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Australians in Italy: Contemporary Lives and Impressions


Bill Kent [editor]; Ros Pesman [editor]; Cynthia Troup [editor]

  1. Download this book
  2. First page
  3. Cover; Copyright and Contributor Information; Table of Contents
  4. Preface
  5. Presentazione
  6. Acknowledgements
  7. Introduction
  9. Ch 1. Australians in Italy: The long view
  10. Ch 2. Twentieth-century diplomatic and trade relations
  11. Ch 3. Some facts and figures
  12. Ch 4. Gaining a foothold: Australian cultural institutions in Italy
  13. Ch 5. Arthur Dale Trendall: A memoir
  15. Ch 6. More than a love affair: Australian writers and Italy
  16. Ch 7. A great tradition revisited
  17. Ch 8. Funghi, family and fables
  18. Ch 9. ‘Everything else in Italy’: A journalist in Rome
  20. Ch 10. Australian artists in Italy: Residencies and residents
  21. Ch 11. Donald Friend: An Australian artist’s affair with Italy
  22. Ch 12. Drawing on Italian art
  23. Ch 13. Rinascimento through a contemporary lens
  25. Ch 14. Australian clergy in Italy after Vatican II
  26. Ch 15. Rome: My two cities
  27. Ch 16. Rediscovering Rome
  28. Ch 17. ‘Unevenly buried’: A personal topography of Rome
  30. Ch 18. Elusive landscapes: Australians and the Italian garden
  31. Ch 19. Educational tourism – cultural landscapes
  32. Ch 20. Carrara: Landscape of stone
  33. Ch 21. Imagining and experiencing Italy in the 1980s and 1990s
  35. Ch 22. Reflections and refractions: An Italian perspective on Australian Studies
  36. Ch 23. Australian cinema in Italy: Sguardi australiani
  37. Ch 24. Remembering Bernard Hickey
  39. Ch 25. Italian Australians in Italy
  40. Ch 26. Washing faces, cleansing hearts: Who am I?
  41. Ch 27. The returned migrants: The Associazione Nazionale Emigrati ed ex Emigrati in Australia
  42. INDEX

Chapter 14

Australian clergy in Italy after Vatican II

Peter Howard

Peter Howard lectures in the School of Historical Studies at Monash University. He arrived in Rome in the hot August of 1985 and resided for a time at the Collegio San Colombano, before moving to Florence, where for long periods over nearly 15 years he enjoyed the hospitality of the parish of Santa Maria a Cintoia (1986–98). He has been a Fellow of the European University Institute at Fiesole (1988–89) and the Istituto per le Scienze Religiose, Bologna (1999), as well as a Fellow (2000–01) and Visiting Professor (2007) at the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies (Villa I Tatti). He is also a member of the comitato scientifico of the Centro di Documentazione del Movimento Ecumenico Italiano, based in Livorno. Until 2000, he was a priest of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne, lectured in church history at Catholic Theological College (1986–98), and was Dean of Studies and a member of the formation staff at Corpus Christi College, Clayton (1993–96).

The following contribution seeks to highlight the complexity of the relationship between the Australian Catholic Church and Rome by examining some of the forces which have shaped Australian Catholicism over the past 40 years.1 I do this by examining the experience of student priests who went to Rome for study, and what this meant for the development of the local Church, that is, the Catholic Church in Australia. These student priests are the young men who wrote ‘per motivo religioso’ – ‘for religious reasons’, on their permessi di soggiorno (residence permits) to account for the four years which they spent in Rome at the college where generations of promising Australian seminarians had lived and studied: the Urban College and University of Propaganda Fide, more generally known as ‘Prop’.

The story is not without drama since it involves tracing differing interpretations of the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II (1961–65) – an event that signalled a seismic shift in the Catholic world – and what these interpretations have meant for the practice of Catholic faith in a country far from Rome.2 How Rome was to figure in the life of Australian Catholics, and how the Australian hierarchy was to figure in Rome, became the focus of the ecclesio-political agenda in Australia during the decades from the late 1960s onwards.

The changes occurring in the Australian Church can be gauged by contrasting the late 1990s with the 1960s. In November 1998 all the then bishops of Australia travelled to Rome to attend a special synod for the bishops of Oceania (22 November–12 December), convened by Pope John Paul II.3 In all, 117 bishops from Australasia and the Pacific met with the pope and officials of the Vatican. The Australian bishops spoke with a distinctive voice and spirit, many of them wishing to re-mould the Vatican’s views on a range of issues, the better to address local pastoral exigencies.4 The Australian bishops initially felt that the dialogue had been a useful exercise, but this view changed quickly. The Statement of Conclusions published two days after the close of the meeting led many of them to believe that Vatican officials had already formed a distorted picture of the vitality of the Church in Australia, especially when it was learned that the Statement of Conclusions had been written prior to the synod itself (Rummery 2001; Power 2004). The bishops were caught between loyalty to Rome and loyalty to the local Church.5 This tension between the conclusions of the Roman authorities and the concerns of the local bishops highlights a complex undercurrent in Australian Catholicism that still persists. Moreover, this undercurrent spills over more generally into politics and civic life in a way that affects not only the Catholic population of the country.6

