Cardinal George Pell plucked Fr Anthony Percy from the Canberra-Goulburn Archdiocese to be rector of his seminary, and sent him on a global tour to learn more about what makes seminaries and their students come alive with the faith. Fr Percy gave The Record journalist Anthony Barich an exclusive insight into what he learned.
A DEEP faith in Christ and the ability to communicate it to the faithful is the key to the ministry of the priests that Fr Anthony Percy will help form as the new rector of the Seminary of the Good Shepherd in Homebush, Sydney.
Fr Percy, who did Doctoral Studies in the Church’s Social Doctrine at the John Paul II Institute in Washington, DC, was hand picked by Sydney Cardinal George Pell to take over as rector next January from Auxiliary Bishop Julian Porteous, who held the role since January 2002.
Fr Percy admitted to The Record that he was first taken aback by Cardinal Pell’s request and had never thought of doing “this type of priestly work”. But he says the task of forming priests in the third millennium is a “great grace” for him. “It sits well with me, because I recognise that the work is not my work but the Lord’s,” he said.
Fr John Greig, a diocesan priest with vast pastoral experience, was recruited to the Seminary of the Good Shepherd in August as pastoral director as it was intended that the position would merge with that of vice rector next January.
Cardinal Pell sent Fr Percy and Fr Greig to Rome and the United States to gauge seminary culture before taking on the role themselves.
What they learned – and will implement themselves – will build on the pillars which Bishop Porteous drew on as rector: to develop a seminary with staff clearly focused on the five pillars of formation: human, spiritual, intellectual, pastoral and apostolic.
These pillars were identified in Pastores Dabo Vobis, the Apostolic Exhortation to bishops, clergy and faithful on the formation of priests in the circumstances of present day. Fr Percy said in an exclusive interview with The Record that a man studying for the priesthood should advance in each of these categories to be ready to serve God’s people.
“In other words, he needs to be a man who is profoundly rooted in the human virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice – to begin with,” said Fr Percy, who was ordained for the Canberra-Goulburn Archdiocese in 1990.
Communication the key
In addition, he said, a seminarian needs to develop his communication abilities so that he can preach what he believes in – Christ crucified and risen. He said that this is “vitally important” for the ‘new evangelisation that the late John Paul II called for.
As most people’s contact with the Church comes via Sunday Mass, “if the preacher can bring his listeners into the power of Christ’s death and resurrection, then the baptised faithful will take this personal experience of Christ into their homes, work places and onto the streets without fear,” Fr Percy said.It is from a deep faith in Christ, he said, rather than “the skills he learns at a drama school or a local speech club”, that the priest must preach the Word of God.
Know your stuff
The future priest, Fr Percy added, need not be an academic in matters of human reason and the mysteries of faith; he needs only to show a competence and a “willingness to think with assent”.
He says the priest also needs to “know his stuff”, well versed in the Church’s teachings and why she teaches the truths of the faith. So, grounding in philosophy – a trust in human reason and its abilities – will be invaluable.
“Many people today have lost confidence in our ability to think things through and this is not helpful when we come to understand the mysteries of the faith,” Fr Percy said, echoing the thoughts of both John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, who on many occasions said that faith and reason are not opposed. “They are like two wings on which the human person flies towards God,” Fr Percy says.
He said faith is a gift given and the deposit of faith is a treasure; and the priest is called neither to subtract from what is contained in the Creed and Commandments and “he is certainly not called to add to it”. A future priest needs to be “humble like the saints, believe then communicate”.
Of the seminary itself, he said it can develop wider links with the wider Church, as his overseas visitations to seminaries revealed close links with the diocesan vocations director in particular and with the Church community – parishes, schools, groups and movements – in general.
He especially noted the role seminarians play in the promotions of vocations. “They are, after all, our best asset in that department,” he said.
A seminary also needs to be a place of great enjoyment, echoing the words of St John Bosco about life in general that Fr Percy says is especially pertinent to seminaries: “Two things are essential. One, to stay in the state of grace. Second, enjoy life as much as you can.”
He said that seminaries can be places of tension and frustration, where people can be tempted to question why they’re stuck in a seminary rather than serving the people of God in parishes as Christ has called them to do.
But Fr Percy said that “having a deep sense of faith and fun is important to help people realise the grace of the moment”.
Treasures of the Church
Fr Percy also noticed in his world tour of seminaries that a seminary student has certain characteristics. They are more traditional – not necessarily more conservative (though that may be the case) – but in the sense they want to receive the great tradition of the Church, including its spirituality, teaching (dogmatic and moral) and practice.
Tradition comes from the Latin word “traditio” and means “to hand over”, which is what the Church does best: to hand over to the next generation the riches of Christ – specifically, to hand over “a love for Christ in the Eucharist and in the poor”.