Tony Flannery on the ACP
The first AGM of the Association of Catholic Priests, which was very successful, was held over two days in early October. The association was founded to promote the renewal of the Church as outlined in the Second Vatican Council, and also to be a voice for priests at this difficult time. Our current membership is 560; roughly two thirds are diocesan priests. We made it clear at the beginning, and have continued to do so, that we do not aim to represent all priests, but only those who wish to join, and who share our aims and objectives as outlined in our website. (associationofcatholicpriests.ie)
The first year has been much busy. We quickly established ourselves as a voice in the national debate on religious issues. But what was unexpected was the degree to which we became a voice for many lay Catholics also. This was clearly expressed at the open session on the first evening of our AGM. (But as with priests, we don’t for a moment suggest that we speak for all Catholics.) As a Redemptorist I am involved in missions and novenas. I am constantly impressed by the number of people who are still staying with the Church in spite of all the difficulties we have experienced, and the increasingly anti-catholic agenda being pursued by sections of the media. While these people are still faithful, they now have many questions. Their trust and confidence in the leadership of the Church, both at national and Vatican level, has been seriously dented. Many tell us they appreciate that the ACP is voicing their concerns and beliefs.
We failed to get the introduction of the New Missal postponed in order to give time for proper consultation, because our efforts at dialogue with the bishops proved futile. In fact one of the big disappointments of the year was the fact that the bishops, as a body and as individuals, were unwilling to enter into discussion with us. This we find strange, since almost all our members are very active in the ministry, and working hard in the service of the Church. Recent contact with the Austrian group shows that, while they have adopted more radical positions, Cardinal Schonborn gave them the respect of having real discussion with them.
The other big issue, the extent of which we had not foreseen, was the fear and insecurity of priests in relation to the handling by Church authorities of allegations of child sexual abuse, and the fact that many of those who are accused have been left isolated and unsupported. We were lucky in securing a legal team who are working for us, and they have already advised some priests, most notably Fr. Kevin Reynolds, who was getting no support from Church authorities in trying to clear his name. We are well aware of the enormous damage done by some priests to children and of the danger that people may actually believe that we are engaged in further cover up and denial. But priests are firstly human beings, with the same rights and duties as other citizens, and even when they have been convicted of crimes we believe that our faith calls us not to turn away from them or treat them as pariahs. So we will continue, as best we can, to support and help priests in difficulty.
One of our main priorities for the coming year is to consistently raise the problems around ministry in our Church, especially in the Western World. From the beginning the Christian faith was built on local communities of believers, with the Eucharist as its heart and centre. With the rapid decline in the number of priests, these communities are going to be deprived of the Bread of Life, and of the nourishment that it provides. This is due to the rigidity of Church authorities who decide that only celibate males are allowed to preside at the Eucharist. We believe that this is wrong, and contrary to the mind of Jesus. We regard the clustering of parishes, currently favoured by most dioceses, as an inadequate response to the problems, since it will entail priests moving rapidly from one church to another each weekend, without really belonging anywhere. This will be unsatisfactory, perhaps to the point of soullessness, because the person who presides at the Eucharist is meant to come from the community, not someone who whizzes in to “say mass”. We will do our best to keep that issue alive.
We regard the forthcoming Eucharistic Congress as a real opportunity for the Irish Church. But it must have no element of triumphalism about it. The celebration of the final mass at Croke Park will be the crucial factor here. If it is a big display of bishops and cardinals wearing mitres, surrounded by hundreds of vested priests, it will give out the wrong message. Instead it should be penitential in character. Rather than ceremonial dress, we ask for some modern, imaginative equivalent of the ‘sackcloth and ashes’ of the Old Testament, so that the celebration would be simple and humble, asking forgiveness not just for the abuse of children, but for the other abuses of power perpetrated by Church people in the past.
We are grateful for the volume of support we have received, not just in Ireland, but internationally. Conscious of our human frailty we hope to continue serving the Church.