ST PASCHAL’S COLLEGE OF THEOLOGY
The transition from Philosophy to Theology involved not just a change in venue, but the momentous event which was the taking of Solemn Vows. For the twenty-one year old I now was, it was a major decision, the commitment to becoming a fully-fledged Franciscan for the rest of my life. Some of my fellow-Friars had decided to return to the “lay-state” during our three years of Philosophy, and had had little difficulty in receiving the necessary dispensation from their Simple Vows. The taking of Solemn Vows was a far more definitive step. During my four years at St Paschal’s only one solemnly professed student, just before Diaconate, the last step immediately prior to ordination to the Priesthood, requested a dispensation from his vows. It was a deliberately slow, exceptional and painful process. But, as had been the case in taking Simple Vows, I personally had no doubt that I would now be a Franciscan till the day I died. I was happy and proud to be admitted as a permanent member of the Order.
It never occurred to me at the time, but in retrospect I see a curious analogy with graduating from three years of Primary School to five years of High School. “Omnibus paribus” (“All things being equal”), as I would have said then, I would study Theology in the Melbourne suburb of Box Hill, be ordained a priest and complete my preparation for the ministry by a fifth “Pastoral Year” with my fellow-ordained “frati” in the Sydney suburb of Waverley, where I had, years before, met Fr Kieran who sent me to Robbo.
At St Paschal’s College, as at MBK High School, I had new teachers, new subjects, a new status. We were now totally committed members of the Order, albeit trainees for the priesthood, dedicated to acquiring the theological knowledge presumably necessary to fulfill our future function as pastors, confessors, preachers, celebrants of the Sacraments and servants of the People of God.
Except for Sacred Scripture, our course of studies was entirely new : Moral Theology, Canon Law, Liturgy, Church History, Homilectics (the art of preaching). Almost all of our professors had degrees from overseas Universities, Louvain, Rome, even Oxford, Munich and Washington. (Years later I would be the first – and the last – to be sent to study in … Paris.) We would be given a smattering of Greek and even Hebrew by a brilliant, gifted Friar whose talents included a voice fabulously suited to Gregorian Chant, notably in the Liturgy of Holy Week preceding and including Easter. The other professors were also admirable men in their knowledge and dedication, though more than limited in their mastery of pedagogy, or, more accurately – as they were dealing not with children but with (young) adults – androgogy. Some used textbooks but most gave themselves the task of producing for each class four pages of notes, on Gestetner stencils, which they compiled, typed and distributed (without necessarily identifying the sources of their probable plagiarism.) A memorable example was the seventeen pages we were given on Double Vasectomy. Medico-Moral Ethics was, of course, a necessary, vital subject for future Confessors, although without revealing what I still consider an inviolable secret, I can affirm that I never once heard a confession relating to this particular form of birth-control.
(Readers must wonder about ex-priests’ attitude to all sorts of things, including the Confessional Secret. We learned, and few Catholics understand, that what is forbidden to a confessor is not the revelation of a particular confessed “sin“,but its possible attachment to a particular, identifiable penitent. Whence the famous, exemplary story about the newly-ordained priest who spoke of his first experience in the confessional : “My very first penitent confessed to committing murder !” Unfortunately, in the pub nearby, a parishioner was expressing his admiration for the new young curate of the parish, and priding himself on having been his very first penitent …).
I heard many confessions during my seven years of ministry, parishioners, school-children, priests, nuns, brothers, juvenile delinquents, in both English and French. My penitents have no need to worry about my revealing their sins. A : I never have. B : I never will. C : I never could. I have not the faintest idea of who confessed what. I may disappoint some anti-clericals. But what is more important is that as a professional, even one who has abandoned previous religious beliefs, I have total respect for anyone who entrusts me with a secret, be it in the context of the confessional (fifty years ago !) or the revelation of someone today who does me the honor of asking me confidentially for advice.
Our studies were exclusively Catholic. In Philosophy we never studied Marxism, and fleeting references to other abominations in philosophical thought consisted of summary dismissal. In Theology, we noted the erroneous opinions of heretics, but gave them little serious attention. After all, we were in the 1950s, light-years before the ground-breaking Ecumenical Council of Vatican 2 of the sixties. The official doctrine was still “extra Ecclesiam nulla salus“, “Outside the Church – one, holy, Catholic and apostolic – no salvation”.
We had no need or incentive to discover questions, but continued in the tradition, formalized by the Council of Trent in the 16th century, of being impregnated with the sure, certain, infallible doctrine of the Church.