The interventions of the Australian bishops in 1998 at the Synod of Oceania illustrates the considerable maturing of the Australian Catholic Church since the 1960s, when the Australian bishops were, arguably, so much in the Roman mould that they had virtually nothing to say during the sessions at the Second Vatican Council. This is the view about the bishops of Australia in the 1960s put forward by John Molony. In 1969 he published The Roman Mould of the Australian Catholic Church in order to tell Australian Catholics ‘what they were getting’ in 1968 (Molony 1969). ‘What they were getting’ was more of the same: Rome! Molony argued that in the late nineteenth century the Irish bishops who led the Australian Church were themselves products of ‘an Irish Church undergoing a thorough Romanization at the hands of prelates trained in Rome, oriented to Rome, and consciously seeking to shape the Church both in Ireland and Australia in the Roman mould’ (1).7 More provocatively, he extrapolated from his argument to observe that ‘The Australian Church has no spirit, no liturgy and no law that is not almost entirely Roman’ (1). Though Molony’s focus was on the period 1846–78, he saw the shaping of Australian Catholicism in those days as reaching an apogee in 1967 with the appointment of Rome-educated and trained Australians to the archiepiscopal sees of Canberra and Melbourne: Thomas Cahill and James Knox respectively. At the same time, priests who underwent preparation for priesthood in Rome were being appointed to key positions in dioceses and Australian episcopal committees. The premise underpinning Molony’s thesis is that bishops, themselves trained in Rome, sent Australian clergy to Italy to have them enculturated by education and experience into a particular outlook on Catholicism, so much so that there was no framework for new ideas, or even criticism: their outlook was to be traditional and essentially conservative. They were already in the Roman mould, and Rome articulated all that they themselves would have wanted to say.8

The view of 1968 and the years that have followed now looks far more complex. Writing so close to the event, Molony did not notice the impact of the Second Vatican Council on some young Australian clergy then studying in Rome. These young men were learning new ways of thinking theologically, especially in terms of ecclesiology and liturgy. In the period 1970–96 and beyond, this new thinking would spill over into a renewal of clerical and theological education. Moreover, within a few years of the publication of Molony’s book (specifically, in 1976), Australia ceased to be defined as a ‘missionary country’. The latter change allowed for and strengthened alternative views and practices which had been developing for nearly a decade.

Propaganda Fide and the Australian Church

To varying degrees, the Italian people and culture have shaped the lives of seminarians and priests who have spent time in Italy. Yet the ways in which ‘Rome’ – in all the senses that the word implies ecclesiastically – figures in the lives of the priests who trained in that city counts most for the shape of Catholicism in Australia. The word ‘Rome’ can be narrow or capacious. It can imply a restricted and restrictive curial view of the world; it can embrace an ecumenical view (the word ‘catholic’, after all, means ‘universal’, ‘all-embracing’). As the latter, Rome was the urbs terrarum – the capital city of all lands. From this perspective, Propaganda Fide, established in the immediate post-Tridentine period, and coinciding with European colonial expansion, aimed to ensure the Roman shape of religion in mission lands. Australia was no exception, for in Rome’s view it was still a missionary country; as such, Australia came under the responsibility not of the Congregation for Bishops but rather of the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith) until March 1976, when it was deemed to have adequate funds and personnel to be self-sufficient.

Since the early seventeenth century, the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith had its own college for preparing students from mission countries for priesthood. To this end, the Urban College ‘de Propaganda Fide’ (named after Pope Urban VIII) had faculties of philosophy and theology, and daily routines of study, worship and recreation. From the very beginning the College had a teaching arm and the right to confer the title of doctor.9 In 1962, on the eve of the Second Vatican Council, Propaganda Fide became the Pontifical Urban University, and during the 1960s the university and residential college were separate institutions, though located only 20 metres apart. Colonial bishops were allocated a certain number of places per year, and for Australian bishops, this meant sending young men who had shown themselves to be the brightest and most promising students during their early years of training in provincial seminaries. For this reason, Prop was regarded as ‘a school for bishops’ – a training ground for future Australian bishops. These future bishops (so the argument goes) were cast inevitably, therefore, in the Roman mould; clergy trained in Rome would always speak with a Roman voice. Although the aim of Prop had always been to train priests with a supra-national rather than a national outlook, the institution’s stance was inevitably Roman and ensured that the centre would always dominate the periphery.10 Such an outlook was inculcated in the postwar period by Monsignor Felice Cenci, the College’s rector between 1947 and 1970, through so-called autoformazione, literally ‘self-formation’. According to the program of autoformazione, seminarians were required to work at understanding and structuring their own character (Molony 2004, 177; 191). As part of life at the residential college, each year students were divided into a number of ‘cameratas’: groups of between 15 and 30 students drawn from different countries and year levels, with Italian as the common language. Students from the same nations, regions or language groupings were permitted to mix together socially only for a brief period once a week, on Sundays after lunch. The Australians met as a group known popularly as the ‘Aussie Rec’; this term embraced Australians, New Zealanders, Tongans and Fijians. Interestingly, the Australians were refused permission to play cricket as their recreation, ‘on the grounds that they should only engage in sports in which all students could participate’ (O’Grady 1970, 8).

