AN­SWER­ING THE CALL

FAR FROM BE­ING PUT OFF BY CHURCH SCAN­DALS, AN IN­CREAS­ING NUM­BER OF YOUNG RE­CRUITS ARE LIN­ING UP TO TAKE VOWS OF POVERTY, CHASTITY AND OBE­DI­ENCE

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Stellar Contents - By AN­GELA MOLLARD

Meet the young Aus­tralians who are swap­ping the ma­te­ri­al­is­tic world for vows of poverty and chastity.

Amy Mccabe was just 12 when she wrote to the sis­ter­hood ask­ing if she could join. Five years later she tried again. While the sis­ters at the Mis­sion­ar­ies of God’s Love wel­comed her in­ter­est, they en­cour­aged her to get a job and travel be­fore de­cid­ing if it re­ally was the life for her.

Mccabe worked as a nanny, stud­ied art and threw on a back­pack – but her de­sire never wa­vered: “It started as a quiet whis­per in my heart and the more I came to lis­ten to the voice of God, the whis­per grew louder.”

Now 19, Mccabe’s life as a novice couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent from most teens. She doesn’t have a smart­phone and there is no TV or mi­crowave in the con­vent where she lives in Can­berra. In­deed, so “rad­i­cal” are the poverty or­ders adopted by the Mis­sion­ar­ies of God’s Love that the sis­ters don’t carry money and in­stead rely on do­nated food, clothes and cars to carry out their work. For Mccabe, who prays for four hours a day and eats plainly dur­ing the week, a treat is a bowl of home­made cus­tard on Satur­day night.

But far from see­ing her life as one of sac­ri­fice, she em­braces val­ues that would be anath­ema to more typ­i­cal teens, for whom sis­ter­hood means the Kar­dashi­ans. “It’s a beau­ti­ful thing to rely on God’s gen­eros­ity and I en­joy a life that’s un­com­pli­cated,” she says. “So­cial me­dia, par­ties, money – the things I’m giv­ing up are the things peo­ple [wrongly] seek to be ful­filled by.”

In an era of un­prece­dented op­por­tu­nity for young women, it’s sur­pris­ing that any­one would sign up to the Catholic Church’s stric­tures of poverty, chastity and obe­di­ence. But she’s en­thu­si­as­tic, if con­sid­ered, as she speaks of a way of life that’s en­joy­ing signs of re­vival.

Mccabe, like all those in­ter­viewed for this story, ex­udes a quiet con­fi­dence when ex­plain­ing the ap­peal of God at a time when the church has been deeply shaken and the sec­u­lar world shines more brightly and al­lur­ingly than ever. Priest or sis­ter, teen, 20- or 30-something, they’re tes­ta­ment to lives of con­tem­pla­tion and care – even if their be­liefs aren’t for every­one.

Mccabe says she’s com­fort­able with her vows be­cause God, not pos­ses­sions, is what she trea­sures. And in a world in­creas­ingly built on self-bet­ter­ment and per­sonal brand­ing, her unique sell­ing point is one that’s fallen out of our lex­i­con: ser­vice. “Hav­ing a gift of avail­abil­ity for peo­ple is beau­ti­ful,” she says. “Although work­ing with the poor and marginalised can be con­fronting.”

Mod­estly dressed in the or­der’s “uni­form” of a long brown skirt, white shirt and san­dals, Mccabe con­cedes it’s the “chastity” vow that most in­trigues others. “For me, be­ing a sis­ter is be­ing a bride to God. Ev­ery girl has a de­sire to be fully known and loved by some­one. God of­fers that in­ti­macy, which is why I can give up a romantic re­la­tion­ship.”

And moth­er­hood? “I can be a mother to chil­dren in the world who other peo­ple don’t nec­es­sar­ily have time for.”

One of six chil­dren, she and her sib­lings grew up near Perth and were home­schooled by their mum. Her par­ents were sup­port­ive of her de­ci­sion but others were more quizzi­cal. “Some said, ‘What a waste of time, what are you do­ing that for?’” she laughs.

An easy joy in­fuses all she does, whether play­ing sport or see­ing the (very) oc­ca­sional movie. She re­cently saw Find­ing Dory af­ter be­ing treated to a ticket. Her ver­dict? “It was al­right.”

Like­wise, she does suf­fer lapses of god­li­ness as per Maria in The Sound of Mu­sic: “Some­times prayer is easy, breezy and I’m think­ing, ‘I love be­ing with you, God.’ Other times it drags.”

