"If the seminary has grown smaller, it doesn’t mean that it’s become weak, powerless, of no account. Its smallness has to give birth to a new greatness."
Each of us is here today because, in some way or other, we’re part of the story of the seminary that’s been on Beehive Hill at Banyo for most of 75 years. We have five former Rectors and one currently serving. We have former and present members of staff, and we have many who were trained for the priestly ministry in the seminary that was named first for a Pontiff and then for the Paraclete.
My own memory turns back to the late 1970s when, as a young priest, I was invited by the then Spiritual Director, Fr John Bathersby, to lead the Holy Week retreat, never imagining that I would eventually succeed him as Archbishop of Brisbane. It was one of the more memorable experiences of my early years in the priesthood, and I was back here again some time later to lead another retreat, speaking again in this chapel, which as a result has always felt strangely familiar to me.
In those distant days not long after the Second Vatican Council, we were wrestling with the question of how best to prepare men for the ordained ministry. It was a turbulent time in a Church that wasn’t used to change. All these years later we’re still wrestling with the same question; and at its heart there lies the still larger question of what is the ordained ministry.
These are questions not only for the Church but now for the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse in Institutions. The Commission has become intensely interested in seminary formation, and it will surely be a major focus during the final hearing into the Catholic Church for which we’re preparing intensely at the moment. The story that the Royal Commission has told has been and will continue to be a story of abysmal failure; and that is a story that must be told, however painful it may be. At the same time, it would be a mistake to think that it’s the whole story, because here today we tell a much larger story, without in any way denying or diminishing the scale of our failure.
Central to our failure is what Pope Francis has called “the disease of clericalism”, which means ordained ministry geared to power not service. It’s the exact opposite of the Eucharistic life to which the ordained are called: “This is my body given for you”. Clericalism says instead: “This is your body taken for me”, and it leaves broken bodies and blood poured out not for the life of the world but for the damage and destruction of those who are in one way or another abused.
But it’s a much larger story that we celebrate here today as we look back across the 75 years of this seminary. At its heart it’s a story that God tells – the God who interprets for us the deep truth of the journey of these years. Whenever we read the Scripture in the liturgy, we proclaim: “The Word of the Lord”. We could just as easily say, “The Interpretation of the Lord”, because God’s word is always an interpretation of what, left to ourselves, we would certainly get wrong.
The first of these interpretative words comes from St Paul. The Apostle says that we are “God’s work of art”. This seminary, then, is a work that God has begun but hasn’t yet finished. It’s not our own work, even though these years have seen a vast outpouring of human blood, sweat and tears. But it’s God who has begun the work and God who continues it now. Because this seminary is clearly a work in progress; there’s much more to be done.
Now art is not merely decorative. A work of art, certainly a great work of art, discloses deeper meanings; it is revelatory. If this is true of human art, how much truer is it of “God’s work of art”? What then is the deeper meaning disclosed by the work of the artist-God in the years of Holy Spirit Seminary? The answer to that question comes in what we have heard from Luke’s Gospel. We have proclaimed the Magnificat, the great hymn of liberation placed on the lips of the Mother of Christ. Hers is a vision of the God who overturns all the seemingly non-negotiable status quos of this world. “He has scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart; he has cast the mighty from their thrones and raised the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, sent the rich away empty”. All of this in a world where, it seems, the proud are never scattered, the mighty sit for ever enthroned and hungry shrivel up and die. God overturns all the seemingly non-negotiable status quos of this world; and these look to the ultimate overturning of Easter, when God overturns even death, seemingly the most non-negotiable of all status quos. That’s what God does; that’s what his works of art are all about; and that’s the heart of the story that we tell and celebrate here this morning. That’s why this seminary – be it Pius XII or Holy Spirit – has always stood on this hill as a monument to Easter, whatever its failures might have been.
In these years, the work has changed in scale. First, it stood grandly on its peak for all the world to see. It was a big seminary for a big Church that was, it seemed, destined to grow still bigger. In the meantime, the Church has grown smaller and so has the seminary, moving from the peak to the fringe of the property in what may seem a fall from grace but isn’t. When he visited Brisbane some time ago, Prague-based Monsignor Tomas Halik spoke of this as a time when we need to become a smaller Church, not numerically but in other ways. We need, he said, a smaller faith, even “as small as a mustard-seed”. His point was that we will move mountains only if our faith is as small as a mustard-seed. Small for him doesn’t mean weak; it means instead empoweringly diminished. We are diminished only in the way of the God who, in the Incarnation, becomes small so that we may become great; there’s a greatness that can come only through smallness. So if the seminary has grown smaller, it doesn’t mean that it’s become weak, powerless, of no account. Its smallness has to give birth to a new greatness, the greatness not of this world but of the Gospel. That’s what the artist-God is up to as his work continues to take shape.
This smallness of God, taking root in the seminary and in the men trained here, will mean the death of clericalism; and we pray that that may be so, as we not only look back on the past but ahead to the future. At this Abrahamic moment in the Church, we cannot see the future in great detail; like Abraham, we don’t have a road-map or a GPS. We can see only the next step on the way ahead, the next phase of the journey. As we move into the future, we know that the shape of ordained ministry will continue to change as it has done since the Council; and this will surely be on the agenda of the Plenary Council towards which the Church in this country is now moving.
In the midst of the flux and the uncertainty it brings, one thing is certain: that the Church will never fail to praise God, as we do this morning, for the gift of the priesthood. The gift is seen when the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ takes root in a man’s life, so that, with all his faults and failings, his wounds and weaknesses, he becomes the revelation of God. Such a man is able to lead God’s people more and more into the mysteries of Easter which he himself, as God’s work of art, is living in the dailiness of his life. That’s when the priest becomes the Eucharist which he celebrates from day to day. For now let remembrance become prophecy and prophecy become prayer on this day of celebration: may Banyo Seminary never cease to send out into the Church and the world ordained men who, in the words of the Rite of Ordination, “live the mystery of the Lord’s Cross” and “put into practice the mystery they celebrate”. Amen.