By Karna Swanson
SYDNEY, Australia, NOV. 13, 2009 (Zenit.org).- The life of the priest — despite the many challenges and difficulties — is above all a life that is rich in the grace of God and the love of those he ministers to, says Auxiliary Bishop Julian Porteous of Sydney.
The prelate is author of the book “After the Heart of God: The Life and Ministry of Priests at the Beginning of the Third Millennium” (Connorcourt Publishing, 2009), in which he reflects on the identity and mission of the priest in the midst of a rapidly changing society.
Having been a priest himself since 1974, Bishop Porteous surveys the changing situation of the priest in modern society, changes which he himself has witnessed.
In this interview with ZENIT, the 60-year-old bishop, who served for seven years as rector of the Seminary of the Good Shepherd, comments on various aspects of the priesthood, and includes details of his own vocation call.
ZENIT: What attracted you principally to becoming a priest?
Bishop Porteous: The origins of my vocation were in primary school. I attended a Catholic school, and I received my call really when I was in the 5th or 6th class. I had a clear sense then that I was to become a priest.
That stayed with me through the years of my high school, and immediately after high school I went to the seminary to begin studying for the priesthood. I’ve always sensed that this has been God’s call and I’ve always had that with me since I was 11 or 12 years old.
ZENIT: Has your experience of being a priest, and now a bishop, exceeded your expectations?
Bishop Porteous: It certainly has. I always pictured myself as a parish priest and that has always been the focus for my understanding of my priestly life. And that is what I have largely experienced and lived out. I’ve always been very content to do the normal pastoral activities of a priest in a parish.
It’s only been in recent years that there has been a significant change, and that’s when I was asked to become the rector of the seminary, which was quite a surprise and unexpected request from the archbishop. I served in that role for seven years, and in the course of that I was called to be a bishop.
Both those roles were unexpected because I always believed that I would spend my life being a priest in a parish, and that’s what I love most — doing the normal, everyday, works of a priest.
ZENIT: And do you get to still do some of that as a bishop?
Bishop Porteous: It’s very hard [laughs]. But if I can, I love to. [For example], the local priest is on holidays, and so I’ve been going down and saying the morning Masses in the parish when I can, and that’s been lovely. I’ve enjoyed getting back to saying a normal daily Mass for a parish community.
And other times when I get to a parish to celebrate Mass for the people on a Sunday for a visitation or something, I really appreciate those opportunities. It’s always been for me an expression of being a priest.
ZENIT: And now to speak about your book, “After the Heart of God.” In that book you discuss the identity and mission of the priesthood today. Are priests currently undergoing an identity crisis?
Bishop Porteous: In the book I talk about the fact that there have been very significant changes in the whole social and cultural context of the priesthood, and secondly the ecclesial situation for priests.
I was ordained in 1974, so the book really spans those years where there have been very significant cultural changes. First, there has been the rise of secularism and the impact that has had on society as a whole, and on the lives as Catholics as well.
The ecclesial context too has changed a great deal. We think of what the Church was like immediately after the Second Vatican Council, for example the sense of optimism that was there then. And then there emerged, particularly in the 1970s, many issues and problems: a large number of priests leaving the ministry, the whole change of religious in the Church took place, certainly in Australia. We had many religious involved in our schools and hospitals — that’s largely changed now.
We’ve also seen changes that are more closely associated with the priest at the local pastoral level. We’ve also seen the rise — and this has been very good, of course — of the engagement of laypeople in the various areas of service within the Church.
And there are the changes that have taken place in the liturgy … there are so many things that have changed and influenced the character of the life of the Church.
And priests have lived through those changes — especially priests my age — which they have had to adjust to the best they can.
I think there have been problems. One of the issues has been the inter-relationship between the role of the priest and the role of the layperson in the Church — issues related to what has sometimes been called the clericalization of the laity, and the laicization of the clergy. That can cause some confusion of some magnitude.
The fact that priests before would often be in the situation of being able to live with other priests — the parish priest and one or two assistant priests — now priests live by themselves.