That sense of hu­man­ity is ev­i­dent in all three of these young peo­ple now en­ter­ing the church in the wake of the great dam­age caused by the global sex­ual-abuse scan­dal.

Like seedlings sprout­ing in a land­scape razed by dis­as­ter, there’s a quiet hu­mil­ity tak­ing root in place of the ar­ro­gance of old. In fact, far from col­laps­ing in the face of the scan­dal, the priest­hood is show­ing signs of re­vi­tal­i­sa­tion. In Mel­bourne, Wagga Wagga and Bris­bane, new rooms are be­ing built in the sem­i­nar­ies to ac­com­mo­date in­creased num­bers.

At Cor­pus Christi Col­lege in Mel­bourne, where Car­di­nal Ge­orge Pell be­gan his priestly stud­ies and was later rec­tor, num­bers are steadily grow­ing. In 1999 they had 28 stu­dents; this year they’re in the 50s. It’s a sur­prise to the cur­rent rec­tor, Fa­ther Bren­dan Lane, who thought the priest­hood “was fin­ished” af­ter the rev­e­la­tions

“WE COME FROM A CUL­TURE THAT’S HIGHLY SEXUALISED, BUT NOT HAV­ING SEX DOESN’T MAKE US LESS HU­MAN”

of child sex abuse. But, he says, the Royal Com­mis­sion has done them a ser­vice. “The focus on abuse has brought to the fore what the church is do­ing about it. We have rid our­selves of a crim­i­nal el­e­ment.”

He cred­its the pop­u­lar­ity of Popes John Paul II and Fran­cis, the flow-on ef­fect of Syd­ney’s World Youth Day and, of course, the Holy Spirit for the growth in in­ter­est. But the in­ter­net, moderni­sa­tion and en­thu­si­asm for Catholi­cism in Asia clearly also play their part in spread­ing the word.

Mar­cus Gould­ing, who is in his sev­enth year at the sem­i­nary and due to be or­dained a dea­con on Septem­ber 10, be­lieves the church needs good priests more than ever. Now aged 25, he got the marks to study law, but the call­ing from God was louder. As he pre­pares for a life of the col­lar rather than the wig, he feels a re­spon­si­bil­ity for restor­ing the in­tegrity of the church.

“The clergy abuse hurt me deeply. While we are all frail and sin­ful, I hope I can con­trib­ute to the heal­ing and make amends for those priests,” he says.

He cred­its a far more rig­or­ous for­ma­tion pro­gram for en­sur­ing that only those with gen­uine in­ten­tions and sound psy­cho­log­i­cal health are ac­cepted as men of the cloth. “In the past, peo­ple be­came priests who should never have been priests.”

An al­tar boy in his lo­cal parish, Gould­ing ex­pe­ri­enced a call­ing to en­ter the priest­hood dur­ing high school. But when he told his fa­ther of his plans, the re­sponse was far from pos­i­tive. “I was a strong aca­demic and had al­ways said I’d do law or jour­nal­ism, so I couldn’t re­ally blame him,” he ad­mits.

Gould­ing also had to con­sider to what ex­tent his par­ents’ di­vorce when he was 10 steered him away from the idea of con­ven­tional mar­riage and fa­ther­hood. “I’d love to be mar­ried,” he says. “I would bring a lot to be­ing a hus­band and a fa­ther. But as Pope Bene­dict XVI said, ev­ery priest should be some­one who is able to be a fa­ther, not just in a bi­o­log­i­cal sense but in a hu­man sense. Priests are of­ten called ‘Fa­ther’ and that means a lot to me.”

With his two broth­ers study­ing medicine and aero­space en­gi­neer­ing, he couldn’t have cho­sen a more sur­pris­ing ca­reer path. While his sib­lings em­brace the plea­sures of young man­hood, Gould­ing’s days are full of prayer, study and mu­sic. He deleted his Face­book page – “I wasn’t us­ing it con­struc­tively” – and em­braces celibacy. “We come from a cul­ture that’s highly sexualised, but not hav­ing sex doesn’t make us less hu­man.” He’s been at­tracted to women but chooses in­stead to recom­mit daily to his re­la­tion­ship with God. “Love,” he says, “is more im­por­tant than sex.”

He is also look­ing for­ward to wear­ing the Ro­man col­lar be­cause it’s both an ex­ter­nal man­i­fes­ta­tion of his in­ter­nal re­al­ity and an in­vi­ta­tion to those in need. “I want to be there for peo­ple – to care, to guide, to love.”

