14 May, 2012
I’m not a Christian and I don’t believe in ‘God’. I’ve had little contact with organised religion. I know nothing about the Catholic Church, and even less about what it is to be a Catholic. But in 1983, for half a day, I was a Catholic priest, and I experienced the power that Catholic priests hold over others.
The occasion was the opening of the Bourke Street Mall in Melbourne. Prince Charles and Princess Dianna were to officiate. Being a republican I got it into my head to ‘do a de Groote’: Captain Francis De Groote slashed the ribbon before NSW Premier, Jack Lang, could officially open the Sydney Harbour Bridge, in 1932. My plan was to open the Mall ‘on behalf of the people’ before Charles and Dianna got to do so (yes, mad I know).
So I dressed in priest’s garb, and walked into Melbourne from Richmond. I got within 20 metres of the podium, then chickened out, frightened that if I took to the stage I’d be shot.
But I’d discovered that as a priest, I had considerable power. People paid me great deference, stepping out of my way on the narrow footpaths of Little Bourke Street, lowering their heads and saying ‘God bless you Father’. Realising that all the pedestrians were giving way to me, I decided to see how far this would go. I walked straight at anyone coming the other way. Invariably they stepped back, bowing and scraping, and offered me, as a priest, their respectful greetings. Not one person stood up to my rudeness and street bullying.
In the Mall an Irishman I knew busked with his accordion. He was a singer of rebel songs, someone I regarded as anti-authoritarian. I threw some coins into the hat, and, in a lousy Irish accent, warmly congratulated him on his music. Seeing that it was a priest speaking to him, the busker immediately stopped playing, as if in shock, tugged his cap, bowed, and in a fluster said, ‘Thank you Father, thank you Father’. I left before he had a chance to recover and recognise me, and was amazed at how the appearance of a priest could turn a stout Irish rebel into a groveling child.
On my way home I went to a couple of milk bars, ordered a packet of Drum tobacco, then fumbled in my pockets, claiming I must have lost some money. Both shopkeepers gave me the Drum for whatever money I had. People on trams invariably stood when I asked for their seat. On one footpath a man even stumbled into the gutter, nearly falling, just to allow me easy passage. At that point I tore off the dog collar and returned to civvies.
Now of course not all priests abuse their power. And these four hours of mine in 1983 are a very trivial example of the power of the priest when compared to the tragic, life-threatening, and sometimes life-ending, experiences of those who have been abused by priests. But I was astonished at the time, and still am, at the power a priest holds, how it can be exploited to dominate God-fearing people, and how seductive that power is.
Jan ‘Yarn’ Wositzky is a freelance writer, storyteller, musician and producer.