In the past, you had a structure to presbytery life. Now it’s a lot less. Many priests don’t have a live-in housekeeper. Some don’t even have a housekeeper.
So there have been many changes in the character of the living situation of the priest, and also there’s been an increasing demand being made upon the priest.
Whereas before, assistant priests or sisters helped with sacramental programs, now we see that so much more of this is coming back to the priest. Life has become more complex. Priests are under a lot more pressures, and a lot more is being asked of them — a lot more range of responsibilities.
I think priests are feeling the pressure of the changed circumstances in which they are finding themselves today.
ZENIT: Is that a positive pressure, or a negative pressure? Are the changes preventing the priest from fulfilling his essential roles?
Bishop Porteous: I think the increased demands on a priest sometimes makes it difficult for him to focus on the principal tasks, and I think there are a lot of management issues to have to deal with. These can take away from the more direct and immediate pastoral and spiritual role of the priest.
Priests can be distracted from their essential tasks, [and] these pressures have made life more difficult.
One of the issues I feel is very important is that a lot of priests are forced to live alone. That is not necessarily the best human environment for a priest, who doesn’t have a companion — another priest — living with him, as companionship, to be able to hear about the daily experiences, to talk about issues, etc. All of these things have affected the quality of life of priests, and these are the realities and the circumstances we find ourselves in today.
I do think we need to look for ways to support and assist priests more effectively so they are able to be the pastors that they need to be, and that the parishioners need them to be.
ZENIT: What advice do you have for parishioners who are looking to support their priests, and to help them in general to be faithful priests?
Bishop Porteous: We want our priests to be priests. We want our priests to be men of God. We want our priests to be first and foremost spiritual men.
And, therefore, we want to do all we can to encourage that and acknowledge that by saying, “Father, this is what we really need you to be. We need you to be this man of God in our midst. We need you to be able to be a man who is able to guide us spiritually, to preach in a way that encourages and builds up our faith.”
Therefore, what we want to be able to do is to try to support the priest in doing this. Maybe this means we work at taking burdens and pressure
s off priests in areas that aren’t essentially their pastoral ministry.
ZENIT: What role does the priest have in a society that is becoming more secular?
Bishop Porteous: The priest has the role of being a man of God in society. I think it’s very important for priests to have a confidence that — despite a lot of secularization and consumerism, and despite the fact that there has been a lot of attention on living for this world alone — deep down in every single person there is a spiritual thirst and a spiritual need.
First and foremost, priests need to be those who can reach out to touch that need and assist people in finding God, and assist people in being able to develop a relationship with God and to give to people a vision of life that is grounded very solidly in faith. Priests have a unique role to play in that. Despite the fact that many people might be far from faith, I think there is a fundamental need for priests.
These days, the priest doesn’t have the same status as he had in the past in society as a whole, but the priest still has an essential role to play. Also, I think the priest has a vital role to be somewhat of a prophetic voice in society, reminding people of the deeper, spiritual and moral ideals of life, and to live life more in terms of eternity, and less in terms of the immediate present. That’s a very important message — and a witness — that priests can give.
People want priests to be priests, and to live fully our identity and the nature of our life. Priests shouldn’t be ashamed of what they stand for, or what their lives are about.
ZENIT: What advice would you give to a young man who is discerning a vocation?
Bishop Porteous: The first thing I’d say to any young man is to see one’s vocation fundamentally as a call from God, a call from God that is a gift from Christ. The young man who is looking at the priesthood should search his heart for the call of God. To recognize that this is what God is asking from him. And then to be assured that God is with him in this. He doesn’t walk the journey of priesthood alone. It’s a remarkable way that God’s grace is with him who gives his heart to serve as a priest.
The other thing is that the life of a priest is a life of joyful service. In embracing the priesthood as service one experiences a rich gift of love from those that he serves. A priest’s life is rich in the experience of love and support, especially from those he ministers to.
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On the Net:
“After the Heart of God”: www.connorcourt.com/catalog1/index.php?main_page=product_info&products_id=111