Brendan Hoban’s Address in Portlaoise
This meeting today is born out of a conviction that a voice for priests is an urgent need, indeed a justice imperative for priests and for our Church now and (I think it isn’t too large a claim to make) for Irish society.
There is no need to rehearse the elements of our present situation. We’re living in extraordinarily difficult times for our Church – authority is diminishing, vocations are in free-fall, practice is declining, the age-level of priests is increasing all the time and priests find themselves under growing pressure. There is no need to rehearse the effects of all of that on the morale of priests.
We’re living in strange and difficult times.
And I think we feel as priests that we’re very often left to cope by ourselves, often unfairly blamed for situations beyond our influence or control, often ridiculed by the media, patronised by our leaders and dumped on by different groups with different agendas who presume we have to accept their particular diagnosis because no one is articulating a pertinent and competent response on behalf of priests.
Strange and difficult times, indeed.
This was brought forcibly home to me recently when, in chatting with an eminent Dublin lawyer, he said and I quote, ‘Being a priest today in Ireland is like being a witch in Salem.’ End of quote. It wasn’t a flippant comment. As we know the infamous witch-trials in Salem are a vivid cautionary tale about the dangers of unfair and sometimes false accusations and lapses in due process.
It was a sense of a need for some light in what often appears as an enveloping darkness around priesthood that inspired or provoked the meeting of 9 priests in Athlone on June 23rd last.
We have alternatives as priests today:
(i) We could cover our heads and hope that all of this angst would somehow go away
(ii) We could pray that somehow, somewhere God would perform a miracle and raise the siege that the CSA scandals and their aftermath have laid at our doors
(iii) We could pray that the intervening years between now and retirement would pass by without a knock on our door for some perceived or alleged incident 30 or more years or more ago
(iv) We could focus on our own work in parish or in school or wherever and effectively disengage from the wider Irish Church and the wider world.
(iv) Or we could walk off into the sunset, leaving it all behind us.
Instead, in a quick and instinctive response, we decided to call together a group of priests to consider what we might do. For the record there is no secret about who was there: Sean McDonagh and Bobby Gilmore who are Columbans; Tony Flannery, Adrian Egan and Gerry O’Connor who are Redemptorists; Mark Patrick Hederman who is the Abbot of Glenstal; Padraig McCarthy from Dublin and myself.
We talked for a few hours. One concern we had was that we were a small unrepresentative group, effectively representing no one but ourselves. We considered organising some sort of wide-ranging consultation to see what priests wanted, what were, as we say in the cliche of the day, ‘our felt needs’. But we realised that this would be a long, cumbersome process involving meetings, presentations, discussions, breaking up into groups, reporting back, questionnaires and so on and we quickly realised that this wasn’t practical or possible. As one of the group said. ‘Many of us at the meeting would be in nursing-homes before the consultation would be completed.’
Nonetheless a consensus of sorts emerged that we should try to do what we could to provide a voice for priests and three members, representing secular and religious priests – Tony Flannery, Sean McDonagh and myself – were asked to devise a series of aims and to plan a strategy for placing the possibility of a new Association for the consideration of Irish priests.
The strategy was to ask the editor of the Furrow to publish an article explaining what we were attempting to do, listing a draft series of aims and canvassing support for the idea by asking a number of signatories to indicate their support for the idea.
The idea was to publicise this meeting here today and to try and get agreement on a new association of priests that would give a voice to Catholic clergy. That is what we are attempting to do today.
That strategy had to be changed when the material we were sending around to priests, in an effort to get signatures, was given to one media outlet. We decided that in the circumstances the best thing to do was to issue a press release to the media in general and, as it happened, that generated quite a bit of publicity at the end of July and brought us a lot of support.
There was general agreement among the Furrow signatories on the ground we had chosen and most of those, though not all, who contacted us afterwards or whom we contacted seemed in general agreement with the aims.
That’s the background.
So let me attempt to mark out the field, as it were, to say what this Association hopes to be and what it doesn’t hope to be, what it strives to be and what it strives not to be.
(i) It will be a voice for Catholic priests in Ireland and membership is, of course, open to all priests but it will not be a voice for all priests because the effort to represent all views eventually leads to bland, inoffensive statements that end up representing no one and making no compelling point. We want to place that on clearly on the record at this point. We are not attempting to represent all priests and our hope is that this initiative will not be undermined by those who would prefer us to represent nobody unless we represent everybody.
(ii) Yes, this association has an agenda, an agenda for reform based on the spirit and teachings of the Second Vatican Council but No, we’re not trying to set up another Church. We are firmly at the heart of our Church and there is no other place we want to be.
(iii) Yes, we believe in the right of lay people to be centrally involved in their Church and we accept the thrust and the spirit of Vatican Two in that regard but this association is specifically a voice for priests because priests, because of their experience, wisdom and work over many decades have something specific to say and what we have to say should not be diluted or deflected. It deserves to be listened to – in its own right.
