so long. I've passed the test that I'm okay."
Even so. In 2009, at the age of 65, Casey's duties expanded to taking on the East Brunswick parish. There are simply too few experienced priests to go around now. "When I first took over East Brunswick, I remember going over there, to the school, and you got the sense that people were looking at me and checking me out a bit. And I can understand that. I can empathise with parents with that attitude."
He remembers when he was first ordained, a different world. "You'd go to the school yard and kids would be all over you. Now you keep a step back. Some of the kids at church run up and put their arms around you and you feel a bit tense about that ... so you treat children more at a distance now, more than I would have done when I first started out."
Father Brendan Reed, 52, has effectively inherited three parishes over the last 10 years. He started as the parish priest at Our Lady of Good Counsel in Deepdene; five years ago he also took Balwyn, and five weeks ago, Camberwell. "It's about supply and demand," he says.
He says eight weekend masses for 1250 people. He too runs asylum seeker housing – funded wholly by his parishioners – plus a retirement village the parish built a few years ago, and a youth engagement program. And again, the endless string of "someone's ill, someone's died, someone's lost their job." Sixty hours a week easy.
"But I love my ministry. I'm energised by it. I'm tired at the end of the day but it's good tired," he says. "I love my people and I like to call them my people ... you develop a close connection with parishioners, particularly over a number of years, and I find that very satisfying."
Has the seemingly endless scandal somehow firmed up the relationship between parishioners and priest? "To a certain extent that's true: you couldn't be Catholic in Melbourne and not see the impact of the royal commission. But I think it does force people to ask what is at the heart of their faith: what would they not and could not let go of, and what is peripheral? I think people who have a connection with their priests ... they really pull together and support one another."
Father Brendan recalls an abuse survivor who made a public statement a few years ago, along the lines of: "Why should the Church be surprised we want to be connected to our faith? Most of us are Catholics, and often feel we are now lepers on the outskirts, when actually we and our families grew up faithful Catholics all our lives, otherwise we wouldn't have been close to priests."
In terms of keeping on, as a priest, Reed says: "I feel like I can only be who I am and do what I do ... It's heart wrenching, sad, I often feel like weeping about it. It's really sad, what has happened to those who have suffered ... and the ... I don't know what words to put on it ... the incredible lack of response or inadequacy of response. I feel it deeply because I feel I'm part of the institution ... But I think people are looking for leadership from us."
Hien Bu, 46, has been a priest for 13 years, having come to Australia from Vietnam 17 years ago. He's worked as an assistant priest in Moonee Ponds, Werribee, Whittlesea, East Melbourne, to name a few places. After six-and-a-half years as the parish priest in Ashburton, he took on Flemington and Kensington seven months ago.
He talks of his job as standing by people as they go through their "ups and downs of life". He talks, as the other men did, of the priesthood as a vocation. "Making yourself available to people ... to journey with them, is the most important thing," he says.
Perhaps it's his stilted English that makes his vulnerability more apparent, and his drive to find joy in the company of his parishioners, including the young people, genuinely touching. He's probably what his Buddhist forebears call a young soul. He took on the sins of his fellow priests personally, feeling he was part of something that had let people down.
"So I have worry in my mind a few years ago, I was feeling very uncomfortable. But when I walked in the school environment, and through the parish, I realised people still loved and accepted me. I am grateful for that they support their priests. We pray for the healing, and I pray that I am always being a better person and continue to follow the vocation. To continue is the important thing."