In High School, our religion classes had included something called “Apologetics“, a systematic refutation of every imaginable objection to Catholic faith and practice, in the style of Dr Rumble’s “Radio Replies”, a best-selling publication of this Australian priest-theologian-historian’s popular weekly radio program on 2SM. Neither in school or the seminary did we ever study Judaism, Islam or Buddhism, or even more than a superficial review of Protestantism or Christian Orthodoxy. We had our own certitudes. We knew we were right. Our ignorance did not bother us, as we delved into the intricacies of unquestionable Catholic belief.
As at Greyfriars, life at St Paschal’s was pleasant enough. We had the good fortune of having intelligent, well-informed professors, noticeably less paranoid than some of their confreres at Mornington. Discipline was strict, but willingly accepted. We learned humility and the meaning of poverty by having to ask the Student-Master every time we needed a tube of toothpaste. The balance between prayer, liturgical celebrations, classes, personal study, manual labor and sporting activities was such that it never occurred to any of us to voice anything resembling a complaint. We even had the privilege of viewing occasionally, in the students’ rec room, a movie, selected and rented by one of the students. I remember I once had this responsibility, and was embarrassed by having totally misunderstood what “Magnificent Obsession“, with Rock Hudson, was all about. Though a very tame love-story, it was not the sort of entertainment to which we were accustomed. “Marcellino Pan y Vino”
was more typical of the edifying fare we normally saw. We practised preaching, under the guidance of the Student-Master. The audience was the student-body, invited to offer constructive criticism of the homiletic efforts of each of the future Fulton Sheens we hoped to be.
We were also given a precious supplement to our theological studies. The Christian Brothers had a training center near the College, and we were given the opportunity to learn the fundamentals of practical pedagogy, by teaching classes of small children in a specially constructed facility, which boasted, in one of the classrooms, a back wall made of one-way glass. The kids would come into the classroom and try to peer through the mirror to see if there were student-teachers in the room behind it. Of course, all they saw was their own faces. We sat in tiered seats, Christian Brothers and Franciscans, witnessing the performance of a fellow-student trying his hand at teaching eleven-year olds, expertly analyzed in real time by the Christian Brother Master of Method.
I mention this experience of practice preaching and teaching because of the fact that many of us, in later years, already ordained but suffering serious doubts about pursuing our “vocation“, had to face the fact that our seven or eight years of preparation for the priesthood did not allow us to acquire any truly marketable skills. “To dig I am not able, to beg I am ashamed” (Luke 6:3). The Gospel text did not add this other cause for hesitation in some young priests’ temptation to be “reduced to the lay state”, to abandon the priesthood, with or without a Papal dispensation, and seek a job in the … real world. (Many others, including much older priests, faced as well the, to them, insurmountable obstacle of disappointing, offending, scandalizing and being rejected by their families.) Years later, at the time I decided to leave the Order and the Priesthood, many of my fellow-priests who did leave, found themselves literally unemployable, if they could not find financing for the studies necessary to acquire the skills and degrees of a lawyer, an accountant or a social worker; they were reduced to taking any job, even the most menial, which was available. One former Sydney priest I knew had to make his living as a truck driver delivering bread. Another, mindful perhaps of the Gospel phrase which he had never applied to himself, “To dig I am not able“, ended up as a grave-digger.
My own academic career left me little in the way of qualifications for most secular jobs. Fortunately I had early and even post-graduate effective training in communication, public-speaking and in teaching. Knowledge of Canon Law, Sacramental Theology and Catholic medico-moral Ethics are not particularly effective selling-points in seeking employment. I am grateful that I would not later find myself as destitute and ill-equipped as so many others who took the risk of leaving the security of the priesthood and trying to begin a career without a minimum of indispensable qualifications and aptitudes.
None of this, once again, was on my mind at any time during my studies. At the minimum age of twenty-four (Robbo had given me the extra year I needed), I was ordained in 1961 in St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, by His Eminence Norman Thomas Cardinal Gilroy, my Dad’s old schoolmate at MBK, fifty years before. I concelebrated my First Mass with my two priest-brothers, Mick and Jim, in my old parish church in Kogarah, on the altar that bore my (Uncle Frank’s) name.
I was now a “sacerdos in aeternum“, “a priest forever“, totally devoid of doubt, filled with faith, in my religion and in my chosen calling. I could not imagine that seven years later I would ask the Pope to dispense me from the vows I had so willingly taken, or that it would take another ten years for me to make the definitive step into atheism.