02Jul Clogher ACP branch discusses support structures for priests

“Ten priests were in attendance at our meeting last week, alongside our newly ordained Deacon. Seven priests sent apologies including Bishop Liam.
After prayer we began our meeting. Included in our discussion was the following topics.

1.   Support Group to assist Bishop.
We began our discussions once again on the issue of a support group, who would represent the interests of sick Priests, retired Priests, PP’s and CC’s.  This generated a lot of reflection about how we are, and how we feel, as a fraternity, conscious of our clerical culture that we belong to, of the attitudes we carry with us, much of these hangovers of older days, but attitudes that now make us question the very nature of Priesthood, and the support and companionship that we give, or don’t give to each other, so the deeper fundamental problems of who we are now stare us in the face.
That clerical culture that we belong to, it tells us that, ‘it’s the way we are’, wishing all the time that it could be different, our clerical culture tells us that we are supposed to go it alone, that we are always to be strong, and never get sick, that we live autonomous lives, enjoying independence as Diocesan Priests, so much so that we even find it difficult now to come together for four days retreat once a year. We need to examine this and we need to let a lot of this go, and encourage a greater fraternal mentality, allowing at all times respect for a person’s individual privacy, and we need at all times to look after our mental and spiritual and physical health. In Kenya, where many of our brothers worked, you would never pass by an Irish Priests house without visiting them, ‘we needed each other there’.
When we clerics get into trouble, sick, etc, where is the first reference point, we don’t consider turning to the Diocese for help, we turn to family, to friends, to medics for help. Where does the family, the team, the Diocesan Presbyterate, the community of Clogher Diocese therefore come into play?
While a lot of our clerical culture revolves around work, we are so busy at times, but we must also become more conscious of each other, and in particular those retired and sick Priests within our Diocese. Sacrifice will be required if any of this is to happen, we need to invest time in our fellow Priests if this is to happen, committing to each other will be required, even to the golf or the cards or the meals or whatever. We need to begin to think more about ‘Team’ rather than about ‘Me’.
Are Priests taking holidays? Many seem not to be doing this. Many seem to be living in isolation, even in sickness. Could a greater rationalizing of weekend masses help, if this was to be done, one third of all Priests could be freed up on any given weekend.

1. Putting in place a team of skilled professionals.
Most if not all other caring professions avail of services for personal and professional support whenever a particular trauma or a traumatic event takes place. It is standard practise for many of them, there is no choice. We Priests are not immune from trauma, a lot of our work can leave its mark upon us, trauma can come in many guises, illness, tragedy, personal loss, even to moving Parish. Once again our clerical culture, our mind-set frequently tells us not to ask for help, and this cultural mind-set in itself can create a lot of our own problems. We do of course need to become aware of our needs, we celibates miss that female voice in the ear, telling us to get help, that female intuition.
We are now committed to seeking out professional and competent individuals whom we have found helpful ourselves and whom the other professions use. A number of Priests have taken on that responsibility and will provide a list at a later date.
While much trauma by its very nature occurs suddenly, we may need as a Diocese to establish a relationship with one particular professional, that may require a retainer, perhaps the Diocese could provide that. It is also suggested that any personal expenses for a Priest attending should come out of Parish funds to give it the respect that it deserves.

2. Pastoral Reflection Groups.
Only one of these groups still exists within the Diocese. Members find it a very supportive, fraternal, bonding and friendly group, a very safe and confidential place to be. It is restorative, it is a place of learning and a place where management of ones work can be reflected on. It is not a place of therapy, but a place whereby pastoral, parish issues can be discussed, where good experiences and good practise are affirmed  and help is available to rethink and adjust those that are less than they might be.
It is now proposed that an afternoon be set aside in October to re-introduce the idea of Pastoral Reflection Groups, details to follow.

3. ACP and MRBI Survey/Poll on Irish Catholicism today.
The language used in any survey is so important and influential, the wording of the questions can elicit certain responses, and the reality of the situation may not always be presented.
But there was an acknowledgment that there is a problem in the numbers who are now attending Church, and in particular the numbers of young people. There is also a greater sense today of the spilt between the local Church and the National Church.
There was an acknowledgment that quite a number of our ‘Catholic’ teachers were themselves no longer attending worship.
There is a redefinition going on with regards to what it means to be a Catholic in Ireland today, a 2012 Irish definition of what it means to be Catholic. But we must also remember that in the last century Church attendance was very low, and at the same time we had a 99% Catholic identity.
It was also acknowledged that we ‘dish out’ the Sacraments too easily, parents and children have now little choice because they happen to be in First Communion class or Confirmation class. We are now in-fact coercing some into receiving the Sacraments with our ‘automatic feed’.

We need to engage more with parents, we need conversation. They are very busy people, they too have been damaged by the scandals within the Church, they need to be brought to a greater understanding and image of what the Catholic Church is about. We need to bring them to a point where they will want to belong to a Catholic community, rather that disassociate themselves from it. Investment by the Diocese is required here, because in general there has been no investment in religious education for most of our people since their second level education.
Bringing the preparations for celebrating the Sacraments out of the schools needs to be done, with the catechesis remaining.  As Priests we need to address what we are colluding in, is the sacraments now a matter of performance or is it a liturgy?  Our own practice needs to be looked at. A Diocesan vision/plan would also be helpful, but we must ask ourselves  at parish level, for how long do we wait for ‘the train to leave the station’.

