BISHOP BILL: Le temps perdu or 'the lost time'

Something about New Year encourages nostalgia, or perhaps it was just driving past St Michael’s recently on my way to a funeral. Either way, I’ve been reminiscing about my first appointment as a priest, 37 years ago, and the way a priest’s life has changed in that time.

Gone are the old rituals of presbytery life. We used to have meals at set times, sitting in the parlour off the kitchen with the Monsignor flourishing a little bell to let the housekeeper know we’d done with the soup and were ready for mains. Our laundry and ironing were taken care of, too. There were drawbacks, of course. Where I was, the monsignor had been parish priest for only five years but the housekeeper had lived in for twenty-five. If nothing ever changed, that was not entirely our choice! We were living in her house.

But it was still a house. If the doorbell rang, you answered it. It was the priests’ home and people dropped in to see the priests. There were no parish staff beyond the housekeeper, and no obvious need for any. If there was a parish office, it was that small room upstairs where the ledgers and registers were kept and where, on a Tuesday morning, the monsignor did the books and wrote up the baptisms. It wasn’t difficult. My monsignor, being wise and good, initiated me into the mysteries of the four column ledger and left me to get on with it whenever he was away.

There was a finance council of sorts. Comprising the PP, curate and Alf the Scottish chief warden, it met after the last Mass on Sunday for morning tea and to work on the financial plan, which was to say, to check our Lotto coupon and prepare the next one. It was a small inner suburban parish and there was no money anyway, so the five-year plan was to save enough to brighten up the church. The house had waited for thirty years for anything beyond urgent repairs, it could wait thirty more.

Weekdays began with Mass at 6.30, Miss McCann tossing pebbles at my window when required. After breakfast one hung around the schoolyard seeing kids and parents as they came in. Then it might be sick calls or nursing homes till dinner. After dinner the monsignor, being Roman trained, disappeared until 4 o’clock. I used that time some days to visit either of the two Catholic high schools nearby, hearing confessions on Wednesdays, going to the Open’s football game on Thursdays. The evening was generally when you did marriage preparation with couples or had the occasional meeting with the Liturgy Committee that was the de facto parish council. Such were the routines.

I, as ‘the young bloke’, had a few extra duties that were actually pleasures: Saturday night with the youth group, Sunday afternoons playing squash with high school kids, training the altar boys, taking them to the movies from time to time, organising youth group activities in the holidays, doing some HSC coaching. All of those things would be done very differently now, would have to be done differently, if at all. That change, of course, the new guardedness, the care that you need to take to ensure that you can’t be accused of anything, is the saddest change. It has been necessary because programmatic protection of children is of paramount importance, but no less sad for being necessary. What would I say now to 17-year-old Luis who got me up at 11.00pm to see if I could drive him to Manly to retrieve his stolen, brand new, hotted-up Torana? ‘Sorry, Lou, you’ll have to find another adult to come with us’? I hadn’t known him well until that night, but he did ask me to preside at his wedding some years and a couple of parishes later.

It is, of course, a waste of time and energy to regret that times change. They always will.

But it can be worthwhile to consider the directions and implications of the changes. I remember when travellers would come back from the United States telling tales of how you had to get through so many layers of parish bureaucracy to finally get an appointment with a parish priest. We thought it was a hoot – so American! All you did here was ring the doorbell.

Well, we’ve progressed. But, as I recall, the point of all the meetings and extra staff was to share the load, to free the priest to do the priest stuff. A bit like our technology was going to give us all more time to enjoy life! Instead, we’re often locked in to committee meetings or managing the office. But the priesthood is a hands-on ministry, a face-to-face ministry. It’s a bedside ministry. It’s conversation in the presbytery kitchen over coffee. ‘All ministry is relationship’, Paul Hanna used to say when I was with him at Mt Druitt, and of course that’s right. The trick for us, in the new order, is to have parish life organised, but without spending too much time on organising. The priesthood is about being with people. It gets boring if you’re just oiling the machine. Those are two realities that don’t change.

Bishop Bill Wright Image
Bishop Bill Wright

Most Reverend William (Bill) Wright is the eighth Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle and is the pastoral leader of more than 150,000 Catholics in the region.

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