The Church should listen to its priests
Sometimes the suggestion is made that the answer to the imminent priest-shortage in Ireland is to invite hundreds of, say, Nigerian priests to pastor the emptying parishes of Ireland. On the face of it, a logical proposal. But, of course, as we know it’s not that simple. Such a scheme doesn’t allow for a sufficient understanding of the nuances and complexities of Irish life and culture.
Take a recent meeting of Irish priests. The meeting was convened to discuss the need to explore regulations regarding the retirement of priests at 75. This particular diocese (not Killala) is examining the possibility that parish priests instead of retiring at 75 would, at that age, become curates and keep working – for as long as they are able. After the meeting was over, the focus of the gathering changed completely when the priests began to discuss among themselves whether they would be able to live on the old age pension if they retired at 66!
At first sight the two discussions seem at odds with one another. But not if you understand how priests function. For example, bring a group of priests together on their own and usually issues are thrashed out efficiently and effectively. Put a bishop sitting among them and a great silence descends. Part of the reason is that priests know (or if they don’t know, believe) that what a bishop usually wants is not a discussion but agreement with an established position. It’s hard to blame priests for this. Take Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s recent criticism that priests are not helped by ‘negative polemics’ by priests on priesthood. Leaving aside the obvious questions begged by the phrase ’negative polemics’ (for example, who decides something is ‘negative’ or ‘polemical’), Martin’s intervention is clearly meant to bat aside a growing constituency of priests unhappy that the Irish Bishops, on behalf of the Irish Church, seem to accept the official template for ‘renewal’ coming from Rome. Behind the growing chorus of disapproval among Irish priests is a great mixture of unease, worry, anger that the Irish Church is imploding before our very eyes and our leaders seem to be sleep-walking into the future.
Here are two statistics from two dioceses in the west of Ireland: at present one has just five priests under 50; the other, with 57 parishes, will have 50 priests by 2020. Is it ‘negative polemics’ to point out the logic of those and other worrying statistics, to insist on the obvious truth that without priests there is no Mass and without Mass there will be no Church? Are Archbishop Martin and others suggesting that they don’t want priests (or people) to discuss these issues, even though the very scaffolding of worship through the dioceses and parishes of Ireland is now at risk for the first time in centuries?
Leaving aside the fact that the right and the responsibility of priests and people to bring matters of serious pastoral concern to the attention of church leaders is enshrined in church law – Canon 212, No. 3: ‘the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church’ –is Archbishop Martin seriously suggesting that surfacing these issues is more damaging to the Irish priesthood than not discussing them?
If that’s the case it amounts to a strange volte face on his part. After all Martin was the man who believed that Dublin’s auxiliary bishops by their silence over child abuse scandals should resign even though they were not directly involved in decision-making. Is he now suggesting that Irish priests should be silent even though they can see what’s happening in parishes and dioceses all over Ireland? If bishops were wrong to be silent, why are priests being ‘negative’ and ‘polemical’ if they speak out as church law demands? Or was it a case of, that was then, this is now?
While Archbishop Martin should have a better grasp of Irish clerical culture, the same could hardly be expected of the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Charles Brown. By his own admission on a learning curve, understandably he has still to achieve a working knowledge of the nuances of clerical life here. His visits around the country listening to priests and people seem to have convinced him that the Irish Catholic Church is alive and well with ‘good’ priests beavering away in parishes and other priests looking for attention from the media. He gets a picture, he says, from priests in parishes ‘of vitality, of great courage and great hope’.
Perhaps Archbishop Martin should remind him about that old adage about bishops in Ireland: ‘They’ll always have a good dinner, but they’ll never be told the truth’. That’s part of the problem with Irish priests. We have great respect for bishops, archbishops and papal nuncios and there is a long tradition in Ireland of clerical deferral to our leaders. It is an admirable quality. The negative side though is that even when we have something to say, having reflected on our many years of experience at the coalface of parish life, we tend not to want to share our wisdom – for wisdom it surely is – especially if what we have to say might appear critical to our ‘superiors’ because loyalty to the Church is always a pressing concern.
So Irish priests need to be actively encouraged to name our truth, not encouraged to keep our silence. We need to be given space to say our piece, to communicate that bit of wisdom that is the result of mature and prayerful reflection on our long experience of and love for the Irish Church.
So our church leaders – Archbishop Martin, the other bishops, the Papal Nuncio – should be opening up avenues of communication with the Irish clergy not closing them down, as if we are irrelevant or have nothing to say in these critical times. If we have learned anything in Ireland in the nightmare of the last few decades, surely it is that the Church loses out if discordant voices, especially those who love the Church, are not unambiguously cherished.
The Association of Catholic Priests (ACP), founded just two years ago, to raise the morale of Irish priests and to provide a voice for Irish priests in the most difficult of circumstances, already has over 1000 priest members. We have ideas, energy and enthusiasm for the reform of our Church and it grieves us to see it shrivel year by year.
We lament our Church’s decline not just because we have given our lives to it but because we believe the Irish people and the Irish nation will be the poorer without it. And, more importantly, we believe that the present official template for reforming it is at variance with the views, opinions, needs and wishes of the vast majority of priests and people in Ireland today. We believe, for example, that providing the Eucharist for our people demands a more creative and imaginative approach than the present policy of spreading older priests over a wider area, while they are still able to stand up and say Mass.
When the ACP sought to open up discussion of this and other issues, we wrote to the Papal Nuncio who suggested it might be better if we talked to the bishops – though he recently said that because priests were ‘central to any re-flourishing or reform of the Church in Ireland’, he wanted priests to feel they can ‘pick up the phone and talk to me when they see things that ought to be done’.
When we asked the bishops to meet us, they suggested that we should talk to Councils of Priests in each diocese. And we are now exploring that avenue. Can I, without rehearsing again my credentials as a loyal servant of the Church, can I after almost 40 years of priesthood, with respect and due deference to bishops, archbishops and Papal Nuncio, pose this one question? Why, with the Irish Catholic Church imploding around us, can’t the leaders of our Church, worried no doubt like the rest of us about the very future of our Church in Ireland, bring themselves to speak to an association that represents more than 1000 priests? I can’t understand why that’s the case. As the Papal Nuncio reminded us priests are ‘central to any re-flourishing or reform of the Church in Ireland’.
That’s a reality that should prompt a fresh start to 2013.