ACP needs to address priests’ coalface issues
I write this following the recent Athlone ACP meeting, and in response to the justified questioning of that astute, scholarly, and wise scribe of irony, Eddie Finnegan, whom I always look forward to reading on our ACP website.
I’m a member of Clogher ACP and while we have questioned certain aspects of national leadership, we are more critical of our ACP website, our principal medium of communication at national level. This website is our shop-front window, and every good shop aims at excellence. This website of ours largely defines us. It reflects our vision. It tells our priorities to the world, and, is perceived – fairly or unfairly – as reflecting our leadership.
We stated in our recent Clogher ACP report, that we all need to hold up our hands, and admit our failure to contribute to our shop-front window. We share no opinions, express no concerns or needs, and publish no articles on this website – with a few exceptions. This is our greatest deficiency. It is also largely true of the ACP nationwide.
That priestly contributions are few and mostly negative is not surprising. Clergy have always been cautious in expressing uncensored opinions publicly. Now that this forum is available, those who believe they don’t have to ask permission anymore seem to just want to ‘clear their chests.’ But many more still live in fear, and so they stay silent rather than make any comment. Pope Francis, I hope and pray has come to the rescue and may in-fact inspire greater freedom for all. The ACP could now be the channel of the Holy Spirit to enable priests, value themselves more (within the system),believe more in themselves, think and act for themselves (without the bishop’s instruction); and empowered by the same Holy Spirit be more effective ordained witnesses.
In the interest of priests, it is regrettable that very few dioceses have established an actual branch of the ACP. Our website seems to indicate that only five Dioceses presently meet. How can our leadership team know our real concerns? How can we expect them respond when they have very little feedback or contact from members at the coalface? Perhaps it has been engrained in us that help can only come from outside powers. The culture of dependency bred in ministerial priesthood may have done permanent damage to our self-belief and independence. It may be that many prefer an unhealthy dependency, happy with immaturity and self-pity.
The usefulness, relevance, and effectiveness of our Association and leadership will be largely determined by members at the coalface. Perhaps the most important outcome of the recent Athlone meeting, will be that members, having returned home, will gather the brothers, and breathe new life into our organisation, your organisation.
The big issues are out there. Live issues around Curial control, Church governance, unfair imposition of discipline, compulsory celibacy, ecclesial appointments, women priests, the negating of Vatican 11, etc are all important. I respectfully suggest however, that these issues are not the most urgent or predominant ones experienced at the coalface. They do not occupy the minds of every priest, day in and day out in Parish life or Religious Community.
A missionary priest visited this Parish for a weekend recently. I asked him a question I occasionally ask on meeting a priest, ‘Are you a member of the ACP?’ He replied that he attended the first meeting in Portlaoise, and the second gathering. He said he eventually ‘threw his hat at it,’ as he believed it wasn’t focussed on real concerns of priests at the coalface.
He related that in his promotional work, he was going round parishes every weekend, and staying with the local priest. He said that he found frustration, absence of real leadership, low morale, depression, and alcoholism among priests on too many occasions. Some had very poor living conditions, and no one within their Dioceses seemed to care or give a damn. Others were burdened and feeling helpless at seeing a generation or two gone from the pews, while those remaining seem to lack interest and enthusiasm. He met priests weighed down or worn out by the suicide epidemic, broken relationships, alcohol and other drug abuse, the effects of the recession on people, and other personal and local pastoral concerns. Lived ministerial priesthood appeared to be dysfunctional. He wondered how this is affecting vocations to ministerial priesthood. The missionary thought the ACP should be addressing these realities as a matter of priority and urgency.
In Clogher diocese we are trying to address some of these concerns. We are encouraging greater self-confidence, better self-care, and greater friendship, sharing, and support of one another as priests. We are promoting Pastoral-sharing, reflection, and supervision. We are compiling a directory for priests of counsellors, psychotherapists, supervisors, and other personnel whose services they may find helpful. We also invite guest speakers to address us on relevant pressing concerns to lift our morale. That is our present shop-front window, reflecting our needs, and part of our immediate vision for ACP.
More priests in dioceses, Religious communities, and congregations meeting and sharing their opinions, their needs, wisdom, and vision, would breathe new life into the ACP, and render the role of leadership less demanding. The Holy Spirit works most effectively in open and active minds, hearts, and lives.
Finally, I humbly and respectfully suggest that comments on posted contributions to our website be thoughtful responses and not hasty reactions.