Lead­ing Aus­tralian the­olo­gian Pro­fes­sor Tracey Row­land, who in 2014 was ap­pointed by Pope Fran­cis to the In­ter­na­tional The­o­log­i­cal Com­mis­sion, says it’s this au­then­tic­ity of pur­pose and de­vo­tion to God that char­ac­terises the new gen­er­a­tion. “Peo­ple are now less likely to use the priest­hood as a cover for psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­or­ders that

“IN THE PAST, PEO­PLE BE­CAME PRIESTS WHO SHOULD NEVER HAVE BEEN PRIESTS… I HOPE TO MAKE AMENDS FOR THEM”

make them un­mar­riage­able,” she says with trade­mark can­dour.

Be­ing a priest, she adds, is no longer “an au­to­matic pass to so­cial re­spectabil­ity” and those in charge of young priests or novices need to be the best the church can find. “If a per­son of­fers to give their life in ser­vice, it’s like join­ing a reg­i­ment, with all the risks that en­tails. They want to feel they’ve joined the re­li­gious equiv­a­lent of the SAS, not the equiv­a­lent of Dad’s Army.”

In­deed, with many re­spond­ing to the spir­i­tual call af­ter a life in the sec­u­lar world, the cal­i­bre of men­tors is crit­i­cal. In Bris­bane, one young man has en­tered the sem­i­nary af­ter a ca­reer in the army which in­cluded a stint in Afghanistan, while Syd­ney’s Sis­ters Of St Joseph Of The Sa­cred Heart con­vent is home to a novice who’s worked as both a graphic artist and snow­board­ing in­struc­tor.

The no­tion of a nun on a snow­board might in­spire mirth, but 36-year-old Jane Maisey is quick to clar­ify she has no im­me­di­ate in­ten­tion of fus­ing her tal­ents. Work­ing in Colorado one sea­son, she re­ceived reg­u­lar mar­riage pro­pos­als from an 80-year-old Aus­trian in­struc­tor, but his loss is clearly the church’s gain.

While work­ing as a graphic de­signer in Christchurch, Maisey’s call­ing came in the wake of the dev­as­tat­ing 2011 earth­quake. When peo­ple are killed, in­jured and lives are changed forever, you re­assess, she says. “You have a choice of how you come out of something like that and I chose to grow.”

Hav­ing grown up as Catholic and af­ter in­ves­ti­gat­ing other re­li­gions, she found it was ul­ti­mately the teach­ings of Je­sus that res­onated most deeply. “I was sit­ting in a cathe­dral and the idea came to me that I should be­come a sis­ter. I thought, ‘Oh no, that’s crazy’, but the feel­ing did not go away. With time, through prayer and dis­cern­ment, the call be­came stronger.”

Four years later, as she poses for our pho­tog­ra­pher in the Mary Mackil­lop Me­mo­rial Chapel – she re­fuses to clasp her hands in front of her for fear of look­ing “too pious” – Maisey is ev­ery­thing the church needs in this pe­riod of tran­si­tion. In her Adi­das train­ers – “they go with ev­ery­thing” – and with her quiet wit, she deftly strad­dles both the holy and earthly, although she would mod­estly bat away such a sug­ges­tion.

“I’ve lived in the world, so I can iden­tify with peo­ple’s pain,” she says. “I’m grate­ful for ev­ery painful ex­pe­ri­ence, all ex­pe­ri­ences are gifts from be­yond and I wouldn’t want to come into this life with­out it.”

But hav­ing had a suc­cess­ful ca­reer and free­dom for, among other things, in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ships, surely the vows of the sis­ter­hood are chal­leng­ing? “I was never mo­ti­vated by money and the re­la­tion­ship I have with God is greater than romantic love, it is a call­ing, so I don’t feel I’m los­ing any­thing. I’m hu­man, I’m aware of the male form, but big love is what I’m here for.”

“THE RE­LA­TION­SHIP THAT I HAVE WITH GOD IS GREATER THAN ROMANTIC LOVE… SO I DON’T FEEL I’M LOS­ING ANY­THING”

16

FA­THER FIG­URE Mar­cus Gould­ing shocked his fam­ily when he said he wanted to be a priest.

TRUE CALL­ING Amy Mccabe knew she wanted to be a sis­ter when she was just 12.

LEAP OF FAITH Jane Maisey swapped the world of snow­board­ing for life in a con­vent.

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