Whilst the system at Prop aimed to instil a Rome-centred orientation amongst the clergy who studied there, what this meant in practice varied greatly. Twenty-five years after his book on the Roman mould of the Australian Church, Molony writes: ‘Imperceptibly, but decisively, I became part of the first group with whom the system succeeded. For good and for ill, I became a Roman’ (Molony 2004, 169). Yet the career of Molony’s own confrère at Propaganda Fide in the late 1940s, Frank Little, provides another perspective on the supposedly inevitable Romanisation of future Australian bishops, and shows the limits of the thesis. Little went on to write a doctoral dissertation in a crucial area of ecumenism, on the eucharistic sacrifice according to leading Anglican theologians of the twentieth century (Little 1953). Once he became archbishop of Melbourne in the mid 1970s, Little pursued ecumenical issues in a way that was well ahead of his contemporary bishops in Australia. He exhibited courageous independence of mind on the issue of the third rite of reconciliation (often rather crudely referred to as ‘forgiveness on mass’, rather than individual self-denunciation), as well as ‘life-centred’ and therefore local (rather than overtly doctrinal) catechesis in primary and secondary schools, despite strong pressure to the contrary from Rome. In many ways Little revealed that he was not in the Roman mould, and, when in Rome for his regular ad limina visits to provide an account of his stewardship of his diocese, he was always willing to endure the browbeating of curial officials.11 Like many bishops at the Synod on Oceania, he was perpetually conflicted between loyalty to Rome and the needs of the local Church.

To take a slightly later example, Frank Carroll, former archbishop of Canberra-Goulburn and past president of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, studied for a doctorate of Canon Law at the Pontifical Urban University from 1961 to 1964. His thesis on the development of Episcopal Conferences was published in 1965, the year in which the Second Vatican Council ended; it took a step further the implications of the council’s theology of collegiality for the local national Churches across the world, and implied a devolution of authority and the possibility of the integration of local faith and culture. The study had practical consequences for the style of Carroll’s leadership, and for the way he involved laity and clergy in developing the direction and structures of his diocese. On his initiative, an Archdiocesan Synod, ‘Coming home in Christ’ – the first in Australia since the Second Vatican Council – was held in Canberra in 1989.12 In the same vein, when addressing the 1988 National Catholic Education Conference, Carroll asserted that ‘Catholic Education must be at home in Australia […] faith and culture must be integrated’ (Carroll 1989, 30. The emphasis on ‘at home’ is Carroll’s).

Acceptance of Molony’s premise that ‘bishops make the Church’ does not necessarily mean that there was only a single Roman mould and that it produced bishops who spoke univocally. The examples of Little and Carroll demonstrate that preparation for priesthood in Rome did not necessarily preclude the sort of intellectual and spiritual vision required by the times. There were priests already ‘waiting in the wings’ to take up the challenge of a post-Vatican II Church as bishops. Though trained in Rome, they did not necessarily share a narrowly Rome-centred vision of ecclesiastical polity. The 1970s and 1980s offered a unique challenge to those who understood the urgency of integrating a faith that was Roman Catholic with the local culture of their home dioceses. The nature of that challenge is strikingly illustrated by the experiences of Australian seminarians in Rome in the late 1960s.

The ‘Propaganda Fide affair’ – between Rome and home

Rome in the 1960s witnessed a revolution comparable to any of the social and political upheavals and cultural phenomena with which that period is generally associated, such as student protests across the world; the escalation of the Vietnam War and intensified public opposition; the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and only a few years later, that of his brother Robert; the civil rights movement and the assassination of Martin Luther King; The Female Eunuch and sexual liberation, to name but a few. For Catholics, the fulcrum, however, was the Second Vatican Council (and no doubt, in the Anglophone world at least, the encyclical Humanae vitae). Summoned in 1959 by Pope John XXIII, Vatican II was held by many to usher in a new beginning (‘a new pentecost’) for the Church, especially with its decrees on the nature of the Church and an emphasis on collegiality between bishops and pope, the role of the laity and the vernacularisation of the liturgy. Different, contrasting views of Vatican II have percolated through the Catholic Church in Australia as a result of its varied impact on the Australian clergy who were sent to Rome to study during the defining decade of the 1960s.

If Molony’s group at Propaganda Fide was the first for whom the system of autoformazione was successful, then the priests who sailed home to Australia from Rome in 1967–68 were arguably the last. Two of these priests were George Pell and Peter Brock (though George Pell detoured to Oxford for doctoral studies).13 Pell’s experiences are made available in the biography written by Brisbane journalist Tess Livingstone (2002). Brock’s autobiography draws on some 70 letters, saved by his parents, which he wrote during his time in Rome (Brock 2001, 19).

Australian priests in Rome in the 1960s inhabited an ecclesiastical world in sudden transition – the most rapid aftermath of any council in history (O’Malley 1988, 15–18). The first part of the Second Vatican Council was characterised by the excitement of what was happening in the city, as prelates and their advisers flocked there from all parts of the world. Though the formal deliberations were held behind closed doors and in commissions and subcommittees, the hammering out of the ideas occurred at informal gatherings scattered across Rome. Intellectual currents that had been developing in theological circles for decades were being brought to the centre. Pell and Brock arrived before the final sessions of the council met, and left Rome after it closed in 1965, in 1967 and 1968 respectively. Both were caught up in its excitement and were profoundly influenced by it. Pell recalls that ‘as a young priest ordained immediately after the Second Vatican Council [he was] deeply committed to its liberal reforms’ (Livingstone 2002, 47).14 Brock, a talented musician who was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 1998 for his services to choral music, was drawn along by the spirit of Vatican II. This he took with him on the road, as it were, as he travelled across the country in his position as the Executive Officer of the National Commission for Clergy Life and Ministry (an appointment of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference), visiting the clergy in every diocese, and looking to their welfare and development – a sensitive, onerous task at the best of times.

