Elegy for a priestly life

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John Molony: By Wendouree, Memories 1951-1963. Connor Court Publishing, Ballan: 2010. ISBN 9781921421402

John Molony, By Wendouree

By Wendouree is the second volume of John Molony's memoirs. It follows Luther's Pine, a vivid re-creation of his childhood and seminary days, which concluded with his ordination in Rome. An elegantly and often lyrically written work, its elegiac tone invited readers to ask what might have happened in succeeding years to explain this edge of sadness.

By Wendouree describes Molony's years of post-graduate study in Rome and his exploration of the Catholic movements that flowered in the Vatican Council. The story concludes with his resignation from the priesthood some years after returning to pastoral ministry in Ballarat.

The second volumes of autobiographical sketches rarely live up to the promise of the first. Like Maxim Gorky, whose magic My Childhood was followed by the less lustrous My Universities, Molony writes well but not as engrossingly in this second book. It inevitably lacks the sense of unlimited possibilities that Luther's Pine displayed. The patterns are already fixed, and transitions are freighted with past history.

But the personal story retains its interest, and Molony illuminates many aspects of the larger history of his times. In particular he experienced the vitality of the Catholic movements that flourished after the 1939 war. The Jocist movement led by Joseph Cardijn that animated the Young Christian Workers and Young Christian Students movements in Australia was particularly significant in his life.

He also had time to observe the broader development of Catholic Action in Europe and Australia. The relationship of the Catholic Church to politics was fraught in Italy where the election of a Communist government was a real possibility. His experience and reflection there led him to be reserved about Bob Santamaria's movement in Australia. He thought that the close relationship between the Church and political life that it entailed could only lead to grief.

He also disagreed with Santamaria's attempts to centralise control over Catholic groups in the universities and over the YCW. Molony formed very cordial relations with Archbishop Justin Simmons, Daniel Mannix's unwanted assistant. Simmons indeed would have liked him as his assistant bishop. In his judgment of people with whom he agreed and with whom he disagreed, Molony is consistently generous and perceptive.

One of Molony's early books was a perceptive study of the Roman mould of the Australian Catholic Church. His own story offers material for complex reflection on the effects of residence in Rome on young students for the Catholic priesthood, and so on the churches to which they returned.

To an Australian country boy with little knowledge of the history of his own land, Rome offered a sense of a long history written into the stones of the city. It allowed seminarians to see themselves as heirs to the finest flowering of Rome in the Catholic Church. Their Rome was Catholic Rome. Add to that an abundance of churches and splendid liturgy everywhere round, and the imaginative power of Rome for young men can readily be understood.

Their Rome, too, was hierarchically constructed. Their colleges were likely to be headed by monsignors, with Cardinals as presidents. And at the centre of this world, holding it together, was the Pope who, like the Cardinals, was not a distant figure but was regularly seen and occasionally spoken to and was the subject of normal college gossip.

This experience inevitably shaped students' understanding of the relationships between local churches, and between the Pope and their bishops. The more powerfully because seminarians were drawn from many lands and visitors came from around the world. The narrowness of the Roman stage was obscured, and the international pretensions of its setting embellished.

But Molony was able to go beyond Rome as a centre of church government to see the reality of church life for struggling Romans. He had pastoral care for a poor Roman parish community. There he tested against the reality of a hard headed congregation the ideas he heard from Cardijn and others about a reflective and cooperative ministry.

Molony's eventual resignation from priestly ministry receives only a few pages at the end of his book. When he returned to Ballarat to pastoral ministry, he experienced increasing discouragement and isolation. This compounded the lack of support he had received during his years in Rome. He gave himself fully to his ministry, but found the relations with those senior to him cold and repressive.

When considered from the perspective of the final chapters of By Wendouree, the incorporation of Luther into the title of the first volume seems full of portent. Like Luther in his early years as an Augustinian monk, Molony had an extremely high and idealistic understanding of priesthood to which he gave himself fully. By the standards he set himself he could only have judged himself a failure.

But in contrast to Luther, he never discovered the grace that would free him from the guilt and anxiety caused by his not meeting the expectations made of him. Nor, like Luther, did he reject the pattern of church relationships and theological assumptions that endorsed these expectations. He simply lost hope that he could live as a good priest.

Despite the fruitfulness of his later life, the elegiac tone enshrines his memory of failure and of exclusion from a garden to which he had been given access. Readers who have been given such generous access to so many gardens through this and other works of Molony will feel for him in his sense of loss. But they will find it impossible to share his critical judgment of himself.