4. Brendan Hoban’s statement on what the ACP stands for.
Brendan’s statement was widely accepted as a very competent piece of writing, it was very timely, clear and necessary and what we needed as members of the ACP, a statement that couldn’t be improved upon.
As members we are not an anti group, we do not seek conflict or confrontation but discussion around all the boundaries that exist within our Church, this tension and pain must be accepted if new ground is to be furrowed.
There is a great need for deeper communication and listening between Church leadership and the people of God and clergy, otherwise trust will not exist. Structures must be established for this to happen at Parish, Diocesan and National level. Sadly this has not been happening in our experience, two Churches now seems to exist, the local Church and the national Church, and many of our Bishops have not responded very positively to invitations issued over the past year from the ACP leadership. As an association we were set up to be a voice for Priests, but who is listening, and who is responding, where do we turn to with our voices?
Because no such structures are in place, a vacuum now exists, and the two gatherings to date in the Regency Hotel and All Hollows are answering that need. But our ACP leadership need to ensure that the ACP remains primarily a support group for clergy and their needs, some concern was expressed that we were becoming a lay centred organisation.
With the upcoming Year of Faith, it was suggested that we in the ACP use the opportunity to build upon our aims.
Our next Diocesan gathering will take place in Clones on Wednesday 19th September.”

 

5 Responses

  1. Perry

    ” but attitudes that now make us question the very nature of Priesthood, and the support and companionship that we give, or don’t give to each other, so the deeper fundamental problems of who we are now stare us in the face.
    That clerical culture that we belong to, it tells us that, ‘it’s the way we are’, wishing all the time that it could be different, our clerical culture tells us that we are supposed to go it alone, that we are always to be strong, and never get sick, that we live autonomous lives, enjoying independence as Diocesan Priests, so much so that we even find it difficult now to come together for four days retreat once a year. We need to examine this and we need to let a lot of this go, and encourage a greater fraternal mentality, allowing at all times respect for a person’s individual privacy, and we need at all times to look after our mental and spiritual and physical health. ”

    Well thanks be to God the Holy Spirit was in evidence. Some good ol’ common sense breaking through at last.

    It must be a lonely enough life as it is. Of course you should all be coming together as a family. And in so doing will learn how to be real family to your congregations too. At least till yas are all allowed to get married etc yourselves. It will come. Not in our life times but it will come. :-) And those who are able to choose, with maturity and freely, the celibate life – well and good too.

    And be the same with your congregations as you newly learn to with each other. Demolish those ‘clericalist’ barriers l.
    Sounds like a very worthwhile meeting. Become the change you wish to be.

  2. Mary O Vallely

    Despite the obvious pain, heartache, frustration and loneliness that I sense in this report I actually found it uplifting. Why? Because an honest account of vulnerability is such an endearing quality. We are too accustomed to the clerical mindset where everything seems to be under control and “Father” appears to be a sort of Mary Poppins figure who doesn’t need any help or advice from anyone else. May I make a suggestion as a young pensioner? Delegate! There is so much talent in your parish and people love to feel useful. Ask, show your feelings more, behave like a normal human being and get off the pedestal we, as a church, have put you on. It is not fair on you and not fair on us.
    To the priests of Clogher diocese (and God love my own in Armagh who mightn’t even be meeting at all) keep up the dialogue and the honest sharing of your reflections. Bail ó Dhia ar an obair.
    Mary V

  3. Sean O'Conaill

    This report is a milestone for me also – in the emergence of a church model based squarely and overtly on equal dignity and mutual support – the ethos of the most effective twelve-step groups of all kinds. When liturgies arise out of that model, instead of the ‘aloof superman priest’ model, they will be truly reflective of the community, and more alive also. Mary Vallely is quite right: the era of priestly invulnerability and lay inertia needs to come to an end, and we lay people must get ready to respond to the challenge of becoming truly supportive community-building Catholics.

  4. Chris (England)

    I too could sense pain, frustration and loneliness in the report, these coupled with honesty and desire for change: the document should be read and reflected upon by all our Bishops and leaders. In recent years, I have become more aware of just how isolated and lonely priests in parishes often are. In many dioceses there does not appear to be any sense of brotherhood or cohesiveness: the Bishop is often a distant authoritarian figure best kept a “safe” distance. Priests are sent to parishes and told to get on with it, to avoid controversy, “to say the black and do the red”, not to complain and simply to keep the show on the road. Some are very overworked and some hide in frenetic activity. I also sense that many, because of their Seminary training, are wary of getting too close to the laity; this may be from fear of being accused of showing favouritsm: it may also be due to personal insecurity and/or fear of being recognised as the wounded healers they really are. How many such men are left to rattle around in large empty presbyteries, leaving the laity to contact them only when there is “a real need” to do so?
    Over 40 years ago, the theologian Jurgen Moltman wrote of his fear that the Church was in danger of becoming merely the service provider for the festivals of modern society – the batch, match and dispatch organisation. Was he right?
    Renewed models of team work, based on actual skills, experiences and competencies, across Dioceses and within parishes, are desperately needed to change this state of affairs, to put new heart and vigour into the endeavour and in this lay people are going to have to be given their rightful place. They are essential to the Mission, not optional add ons to be availed of or dispatched, at the whim of a priest or bishop. However, where is the investment in the ongoing formation of lay people to enable them to take on such responsibilities? Recently, I read that it costs in excess of £20k p.a. to provide Seminary training for a potential priest in these islands. All well and good but should not this be balanced with real investment in training lay women and men to enable them to take on shared leadership within their parishes. It cannot be assumed that they are able/willing to meet all such costs, or indeed their time, from their own resources.

    Thank you, the 10 priests and one deacon of Clogher for your honesty, in”saying it like it is”, warts and all.However, as the report asks, is anyone among the Bishops really listening or is it a case of keeping the wagon lurching from side to side ignoring the wheel that has fallen off along the way?

  5. Kevin Walters

    Church and many of our Bishops have not responded very positively to invitations issued over the past year from the ACP leadership. As an association we were set up to be a voice for Priests, but who is listening, and who is responding, where do we turn to?