Destined for Propaganda Fide, Terry Curtin was one of 20 Australian and New Zealander seminarians who landed in Naples in 1967; only one of his confrères remained with him by 1971.15 The distance of two years from the close of the Second Vatican Council had bred a new set of expectations which would lead Australasian seminarians to protest against the formation program of Propaganda Fide and its lack of responsiveness to the council’s decree on the formation of future priests (Optatam totius). This 1967 boatload of new arrivals in Rome was judged to be a ‘critical’ bunch by Brock. This certainly comes through in Curtin’s letters, nearly 80 in number, written to his father and to Tony, his brother.16 They are candid. They reflect the tensions of Curtin’s own reading of his times, and the experience of the aftermath of Vatican II which was so linked to his own formation. Compared with Pell’s reminiscences and Brock’s correspondence, Curtin’s letters have a critical and analytical edge. Moreover, they are extensive, detailed and systematic – each one is numbered. There is also a maturity about them. As Brock points out, the seminarians who went on to Rome from Corpus Christi College, then at Werribee in Victoria, were two years older than those of their counterparts from the seminary at Springwood in New South Wales. In addition, they had already begun to taste the changes in theology encouraged by Vatican II.

Pell and Brock were caught midstream by the changes taking place around them in Rome; the new stood in sharp contrast to the old. But Pell and Brock seemed less troubled by the disjunction than those Australians who arrived in Rome in 1967, when indeed Pell and Brock were on the cusp of leaving. (This may indeed be why Brock judged the arrivals to be ‘a critical bunch’.) It could be argued that whilst Pell and Brock appreciated the excitement of the new, it is not clear how deeply, at the time, they appropriated the new approaches, nor how fully they recognised the epistemological contradictions inherent in the new and the old. For instance, according to Brock (2001, 53), Monsignor Giovanni Vodopivec (who taught at the Pontifical Urban University and was on Vatican II’s preparatory subcommission on ‘sacred scripture in the Church’) said: ‘Throw away the textbook we’ve used for two months. Forget everything I’ve said so far. Now, at last, let’s begin to talk about the church!’ Then there were those who thought that nothing more could be said about the Church – that the theology had always been in place and was not open to development. For instance, Pell recalls how another professor, the eminent Monsignor Antonio Piolanti – in Pell’s view ‘a centrist at heart’ – ‘was aghast at moves by the Vatican Council to give individual bishops more authority in their dioceses, so promoting collegiality […]. Because to say Roman is to say Apostolic’ (Livingstone 2002, 46). This last phrase equates Rome with the tradition of the Apostles, and with the implicit inviolability of the Vatican’s structures and processes.

With the appointment of the young Carlo Molari as Piolanti’s assistant, the conflicting theological views to which Pell, Brock and fellow seminarians of this period were exposed became more self-evident. Molari’s approach to theology was worlds away from Piolanti’s. Brock wrote home:

[Molari’s] approach to what was happening in the world and in the church was so different [to Piolanti’s]. So were his teaching methods […]. He began the course by asking us questions, not rhetorical questions, but soliciting answers from the hall. What are the novelists in your countries writing about? What are your films about? How are your traditional and tribal practices changing? […] What do people in your society want from life? What do you want from life? What do you want to avoid in life? What do you fear? What do you want to run away from? What do you want to be saved from? […] Molari’s didactic method in all his courses was the same – don’t begin the course until there is a consensus that the course is important and worth studying. He was a wonderful teacher (Brock 2001, 97–98).

Pell, too, recalls Molari’s charisma: ‘He was a very exciting lecturer, I certainly liked his enthusiasm and ambition to speak to contemporary people’ (Livingstone 2002, 48).

While Pell and Brock seemed to accept the old with the new, Curtin’s group of Australian seminarians in Rome found such reconciliation difficult. The 1967 arrivals had high expectations that those developments in the sacred sciences which underpinned Vatican II should be flowing through into their studies; they believed that the theological institutes of Rome should be at the forefront in implementing the council’s decrees and the theology that underpinned them. But this was not always the case. For instance, in 21 July 1969 Curtin, in the course of commenting on his examination results, mentions to his brother Tony that the Australian students had been singled out for not attending the lectures on Scripture: ‘all absolutely terrible with none of the modern developments as [the professor] denies them all’. The problem was structural. The professor in question had been at the university since before the Second World War, and as Curtin notes, according to the Italian system, once someone became ‘Professor Ordinarius’ he could hold that position as long as he wished.

By contrast with the group of seminarians on the cusp of departure in 1967, from the outset, the group arriving in the same year was being inducted into an entirely new theological method. Although developed over several decades before the Second Vatican Council, this method only came to the fore during the sessions of the council. The resultant new outlook made it more difficult to accommodate an older approach which tended to view theology as predicated upon philosophical systems and historically generated problems. The latter view remained important; however, after Vatican II, theology as an intellectual discipline was based on an articulation of context, and geared to effective communication. This shift was profoundly important for a missionary institute such as Propoganda Fide. What had become crucial, as Curtin’s letters reveal, was not just the content of theology, but also the conception of theology as a discipline, and the method by which this discipline was pursued. Molari’s approach to teaching embodied a theological method called by Marie-Dominique Chenu OP pierres d’attentes. Chenu was a key figure behind the council’s controversial decree on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes). Pierres d’attente – referring to the toothing stones jutting out from a wall in order to mesh with eventual additions – required the Church to scrutinise contemporary social and cultural movements for signs of aspirations to the spiritual; it was to these aspirations that the message about Christ should be addressed.17

