I was ordained in 1969. Those were confident and energetic times. Neil Armstrong walked on the moon a few days later. Vatican II had only just finished, and we were excited and optimistic about the changes it was bringing. We were young, idealistic and ready, if not to save the world, at least to make a significant contribution.
Like my classmates, I was prepared to make all kinds of sacrifices for the “splendid cause” we had committed ourselves to. I remember in those days the most popular verse for ordination cards was the quote from Philippians 2 about Jesus, “although His nature was divine he took on human nature and became a servant even unto death on a cross.” We too felt we were ready for big sacrifices, but what we did not expect was that our sacrifices would be far more ordinary and human. I thought that life would be heroic but simple, and that our choices would be clear. I expected physical sacrifices, even deprivation. But I have been spared that.
When I look back, I believe I was both blessed and “cursed” to be ordained at the time I was. I was ordained at the peak of the wave. Our seminaries were full, and our missionaries were young and confident. Our superiors were in their forties and we thought they were old! It seems to me that just after I was ordained, everything started going downhill. The Church has faced many crises and religion has been increasingly marginalized, moving from the center to almost irrelevance in our secular, plural society.
My whole time as a missionary priest has been a time of questioning, almost fifty years of questions. Most of us come to religion to find peace and certainty, and yet in many ways, religion provokes bigger questions. I now think that living with questions, through frustrations and without a clear direction for the future is the way we “empty ourselves, become human and take on the form of a servant.”
One thing I have slowly learnt is that I needed others. All priests talk about what they have gained from their people, and I am no exception. I have grateful and sustaining memories of people in my hometown, in, Korea, Ireland, and Essendon. Together we make up the people of God, and I have learnt as a priest that I cannot do without them. Searching together seems more important than finding the answers.
I believe that priests are ordained to the sacrament of orders, the order of the Church. We try to discern, foster, encourage and promote gifts found in our communities. I was not always good at this but am getting better in my old age. Now I am working with younger, committed laymen and women. It is wonderful. Status does not matter so much because we are united in our sense of mission. God’s mission is so enormous and wonderful that it relativizes everything else and wipes away especially any sense of superiority. We are all the people of God, albeit with different ministries, searching for God’s Reign.
Editor’s Note: Columban Fr. Noel Connolly passed away on June 6, 2020, unrelated to the coronavirus pandemic.