Priests have earned the right to speak about the state of the Church
Do we sit and wait for church after church to empty and eventually to close?
In his book, Priesthood, The Lost Art of Walking on Water, Michael Heher struck an important note: “At a time of crisis, people often find the freedom to voice things they ordinarily would not express.
A dying woman can give advice to her children, a soldier going to war can tell his brother he loves him dearly, a father as he prepares for dangerous surgery can tell his daughter about fear, worry and faith.”
Heher’s point is that as men who have suffered so many hits over the last years, we priests have earned the right to say whatever we want.
Not everyone would agree, as we know. Loyalty, or what passes for loyalty, in the Roman Catholic Church can have very precise boundaries.
Among priests, moral courage is often wanting. A bishop even loitering without intent on the premises can compromise the naming of elephants in the livingroom. But, if ever there was for church and for priesthood “a time of crisis”, in Heher’s phrase, then surely this is it.
If ever we needed to speak the truth as we see it, then surely this is the time.
A drip of vocations, a consistent bleeding of church members, a massive credibility problem, a leadership for the most part invisible, a priesthood demoralised and Rome at the great crossroads pointing us in the direction of the 19th century.
How did it all come to this?
Fifty years ago this October the Second Vatican Council met in Rome and for three glorious years devised a road map for the future: a people’s church, co-responsibility, collegiality and the other buzzwords that would be given flesh in structures devised to give energy, direction and purpose to the church in a different age.
The road map, we were told, would help to negotiate a changing culture, but we tore it up and threw it away. In a few weeks, when we commemorate the opening of that great council, they’ll be telling us how wonderful it all was. God forgive them.
In my new book, Where Do We Go From Here? The Crisis in Irish Catholicism, I feel entitled to claim my own space and the authority of my own experience to attempt an answer to that crucial question.
After almost 40 years of priesting I feel I have earned that right.
I start from the position that we need to be brutally honest about where we are, minimising neither the problems nor the promise. I reflect on the window opened by the founding of the Association of Irish Priests (ACP) and the Association of Catholics of Ireland (ACI) and the successful “assemblies” organised jointly by them – more than 1,000 people at the Dublin assembly, with Galway coming up this Saturday and Cork the following Saturday. And I point a direction into the future – where we might go from here.
Even apart from breaking new ground, which clearly in future years we will have to do, there’s so much we can do – now. Two examples.
1: Imagine if Mary McAleese, former president of Ireland, was made a cardinal. Or Nuala O’Loan. Or Sr Stan.
Imagine the lift it would give to our church if instead of patronising women at almost every turn we appointed them to head some Vatican congregations (departments). It could be done – tomorrow – because either responsibility does not necessitate ordination.
2: We’re “clustering” at the moment in the dioceses of Ireland. That’s PR for managing the decline and ageing of priests. In 20 years (2032, when we’ll be celebrating 1,600 years since St Patrick came to Ireland) the statistics clearly show we’ll have very few priests left.
If no priests means no Eucharist and no Eucharist means no church, the Irish Catholic Church will have effectively disappeared.
Yet, now we could ordain (with minimal formation or instruction, as presently with ordained deacons) viri probati – men of proven worth. At one fell swoop we would have solved the Eucharistic famine already knocking at our doors.
So where do we go from here? Do we sit and wait for church after church to empty and eventually to close?
Or do ask the key question: Where do we go from here? – and then claim the freedom to answer it.
Sitting on our hands is no strategy at the present critical time.
Fr Brendan Hoban is parish priest in Moygownagh, Co Mayo, and a founding member of the ACP. His book Where Do We Go From Here? The Crisis in Irish Catholicism (€ 9.95) is in most bookshops and available by post from The Pastoral Centre, Ballina, Co Mayo (€ 2 extra for pp).