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Paradise gained and lost

Andrew Hamilton

Luther’s Pine: an Autobiography, John Molony. Pandanus Books, 2004. ISBN 1740 76126 X, RRP $45

John Molony describes his childhood and education in Luther’s Pine. The book closes in 1950 with his ordination in Rome as a priest. He was then 23. Luther’s Pine was a tree under which the Australian students at Propaganda College used to gather. Propaganda was established in Rome for students from mission countries. The pine tree was later cut down.

As you would expect from a historian of Molony’s distinction, his autobiography is written chastely, elegantly, self-critically and charitably. He describes a young man of exceptional decency and courage, whose journey towards self-knowledge takes him from the Mallee to the cosmopolitan, if sheltered, world of Rome.

He has a gift for vivid description. Through simply told stories, people significant in his story live in the imagination. They range from his parents to his cousin Bill, who is a Footscray boy, to the cold but just Jesuit Henry Johnston, his passionate and encouraging mentors Charlie Mayne and Felice Cenci, and his malevolent lecturer, the future Cardinal Pietro Parente.

Molony had to overcome many obstacles to achieve what he had always wanted, and on the way he discovered his intellectual gifts. But his book breathes a deep and pervasive sadness. Luminous stories of people living with great vitality are followed by a note that the light later failed or was extinguished. The book also becomes more edgy as it draws to its conclusion. Not that the writing ever loses its grace and control, but its melancholy becomes exquisite. In one memorable paragraph he describes his re-reading of the letters that he had written to his mother:

The boy, the young man full of ideals and dreams who wrote them, has long gone and the realms he lived in have become another world. The shape of the boy and his world remain, but in some measure only as listless ivy hanging on the outline of a building that once had its own beauty. With few exceptions, the people whom the boy knew and loved in the distant past are now dead. The writer, his youth and his manhood spent, has yet to find his own peace. The world of the early 21st century is young. It also strives for peace.

The tone of Luther’s Pine is elegiac. Although its theme is a young man’s arrival at a longed-for destination–Paradise gained–the writer now experiences this journey as Paradise Lost. That young man, most of his friends and his world have all passed away. What is true of the whole journey is also true of its mileposts: Molony had to leave the Mallee because in hard years the farm could no longer support the family. For his father, Melbourne meant exile from ancestors, land and clan. It was an exile bravely borne. The son experienced exclusion more diffusely.

Molony’s education was episodic. At the one school where he flourished, he left after being brutally assaulted by a teacher. The following year he had to return in humiliation. The seminary authorities made this a condition of his acceptance. When he began to feel at home in this new world, his Bishop sent him prematurely to Rome.

But the story hints that the major exile lies beyond the horizon of this volume. Molony refers often to his resignation from priestly ministry as a source of pain. He also hints, however, that the path to priesthood, that included initiation into a clerical culture, also contained exilic aspects. His readers will hope that Molony will return more explicitly to these themes later.

Molony has a keen sense of the relationship between past and present. He comments incisively on a modern adage:

I could never accept that ‘The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there’. The people of my past did what their present told them to do and those things will ever remain as they were. The present is the other country in which we do things differently.

He substantiates his observation in his description of the world and the church in which he grew up. They are instantly recognisable, even in their difference. Contrary to ideological accounts that present the changes in the Catholic Church as revolutionary, and the period before Vatican Council II as either paradisal or infernal, Molony depicts a human world in which the same mixture of humanity and inhumanity, faith and power, attention and inattentiveness are to be found. Generous and mean-minded people contended before the Second Vatican Council; they would contend after it. Cenci and Mayne would be ahead of the game in any period. Molony’s Rome, too, was riven by conflicting visions of the Church. One thing, however, has changed. From the moment he sets his path towards priesthood, no women appear in the story. One would hope that the experience of candidates for priesthood today would be different.

Molony, however, alludes to a crucial change within the Catholic Church. It has to do with the way in which priests have viewed priesthood. His early vision of the priesthood was simple: he identified it with celebrating Mass. His view of the Mass was, and continues to be, sacrificial: he emphasised the decisive significance of Christ’s offering of himself on the cross, and its representation by the priest in the Mass. The priest is associated with Christ in the act that joins heaven to earth, God to humanity, the act in which our sufferings are brought before God. In the spiritual language of the day, the priest was an alter Christus, another Christ.

This is a vision of great power that gives an enormous importance to the priest and invests sensitive men with a high sense of responsibility. In narrower men than John Molony, it can also emphasise the priest’s difference from the laity on whose behalf he offers the Mass, and his authority over them. But it requires great support from the Catholic community. Placed in that high position between heaven and earth, the priest is like Moses in battle: he requires people to hold up his arms. They must share precisely this view of priesthood, and relate to the priest accordingly.

