I was ordained a deacon twenty-five years ago (as of tomorrow 19th March) by Cardinal Pietro Palazzini in the seminary chapel of the Institute of Christ the King at Gricigliano. He was the same prelate who ordained the late Fr Frank Quoëx to the priesthood. Five years ago, I wrote all about it in Twenty Years of Diaconate. Fr Quoëx was the MC. Monsignor Gilles Wach acting as Archdeacon looked younger and fresher, as we all did. I was nearly thirty-four years old at the time.
It all drifts into the mists of time as does my original priestly ordination (somewhat less “regular”) almost twenty years ago. Why was I ordained? The Institute has developed a lot since 1990 and I only very occasionally look at their website. My time with them made a big impression on me in my life and I still have dreams about Gricigliano from time to time. We had a few “apostolates” in France and the USA, not yet in England and barely even in Germany. More priests were ordained than “benefices” could be found to support them. Some stayed at seminary, studied in Rome and had teaching functions. Others were hangers-on in our various chapels and parishes with a priest in charge of it all. I was no exception. The Institute was run on a shoestring in those days, and John Bruce would certainly have taken a dim view of ordaining priests without benefices!
Roman Catholicism took me from idealism to hopelessness and cynicism in a short time, and I was glad to have the courage to leave in 1995 even though the alternatives were so shaky. Should I have been ordained? With my Aspergers (which wasn’t known about then), I would have been wisely screened (I so hate that word) out and just told to go away. This word makes me think about running a fingernail over the fine wire netting of a kitchen sieve. In the end, a man has a vocation to the priesthood when he has the call of a Bishop, himself a member of a college of Bishops and a recognisable institutional Church. This is now the case for me, since Bishop Damien Mead had the kindness and pastoral concern to incardinate me into his Diocese which is a part of the Anglican Catholic Church, Original Province. I am grateful and do what I can like those priests who studied in Rome and taught seminarians. We now have the Internet and the possibility for many initiatives outside the traditional parochial / pastoral framework.
It took a long time to recover something of my earlier idealism, go through other harrowing experiences of life and begin to get things together in a single understanding. My notion of vocation has taken different turns, and has even taken a leaf from some of the post-war French ways of seeing things. The clerical image is so discredited in life that our best ministry is done without being recognisable as a priest! The reality is sad, but the institutional Church and clericalism only have themselves to blame.
Last Friday, I went to a little round table of people diagnosed with autism and parents of little children showing signs of it or having been diagnosed. The effect on a young mother is devastating, especially when sloppy psychiatrists take little care to see the right diagnosis is given. I was thanked for my testimony as someone who was able to learn to live in society, “play the game” and have a job (self-employed), a home and a sense of mission. It was not the time or place to talk about religion. Those people need more help from those who can express human empathy and concern than from professionals. There is a scientific approach but also a human and philosophical approach to “another experience of life”. Modern and post-modern society are truly absurd at times and show another’s weakness through its own human and moral turpitude. The relation between autism as a scientific discipline and philosophy is a new subject that we have to work on if those children and parents are to be helped. Perhaps this is my pastoral calling alongside my work to promote the kind of thought expressed by the Jena Circle (German Idealists and early Romantics) in the 1790’s against the “dark satanic mills” (whatever those were), the Terror in France and the road to 1984.
The priesthood is a service to the Church, a leaven and a light in the bleakness of this world, brought about by the Mystery of the Mass and a ministry of intercession through the Office. It is in the forefront when I am in chapel or with my brethren on my occasional visits to England – and always in the background as I go about life here in France. Far from rejecting my calling, it brings my life together in a single sense of purpose to serve my prophetic and humanist ministry.
Pray for me…