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A Priesthood Imprisoned


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About the Author

John Ryan is a priest of the Diocese of Sandhurst. He pursued post graduate studies in Pastoral Theology in Rome from 1970 to 1972 and in Spirituality in St Louis, USA from 1972 to 1974. In 1977 he helped establish the Educational Centre for Christian Spirituality and in 1982 he founded the St Peter Centre for Clergy Education which lead to the introduction in Australia of the Ministry to Priests and Ministry to Religious Programs and later the Catholic Institute for Ministry. In 1995 he worked as a counsellor in the Archdiocesan Office of Centacare and in 1999 helped establish the Humanita Foundation, an Australian Foundation for Integrated Christian Living whose aim was to stimulate renewal in the Church's understanding of human development and sexuality. Since retirement, John now lives in Canberra.


Serendipitously, I began reading the draft of John Ryan's "A Priesthood Imprisoned" on the feast of St Vincent de Paul. John describes his own mid-life crisis, and the effect it had on the exercise of his priesthood in service of his fellow priests. Like Vincent, he became convinced that on-going formation was more important than information in the life of a priest.

Like Vincent, John has lived in post-Conciliar times. While the Council of Trent and its aftermath provided a solid doctrinal and disciplinary basis for renewal, its practical application did not always match the ideals, as could be seen in Vincent's early priestly life.

John Ryan was ordained during Vatican II, and, like Vincent's, his priestly life has been spent implementing Conciliar reforms, particularly in relation to the lives of diocesan priests.

"A Priesthood Imprisoned," like Augustine's "Confessions," is a deeply inspiring account of a personal spiritual journey. The simplicity and courageous humility of these reflections provides a template for all of us who have served as priests in the post-Vatican II Church to identify and find meaning in the successive stages of our own spiritual lives.

John's insights are deeply rooted in the soil of Sacred Scripture, and follow the model of the Great Tradition, mapping the spiritual journey according to the Purgative, Illuminative and Unitive Ways. As he wrote himself in the 2017 Spring edition of The Swag: "Like three legs of an old bar stool, these legs provide wisdom for life. The three operate alone and together, and intertwine to weave life's mystery."

But John's insights owe their conviction not only to the Faith Tradition; they also draw on modern scientific research into individual and social psychology, particularly as they relate to spiritual and moral development, and to emotional and intellectual maturation.

One of his most disturbing reflections concerns the relatively inadequate response to the disconcerting clinical research into priests of the 1970s: 10-15% were mature; 20-25% had serious psychiatric difficulties, 60-70% suffered a degree of emotional immaturity precluding their being as happy and effective as they might be. Then, in the early 1990s, John McKinnon's finding that only 9% of Australian priests comfortably and consistently reached a high level of human maturity.

John Ryan sees the sexual abuse crisis erupting in the 1990s as the result not just of a few bad apples, but as a symptom of systemic clerical dysfunction.

Although admirable advances have been made with regard to policies and professional standards, such efforts will remain a Machiavellian manoeuvre, an admirable canard against proper treatment of a systemic malaise which can be related to such fundamental options as isolating seminaries, compulsory celibacy and the absence of women at significant levels of church governance.

Paul McCabe - The SWAG

I am left with great hope having read this book. The conversation has begun and needs to continue. I recommend this book to all priests and to all those wishing to gain an insight into a living rather than a moribund priesthood. It is a provocative, challenging and inspiring book. Buy it! Talk about it!

Tim Hazelwood - The Furrow

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