Such an approach historicises and enculturates theology; it is the approach aligned with the Italian word given currency in 1961 by Pope John XXIII: aggiornamento. To understand this word and its implications was and is to grasp the significance of the meaning of Vatican II for the Churches of different countries. In choosing aggiornamento rather than restaurata (restoration) or renovatio (renovation) or even reforma (reform), John XXIII drew upon a philosophical distinction that allowed a courageous pastoral leader to seek to renew the image of the Church according to the needs of the times, while observing fundamental continuity: Curtin expressed the notion as ‘a re-presentation and development of […] underlying truth’ in a letter that proceeds to narrate the tensions being experienced by the Australian seminarians at Prop.18 The young Curtin’s understanding of the term aggiornamento is much more sophisticated than the popular translation – ‘updating’ – and shows that he is cognisant of the Aristotelian distinction between matter and form upon which John XXIII had predicated his use of the term. Curtin was astute enough to know that the sort of approach to pastoral practice envisaged by John XXIII, and the theological method imparted by Molari, were fundamental to the priestly vocation to which he aspired. Towards the end of the same letter Curtin refers to the ‘irrelevant sermon’ given by a priest to a crowd of young people. It ‘had nothing to do with his hearers’ lives’. Curtin recognised the futility of addressing youth in a way that did not attend to their issues – their pierres d’attentes.19 Such critical recognition by Curtin’s generation in Rome would lead to events dubbed the ‘Propaganda Fide affair’ by expatriate Australian journalist Desmond O’Grady (O’Grady 1970, 7).

The ‘Propaganda Fide affair’ centred on the College’s response, or rather lack of response, to a new awareness flowing from the Second Vatican Council and its implications for the formation of the students in their journey to ordination. More precisely, the theological education to which the Australians were exposed by Prop’s theological faculty was sharply at odds with the type of personal formation they were experiencing at Prop’s residential college. For the Australian seminarians, the camerata system and autoformazione no longer furthered the institution’s ‘intention of sending out missionaries adequately formed for the tasks that will be theirs’.20 The emphasis was on external conformity, with scant attention to interior disposition and motivation.21 In the light of the new vistas and pastoral and spiritual challenges being opened up by their theological studies, the Australians, at least, perceived their preparation for priesthood to be more and more inappropriate. They were acutely aware that the university was adopting the approaches and emphases of Vatican II. The university’s very method of embarking on its program of reform followed the same kind of process as the Second Vatican Council; the university administration had called for reports from students themselves.22 Such procedures only served to highlight the unresponsiveness of the superiors at Propaganda Fide to the type of formation of future priests outlined by the Vatican II documents: ‘Within the college things are not happy and the superiors’ solution seems only a repetition of what was said in the past, a large part of which is the cause of present discontent and an ever-increasing wave of criticism’.23

Perceiving the inability of the College’s superiors to act in response to their dissatisfaction, the Australians met and elected a committee which was to prepare a document to be sent directly to the cardinal responsible for the College – Cardinal Agagianian, Prefect of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. Curtin confides in a letter to his father that this step – going over the superiors’ heads directly to ‘Piazza di Spagna’ (the headquarters of the Congregation of the Propagation of the Faith) – was ‘unprecedented’, but explains that it was ‘certainly not without cause’. He and his fellow seminarians believed that they could not leave the situation as it was since ‘things [were] only worsening’. Curtin cautions his father: ‘This is of course private news at the moment, as it could be misunderstood if it got outside’.24

But the private news did not remain private for long. On 24 April 1969 the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald carried the headline: ‘Trainee priests revolt reported’ (Anonymous 1969a). Two days later, the same newspaper announced on page five: ‘Rome college revolt denied by official’.25 Probably these headlines underpin Patrick O’Farrell’s dismissive reference to the event – in his revised edition of The Catholic Church in Australia – as ‘a revolt against excessive and rigid discipline’ (O’Farrell 1977, 418). But the situation at Prop and the Australians’ response to it was much more subtle and complex than O’Farrell allows.

The complexity is well caught by Curtin’s account to his father. His perspective on ‘things at Prop’ is that of an insider. At the same time it is measured and thoughtful, quite self-consciously so. The letter begun on 17 February was not resumed until 17 March. For such a regular and diligent correspondent as Curtin, this ‘unprecedented interval’ itself underscores just how absorbing of time and energy the situation at Prop had become. Curtin’s slowness to write was deliberate. He refrained from simply reporting ‘something other than just what happened last week’. He took time to reflect on and evaluate the events that were unfolding and in which he was an active participant. As a result of his decision to wait until he had time to ‘really sit down and write’, this letter is even more reflective and analytical than any other he wrote. Indeed, Curtin’s month of silence reflects the degree to which he and his fellow Australian seminarians felt that Prop’s superiors were out of touch with post-conciliar seminary requirements and with student thinking.26 The letter provides a chronology of the events, explanatory commentary from the students’ perspective, and includes a copy of the document that had been sent by the ‘Australian Rec’ – bearing 43 signatures – to the cardinal in charge of the College, Cardinal Agagianian.27

In the view of the Australasian students, Prop ‘did not seem to be achieving its aim of formation of the students towards their future ministry’. There was ‘a certain air of malaise among students prompted by the feeling that dialogue with the superiors was ineffective and so useless’.28 This mood had led to a series of meetings of the Australian and New Zealand students from late January into early February, to discuss ‘the situation of the College’.29 Curtin and his Australian confrères had considered working through their bishops, who had all been apprised of conditions at the College. But the bishops were ‘not at hand’ to render any practical assistance. Archbishop Knox of Melbourne, however, had told them ‘to do what [they thought] fit, although [Curtin adds] at that stage it was not thought of going to the top’.

