A letter from Alan Hilliard to Tony Flannery
I listened to your talk at yesterday’s meeting about your present predicament. You described how you have been stood down from ministry following an investigation by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). To be honest I don’t know the basis of, or the reason for the investigation. Neither do I know who instigated it or how it can be resolved. You further described how this has left you in a space in which you never imagined you’d find yourself in.This space, in this 66th year of your life, leaves you pondering how you will live the remainder of your life without the faculties to minister as a priest.
There are some who might say you broke the rules so you have to take the consequences. There are others that may even delight in the fact that the Church has called an errant priest to task for his so-called disloyalty. There are many however, who are saddened and shocked that not only has it come to this but they are distraught at the process which brought you to this point. To be honest I wasn’t surprised by much of what you had to say until… Maybe it’d be better if I come back to the ‘until’ later.
Your predicament is not startling in our present age. Many feel the fallout from the sad yet predictable way in which large institutions grind people down. Today many people are receiving unwelcome phone calls from banks; some even receive a number calls in the one day from officials trying to squeeze money out of them; money that they don’t have; money that the bank irresponsibly gave them in the first place. Others find themselves redundant after a lifetime of service to an industry, corporation or business with little hope of future work. Others just simply feel left out; they feel they can never achieve their potential. They see themselves as ones who are left on the platform watching the train leave the station knowing or at least feeling they can never get a ticket because of their age, a disability, a lack of educational opportunity or just sheer bad luck.
Tony, there are many like you who feel that they have been dropped. They once thought they were held in the highest esteem and were of value to those they served. Now they see that it was merely an illusion on their part. You describe how the organisations shut down and shut you out. Many of those in the situations described in the last paragraph feel the same. A few years ago banks were their best friends now that are torturous enemies.
Organisations are not humble; they cannot kneel before you and say sorry; only people can. They cannot, no, they will not give you a status that makes them look foolish or weak. Banks won’t forgive debt, societies are effectively letting people know they are on their own; they are slowly and assiduously dismantling welfare systems while ignoring their responsibility to provide opportunity and support to their citizens and those they conveniently describe as non-citizens. More and more people are literally ‘on their own’ and are familiar with feelings of insecurity and despair. This is felt more astutely today because this generation was convinced at one point in time that they were important to whatever organisation or corporation they committed to.
Fortunately for you and unlike most of the population, there is a platform for you to share your angst. You have brothers and sisters in the familial and ecclesial sense who are not only willing but who are anxious to hear your story. There are many people whose story burns a deep hole into their being. As it bores deeper into their fragile being they discover that it only serves to release a dark, black liquid that invades every fibre of their being, blocking out whatever light of hope shines towards them. You are lightened and enlightened by people’s attention to your plight
Back now to the ‘until’. It wasn’t until you described the experience of being an outsider that something began to make sense. When you listened to your brothers in community share stories of their daily activities in ministry…this made you feel as outsider. You once shared these activities and you know you may never share in them again.
No matter where I go, I know I’m not there.
I look at those who know they belong.
I live in a place called nowhere.
from Outsider, Brendan Kennelly, Reservoir Voices, 2009
It wasn’t until that moment, that moment when you mentioned ‘outsider’ when I saw ministry take hold of your being in a new and inspiring manner. This same moment shook my complacency towards your plight and your future. Your status as an outsider resonated with so many other voices that I have I have heard over the last few months and years. Maybe it is because I have worked with migrants that I understand both the power and powerlessness of the outsider.
Tony, your ministry has never been as powerful as it is now. You represent the many Catholics who still attend but live as outsiders, constantly looking in at a Church of ever widening gaps. Among those who feel this way are the men and women who are actively involved in the life of the Church. But if we are to be honest, it must be said that many priests, religious and yes even bishops feel this way. Maybe you can take heart from the words of Archbishop John Shelby Spong. Writing about the exile of God’s people in Babylon he observed, ‘in exile your God either grows or dies’. I have no doubt that your God will flourish.
Let your ministry begin afresh at this gentle age of 66. Never before was there such a mandate given to you to minister. Are not the scriptures anything more than the defrocking of those who thought they were the insiders? Is not the narrative of the Gospel nothing more than restoring those there were cast aside and branded as outsiders to their rightful place as children of God and heirs of the Kingdom?
Le grá Dé,