How the ACP relates with the Irish Bishops
Since the founding of our association dialogue with the Irish bishops has been a priority for us, the leadership team, and indeed also for our members. There have even been times when some of our members have criticised us for what they perceived as a lack of urgency on our part in pursuing this agenda.
Our first meeting with any members of the Hierarchy was in relation to the introduction of the New Missal. We met with the relevant Episcopal commission, which had three bishops as members. There was some discussion at that meeting, but unfortunately it did not have any effect on the outcome, as we know.
At our insistent request there was a further meeting last Spring. Three members of the ACP leadership team met with two representatives of the bishops’ conference. It was a private meeting, very pleasant and affable. Sitting around the table there was almost no difference between us on the issues we raised concerning the current state of the Church. But at the end all that was made public was a formalised statement containing little or no information. This type of private meeting went against what we have tried to do from the beginning, being open about all our activities. But we felt it was worth going along with this as a first step. We also knew that more meetings like this would not serve any useful purpose. There needed to be openness and transparency in our dealing with the bishops in the future.
So, in late June of this year, we sent the following letter to Cardinal Brady:
There is little need to rehearse the elements of the present position of the Catholic Church in Ireland: the decline of Mass attendance, the lack of confidence in anything that has the name ‘Catholic¹, the steep and sharp decline in vocations to the priesthood.
The Association of Catholic Priests believes that what is now needed is a proactive emphasis on unity within our Church. The need for this ‘Communio’ has been voiced by Pope Benedict and has been the theme of the recent Eucharistic Congress.
There are, as we know, huge ‘dis-connects’ in our Church that need to be addressed: between people and priests; between priests and bishops; between bishops and Rome.
These gulfs are damaging the Church, damaging the preaching of the Good News, leading to a huge loss of confidence in our identity as Catholics and in our ability to come to terms with our critical situation.
The Association of Catholic Priests believes that the current crisis demands real engagement between the different groupings in the Irish Catholic Church. Unless this engagement takes place it will not be possible to plan strategically for the future of our church. There are many people who still value their Catholic heritage and who want the Christian message to be promulgated in a way that will challenge the values of our time, as evidenced by the large participation in the IEC and in our recent ‘assembly’ meeting in Dublin.
In seeking this engagement we consider four factors to be essential:
1. The present reality needs to be named. This necessitates that the conversation includes all shades of opinion within our church – those who are disaffected as well as those who believe that the rules must be rigidly obeyed. The differing voices need to be heard; it is not good enough to tell some people that if they are not happy with the present rules to go elsewhere.
2. This process of engagement must give as strong a voice to the lay parishioners as it does to the clergy and the bishops. We need to trust that God is with His Church as surely when discordant and critical voices are heard as when there is assent and agreement. As experience indicates time and time again, there is a tangible energy, vibrancy and enthusiasm when lay people are present in assemblies with clergy and often a palpable sense of dejection, depression and sometimes almost despair when clergy gather as a group.
3. We need to face the question as to what is going to happen as more priests retire. The present clustering of parishes is, in our opinion, not the answer. The question everyone is asking: what will we do now to save the Irish Catholic Church from becoming, in twenty years time, a Eucharist-free zone and, as the Eucharist is at the heart of Church, from effective collapse?
Twenty years ago we could be excused for not facing that question on the grounds that we were not fully aware of the pace of change that was about to take place. This excuse is now gone. We need to urgently address the challenge of providing a scaffolding of worship, of ministry, of community – effectively, of Catholic life – within which the Good News can be presented, valued, honoured and lived.
4. We need to communicate clearly and assertively to Rome the reality of our present situation and to create the space in the Irish Church to allow for the kind of conversation we need to have at parish, diocesan and national level.
The Association of Catholic Priests, on behalf of our members, respectfully and urgently requests that the Irish Episcopal Conference respond positively to this proposal: to begin, in cooperation with priests and people, a conversation about the future of our Catholic Church that will move purposefully from a reflective consideration of where we are to where it is God will lead us.
As a first step in this process, we request a meeting with the Episcopal Conference in the near future.
Pope Benedict has spoken about the need for the ‘renewal’ of the Irish Church and the opportunities offered by the upcoming ‘Year of Faith’. We accept that analysis and that guidance. By listening to one another, by hearing what is being said, by recognising both the limitations and the opportunities of this time, by trusting in God’s Spirit to guide us on the way, the Year of Faith could become a new springtime in our Church.
We stress that the Association of Catholic Priests is not ‘against’ the Church. We are part of it, we care about it and we want it to survive.
We would like a response as soon as possible.
On behalf of the Association of Catholic Priests
Tony Flannery, Esker Retreat House, Athenry, Co. Galway, 087 6814699 Brendan Hoban, PP, Garranard, Ballina, Co Mayo. 086 6065055
PJ Madden, Graiguecullen, Carlow. 059 9141833
Sean McDonagh, SSC Dalgan Park, Navan, Co. Meath. 087 2367612
The reply eventually arrived in October. It was as follows:
Dear Father Hoban,
Further to my letter of 24 July 2012, I write to let you know that your correspondence was circulated to all members of the Irish Episcopal Conference and discussed at the recent meeting of bishops.
The Bishops are of the opinion that engagement with the Association of Catholic Priests would best take place at local level by using established structures such as the Council of Priests.
With all good wishes etc
We are both disappointed and saddened by this response from our bishops. It is hard to understand why, in this time of great difficulty for the Irish Church, neither the bishops as a body, or any individual bishop, is willing to meet with an association that has a membership of over one thousand priests.
We also note that Cardinal Seán Brady, in a letter to the ACP on May 1 of this year wrote that ‘the ACP has already met representatives of the Bishops and also attended a meeting of a Commission of the Episcopal Conference and we expect that there will be ongoing meetings of this nature.’
No such “ongoing” meetings have taken place. Given the reply which was signed by Fr. G. Dullea is it foolish of the ACP to anticipate any further meetings?