The document prepared by the Australian seminarians prompted an immediate response from Agagianian. Curtin’s letter indicates that he thought that the cardinal was on the side of the authors of the document, though other sources indicate that this may not necessarily have been the case.30 In any event, Agagianian appointed a member of his staff, Father John Manning, an American Maryknoll priest, to follow up each of the signatories to the document. Curtin reports favourably on his 40-minute interview, and, like the others, he found Father Manning ‘very open’ while ‘at the same time evaluating both us and our replies’. Manning told some students, at the end of their interviews, that ‘their actions were more than justified and long overdue’ (O’Grady 1970, 9). However, initially the other students at Prop resented the Australasian initiative, and feared that ‘the Australians might be putting forward their own view to the exclusion of others’.

At the end of June and the end of the academic year, 10 of the signatories returned to Australia for ‘a period of reflection’. By November 1969 nothing much had changed. When visiting at the start of November, Archbishop Knox refused to be drawn into any discussion about the situation at the College. By contrast, Cardinal Gilroy (Sydney) and Archbishop Cahill (Canberra-Goulburn), ‘were very concerned to hear how their students were faring and what difficulties there were in the College for them’.31

The level of angst and frustration experienced by this group of Australians in Rome is reflected in their contribution to the gift which the seminarians presented to Monsignor Cenci on the occasion of his retirement as rector: an album of photographs of each of the College’s national groupings.32 In June 1970, the Aussie Rec gathered with their canine mascot in front of a camera (see Figure 14.1). What the rector made of this highly stylised image can only be speculated upon, especially since, on his own admission, he professed not to understand the Australians (O’Grady 1970, 8).

Would Cenci have been impressed by his seminarians’ fidelity to the papacy, as shown by the prominence of the papal flag? Or was he perhaps annoyed by the national sentiment expressed by the Australian and New Zealand flags that flanked the papal flag, a sentiment underlined by muted reference to the slouch hats of the Anzacs? Perhaps he thought that the students’ attire – the traditional but progressively less paraded red-trimmed and black soutane of the College (the design of which was mythically attributed to Michelangelo) – proclaimed that they were now falling into line, and that the brief period of turbulence was over. Did he imagine favourably their commitment to prayer and study represented by the tomes and breviaries in the hands of several students? (There is not one modern volume in sight.) Did the obvious symbols of the sports-loving youth from ‘down-under’ – tennis rackets, hockey sticks and table tennis bats – blind him to what was missing: cricket bats, signifying his legendary refusal to grant permission for the game in the College on account of its national exclusiveness! Perhaps the pipe between the lips of one student struck a note of discord: smoking was forbidden in the College on pain of expulsion. But then – he may have thought – the photo was a set piece, like the annual plays for which the Aussie Rec was justly famous, and so the pipe was perhaps just a stage prop. Would Cenci have mused that the 20 faces might well have been 30 if 10 of the group had not been sent home after the protest of the previous year?33 And the dog? He certainly would not have imagined that life at Prop could ever be considered ‘a dog’s life’. In short, would Cenci have seen the photo as a visual extension of the document sent to the cardinal more than a year previously, and therefore a protest at the College’s incomprehension of modern young men’s religious aspirations and desire to serve others (O’Grady 1970, 8)?34 Perhaps not, though he is reported to have opined: ‘I thought the Australians were my friends’. This said, his reputedly saintly disposition would no doubt have countenanced only the most positive of readings. Whatever impact the protagonists expected their gift to have, there was, nonetheless, a recognition amongst them that Cenci had once been an innovative rector; was a spiritual priest who had ‘outlived his time’, and that it was a pity that he was not able to retire ‘before having to face a situation that he was unable to handle’ (one student quoted by O’Grady 1970, 8).

The seminarians’ sense of the changing times, and of being ‘out of time’ in Prop, is reflected by their choice of play for the annual production in 1970: John Osborne’s 1961 drama, Luther. The choice bears an unusual Australian connection: Luther’s pine – the tree from which Luther ostensibly looked out on St Peter’s when he visited Rome in the fateful summer of 1510 – had stood in the grounds of the College, and marked the place where the Aussie Rec had gathered until the late 1940s; that is, until the Cardinal Prefect ordered the tree felled (Molony 2004, 168). The program for the Australasian Society’s production of Luther, cyclostyled in-house, is prefaced by a comment clearly intended to reflect the tumult of the day: ‘Its performance here in 1970 bears an added relevance considering the swift and radically altered attitudes towards Luther which have taken place in these few years. Osborne may yet stimulate prejudices, as the intellect finds itself waylaid by emotions. Still, Luther would enjoy that… ’. For the last group of Australians to study at Prop these sentences reflect the intellectual maelstrom in which they found themselves, and the emotional gamut, as well as perceived prejudices, to which they were exposed, in these most exciting, yet very difficult, times.

* * *

The consequences of the ‘Propaganda Fide affair’ were several, the most significant being that Australian seminarians were no longer sent to Rome, even though the Australian bishops had committed funds to a new building program at Prop only five years earlier. The Province of Victoria and Tasmania (along with the other dioceses) terminated its traditional association with Prop. Cardinal James Knox, heading the Trustees of the Provincial seminary, Corpus Christi College, appointed non-Roman clergy to set up a new seminary and theological college in the light of Vatican II decrees and subsequent documents on the preparation of future priests. Interestingly, the model of formation that was adopted for a newly relocated Corpus Christi College bore a striking resemblance to one of ‘the streams of thought’ identified by Curtin as emerging from discussions in those early months of 1969. One of these ‘streams’ stressed each seminarian’s personal responsibility to his own vocation, which meant that ‘the system of permissions’ be replaced ‘by the student deciding himself then informing the necessary people’; that students live in groups of ‘8–10 at the most, not 20–36’, and that liturgy be experienced in these groups, ‘except for certain days when the community should be together as a whole, like Sundays’.35

As a consequence, the advent of Cardinal Knox and then his successor in Melbourne, Archbishop Frank Little, marked the end, for a time, of priests trained in the Roman mould. Some of the priests of the archdiocese were encouraged to pursue undergraduate and graduate work at Melbourne University. The new system of formation at the purpose-built seminary – Corpus Christi College at Clayton, Victoria – at least initially incorporated studies towards a Bachelor of Arts degree at Monash University.

