Is the ACP an All-Ireland reform movement or not?
I’ve used the phrase “Maynooth men” once or twice on the previous days. It is, I realise, somewhat inaccurate shorthand for the priests who man most parishes across the 26 dioceses of the 4 ecclesiastical provinces. However, as I try to trace their online footprint, the few I come across seem to represent even fewer than the 26 counties of 3 ‘southern’ provinces. Except for Clogher, of course, and recently (Praise the Lord!) Kilmore as well. They are both definitively of Ulster. Both even manage to straddle that silly and imaginary boundary fence into Fermanagh and Tyrone, Clogher taking its ancient name from Tyrone’s Golden Stone, Cloch Óir.
Like most Ulster folk, Clogher-ACP has its own way of viewing the world, its own quiet but persistent charism of interpreting the ACP and posing awkwardly necessary questions to its Leadership. But, Clogher and Kilmore apart, should we interpret the mission of the Association of Catholic Priests through its well established hermeneutic of reform, or from some hermeneutic of rupture or partitionism? I ask this prompted by an email I had from an old friend a fortnight ago.
“Eddie – Good to hear from you. I agree totally with your sentiments about the Catholic Church and its various appendages. Anything which shakes it up is of course welcome. The only reservation I have relates to the views which some at least of the ACP have expressed about the political situation in the North. I found it depressing that people who claimed to be progressive were prepared to challenge the official Church line only on issues of theology which affected them personally (in the Republic), while remaining wedded to equally reactionary views on the causes/effects of the partition of Ireland by the British. I am fully supportive of the Peace Process but will certainly not wish to be associated with people who wish to condemn those who similarly challenged the political and church establishment on the question of the origin of our Troubles.”
My friend, whom I’ve known and respected for the past 58 years since we met as 12-year olds in an Armagh dormitory on 19th September 1955, is a civil and human rights lawyer for whom human rights are indivisible and know no borders. He was responding to my and Michael Quinn’s invitation to old Armagh schoolmates to sign the Resolution passed at the ACP’s Athlone meeting. While he cited two priests we both know who have made clear that they “will have nothing to do with the ACP” as a result of public comment from someone in the Association, he was not suggesting that this explains the apparent general lack of enthusiasm for the Association north of the border or in Ulster. It takes two to tango, as the Pope will tell you.
Back in the early 1980s, on the dialogue of the deaf when attempting to discuss “the North” with his southern colleagues, Tomás Ó Fiaich used say ruefully: “I understand that they don’t understand; what I don’t understand is why they don’t or won’t understand.” If for decades you see the North as a place apart, maybe even for southern bishops it may seem safer to keep it that way. An interesting poll of today’s Bishops’ Conference would ask: “Have you ever spent a day and night north of the border?” Asking the same question of the 1,000+ priests of the ACP might be even more revealing. Could it be that, like so many of the Republic’s institutions grown content with a partitionist view of “up North”, the Association of Catholic Priests may be in danger of ploughing its new furrow of reform and sowing its seed only in the three green fields of the South?
‘And where does that leave Raphoe?’ I hear Paddy Ferry ask. Well, successive Dublin governments would be happy to see Donegal seeking entry to the “Wee Six”. Ministers and bishops would miss the annual McGill Summer School junket in Glenties, but they’d still have a Lough Derg in Killaloe. For the ACP, the Raphoe 4 could always meet the Derry 4 in the corner of a pub in Buncrana.
Certainly my friend’s email gave me pause, leaving me wondering if I haven’t been a bit one-eyed in my criticism of Northern or Ulster priests’ lack of response to the ACP over the past couple of years. I wonder if, despite the listing of nine or ten priests from Ulster dioceses among the original foundation support members, the ACP really does see itself as an All-Ireland reform movement within an All-Ireland Church. I look in vain for a representative of the Armagh Province in the Association’s ‘Curia’ or among its adjuncti Spokespersons. As for website activity, can it really be that Des Wilson (D&C), Paddy O’Kane (Derry), Jimmy McPhillips & La Flynn (Clogher), Gerry Alwill (Kilmore) and Sean McCartan (Armagh) are the only six Ulster names to appear in two-and-a-half years? These few harbingers of Spring don’t quite add up to a Northern summer for the Association.
Doubtless, a few more ACP members from the Armagh Province must attend some of the annual general meetings in Portlaoise, Athlone or Dublin. So why no Regional Meetings or Regional Assembly in, say, Dundalk, Newry, Belfast, Carrickmacross, Armagh or Derry – on the pattern of those in the Regency, Galway and Cork? Why do all articles, however welcome, on issues of Church & State, Social Justice, Poverty & Deprivation, or even Sexual Abuse & Cover-up, always stop at the border? Fr Brendan Smyth never did. The evergreen Des Wilson is the exception in this, but his lengthy, intelligent, comprehensive “Reasons Why” (28 Nov 2011) was practically ignored by us all.
The 15th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement is less than a week away, if we follow the Easter Cycle, or less than three weeks if we follow the Gregorian Calendar [10th April – coincidentally the day the ACP Leadership tip-toe into the Clogher tent for a pow-wow!] Once we have said everything we need to say just now about Pope Francis, could the Leadership commission half a dozen articles to explore the Peace Process as an All-Ireland work in progress from, say, Fr Des Wilson, Tipperary & Clonard Redemptorist Fr Alec Reid, Fr Brian Lennon SJ, Fr Joe McVeigh of Fermanagh & Clogher, and maybe a few of the non-ordained such as Martin McGuinness, Deputy 1st Minister, Martin McAleese who has surely done both Irish statelets some service, and even my friend, the human rights lawyer?
After 30 months of comment from all us keyboard-bothering popewatchers, vaticanologists, mystics, bishopbashers, liturgywallahs, latin-literalists, dynamic-equivalencers and anti-inquisition-crusaders, maybe it’s time to visit God’s people of all denominations in our own North-eastern backyard. They should know a thing or two about the hermeneutics of reform, of rupture, even of continuity.
Mar focal scoir . . .
An association such as the ACP that cannot attract an unclerical clerical outsider such as Pádraig Standún should maybe refresh its nonconformist credentials. Someone to shake up an association that has failed to shake up its own core constituency would be welcome. In Moville, late July 1982, in the course of a true Standún-style funeral tribute to his great friend and Maynooth classmate, Derry’s 35-year old Tom O’Gara, Fr Standún said:
“There is a lesson in this for a church establishment which seems at times to have barely contained and tolerated one of its finest assets. Flair, imagination, contagious loving, the bending and bucking of stagnant systems are not sins. They help transform the drab reality of many lives and bring the spark of the Incarnation to what for many is a sterile and pompous institution. Such creative priesthood is too often met by threats and suspensions, rather than encouraged as a complement and embellishment of the hard and sincere graft of the more conventional priest.”
Eddie Finnegan (email email@example.com)
• Please see also articles by this author on 25 and 26 March.