Paradise gained and lost

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.   

 Luther’s Pine, an Autobiography, John Molony. Pandanus Books, 2004. isbn 1740 76126 X, rrp $45

Andrew Hamilton sj is the publisher of Eureka Street.



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