Even so this development did not mean the end of Australian clergy in Italy. Archbishop Little, in particular, was keen to foster intellectual and spiritual leadership. Therefore in 1985 there were some 11 priests of the archdiocese – several who had known the tumult of Prop in the late 60s – undertaking postgraduate studies in Italy, generally at the Gregorian University, and living in various colleges around Rome. Other priests were sent to pursue doctoral studies in northern Europe, the United States, and Canada. Such policies engendered a sense of intellectual vigor in the local Church. But as the style of Catholicism in Melbourne changed under the city’s next archbishop, George Pell, so too did the relationship with Roman education alter once more. Some promising seminarians were sent to Rome, as of old, to study for licentiates in theology before ordination. Corpus Christi College was again relocated and ‘reformed’ to a style of autoformazione reminiscent of Prop under Cenci. Priests who had been pursuing graduate studies beyond Rome were required to take a further degree or diploma from a Roman university.

Time spent in Italy by Australian seminarians and priests has had a varied and complex impact on the development of Australian Catholicism. Some priests returned to Australia and felt again at home. Others returned, but felt exiled from ‘the Eternal City’, and sought to impose the faith of their Rome, in the narrow sense, on their flock. They felt their real home and their destiny to lie in Rome. The ways in which different clergy have worked their way through the Australia-Rome nexus have borne implications beyond the realm of the private; they have affected profoundly the vision of Roman Catholicism that was, and continues to be, played out in the minutiae of pastoral ministry and the daily lives of Australian Catholics.

Italy, and, above all, Rome will always figure strongly in the Church of Australia. How Rome influences Church life, though, is a matter of extreme complexity; for Australian Catholics – lay, religious and clerical – Rome is a place of pilgrimage, be it in fact or in the heart, to the tomb and chair of St Peter and beginnings of the worldwide faith. There is continuity and difference. As Rome is distant from the shores of Lake Galilee which Jesus knew, so Australia is situated a long way from the Rome of the Vatican. Rome, and all it symbolises, works its way variously into the lives of believers.


1 This essay is the prelude to a fuller, prosopographical study, which will examine ‘who was studying what’ in Rome during a crucial 50 year period in relation to the positions individuals came to hold in the Australian Catholic Church, and their influence on it today. I am grateful to Bill Kent and his committee for the invitation to speak at the 2005 symposium in Prato and the opportunity which it has given me to think about one important aspect of my own life in the context of Australian-Italian religious culture. The project has become engrossing, and complex, opening up a new area for long-term research. I am extremely grateful to Rev Dr Terence Curtin for entrusting me with the correspondence that spans his time as a student in Rome. In addition, he has allowed me to reproduce the photograph that accompanies this essay. Responsibility for the contextualisation and interpretation of this material is, however, mine alone.

2 Framing such a study demands an articulation of how one thinks about the event of the Second Vatican Council itself, its documents and its role in the life and, indeed, history of the Church. This has come especially to the fore with the completion of the formidable five-volume The History of Vatican II (Alberigo and Komonchak 1995–2006). Alberigo and his collaborators at the Istituto per le Scienze Religiose, view the council as different to any which had preceded, marking a new beginning. This understanding has been contested. A counter interpretation, backed by Cardinal Ruini, Vicar of the diocese of Rome and president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, has been given academic credibility by Bishop Agostino Marchetto. Marchetto – a Church historian – collected a selection of his own writings under the title Il Concilio Ecumenico Vaticano II. Contrappunto per la sua storia (Marchetto 2005). Speaking when launching this book, Ruini ‘definitively scraps the interpretations of the last Council as a rupture and a “new beginning” for the Church, and […] calls for its history to be written at last, not from a partisan stance, but “according to the truth”’ (Magister 2005). Interestingly, it was Paul VI who addressed the Second Vatican Council about the post-conciliar phase: ‘From now on aggiornamento will mean for us an enlightened insight into the Council’s spirit and a faithful application of the norms it has set forth in such a felicitous and holy manner’ (quoted by Rush 2004, ix).

I follow the moderate view, well expressed by John O’Malley SJ: the Second Vatican Council was an ‘event’ in the social science meaning of the word (O’Malley 2006, 71): there was a ‘before’ and an ‘after’; things changed. I should point out that in the first half of 1999 I was extended academic hospitality by the Istituto per le Scienze Religiose, and experienced at first hand the gravitas and rigor of its scholarly endeavours.

3 In ecclesiastical terms Oceania is defined as encompassing Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, and most Pacific islands.

4 It could almost be said that they spoke with ‘distinctive voices’ since each bishop was given eight minutes in which to address the synod. Some of the topics were controversial. The 1998 synod for the bishops of Oceania proved to be a unique event, because the synods of other continents, with their proportionately larger number of bishops, could accommodate representative voices only.

