by Dally Messenger III
Launch of the book,
A Safe Distance:
Surviving Religious Trauma
by Steve Hyndes.
Held at the Function Room of the Glenroy RSL,
184 Glenroy Rd, Glenroy,
on 26 February, 2023.
In February 1956, at 17 years of age, Steve Hyndes entered the seminary at St Columba’s College, Springwood, to study for the priesthood.
26 years later Steve called it quits. In the first part of the book Steve describes his state of mind on the day he left the ministry.
And I quote:-
I was in turmoil. I was flooded by feelings of relief at being free of all the culture, demands, conflicts and being imprisoned by ideas that had driven me steadily to the point of madness. Equally I felt the crushing weight of failure. I was turning my back on all the paradigms and thinking that had been central to my life and decision making for 26 years. The constant anxiety that living within such a system injects into day-to-day life had been replaced by a feeling of almost robotic numbness.
End of quote
When I read this I said to myself. Is Steve writing about me or himself? On a certain day you leave. It is big. I think that most of us who left in this manner had the same tumultuous feelings on that day. I would reckon that part of the story would be the same for almost every priest who packed his car and drove out of the clerical world.
Steve has written a good book. It tells his story. It is an easy read. You are going to read it so I do not think this launch should just repeat his narrative. So I have decided to make some general comments about the history, the times and the issues.
I find it difficult to describe to others why I became a priest. I think some think it is kind of a cult madness phase I went through before coming to my senses. Let me examine whether this was the case. So why did Steve and I take this on and why did we stay in it so long?
THE VALUES AND IDEALS
To be fair it should be noted that part of the belief package of the catholic church contained some superbly good values.
The historic leader and “founder” of the tribe was a man who believed in compassion, non-judgmentalism, forgiveness of offences, non-violent change, respect and love for others, assisting the needy, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, and supporting those in grief.
It advocated that individuals live an upright, responsible, honest, and principled life.
Embedded in the very notion of the tribe were the admirable dynamics of friendship and mutual support. I am calling it a tribe because that’s how it started – with a tribe who escaped autocratic rule in Egypt and formed itself into a cohesive unity trudging across the desert of Sinai.
The later breakaway tribe drew on the developed culture of the past with wonderful stories, such as the good samaritan, songs, inspiring music like Gregorian chant and poetic polished words in their holy books. Francis of Assisi, after whom our no.1 son and MC, and the Pope is named, created a prayer containing the words “where there is hatred, let me sow love.”
The leader’s name of the breakaway christian tribe was Jesus. His followers talked of the dignity of the human person, the concept of human rights, and the duty to follow one’s conscience. Many of his followers became distinguished advocates of social justice.
That was the understood plus side.
But as Steve and I both learned later, it became a source of wonderment to us how little of these values figured in our “training”.
IMMINENT THREAT OF NUCLEAR WAR
Some of us had other motives for signing on for the priesthood. Another powerfully subconscious influence was ceaselessly present in the 50’s and 60s. It was the imminent threat of nuclear war. Russia and the West had acquired the capability of destroying the world. I remember a read-out paper by a fellow student in the seminary, Mick Kelly, who began his lecturette with the sentence,
“ … it has been calculated, by men in a position to so calculate, that both Russia and the United States have the capacity to destroy the world, and every living thing in it, eight times over. “
So – don’t waste your life, become a priest, and do your bit to make the world a more loving, peaceful and safer place.
We are much less aware these days but it is alarming to note that asa physical threat, nothing has changed.
INSPIRATIONAL BROTHERS, PRIESTS – CATHOLIC MEN AND WOMEN
Most of us don’t think of it much but there were some really good men who inspired Steve and me and others. Steve talks about the people who influenced him. His catholic aunt, the psychiatrist, for example, gets a good and worthy mention.
When I reflect about it, I acknowledge I have been helped through life by some very good institutional catholic people. At the same time as experiencing the sadism of Bro Malachi and indirectly the paedophilia of Brother Silverius, I recognise with gratitude the key intervention of Brother Dermott, of St Canice’s, Katoomba, who made sure with my parents that I did not leave to work at the end of primary school, which I easily could have done.
I recall with gratitude too the wonderful dedicated teaching of Bro Anthony (English, Latin, maths) and that of Brother Mark (Physics) of St Bernard’s College, Katoomba. What I learned from them still stays with me every day. Another key intervention was by Brother Lawrence of the Marist Brothers, Parramatta, who changed my life for the better in another way.
