Good priests: the Church's essential foot soldiers

Good priests: the Church's essential foot soldiers

Cardinal George Pell

This is the edited text of Cardinal George Pell's homily given on 16 August at the 25th Anniversary of Ordination Mass for the Class of 1985, Corpus Christi College, Clayton, at Mary MacKillop Church, Keilor Downs, Melbourne Archdiocese.

From 1985-1986, prior to his elevation to auxiliary bishop in 1987, Dr Pell was Rector of Corpus Christi College, the seminary which trains priests for dioceses in Victoria and Tasmania. As Archbishop of Melbourne (1996-2001), he relocated Corpus Christi College to East Melbourne, close to St Patrick's Cathedral.

It was 1517 when the German Augustinian priest Martin Luther pinned his thesis to the door of the Wittenberg Church and started the Protestant Reformation. The Papacy was at that period often more interested in politics and art than religion, and lapsed not infrequently into significant levels of personal corruption.

The Protestant call for a return to the Christ of the gospels forced the Catholic Church to take her religious claims more seriously as she incurred enormous losses, especially in northern Europe, not to unbelief, but to an alternative, hostile, largely non-sacramental form of Christianity.

The Church leadership was slow to react as the Papacy feared that a new Council would resurrect Conciliarist claims to supremacy, but eventually the Council of Trent (1545-1563) plotted the successful course of the Counter Reformation, led by an extraordinary new and vital religious order called the Jesuits.


Trent brought in a series of decrees and measures, re-affirming a hard Catholic line with the reassertion of mandatory clerical celibacy. Under pressure from the Catholic princes the Council Fathers brought out their version of a universal Catechism, which had been a Protestant invention. However the Council's most important and long lasting reform was the Tridentine seminary where seminarians were gathered together for spiritual, personal and communal formation, as well as academic training.

Philosophy became a necessary prerequisite too, as the Church moved decisively away from relying on attendance at cathedral schools, universities and an apprenticeship model for seminarians living with the local clergy. Trent mandated a seminary for every diocese where possible and drew heavily on Cardinal Pole's reforms in England under Queen Mary.

Seminaries today are generally changed and improved, but the basic Tridentine model remains, working effectively in many places including Melbourne, to prepare good priests.

So it was in such a seminary, Corpus Christi College, where I was briefly Rector, that I met the class of 1985. The year is remarkable for a couple of good reasons. Twelve men were ordained, allegedly the largest group for 40 years, and ten out of the twelve are still working well as priests and serving their people. Father Tim Tolan died in his parish.

The Council of Trent and the great Counter Reformation popes realised that the office of the priesthood is crucial to the vitality of the Church and that the proper preparation of priests is the major factor in achieving such an ambition.

What was true 450 years ago is equally true now. Unless the seminaries are in good order, communities of prayer and purity, sanctified by holy routines of life, study and service, then the Church is self-destructing. At a different level I believe that the gospel quality of our religious education programs for the young is equally important.

We have only a limited capacity to battle the relentless external pressures on our communities, and especially on our youth, but our internal life is another matter. We can and must help ourselves effectively.

State of Church

This is far from the worst of times. The Church is not in crisis and the priesthood is not in crisis. In fact the challenges are primarily in the First World to which we belong. Elsewhere we find huge problems, but they are problems of growth. In the Western world and in Australia we are slowly emerging from the great post-Conciliarist crisis which almost destroyed the Church in some countries and which threatened to do so in Australia. There could have been many more South Brisbanes.

Over the years I have mentioned publicly on a number of occasions the collapse of the Catholic Church in Holland, provoking anguished letters from a few Dutch Australians who did not so much dispute my claims, but beseeched me not to make them publicly.

Things are still not good in the euthanasia capital of the world, where Church practice is rarely above five per cent and the number of baptised Catholics has fallen significantly since the 1970s. But a couple of years ago when I last checked the figures, seminarian numbers had increased to 185, which is more than we had in Australia when our Catholic population was slightly larger. There too the wheel is turning

Today worldwide we have no Hitler imprisoning priests, while the Communist persecution of Christians and their infamous network of concentration camps have disappeared into history, at least in Europe.

In Australia we face a religious situation as varied as the voting patterns have been in the recent Federal Election. We have faced up to the scandal of sexual abuse, which has damaged our moral authority, but effective measures have been in place now for over a decade to help the victims. The worst has passed.

We still experience pressure for a married clergy from a number of the older priests, some of whom also want women ordained! But in many places in Australia, including Melbourne, under the leadership of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict, we are doing better.

Nothing is perfect. Much remains to be done among the young married and their children, but our good priests are the essential foot soldiers in our age-old struggle. They need others to join them and we pray that their hard work and fidelity will inspire successors.

The class of 1985 was prepared for the priesthood in interesting times. One of the consequences of seven years of seminary formation is that the graduating priests always believe they are much better informed about the nature of the Church, about theology and what has to be done, than the seminary staff. The class of 1985 shared these convictions in spades, although they differed profoundly among themselves on the way forward. So did the staff.

I learnt a lot as Rector and every hostile press conference I have faced since (and I have faced one or two) has been an anti-climax after the hostility of some of the community meetings at Corpus Christi. This was not entirely bad for any of us participants. We find no pearl in an oyster without some grit.