On a Mission, by Shaun Davison. Published by Steele Roberts, Wellington.
In a remarkably candid way 22 former seminarians of Mt St Marys, Greenmeadows (The Mission) were interviewed about their lives and aspirations by the author, himself a former seminarian. The once vibrant teaching institution of the 1970s and 80s has since disappeared but almost 30 years later these men recall the beautiful setting of the famous Hawkes Bay vineyard; the camaraderie and friendships; and the fun and the intellectual stimulation of being with other highly motivated and idealistic confreres on a mission to make the world a better place. In fact, all have made something of their original vision to do something worthwhile in the world, often without much reference to the Catholic Church. Only three of the 22 interviewed were still practicing as priests. Seven left after ordination and the others withdrew at various stages of the eight-year training programme.
Another side of the story shows how most of them came to realise that this regimented style of training and living as priests was not how they wanted to live their lives. Despite the fun times, many remembered the loneliness and isolation felt in a celibate community where close friendships were forbidden and women and children had no place. Most of those who left recount how they eventually found healing and wholeness in long-term committed relationships. Although a number would say there was nothing intrinsically special or holy about the seminary, the rituals, singing, strong male energy – and the ‘charm offensive’ as one described it – offered visitors an unreal spiritual experience, plus it served to put the seminarians themselves, and the priests, on a pedestal. Also, despite the institutional shortcomings, there are poignant moments of human wisdom, self-insight and friendships with colleagues and teachers alike.
I couldn’t put this book down as each chapter told a piece of my own story as a former seminarian and priest from that era. Author Shaun Davison has woven the stories into a compelling narrative, linked with his own insightful letters to his parish priest at the time. His brief comments about each man before and after his interviews with them capture their personal characteristics in a few delightful words. This is a must read for any Catholic wanting to understand this slice of Catholic history in New Zealand.
On a Mission is available at Epworth Books, Karori Rd, for $39.99.