19Dec A Young Priest’s View: Paul Dempsey

From The Furrow

A number of months ago I received a call from the producer of the “Marian Finucane Radio Show,” asking if I would join with a number of other priests to share my experience of what it is like to be a priest in Ireland today.  The producer’s idea seems to have come from the fact that people weren’t hearing from the “ordinary priest” who works day in day out in a parish.  A group of about dozen of us gathered in the studio of diverse age, involved in various ministries.  The most striking aspect of the discussion that ensued was the amount of energy it stirred up among us.  Each one present was passionate about what he had to say and wanted to be heard!  As I reflected upon the experience I wondered if the vitality that emerged in the group came from the fact that here someone was actually listening to us the “ordinary” priests, who despite our weaknesses are trying to carry on with our ministry in the Church today.  I can only speak from my own perspective, but this sense of being listened to is not a common feature I have experienced in the institutional Church.  Before going any further, I should preface my remarks by saying this article is not to “have a go” at the hierarchy or the institutional Church.  It is merely my experience of priesthood, after thirteen years of ordained ministry.  It also reflects many discussions I have had with other priests who seem to be going through a somewhat similar experience as myself.

I begin by looking back.  The priesthood in Ireland has come through a long and complex journey.  One of the most influential figures to shape the face of the priesthood here over the past one hundred and fifty years was Cardinal Paul Cullen (1803-1878).  As the number of priests continued to grow during his tenure, Cullen at the Synod of Thurles (1850) sought to create a model of priest required for pastoral administration in Ireland both in his public persona and in his interior life.  Dr. Patrick Corish presents this model quite succinctly as follows;

The priest was to regard himself as a man apart, marked out by his black or dark dress and Roman collar, prayerful, devoted, carefully nourishing his necessary learning, all this supported by regular retreats and clerical conferences.  His life was to centre on his church, the focus of sacramental life for his people. [1]

In addition, total obedience to his superior, the bishop, was expected.  The priest’s opinion was in no way significant and did not need to be listened to.  This model of priest has been promoted for well over a century and still, to a certain extent, is encouraged by many figures in the Church today.  We are told that Cullen’s Catholicism is dead, this may be true in mainstream society, but within Church circles I’m not totally convinced.  This might at first seem an exaggeration but the following are some examples to illustrate what I mean;

Revised Liturgy; The introduction of the revised liturgy, we are told, is imminent.  This is a significant decision that will influence the way every priest and faithful parishioner (many who are clinging on by their fingertips) will celebrate the liturgy.  Personally I am somewhat embarrassed that I will have to explain to educated, faith filled people that they have uttered the incorrect responses at mass over the past forty years.  Further to this no priest or parishioner I know has been asked or consulted about these impending changes.  Does anyone with responsibility in this area of Church life want to listen to what many ordinary people and priests might have to contribute to this “discussion” around the liturgy?  Further to this are those leading the way in this process really serious when they tell us this is going to contribute to a great renewal in the Church?  I just find this a staggering claim in the context we find ourselves in the Irish Church engulfed by so many serious problems.

Appointment of Bishops; Much has been written on this topic, so I do not intend on labouring the point here.  The diocese I am working in, Kildare and Leighlin, at the time of writing is seeking a new bishop.  I know that some have received letters from the Nuncio’s office seeking information about certain candidates.  This is supposed to be “top secret,” but it has to be the worst kept secret in Irish Catholicism!  I should add that I haven’t received any correspondence from the Nuncio’s office, even though at 39 years of age, the decision reached will probably influence my life for quite a number of years to come!  While this very limited “consultation” is to be welcomed, it seems to me that it is the very same process that has happened around the appointment of bishops in Ireland for decades.  We are told of renewal in the Irish Church in the light of recent revelations, but there seems to be a distinct lack of renewal in this very significant area of Church life.  This system, as we have so clearly seen, has not served us well in the past.  Surely it is time to refresh this process and open it up to far wider consultation?  Could those with influence in this area perhaps listen to what so many priests and people are saying?

