Academic journal article Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society

Memoirs by Australian Priests, Religious and Ex-Religious

Academic journal article Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society

Memoirs by Australian Priests, Religious and Ex-Religious

Article excerpt

Autobiography is history from the inside. Real history--how events appeared to those who took part in them. That is not to say that memoirs are always true, or fair, balanced and unbiased. As Clive James says, "all attempts to put oneself in a bad light are doomed to be frustrated. The ego arranges the bad light to its own satisfaction." (1) Nevertheless, what people say about themselves is at the historical front line--the primary evidence of what it was really like to be there.

The article selects some interesting parts of a few of the memoirs by Australian priests, brothers and nuns. And by ex-priests, ex-brothers and ex-nuns, who sometimes write the most dramatic stories. Perhaps ex-religious can speak more freely than those still under vows. Or maybe to write a gripping autobiography requires a strong fascination with oneself that does not fit ideally with the mental attitudes appropriate to permanency in religious life.

I have included simply what I find interesting. But I have looked especially at the accounts of first commitment to the religious life, in the hope of understanding the huge wave of vocations around the 1950s and the sudden receding of that wave. Another theme that emerged of its own accord is the extraordinary separation between life "inside" a religious order and what was going on in "the world".

The range of views on religious life arranges itself naturally according to how angry the writers are about their time "in religion". Let us start at the angry end of the spectrum. Readers should correct for any bias resulting from that; those with more positive stories will be heard later.

Ex and Angry

John Hanrahan, author of From Eternity to Here: Memoirs of an Angry Priest, plainly should never have persisted with his "vocation". That is clear from every page of his book. For example, he writes, at about the midpoint of his training, "Poverty was no problem, but the vows of chastity and especially obedience were becoming increasingly difficult, especially when I considered successive superiors devious morons." (2) Certainly, the intelligence of his superiors is called into question by their decision to allow him to proceed to ordination.

Hanrahan joined the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart Juniorate at Douglas Park in 1953, aged 13. Already he complains about the Christian Brothers who taught him in Albury: "But I think I ran away to become a priest partly to escape the sadists, who wielded their tailor-made straps with rampant piety." (3)

Out of the frying pan, into the fire. In the Juniorate and Novitiate, there were no straps, but he found more sadists:

   Apart from rules, Father Master was passionate about humiliation
   (ours) and loved acting-out. One day he came onto the sanctuary to
   perform Benediction. He approached the altar, and went into a
   ritual of his own. As sacristan, I knew I was approaching some
   scrabbled moment of destiny. Father Master raised the altar cloth
   and peered under it. He searched that vase of hydrangeas. He peered
   into them. He raised the skirts of his chasuble and probed the
   pockets of his religious habit. He knelt down and raised a piece of
   the sanctuary carpet. He turned to us with an Orson Welles' shrug.

   'OK, Brother Hanrahan, I give up. Am I getting hot or cold, or are
   you going to let us in on the secret of where you have hidden the
   monstrance so I can expose the Sacred Host and the rest of us
   interested can get down to worship?' In my rush from the sacristy I
   dropped the sacred vessel and bent a couple of the gold spikes. (4)

Another very garrulous complainer is Chris Geraghty. It takes him two volumes to cover the period to not long after ordination--the first is Cassocks in the Wilderness, set in St Columba's Seminary, Springwood, and the second The Priest Factory, about St Patrick's, Manly. The first explains what it took for the seminarians to get involved in the local community--a bushfire: at one point they were side by side with the young Communists saving the hall of the Eureka Youth League. …

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