A couple of months ago, I needed to drop a package to one of our young priests. The item had been delivered to the chancery in error, and I had offered to take it to him on my way to work in the morning because the parish was only a short detour on my journey to the office.
The plan changed, however, when my Dad was taken to hospital in an ambulance (he’s fine now, thank God.) After spending some time in emergency, Dad was sent for tests and wouldn’t be back for some time, and they could only accommodate one person to stay with him. Mum waited with him and I was sent on my way.
I phoned this young priest and told him that I was going to the office for a couple of hours and that I would swing by his place on my way. Upon arrival at the presbytery, I found that the priest had made me lunch, correctly presuming that I hadn’t eaten anything and was running on adrenalin. I burst into tears. It was a small act of kindness but one I appreciated more than he will ever know.
I can—and probably will one day—write a book of stories like this, which describe the goodness of the young clergy of Sydney and other dioceses in Australia (and some of the not-so-young ones too).
One of the chapters, I’m sure, will be about 23 August 2019, two days after the dismissal of Cardinal Pell’s initial appeal to have his conviction overturned, and three days after the bill to have abortion until birth decriminalised was tabled in the NSW Upper House after passing the Lower House by a significant margin.
Two seminarians (now young priests) were in the city and asked if I was free for a coffee. We sat at a café on Pitt Street, and I cried the whole time. I don’t remember a word of the conversation, except for right at the very end, when one of them asked if it would be helpful if they returned the following week. They came back the next week, and the week after that, and every week after that until COVID-19 locked us down, just to check in.
Another chapter will be about 19 May 2022, the night euthanasia and assisted suicide laws were passed in NSW. Exhausted from campaigning for the many months of parliamentary debate that led up to that awful result and after having cried more tears than I knew I had in me, I opted for an early night.
I had just changed into my pyjamas when the phone rang. It was a couple of our young priests, advising me they were coming to do a welfare check and that they would be at my front door within minutes. “We won’t stay long,” they said. “Just enough time to give you a hug and make sure you’re okay.” After a quick outfit change, I welcomed them in, and they sat with me for hours, grieving this latest attack on human dignity.
Still another chapter will be about the young priests who phone or visit my parents when I am travelling for work. Another about the one who concelebrated the Maronite Rite funeral of my uncle, even though he’d never been to a Maronite liturgy before, just so that he could be there for me and my family. Another about priests from other dioceses, some of whom I have never met, but who reach out to offer kind words of encouragement and promises of prayers.
There’ll also be a chapter on our seminarians, who similarly extend themselves for me and so many others; I think it could be a summa-sized project by the time I’m done.
I know that my role at the archdiocese gives me the opportunity to work closely alongside our young clergy. This is a privilege few people have. But I am not an exceptional case. I have also witnessed how these young guys care for so many others they encounter each day.
They’re good men, who have stepped up to serve Christ and his people even while religious affiliation and practice is declining, in the knowledge that they will spend their entire ministries under a cloud of suspicion because of the crimes and cover-ups of their forebears.
That’s why I’m so disappointed when I hear a caricature of them expressed in Rome, either through the Synod on Synodality’ documents or even, sadly, in the intervention of the Holy Father in the synod’s closing days. This caricature suggests they are vain and self-seeking, caring more about liturgical vestments than their flock. It is also suggested that our seminaries are clericalism factories, rather than places of formation of good pastors who desire to be close to their people.
In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth. These priests and seminarians won’t defend themselves publicly, of course, which is why I want to do it. The image of young priests and seminarians and seminaries being bandied about in the synod hall and elsewhere is wildly inaccurate, and only possible to believe if you judge these guys by appearance alone. Ironically, it’s coming from those who are calling on everyone to be non-judgmental.
To any of our clergy, young or old, Sydney or otherwise, who are reading this, or our beloved seminarians: thank you for everything you’re doing. Know of our love and our prayers.