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Andrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, John Molony, Wendouree, Connor Court Publishing, ISBN 9781921421402


 

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I was fortunate to meet John Molony when I enrolled at ANU in 1972 for an MA prelim. What impressed me most about John was his humility - a virtue I have not noticed to any great extent in those of his contemporaries who did not leave the priesthood. I have a feeling that if I had ever met Francis of Assissi, who considered himself unworthy of Holy Orders, hewould have impressed me in much the same way as John Molony did.
Uncle Pat | 23 July 2010


A nicely put review. Although I haven't read his books, I have seen two reviews now and I liked the human face that his memory of Pell's youth rendered our Archbishop. However I feel philosophically opposed to heavy retrospection. Preach Christ is risen! The apostles would not have succeeded in their great missions without a simple, enduring message. Focus on Christ, not our feelings of remorse or judgement of purity aesthetics. The sacrament of being chastely human continues into marriage. We are our Daddy God's priestly royal children.
Louise Jeffree, Kellyville | 23 July 2010


A nicely put review. Although I haven't read his books, I have seen two reviews now and I liked the human face that his memory of Pell's youth rendered our Archbishop. However I feel philosophically opposed to heavy retrospection. Preach Christ is risen! The apostles would not have succeeded in their great missions without a simple, enduring message. Focus on Christ, not our feelings of remorse or judgement of purity aesthetics. The sacrament of being chastely human continues into marriage. We are our Daddy God's priestly royal children.
Louise Jeffree, Kellyville | 23 July 2010


Andrew Hamilton writes: "Like Luther in his early years as an Augustinian monk, Molony had an extremely high and idealistic understanding of priesthood to which he gave himself fully. By the standards he set himself he could only have judged himself a failure."

By such failure, surely, we can see - contra Louise Jeffree of Kellyille -- the triumph of Resurrection faith. John Molony did not truly die, he ceased priestly practice and married. His marital union was blessed, and he has indeed been fruitful.

Your correspondent, Miss (surely not Ms) Jeffree claims that "The sacrament of being chastely human continues into marriage". What does that mean? Is it Prof John Molony's most wonderful life oris it merely Miss Jeffree's downward spin?

There's no such sacrament, of course. And Miss Jeffree admitted to not having read Prof Molony's two autobiographical volumes. Why write anything, then?

"We are our Daddy God's priestly royal children", concludes Miss Jeffree. Not profundity, I'm afraid, but a mismash.

Blessings from a middle-of-the-road Catholic.


Rodney Stinson | 23 July 2010


John Molony taught me History at ANU in his 'Rise of Christendom' course in 1969. It was a great course. What a lively History department it was too with Manning Clarke, Humphrey McQueen, Daphne Gollan, Bruce Kent and others and what a lively Church it was then! Anything seemed possible. Thank you John, Manning, Humphrey and the rest.
At present the CHurch seems to me to be in the Slough of Despond. John's course taught me that it has always been a fallible institution where soughs, troughs and other human experiences abound but he also reminded me that there is still hope.
Graham English | 23 July 2010


Thanks Andrew.

John returned from Rome as a blazing comet with his "Catholic Action Chaplain' book and had a profound influence on many young priests of that vibrant era, fired by Canon Cardijn’s YCW, YCS, NCGM and Catholic Action versus the Action of Catholics.

John’s documented era of too often sad Bishop - Priest relationships in Rome, Boston and Ballarat is of historical value and highlights the defective manner of Episcopal appointments and the systemic sexism in the RC church.

His experiences highlight the need for a new breed of bishops and give a background to the ongoing and catastrophic disintegration of our parish communities.

"By Wendouree” is good value and a good read and lead me down pleasant memory lanes to conclude that we who departed the traditional parish ministry do not see our new pathways as failure but alternate ways to serve Jesus in new pastures.

In marriage our wives and children have given much joy and some heartburn yet our lot as wedded former clerics shows the church an alternatoive/preferable model to follow than the current exclusive celibate-priestly state.

We also see that the option of women priests would enrich the Christian communities wonderfully.

Michael S Parer, Cambodia | 27 July 2010


"Luther's Pine" fascinated me and I look forward to its sequel "By Wendouree". I have worked side by side with John Molony at the ANU for twelve years and there is no better man. It is a pity that Louise Jefree does not know him. He is too deeply religious to be triumphal about it. He is too forgiving to put "purity" on a pedestal. The comparison with Francis of Assissi is appropriate, although John himself would doubt it. Andrew Hamilton's review is splendid and sharpens my determination to enjoy yet another work from a prolific writer and an honest man.
Giles Pickford | 27 July 2010


The sacrament of being.
Jesus is this, he is the life.
Chastity is more than 'no sex' at all.
In marriage it involves the woman respecting her husband's sexual drives and showing reverence, gentleness towards him. For his part, natural fertility awareness requires the husband to be an equal partner in understanding when they are fertile, and thereby a mutual decider in asking for the grace from God to abstain, or for them to conceive a healthy child. The Celebrate Love weekend talks experience helps matrimonial confidence by suggesting couples pray for passion, which is holy, and practice being naked together, allowing for closeness in times when they decide not to have sex. Unlike the SMH article today, monogamy is not boring when the woman is free from hormonal interference!
Louise Jeffree, Kellyville | 31 July 2010


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