‘Hope and inspiration’: Brendan Hoban reflects on last Monday’s meeting
The gathering last week of priests, religious and Catholic people in the Regency Hotel in Dublin was certainly memorable and ground-breaking. It wasn’t quite one of those Seamus Heaney moments when ‘hope and history rhyme.’ And, in retrospect, it won’t be memorably described ‘the event’ – as Karl Barth, the great Protestant theologian described the Second Vatican Council. Though it might well yet come under the Yeatsian banner of ‘a terrible beauty is born’.
It was organised by the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP), of which I am a member, in conjunction with a few lay groups. The ACP seeks to have introduced into our Church the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, participation of Catholics at parish, diocesan and national level and the structures to facilitate that participation. One such structure is a national ‘assembly’ of Irish Catholics. So we called our meeting ‘Towards an Assembly of the Irish Catholic Church’ and we saw it as an effort to kick-start a process towards a full representative national assembly. It was an effort, as we say, to get the first dancers on the floor.
So we decided to take our courage in our hands and organise a gathering of the Irish Church in the Regency Hotel in Dublin. We expected and planned for an attendance of about 200 people. At one point in the proceedings one of the committee suggested that we book City West, a hotel with a capacity for thousands, and we all laughed at the self-indulgent fantasy we imagined that ambition represented.
I thought of that proposal as the people streamed into the Regency Hotel on Monday of last week. They just kept coming and coming and coming. More than a week earlier we had closed registration on our website but people kept ringing asking was their place for them – some deciding not to come, others insisting that they would. By 10 o’clock there were 800 people in the room and the hotel staff brought in 100 extra chairs. By ten past ten people were standing around the back of the room. And during the day the numbers rose steadily until they were well beyond 1,000. Sitting on the platform and looking down at a crowd of over 1,000 people I found myself asking, What’s happening here? What’s going on? And, as the day progressed, it was clear what was going on. Less than two years in existence the ACP was now giving a voice not just to priests who wanted the reforms of Vatican Two introduced but to Catholics in parishes and dioceses all over Ireland who had arrived at a point of abject despair at what was happening to their Church. As they made abundantly clear at the meeting, they wanted to see some light at the end of a long, dark tunnel and they wanted their Church to address their real needs by engaging with them.
If we needed confirmation of that reality, all we had to do was to look at the conclusions of the recent ACP survey on Contemporary Catholic Perspectives where over 1,000 Catholics indicated very clearly that they wanted change in their Church. And if we needed any more confirmation we just had to look at the more than 1,000 people at the Dublin meeting and listen to what they were saying.
In a very impressive contribution, Fr Tony Butler talked about anger and courage and those two qualities were very evident at the meeting. There are a lot of angry Catholics out there, unhappy with their Church, unhappy that they feel excluded from any form of respectful decision-making, unhappy that their concerns are ignored. And they are devastated by the fact that they can see their Church, which they have loved and supported for decades, falling apart in front of them. They see their adult children walking away from the Church (and, they fear, from God) and they see their grandchildren growing up and not even knowing what the inside of a church looks like.
There was a lot of anger in that hotel room but there was a lot of courage too. People were finding their voice despite the fearfulness that is now endemic in church circles and what emerged was a commitment and an energy intent on recapturing ‘as a matter of urgency the reforming vision of the Second Vatican Council’. The decision at the end of the day was a clear and simple statement that called for ‘an organised dialogue in the Irish Church, a dialogue that would work towards establishing appropriate structures that would reflect the participation of all the baptised’. The statement continued: ‘This dialogue should take place at parish, diocesan and national levels, and should address all issues facing our people at this time of crisis. We call on all who are concerned with the future of our Church, including our Church leaders, to participate in this dialogue.’
The meeting, as expected, was made up of mainly older people but that wasn’t surprising in that it was a fair enough reflection of the age levels of priests and practising Catholics. But there was too an extraordinary energy in the room, a feeling that we were running out of time and space as a Church, a conviction that we needed to take the tide of reform, a passion for change and the opportunities for church and for faith that would follow.
There was a sense too that the ground had shifted somewhat. I got the feeling that we were witnessing some kind of informal declaration of intent as priests, religious and lay people spoke with one voice as the promise of Vatican Two was rekindled as we rushed to hold our hands around the shimmering light to protect it from the prevailing winds. It was so good just to be there.
It is, of course, hard to know where it will all lead. We are in uncharted territory and it’s all very much in God’s hands. The Gamaliel principle comes into play here: ‘If this plan or this undertaking is of men, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them’. Since the Dublin meeting, the ACP has been inundated with messages of support and pleadings to keep the momentum going. One typical comment was as follows:
‘I signed up for the conference in despair; angry at the interference of the Vatican in silencing our present day prophets, looking for some glimmer of hope, some encouragement, some sign of life in a battered Irish church, something to inspire me to hang in there. Last Monday night, I thanked God for an inspiring hope-filled day’.
Hope and inspiration. That’s about it. And how much we need them now.