Sacraments; This is a huge area that deserves an article of its own.  Many ministering in parishes are worried about how we are celebrating the sacraments.  We seem to follow the same pattern every year.  Archbishop Martin in his address on The Future of the Catholic Church in Ireland (10th May, 2010), outlined that sacraments are more than something you automatically receive when you reach a certain class in school.  I agree wholeheartedly with the Archbishop, but I would go further and ask; what are we doing about it?  If we take Confirmation for example, we continue to celebrate this sacrament in the exact same way as we have done for decades, totally ignoring the fact that our cultural context has changed and changed utterly.  When a pupil comes to 5th or 6th class they are automatically in “Confirmation Class.”  Could I ask why we are still doing this in a more or less identical fashion as fifty or more years ago even though we are at a totally different place as Church?  Is it not time to reflect seriously on this?  Can someone with influence and leadership, such as an archbishop, listen to this, and at least start a real discussion around new possibilities in this area?

I am acutely aware of other major issues where people are not being heard such as women and their role within the Church, also those who find themselves in a strained relationship with the Church because of a second relationship or their sexual orientation.  These are serious issues that have received more comprehensive coverage in other articles and continually need to be aired in an open, honest and comprehensive way.  The above are examples I share to bring home how many faithful people and priests feel they are not being listened to in the Church.  This is leading to a great deal of frustration.  Many are seriously disillusioned, finding themselves in a “wilderness.” However we cannot get stuck in our disillusionment.  It is in this context that I now turn to look a little more closely at the experience of priestly ministry in Ireland as I see it and then examine how we might re-envisage our call today.

New Reality

The reality is starting to really hit home, the reality that the number of priests is now plummeting in Ireland.  Up to now I sensed that for many this was some far off reality that wouldn’t really affect us for decades to come.  But now it’s here.  As parish priests retire there are no replacements therefore parishes are being joined together and the “territory” to cover for priests is expanding rapidly.  Many retired men are generous with their time and energy and continue to cover masses in many places, but this is only putting off the day for further change.  We talk of “clusters” and “pastoral areas,” trying to “manage” this rapid change.  But surely we need more than a mere “management strategy”?  Is it not time for us to go deeper and reflect on the heart of our mission as priests, disciples of Jesus Christ?  I suspect that some of us are still working, probably not consciously, out of the model promoted by Cardinal Cullen over a century ago.  Our lives are defined by certain functions in the parish.  We function around schools, Boards of Management, masses, weddings, baptisms, funerals, First Fridays, hospitals, nursing homes and the list goes on…  These obviously are extremely important, they are the opportunities we get to journey with people in the good and challenging times of their lives.  These are the moments we get to bring out Christ’s love and compassion in the reality of life.  But is this somewhat limited?  Should there be something more?  Have we confined the Gospel to the safe place of the four walls of our church buildings, focussing on the “devotional” rather than the truly radical nature of the call of Jesus Christ?  This is something I will return to later. 

Further to this we seem to be stumbling in a hap hazard way into the future.  Where is the debate within the Irish Catholic Church around the direction we are going?  In particular where is the voice of the younger generation of clergy?  It seems to me that there is a serious lack of debate among my own generation of priests.  Surely we should be contributing to, if not leading, the discussion around Church life and the role of Church in society?  We could ask what does it mean to be in ministry today?  How are we bringing the message of Jesus Christ alive in Ireland?  What forum could be established to enable us to reflect more upon these questions and encourage more discussion and debate? 

Today there is much talk of change and renewal in the Irish Church, but what do we really mean by this?  A wise elderly man said to me recently that it is always good to have a certain “healthy level of scepticism” in life.  I find myself in this position when it comes to this process of “change and renewal” in the Church as I don’t see too much evidence of it as yet.  But surely if it is to happen it has to be a radical process that brings us back to the roots of what it really means to be “Christ’s Church” in the changed and changing culture that is Ireland today.  Even though I hold a certain “level of scepticism” about this process happening, I still have hope that the Church can grapple with the unprecedented challenge it faces in Ireland today.  I have this hope because I know the Church doesn’t depend totally on us, it is in Christ’s hands.  However we have our part to play and so we are left with the question of what this process of renewal could entail?  The answers are not so straightforward as they are nuanced and complex.  Catherine Maignant, acknowledging the damage done by the scandals in the Church and the advance of the postmodern condition, offers hope when she does not see evidence of the Irish abandoning belief, she points out;