5 The useful conceptual framework offered by William Christian (1981).

6 Even if present-day Australians (including those who have no memory of ‘the split’) consider themselves part of a secular, post-enlightenment society, the advent of Tony Abbott and Kevin Andrews in Australian politics – especially when these were ministers in the Howard Government – with their speeches on the relationship between public office, government policy and their Catholic faith, must have given thoughtful Australians pause, if only to ask: what is each minister’s version of Catholic faith? And what does it imply for the long-term development of Australia in terms of policy and, indeed, the fundamental nature of community in Australia?

7 This counters the view of O’Farrell (1977), and became a debate between Molony (1969) and O’Farrell. See now Campion (2007).

8 A telling anecdote from the History of Vatican II supports Molony’s point: to the open-ended letter sent at the behest of the pope to all bishops requesting proposals for the conciliar agenda, Thomas McCabe, Bishop of Wollongong, ‘took six months to reply in six lines that he had almost nothing to suggest’ (Alberigo and Komonchak 1995–2006, I, 99). Australian bishops hardly rate a mention in the five volume History of Vatican II.

9 See the bull of Urban VIII, Immortalis Dei Filius, 1627.

10 For this view see Alberigo (1988), Prodi (1982, 249–293), Cochrane (1988, 106–164). Compare Fenlon (1992). See also O’Malley (2000, 78–91).

11 The meaning of ad limina is ‘to the threshold’, so a bishop’s visit is to the threshold of the apostles Peter and Paul, and includes a meeting with the pope.

12 A second synod, concluded in 2004, was launched in October 2001.

13 Note: since I presented my paper at the 2005 Prato symposium Peter Brock has left the active ministry.

14 Pell’s words come from a paper that he delivered at Boston University in 1991. Livingstone (2002, 47) comments: ‘Over time, the liberal outlook of his student days has given way to a more pragmatic conservatism’.

15 Curtin was for a long time Head of the School of Theology (Victoria) within the Australian Catholic University (1992–2002), and is now Master of Catholic Theological College (2003–), where he urbanely manages the conflicting hermeneutics that have been the aftermath of Vatican II. Curtin went on to complete doctoral studies at the Gregorian University. His thesis examined the theological issues surrounding the use of historical criticism by Catholic biblical scholars in the period 1958 to 1983.

16 The letters are unpublished; they span the period 1968 to 1971. As indicated in note 1 above, Curtin has generously made the letters available for the present study.

17 This approach came to the fore in the Archdiocese of Melbourne in the late 1970s and 1980s in the resourcing of liturgy, catechesis and pastoral practice, especially through the efforts of Rev Dr Frank O’Loughlin, who had been a seminarian at Prop, and who later pursued this very theme in his doctoral work under the direction of Molari, from 1972 to 1975.

18 Curtin, letter dated 17 February 1969.

19 In general, Curtin’s letters show him to have appropriated the ‘incarnational’ ‘in-the-world’ approach to theology that underpinned Vatican II, and which came to be associated with the great theologians of the twentieth century who attempted a positive engagement with modern intellectual and cultural movements; figures such as Marie-Dominique Chenu, Bernard Lonergan, Karl Rahner, and Edward Schillebeeckx.

20 Curtin, letter dated 24 January 1969.

21 Molony (2004).

22 Curtin, letter dated 17 February 1969.

23 Curtin, letter dated 24 January 1969.

24 Curtin, letter dated 24 January 1969.

25 As a consequence of the timing of the news, the only version of the happenings at Prop that reached the press was that of the College authorities, thus minimising an event which ‘raised questions about the form of the Australian Church’s relationship with Rome’ (O’Grady 1970, 7).

26 One of the three vice-rectors was Australian-born Dr Patrick Dougherty.

27 There were five abstentions ‘for various reasons’.

28 Curtin, letter dated 17 February.

29 As well as Cenci, there were three vice-rectors: an Indian of the Malabar-Syrian rite; a mainland Chinese, attached to an Australian diocese he had never seen; and Father Patrick Dougherty of Sydney (O’Grady 1970, 9).

30 ‘There are reports from good sources that Cardinal Agagianian wanted to expel all the signatories but that Cenci had argued their grievances should be examined’ (O’Grady 1970, 9).

31 Curtin, letter dated 12 November 1969.

32 ‘The situation following the letter and the interviews was that Cenci announced his resignation but stayed in office for the whole of the next year. Whenever changes were suggested to him the answer was that this would have to wait until the new rector arrived. As a result morale sank very low and the Aussie students did not handle it well’ (Curtin to Peter Howard, private correspondence, 15 February 2008).

33 ‘My memory says that no one was ‘sent home’. I don’t think anyone went home in this way, rather they decided that they would return home themselves. […] I think O’Grady may have dramatised things more than is warranted’ (Curtin to Peter Howard, private correspondence, 15 February 2008).

34 This sentence paraphrases Peter Donoughue, one of the seminarians who returned to Australia.

35 Curtin, letter dated 17 February 1969.


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Figure 14.1: Australian and New Zealand seminarians at Propaganda Fide, Rome, June 1970.

Terry Curtin is pictured seated front row, right. This photograph was presented to Monsignor Felice Cenci on the occasion of his retirement as rector of Propaganda Fide, as part of an album of photographs of each of the College’s national groupings.
Photograph courtesy of Terry Curtin


Publication information

This chapter is from Australians in Italy: Contemporary Lives and Impressions, edited by Bill Kent, Ros Pesman and Cynthia Troup (Monash University Publishing: Clayton, Melbourne. 2010). For more information about this book, or to purchase print copies, please go to

Australians in Italy: Contemporary Lives and Impressions

   by Bill Kent [editor]; Ros Pesman [editor]; Cynthia Troup [editor]