Priests celebrate 420 years of priesthood

Then and now: the class of 1958. Fr Paul Ryan is third from the right in the second row and Fr David Coffey is at the far left of the third row. Fathers John Ford, Brian Yates and Michael Kelly are respectively, fifth from right, second from right and at the far right of the front row. Fr Ken Sargent is second from left in the second row and Fr Don Willoughby is second from left in the back row.

This month, seven priests of the Sydney archdiocese celebrate a combined 420 years of service to God and the Church as part of the largest batch of priests the country has ever produced.

Cardinal Norman Gilroy ordained Fathers David Coffey, John Ford, Michael Kelly, Paul Ryan, Kenneth Sargent, Don Willoughby, and Brian Yates at St Mary’s Cathedral on 8 March 1958.

They completed their seminary training together at St Columba’s College, Springwood, and St Patrick’s College, Manly, and have helped Australia’s Catholics, including seminarians and younger priests, navigate the great changes in the Church and the world over 60 years.

“I haven’t checked the record books, but I think that having seven diamond jubilarians on the one day might just be one,” Archbishop Fisher wrote in a Facebook post on 8 March congratulating the jubilarians.

Fr Paul Ryan. PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

“Thanks be to God for them, for their 420 years of priestly service and for the many more following in their footsteps.

“May you too all reach your diamond jubilee in the service of God and His people.”

All have retired to lesser duties and have had time to reflect on their vocations.

Fr Ryan, former parish priest at St Martha’s Strathfield, told The Catholic Weekly that the changes brought by Vatican II to the Mass and parish life had the biggest impact on his ministry.

“We were ordained before it occurred and we are the generation which had to adapt to it,” he said.

“I lectured at the seminary at Springwood for a long time and that was good, but what I enjoyed most was the pastoral work in a parish, and by that I mean [being with] the people.”

Fr Kelly, former parish priest of All Hallows, Five Dock, also pointed to the “many changes” that Vatican II brought to the liturgy including the change from Latin to English and the facing of the priest towards the congregation. But the essential things remain.

Fr David Coffey. PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

“The greatest gift has been able to stand at the altar in the place of Christ, persona Christi,” he said.

“Central to the priesthood is being a priest of the Mass, of the people, and of prayer. Everything else sort of flows from there.”

For Fr David Coffey, who founded the Australian Catholic Theological Association, the two great highlights of his priesthood were studying under Dr Karl Rahner SJ in Munich after ordination, and the opportunity to take up a chair of theology at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

He considers one of the greatest changes in the life of a priest was the move to a collaborative form of parish ministry.

“The priesthood used to be so isolated. Now a priest works as part of a team with plenty of help from other people.”

Fr Sargent agreed that a move away from clericalism and involvement of the whole community in parish life has been most positive. “Previously the priest did nearly everything during the Mass and made every decision in the life of the parish, when there was no need for that to be the case.”

Fr Willoughby, who leads the archdiocese’s Galilee House of Prayer and Hospitality for Priests, said he found officiating at funerals to be “most fulfilling” and funeral liturgies much more appropriate in English than the original Latin.

“It’s where our Faith is strongest and the Church presents clearly belief in the afterlife and the promises of the Redeemer,” he said.
He also appreciated the modern-day assistance of parish secretaries, pastoral associates, finance committees, and parish councils when he was a parish priest.