“The capacity to believe does not, however, appear to have been lost on the Irish, whose reaction to the unacceptable attitude of the Church was to dissociate the institution from the message it conveys rather than massively rally to the ranks of disenchanted atheists.”[2] 

I find this in my day to day experience of ministry.  So many people are totally disillusioned with the institutional Church, but deep down there is belief and the message the Church offers is still important to them.  Charles Taylor, the Canadian sociologist observes that “our age is very far from settling into a comfortable unbelief.”[3]  This offers those of us involved in ministry some nuggets of hope! 

A Possible Response

Looking back over its history, the Church has been constantly challenged to respond to new situations.  The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) was a response to a time of great change in the Church and the world.  Many new and exciting ideas emerged at that time.  The theologian, Karl Rahner (1904-1984) saw the Council as;

A watershed marking the transition from a European and western-Church to a world-Church.  Moreover, Vatican II wished to speak in a different idiom, moving away from a traditionally defensive neo-scholastic theology, towards a more missionary style aiming to speak to those for whom Christianity had become alien.[4] 

 

Even though this was written almost fifty years ago, Rahner’s sense of a “missionary style,” of Church attempting to speak to those for whom Christianity has “become alien” is extraordinarily contemporary.  What implications does this pose for those of us in ministry today as we face a time of unprecedented change?  Firstly I believe it changes the whole focus of our ministry.  Yes of course we have to continue to serve the day to day tasks of parish life, but surely our vision of ministry should not be limited to this, but rather broadened to envelop this sense of the “missionary.”  On the day we were ordained deacon, the Gospel of Christ was placed in our hands and the bishop said, on behalf of the Church; “Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose hearld you now are.  Believe what you read, teach what you believe, practice what you teach.”  How are we “heralds” of the Gospel in society today?  I do not mean to be naive here, I am well aware that we have been rattled by recent scandals and reports.  Our confidence is shaken. As a result my deepest worry is that we have subsumed ministry down to the bare minimum.  This comes out in the various “management strategies” we are working on in various dioceses.  As mentioned above we are working on “clusters” and “pastoral areas,” these are important only if they are responding to who we are as church in society today.  My fear is that they are merely attempts to work out practical ways of continuing the model of ministry we have been so familiar with throughout the decades, a model that is no longer able to respond to the needs of a changed cultural context.

Secondly, as “missionaries” we are challenged to focus on what is at the heart of our faith.  What is mission?  What are we about in ministry today?  What are we giving our time to?  So much is happening in society; the financial crisis, unemployment, road safety, environmental issues, poverty, homelessness, addiction, crime, injustice and the list goes on.  Surely the Church and those of us in ministry must be the voice of the Gospel on these issues if we are to be serious about the Christian message in society?  But where is the voice of the Church on all these issues?  I am aware that documents are produced by the bishops on some of these issues, but how are they communicated or are we happy to leave them gathering dust on some shelf?  The Church’s message is far too important to allow the latter to happen!  The issue of communication is crucial here.  Jesus Christ, as we know, was the great communicator, his life was about communicating the great message of the Reign of God.  I am mystified that the Church in Ireland hasn’t put more resources into this essential area of communication.  We are met by a deafening silence from the Church on so many issues.  Surely this is not good enough!  We send people to various places throughout the world to study theology, which is very important, but should we not be sending others (clerical and lay) to be trained in communications so as to have a pool of commentators able to deal with the media, not only in relation to the scandals, but to voice the message of the Gospel in the public square on issues concerning so many in our society?  I do not mean that we should be mere “slick” media people, but I do believe in a professionalism that could competently engage with the media world.