As we are talking about the male priesthood there were a number of priests too, with whom I crossed paths. I observed them organising youth clubs, visiting old people’s homes, helping poverty stricken families through the St Vincent de Paul, listening to people when there was no one else who would.
COMMUNITY AND IDENTITY
Subconsciously, we both acknowledged that the church gave us a broader family. It was here we gathered, here we made friends, here we had rituals which gave us a sense of stability.
It was here we gained a sense of identity and a reassurance that we belonged.( And when we chucked it in, this is what disturbed us the most.)
So I don’t think Steve and I and the other former priests here were empty headed victims of a humungous cult which sucked us in. We were not a group of really stupid people.
THE DOWNSIDE OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
When we studied and lived our way through the seminary, as Steve relates, and when we became ordained priests and when we were put out into a parish, we couldn’t help digging deeper.
We realised we were not achieving our admirable ideals. Society had changed enough to render us less effective than our predecessors. It became clear to us that the catholic church organisational set-up did not work any more. Steve talks about having to live with the lost and twisted personalities of a string of parish priests. My experience too. Don’t get me wrong – they were, and they started off, really good men. But we observed many who sought solace in alcohol, golf, greyhound racing and girlfriends. The organisational church was trying to operate through a system designed for the world of the Council of Trent back in 1545. We were living in the thought-bubble of the sixteenth century. We were clinging to a world view which wasn’t ever supposed to change.
But the world did change and was changing. In 1962 Pope John XXIII inaugurated the second Vatican Council which we seminarians and young priests observed drew fierce under-the-radar resistance.
The world in general radically changed in all sorts of ways in the 1960s and the 1970s.
Most people to whom I converse on this have lost, or have never had an awareness of, the gianormous change in Western society that was the advent of birth control. When we were young, families of 8, 9, 10, 11, or 12 children were quite common. And I am not talking just of catholics – for most couples children just kept on coming, for the simple reason that there was no way of stopping them except abstinence.
Following this came a really big mistake. The catholic church shot itself in the foot on birth control. On the 25th July 1968, Pope Paul VI overode the delegates to the Vatican Council, issued an encyclical named Humanae Vitae, and, by that instrument, forbad birth control. The church lost a huge amount of credibility. It kept losing credibility because of its stance on same sex relationships, monogamous marriage and the refusal to countenance divorce, an outright ban on abortion, held fast against women taking hold orders, and, silliest mistake of all, the insisted on maintaining celibacy of the clergy.
Who could measure the harm of not coming to terms with the relatively small percentage of priests who were paedophiles, the consequent cover ups, and the mistreatment of victims and their families.
THE OLD AND NEW TESTAMENTS
Some of us faced a deeper and more confronting issue. Did God actually exist? If there was a God, was he the one described in the old and new testaments and in the christian story of salvation history?
A disturbing personal revelation in my seminary studies is that I became aware that the New Testament only came together in its start-up stage about four hundred years after Jesus had died. (The Council of Hippo in 393 AD)
The New Testament took shape by choosing documents from a whole range of stuff, and it has became smoothed out and edited in the seventeen centuries which followed. What?
GOING TO MASS
One looks at the billions of stars in the sky and one says to oneself — is the being that created all this, if he/she did create it, listening to me when I take some bread and wine and dress up in fancy robes and starting asking him for things?
And then there is the seemingly meaningless nature of it all. All the planets that the new super telescopes and cameras have picked up are just balls of dust and rock and gas – for what purpose? Are human being capable of working his out?
I am a cultural catholic, most of my best friends are practising, lapsed or almost-lapsed catholics, but I find it very difficult attending mass, which I sometimes have to do, such as when a catholic friend dies. The presumption that the priest and the people are actually talking to the Someone who created all these billions of stars, is so strong, and such a stretch, that I find it totally surreal.
I’ve read Steve’s book and you should buy your own copy, get it autographed, and read it!
Many men left the priesthood during these disillusioning years. We suffered turmoil, angst, worry and a loss of identity. We had no money. We had no qualifications which got us jobs. We had a fierce struggle to catch up financially – it drained us of energy and time for enjoyment. Steve’s financial struggle, one which I too experienced, moved me greatly.
One choice Steve did make was spot on. From the beginning, he latched on to this beautiful woman named Paula. They brought forth three sons from our mysterious universe. We aren’t all so smart Steve. Congratulations on that one.
Friends, as human beings we live by stories. This is a good one. I hereby launch this book.