Regional ACP Meeting in Claremorris – report
The Meeting of Western Region of the Association of Catholic Priests took place at the McWilliam Hotel, Claremorris, Co. Mayo on Wednesday 16 November 2011.
Tony Flannery of the leadership team attended in the unavoidable absence of Brendan Hoban.
A total of 69 priests were present at the meeting.
The meeting opened with prayer.
The purpose of the meeting was to give everyone an opportunity to find their voice and give direction to the leadership team on a number of topics.
Kevin Reynolds had hoped to attend but was still in the High Court in Dublin in relation to his claim against RTE for the defamation they carried out against him.
Satisfaction was expressed at the handling of Kevin’s case against RTE by the legal team representing the ACP.
The legal team has been in place for nine months. They are now advising and assisting with a further 7 cases. The senior counsel and solicitor involved have become more concerned at the protocols used by Bishops when allegations are made against a priest. They have now written to the Episcopal Conference requesting a meeting with them and their legal team to discuss protocols for such situations that would be just and would respect the rights of all concerned.
The issue of having a proper protocol for placing a priest on administrative leave following an allegation was raised again later on in the meeting. There was general agreement that the context of the Eucharist should never be used as a forum for announcing that a priest is taking administrative leave. The proper place for this would be to a Parish Pastoral Council. It was stated that this would acknowledge that there are situations where administrative leave was appropriate while an investigation was being conducted but that we must guard against the idea of a priest being presented as being guilty until proven innocent.
It is hoped the engagement of the ACP’s legal team with the bishops and their legal team will resolve this issue of having a proper protocol.
The Annual General Meeting was acknowledged as a great success. Kevin Hegarty’s opening night talk dealt with the crisis in ministry and the response to it was felt to be particularly appreciative, not just of Kevin’s talk, but of the opportunities afforded for discussion by the existence of the ACP.
The second day of the AGM, for priests only, with Marie Keenan was also very well received. Her address, based on her new book (Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church: Gender, Power, Organizational Culture. New York, USA: Oxford University Press.) was said to be very challenging, in a thoughtful and reasoned way, of long held perceptions about the whole area of child sexual abuse.
The crisis that exists in ministry in the church in Ireland was highlighted by one priest giving some statistics about the western region.
The area (Dioceses of Achonry, Clonfert, Elphin, Galway, Killala and Tuam) was served by 457 priests in 1973. This year, 2011, there are 301 priests and projections for the future based on current age groupings and recruitment suggest that this figure will be 201 in 2021 and by 2031 will have reduced to 124.
In what was described as a passionate presentation it was pointed out that these figures can be looked at from a strictly clerical point of view to do with the dispensing of Sacraments or in a managerial way by arranging ‘clusters’ and providing service in a ‘West Doc’ type of way with priests travelling miles to provide Mass at different locations.
To date we have seen this happen and sat back adopting the attitude that there is nothing we can do. We need an alternative response. It should be a radical one in the sense of going back to our Christian roots, going back to ensuring that the Eucharist is provided, because without Eucharist there cannot be Church. This could be done by the ordination of men from local communities for service in their communities. The necessary training could be easily provided.
The matter is urgent and we must act or die; we must speak for those communities who will be deprived of Eucharist.
This led to a discussion about what we could recommend to the leadership of ACP to pursue on our behalf. It was again emphasised that the views of all were welcome.
Reference was made to the “call to disobedience” by the Austrian priests. They have called for the ordination of women, of married men and the welcoming back of priests who left the ministry in order to marry.
Opinions expressed held;
that the ordination of married men could be done if training was provided;
there are already leaders in communities who could easily take on the role with training;
the distinctions of ‘laity’ and ‘clerical’ need to be abolished and we should follow the union of ministries outlined by St. Paul;
priests who have left the ministry to marry should be invited back to ministry, if they wish;
the issue of the ordination of women should be included in discussions. Are we being truthful if we don’t discuss it for merely strategic reasons so as not to alienate some?
We need to take a long term view with regard to the ordination of married men chosen from communities and be content with ‘baby steps’ at the moment.
We are facing the greatest crisis in the history of the church in Ireland, we don’t need talking shops, we need action.
Communities that have no priest are being targeted by other churches who see an opportunity to provide a sense of belonging to people.
We need to develop a theology of priesthood for the 21st century.
The discussion then branched into other areas, the exclusion of those who have divorced from any type of church service for a second union was mentioned as another way in which we are failing people and excluding them.
Several priests mentioned having a sense of frustration at present, that while we have given our lives, and in the most part work hard, we are totally powerless and our opinions, as well as those of others in the church, are not listened to by those in charge. The imposition of the new missal was referred to as an example of this.
It was asked if the bishops had given any indication of a willingness to engage with the ACP. It was pointed out that apart from the ACP there is no other body representing priests at present and that there is a need for a prophetic voice in the church.
Tony Flannery referred to the meeting that was held, without any effect, concerning the new missal as well as the letter from the legal representatives to the Episcopal Conference. Tony also said that the leadership had written to the bishops requesting a meeting but had not received any reply to date.
The need of the ACP to engage honestly, and even robustly, with the bishops was said to be necessary and that by doing so, even if we did not have confidence we would be listened to, would be doing a service for the bishops and for all in the church.
The meeting then focused on the ACP. Some said that there seemed to be a sense of fear in the church, in priests, and that this could paralyse. Some are afraid to express opinions, raise issues or even join an association like ACP.
The opinion that many younger priests and bishops were not engaging with the ACP was expressed. Tony pointed out that the association is only a year old and that membership continues to grow, now nearing 600. It is now seen to be a serious organisation and while we will not bring about change overnight we can raise and discuss issues of concern in the church.
Reference was made to some people’s perception that the ACP was negative, was seen to be always opposing and to be too radical. The Gospel message and our message is, and has to be, positive. It was said that looking at us as a group it could not be thought we were in any way remotely radical!
We were reminded that fear cannot be allowed to rule people’s lives and that we have the remedy to fear, that ‘perfect love casts out fear’, (1 John 4:18), and that we need to address, without fear, the issues facing the church and in particular the crisis of faith that exists for many people.
Again, the importance of engagement with the bishops was highlighted.
This brought the meeting to looking at the proposed Assembly of the Irish Church. Tony Flannery explained that the leadership team will hold meetings in January to discuss the organisation of the Assembly and will be hoping to work with all, including the bishops, who are committed to the Catholic Church. The Assembly itself will be a one day event on 01 May 2012. A survey about religious attitudes in Ireland will be commissioned in advance of the Assembly.
Tony Flannery pointed out that the leadership team took office for a three year period and that they are already one year into that period. One contributor said that the replacement of the leadership team should be done on a staggered basis, otherwise it could cause a total disruption to the work of the ACP.
As a final point, it was said that the holding of a regional meeting was very worthwhile and that it was good to meet and share and hear the differing opinions of others. We are all making the same journey of faith.