Another point developed by Rahner in relation to the future of a lived faith was the concentration on what is “most essential to Christian piety.”[5]  This is a somewhat sensitive area.  Rahner is not disapproving of devotional practices of the past, however he is outlining that we must focus on what is central to our faith.  God’s self-communicating love, God’s grace, is at the heart of Rahner’s theology.  The Eucharist is central here and is at the heart of our Christian life.  With this in mind he says that in the future “we shall speak of Jesus and not of the Infant of Prague.  We shall speak of Mary but have less to do with Lourdes or Fatima.”[6]  I think this is significant as there was a heavy reliance in the past on devotional practices in Irish Catholicism at the expense of good theology.  Perhaps the temptation around this is still with us today?  Could this have been behind the comments of Archbishop Martin in Rimini?  Even though his comments about the poor theological level of some Catholics in the Irish Church were picked up as controversial in the media, nonetheless his point needs to be heard that good theology has to be at the heart of our vision of Church at present and for the future.  Are we as a Church putting enough resources both human and financial into this crucial area or could we make a bigger effort to enrich this area of Church life in Ireland?  This is essential if the Church is to engage with the new questions emerging in our culture today and for the future. 

The importance of the Church Community

There is no doubt that much criticism has been poured upon the Catholic Church and especially its leadership in recent times, some justified, some perhaps not.  However, despite this, it is important to highlight the importance of the ecclesial aspect of the future.  If we lack this ecclesial nature then we get no further than our own opinions and uncertainties which can lead to a selfish form of relativism.  As Christians we are called to make a real decision around faith to live in the world in a certain way, individually and as a community.   This Christian “way,” if it is lived genuinely, goes against the tide of mainstream society.  In the past there were external or societal supports present for those who were living the Catholic Christian life in Ireland.  These supports are now disappearing.  If we apply this to the ordained ministry then perhaps a more humble priesthood needs to emerge, one that witnesses to Christian values in society and commits to questioning the dehumanising elements present in the dominant culture.  This is a broader understanding of our call than merely reducing it to “functioning” in a “devotional” Church.  Surely this broader understanding of ministry is at the heart of discipleship?  The priesthood must follow this model of leadership if it is to witness to the call of Jesus Christ. 

As we look back over the history of the Irish Catholic Church there are many periods that invite critical questioning.  However I believe the future of the Irish Church remains open to new horizons.  Many in Irish society today still possess a great love of the Church and a deep knowledge of its rich tradition.  It is a tradition that has responded to the various signs of the times.  The challenge is, as always, to reflect on how to share the rich resource of the Gospel with the prevailing culture of today.  In order to do this the Church community needs to enter into a period of deep reflection informed by the Word of God and accompanied by prayerful reflection.  This is a more reflective approach to our changed and changing culture than a “purely activist understanding of evangelisation.”[7]  It would be refreshing to see some leadership around this “reflection” culminating in some form of national Church gathering.  There is a temptation that the Church response to the challenges posed by the new cultural situation would be to become merely “relevant.”  The Gospel offers something far deeper.  The Church cannot modify the Gospel in order to make it relevant and popular.  Chesterton’s insight that “the Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried,”[8] is apposite.  The present challenges dare the Church to be authentic and faithful to the radical call of the Gospel.  This has been found wanting in the past, where the Irish Church has drifted from the vision of Jesus Christ.  A profound living of the Gospel among the Church community in Ireland is called for today.  The history of the Church in Ireland, as we have seen, does not always reflect the Church’s response to this call.  Humility is needed to face the truth and ask forgiveness for past misdeeds and sinfulness.

Conclusion

It is always important for us to remember that the Spirit guides the Church at all times, there is a need to trust the Spirit in this process.  The future is challenging, but also exciting!  The call remains the same as is outlined in Gaudium et Spes (#43) where it says the Church;

Is well aware that some of her members, clerical or lay, have in the course of centuries turned out unfaithful to the Spirit of God.  In our time too she does not overlook the gulf between the message she brings and the human weakness of those to whom the Gospel is entrusted.  However history may judge these shortcomings, we should be aware of them and strenuously resist them so that they may not hinder the spread of the Gospel.