The power of this understanding of priesthood can be seen also in the stories of Catholic priests who refused to accept the changes in the Mass. The heart of their complaint is that the sacrificial character of the Mass has been lost. So, they continue to celebrate the Latin Mass in its old form. Their sense of loss is poignant. But Molony’s evocation of the world in which he was educated makes it clear how limited was this imaginative view of the relationship between Christ, community and priest.

Paradise is elusive on all journeys. Its intimations only sharpen the sense of exile. John Molony’s gift is to describe the journey honestly, without using the hints of paradise along the way as an excuse for recreating a historical theme park.

Andrew Hamilton sj is the publisher of Eureka Street.

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The politics of aid

Francesca Beddie

Facing Asia: A History of the Colombo Plan, Daniel Oakman. Pandanus Books, 2004. ISBN 1 740 76086 7, RRP $34.95

Daniel Oakman told Radio National recently that he thought the assumptions behind the Colombo Plan may sound fanciful today. These included the idea that aid would stimulate economic development and that such growth would in turn promote stability and moderate political conflict. Also that exposure to the Western capitalist system and values would act as a deterrent to communist influence.

I’m not so sure things have changed. We still expect miracles from tiny commitments of aid. That those miracles don’t occur fuels the arguments from skeptics about waste and corruption and the ineffectiveness of aid, yet the money keeps flowing, particularly in times of threat: communism then, terrorism now.

Government-sponsored aid then and now is about politics. It is never purely humanitarian but must accord with broader foreign-policy objectives and with the so-called national interest. Yet the taxpayer’s dollar can do good: not always by achieving the outcomes desired of a particular project; indeed more often by building trust and understanding in donor and recipient countries. Certainly, Oakman shows that it was the effect on individuals that reaped the largest returns on Australia’s investment in the Colombo Plan.

Facing Asia is a meticulous study of the Colombo Plan, the first comprehensive aid package for Asia. The plan involved convening a regional consultative committee, made up of donors and recipients, to discuss the overall direction of the plan, while programs of assistance were decided upon and delivered bilaterally. This unique form created an institution that has lasted 50 years and is seen by its Asian members as their own, rather than something imposed by the West.

Australia had an important role in the plan’s conception mainly, as Oakman portrays it, because of Percy Spender, the then Foreign Minister, who pushed hard for the scheme in a manner that got results. But his heavy-handed approach also alienated people and saw what was first termed the Spender Resolution evolve into the Colombo Plan, adopted in London in October 1950.

Spender’s successor, Lord Casey, latched onto the plan’s propaganda value. He insisted that projects be clearly identified as Australian and serve to build Asian goodwill. Badging its aid was again a priority for the government in the late 1990s. This was insisted upon even in face of the fact that some projects will turn out to be white elephants, given the risky nature of the development game.

Oakman spends considerable time discussing the effectiveness of aid. He describes a few white elephants but more importantly shows how Australian diplomats were reluctant and ill-equipped to monitor and evaluate the aid programs. Even in the 1950s, the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, Arthur Tange, wanted only to retain policy control of the aid program and to ‘offload the administration’. Oakman also points out how the lack of coherence between aid and trade policies has undermined aid’s impact on economic growth. Today, the debate continues about which agencies should determine aid policy and how best to administer the program. Similarly, the issue of policy coherence remains high on the agenda of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee.

The Vietnam War was the clearest manifestation of the flaws in the theory that the Colombo Plan would avert the communist threat, its prime function in the Cold War period. It also highlighted the minor role aid plays in foreign policy. When the crunch came, military responses were seized upon.

Chapter Six is an interesting discussion about the effect of the presence of Asian students in Australia. I was surprised to learn that only a fifth of these were Colombo Plan students, with the rest paying their own way. As Oakman points out, that is a measure of the effectiveness of the publicity campaign that permeated Australia’s management of the plan.

While the number of scholars was small–by 1966 some 12,000 had been in Australia–Oakman concludes that ‘they marked a watershed in Australia’s cultural development and their appearance on university campuses and in private homes across the country provided a sustained challenge to the Australian insularity’ embodied, of course, in the White Australia Policy.

The other contributing factor to the demise of restrictive immigration policies was the effect of Asia on visiting Colombo Plan technical experts. They encountered ‘intelligent, courteous, English-speaking counterparts with plenty of ideas and welcoming hearts’–as well, at times, as criticism of Australia’s racist policies and of the tokenistic size of its aid program (albeit in the 1960s about three times the proportion of GDP than it was in 2004).

While the arrangement of the chapters in Facing Asia is somewhat higgledy-piggledy, overall this is an easily read history of an important feature of Australia’s engagement with Asia. It brings to life the processes surrounding foreign and aid policy by quoting many of the players within government who, in the days before the Freedom of Information Act, were less reluctant to put their views on paper. For those writing the history of the next 50 years of Australian aid, the archives may not be so revealing.

Francesca Beddie is a former diplomat who also worked in the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) in the 1990s.

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