Given that most Catholics experience the Church through involvement in their parish, anything which affects priests has ramifications for parishes and therefore for parishioners.
The wholesale secularisation of once-Christian Australian society has affected the Church and given rise to the current precarious state of Catholic life and practice. While confusion rages in many minds about the true nature of the liturgy, and the effects of the clerical abuse scandals continue to be felt, vocations have declined and Catholic schools have floundered in their task of transmitting the faith.
Into this situation have come the positive effects of the Pontificate of John Paul II with a prodigious output of papal teaching on topics that most effect the day to day belief of Catholics: the Eucharist, the sacrament of Penance, the centrality of faith in Christ, the meaning of suffering, to name but a few. His writings on the priesthood have been both personal and profound.
A particularly hopeful aspect of Pope John Paul II's pontificate was his outreach to youth. His indomitable faith in God and in young people has been continued in the pontificate of his long-time collaborator and friend Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI.
One of Pope John Paul II's tasks had been to tackle the crisis in priestly identity that emerged out of the cultural morass of the 1970s and 80s.
There is ample evidence of a systematic and deliberate move to change the Church's theology of priesthood. Cardinal Avery Dulles names three theologians in particular who had great influence in the post-conciliar period. Hans Küng, Leonardo Boff and Edward Schillebeeckx broke with the constant teaching of the Church when they knocked out a central pillar of the Church's theology of priesthood, rejecting "the ontological understanding of the priestly character".
Many people (including many priests) have been led astray by the false teaching of these prominent and influential theologians. We have all, no doubt, heard comments to the effect that a priest used to be placed on a pedestal, but now we know he is just like everyone else. It was reasoned that a priest no longer receives an indelible mark on his soul at ordination, or more precisely, that no priest ever did.
The conclusion reached by many was that the Church perpetuated the myth to keep power in the hands of a few. The result of such positions is explained by Fr Benedict Groeschel: "This kind of thinking has done much harm to several aspects of Catholic life and in this case has been an important undermining factor in the decrease and loss of priestly vocations." Clearly, this is a matter of no small importance.
St John Vianney famously described the Catholic priesthood as "the love of the heart of Jesus." By this he meant that a priest is a reflection of Jesus' love, symbolised by his sacred, human heart. As Fr George Rutler explains, "The love of a priest is the unbounded love of the priest for his priesthood".
One of the most important evolutions in tridentine seminary formation has been the recognition that all aspects of formation are built upon the human dimension. Affective maturity enables a man to give due expression to what he has gained from his spiritual, pastoral and intellectual formation.
Perhaps the point is made more clearly according to the via negativa. When a man is seriously lacking in affective maturity the results can be disastrous. In the arduous task of growing in virtue one of the great helps is the nurturing of healthy relationships.
Families can be enriched in extraordinary ways by a son or brother who is a priest; but for the priest himself, parents, siblings, nieces and nephews become even more important. They can provide stability and a safe haven where he can relax. In my experience they also are prepared to keep him honest in a way that is non-threatening!
Other important relationships are those with fellow priests who are the only ones who really know what it is like to be a priest; with families who can teach patience and love; and with personal friends either from the past or from the cultural or sporting interests that he may have.
The situation in modern presbyteries in Australia (and most Western countries, I've discovered) finds the priest living alone with a minimum of domestic support.
It is said of the Cure of Ars that after hearing the confessions of thousands of priests over his lifetime, he was convinced that they should not live alone. There are many reasons why this might be the case. Besides the obvious issue of loneliness I think the real problem is that a priest risks acquiring the very thing that his celibacy is meant to dissuade: selfishness.
The most common solution offered to solve this dilemma has been the call for priests to be able to marry. This non-solution (for too many reasons to go into here) has meant that the real issue at hand has been dismissed instead of being addressed seriously and creatively.
Pope Benedict cites the Cure's observation: "A good shepherd, a pastor after God's heart, is the greatest treasure which the good Lord can grant to a parish, and one of the most precious gifts of divine mercy."
This article is adapted from Fr Anthony Denton's address at the launch of Bishop Julian Porteous' new book, 'After the Heart of God: The Life and Ministry of Priests at the Beginning of the Third Millennium'. This book is reviewed on page 17.
Fr Denton is the Director of Vocations for the Archdiocese of Melbourne.