Here lies the heart of the matter, the real challenge, as it always was; the spread of the Gospel in the cultural context of the present time.  We should not attempt to “water down” the Gospel message in order to make it more acceptable today, rather we should live the message unapologetically.  This is not an arrogant approach, on the contrary, it requires those in ministry to have a genuine humility where we will earn the right to be listened to rather than demanding or expecting it.  The Church of Ireland bishop, Ken Good, clearly brings this home in a talk given at the 2006 MacGill Summer School, where he says;

The main challenge to the Christian church today, in this country, is not from any external threat, be it secularism, materialism, consumerism, or postmodernism.  The main challenge is the internal one of ensuring that the integrity, the reality, and the relevance of the Church’s life and worship, its teaching and communication, must strike a meaningful chord in a society that still has an appetite for spiritual reality.  Where people see in our churches that our walk matches our talk, where they see, lived out in the daily pressures of life, real hope, truth, conviction, commitment, forgiveness, wholeness, community, generosity, concern for the poor, lives and situations transformed, where they see God at work then their interest will follow.[9]

What has declined in recent decades are a set of ecclesial priorities that suited another moment in time.  We have crossed the threshold into a new era with new questions and possibilities.  Taylor believes this era is “the beginning of a new age of religious searching, whose outcome no one can as yet foresee.”[10]  This issues an invitation for those of us in priesthood and ministry to “put out into the deep” (Lk.5:4) and forever begin in response to God’s call!


[1] Corish, p. 201.

[2] C. Maignant, Re-Imagining Transcendence in the Global Village, in M. Boss and E. Maher, Engaging Modernity, p. 78.

[3] C. Taylor, A Secular Age, p. 727, cited in M.P. Gallagher, Charles Taylor’s Critique of “Secularisation,” in Studies, Vol. 97, No. 388, 2008, p. 443.

[4] D. Marmion & M. Hines (Ed.s), Christian Identity in a Postmodern Age, Celebrating the Legacies of Karl Rahner and Bernard Lonergan, (Dublin: Veritas, 2005), p. 165.

[5] K. Rahner, Theological Investigations, XX, p. 146.

[6] K. Rahner, Theological Investigations, XX, p. 147.

[7] J. De Kesel, “Annoncer I’Evangile Aujourd’hui,” Nouvelle Revue Theologique, 126, 2004, 3-15, p. 7, cited in Religious Readings of our Culture, in Studies, Vol. 94, No. 347, Summer 2005, p. 145.

[8] C.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong With the World?, Chapter 5, Ignatius Press, 1994, cited by D. Murray, in “Religion and the Secular in Contemporary Ireland, p. 69.

[9] K. Good, “The Content of Faith, Beliefs and Values Will Not Change,” in The Soul of Ireland, Issues of Society, Culture and Identity, Ed. Joe Mulholland, (Dublin: The Liffey Press, 2006), p. 179.

[10] C. Taylor, A Secular Age, p. 535.

3 Responses

  1. P J Madden

    Paul, well written and I particularly welcome your call for an assembly or synod to, once and for all, get serious about the vatican II call for full and active participation of the laity, not as a gift from us but as an injunction to fulfill their baptismal call to be priest prophet and king/queen. Fraternally, P J Madden

  2. Joseph O'Leary

    I was delighted by this article. Paul rightly mentioned prominently the forthcoming New Translation of the Roman Missal, an innovation that will have negative consequences for us all. I notice that priests in New York have reacted as follows:

    “A priests’ deanery in Archbishop Dolan’s archdiocese (New York) just passed a resolution to delay implementation of missal at least a year so priests have opportunity to study it, offer input, participate in setting up consultative structures. Initially there was skepticism. Then the dean mailed out samples of the new texts. Seeing the texts swayed almost every priest in the deanery to vote for the resolution. It now goes to archdiocesan priests’ council.”

  3. Fr Shane Crombie

    Not all “young” priests question the new translation of the Missal.( Aged 31, ordained 5 yrs)


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