(iv) This Association will, of course, be democratic but we will not allow ourselves to be diverted from our task by responding to demands from those who are not with us to become involved in long and tortuous and energy-sapping consultations and meetings and reports in order to advertise our democratic credentials.
(v) This association is NOT a trade union and even though it has been occasionally presented as such, from the very beginning we specifically made it clear that we were not nor did we intend to be a trade union. That’s not to say that we will be silent in situations where priests’ rights to basic conditions are not respected and addressed.
(vi) This Association accepts the teaching of the Catholic Church and will work within the parameters of the law of the Church in contributing a voice for priests. However we do not accept that doctrine is not open to development or that debates raging in the Church and in society in reference to Catholic teaching should be ignored or closed down.
We are very conscious that the issue of women’s place in the Catholic Church is a cause of much concern. We are conscious too that the will of the people in this regard, as expressed for example in The Guardian poll last week, is significantly out of step with the present official wisdom. While we are an organisation representing priests, and we do not wish to be seen to dictate to women, or to patronise anyone, in this as in other areas, for example in relation to sexual matters, we believe that the experience and the wisdom of our people, have an invaluable and critical contribution to make and need to be listened to.
(vii) We are not anti-bishop, or anti-anyone else. We are pro-priest and we believe we have a right and responsibility to facilitate and represent the concerns of priests at this critical juncture in our history.
(viii) We are committed to the continued acceptance of, implementation of and careful monitoring of child protection procedures of the highest standards in parishes, in dioceses and in religious orders and congregations. But we are also committed to the care of priests who are guilty of crimes in this area but who remain our brother-priests and have civil and canonical rights which must be respected and whose ongoing care is a gospel imperative. And we are committed to campaigning for the rights – civil and canonical – of priests who have been wrongly accused and who haven’t received from their dioceses or congregations the level of support to which they are entitled. We are committed to working on behalf of those priests who have often been left in limbo situations where their rights to natural justice have been denied because the leaders of our Church are not prepared to uphold those rights because of media or legal or financial pressures.
(viii) We intend to be a very public voice for priests, making ourselves available to media outlets, print and electronic, at national and local level. And we are committed to ongoing training in order that our representation of a priests’ voice in our society and in the media is competent and effective. We are not going to comment on anything and everything but when issues of concern arise then we will be proactive in our response. That doesn’t mean that we will allow ourselves to be media fodder on programmes of light entertainment but it does mean that we will have to set out our stall in the marketplace of ideas and take the consequences.
(ix) We will be proactive in dealing with issues of concern to priests. Examples of this that come immediately to mind are:
(a) as an association we will request a meeting with the Visitors from Rome, in order to elicit their intentions and concerns and to communicate our response to them on behalf of the Association and we will be anxious to receive the views and concerns of our members.
(b) we intend to be proactive in representing the views of priests’ on the new English translation of the Mass.
(c) we intend, as I say, not just to react to events as they emerge but to propose creative and imaginative and practical ideas as our Church does through a vortex of change.
One member of the Association has already proposed that every priest in Ireland who has a title should be asked to voluntarily relinquish it, in the interests of indicating to church authorities that distributing personal honours on the personal whim of a bishop is divisive, controlling and contrary to the spirit of the Gospel.
Another member has suggested that with the number of priestless parishes increasing, that the Church in Ireland should hand over the running of those parishes to Parish Pastoral Councils.
The hope would be that, because of the ease of email communication, members will be able to suggest areas of interest for the Association and other creative suggestions for the Irish Catholic Church and members will be able to comment quickly on them. Email effectively means that, within the space of a few days, we will be able to consult our members on emerging issues or policies.
The process that began in the meeting in June advances significantly today as we offer for your consideration a proposal for the launching of an Association of Catholic Priests. In a sense because so many from so many dioceses and orders, congregations and societies signed the Furrow declaration, and because so many who didn’t sign indicated their support, effectively the Association has already over 200 members.
Our hope is that those who choose to become members have the conviction and the courage for the journey; and that those who do not feel they can share this platform will give us a fair wind.
Finally, can I propose for your consideration the prophetic vision of Gamaliel in Acts, Chapter 5, verses 34-39: ‘If this enterprise, this movement is merely of human origin, it will break up of its own accord. but if not .. .’
In God’s name, we set out on this path only God knows where our decisions today will ultimately lead.
The word that needs to go out from this meeting today is that the Catholic priests of Ireland have something to say; we’re going to say it to whoever it needs to be said to; and we’re not going to apologise to anyone for saying it. We have rights and obligations and we are prepared to stand up to the mark in claiming our rights and in meeting our obligations.
In present circumstances, it would be irresponsible to do otherwise.