For more than 100 years, St Patrick's College has stood guard over Manly beach - a reminder that surf, sun and sand is not the sum total of human striving. Perched on the ocean side of North Head, it is the most spectacular building in Sydney after the Opera House. Now, to cope with fewer seminarians and higher maintenance costs, the Church has concluded a 30-year lease to an international hotel school - and the college tower, which once served as finger beckoning man to God, will soon, so to speak, summon patrons to their table.
When St Patrick's College opened in 1889, it was a sign of the faith, courage and self-confidence of the local Church. Cardinal Moran boasted that it would be the "finest institution in the Australias" and wanted it to be the heart of a Catholic university of United Australia. It is the biggest, oldest and most celebrated seminary in Australia - and by providing an alternative to training in Dublin or Rome was midwife to the birth of a local priesthood.
Tom Keneally's first books were about his experiences there. Like many others, Keneally was repelled by its intellectual ordinariness and lingering Irishism. One of his contributions to dragging the priestly training of the 1960s into the real world was to substitute "God Save the Queen" for "Hail Queen of Heaven" to open the seminary play.
Now that the seminary has gone, my thoughts echo those attributed to Henry II: alive I did wish him dead; dead I do wish him alive.
The Church leasing St Patrick's is as significant as the royals leasing Buckingham Palace. It is the ecclesiastical equivalent of the fall of Singapore.
To those running the Church in Sydney, leasing St Patrick's makes perfect sense. Why maintain a vast building for a handful of students? But they are thinking like lawyers, not leaders; vacating St Patrick's is not leaving a building - it is abandoning a sacred site.
Of course, the arrangement means more money for Catholic schools, hospitals, retirement villages and so on - but less money for the Catholic faith upon which the whole exercise is supposed to turn. Why couldn't the former seminary have been turned into the administrative centre of a university or into the chancery of the Archdiocese? If the Church needed money, why couldn't it have sold its office buildings and kept its soul?
One should not be too hard on Church managers in Sydney. They have hundreds of properties to maintain, thousands of staff to support, dozens of services to continue. But how compatible is this commonsense with providing inspiration to lead lives of heroic virtue?
There is a presumption about someone who could not survive the rigours of religious life offering advice to those who could. On the other hand, if war is too important to be left to the generals, religion is too important to be left to the clergy. If you believe, as I do, that the success of a society depends upon its ideals as much as on its policy, Australia needs a vigorous and self-confident Christianity. The Church is now thinking about adding spires to St Mary's Cathedral. Keeping St Pat's would have been less expensive and more worthwhile.
Tony Abbott is the Federal Member for Warringah, Sydney, and was a student at St Patrick's in the mid-1980s. His article originally appeared in the 'Sydney Morning Herald' and is reprinted with permission.