Is our papal nuncio too much Pope Benedict’s man?
As priests age and our numbers decrease, inevitably a great deal of soul-searching takes place. Instead of retirement at a reasonable age there’s the uninviting prospect of an increased work-load as energy and health diminish. Instead of the satisfaction of looking back over decades of effective service there’s the reality of the haemorrhaging of congregations and the decline of the Church on our watch. Instead of the appreciation of our people, there’s the sense that we are increasingly incapable of responding to their ever-growing and often (we priests feel) unreasonable demands. Instead of receiving credit where credit due there is the feeling that we have become endless and disparaging news, reviled by some, pitied by many, taken for granted by most.
For many priests moving on in years, hardly surprisingly in view of the troubles of the last few decades, disenchantment is the order of the day. And to a large extent, this disenchantment that can lead so easily to cynicism, resentment and anger is almost invariably associated with the experience of being taken for granted.
The appointment of bishops is a glaring example. For years this has been a running sore in the Irish Church. Once there was some effort at consultation, even though it was minimal at best and often had the appearance of a public relations exercise more than anything else. Now no one is even pretending that priests have any say anymore in the appointment of their bishops.
In recent months, five new bishops have been appointed to dioceses other than their own. All of them no doubt are good men and my criticism is not of them personally but it’s a safe bet that none of the priests of their new dioceses voted for them. For example, a Roscommon priest, a worthy candidate in his own right, was appointed to Kerry and I don’t think anyone would pretend that any priest in Kerry was aware of his suitability to the extent that they actually voted for him.
I’m sure too that the present papal nuncio, Archbishop Charles Brown, is a worthy man. I don’t know because I’ve never met him – as he doesn’t want to meet me or any other of the 1000-plus priests who are members of the Association of Catholic Priests. But I’m not too sure that he’s the right man to appoint, effectively on his own, a whole phalanx of new bishops, five in the last few months and two others apparently in the pipe-line, almost a third of the Irish episcopal bench, as we rather grandly call it.
Archbishop Brown, it seems, spent very little time in parish work and he has no formal training as a papal nuncio, in that he was catapulted out of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith into the diplomatic service by Pope Benedict, as Rome’s answer to the dysfunctional Irish Catholic Church. I’m sure he’s a very talented man but I’m not too sure with these two disabilities plus the inevitable problem of appreciating the nuances of a different culture that such crucial decision-making should be placed effectively in his exclusive hands.
Pope Benedict, under whose governance the system of church administration almost collapsed, tended (as Paul Vallely writes in his new book on Pope Francis) to ‘put his supporters in positions of administrative power because he knew and trusted them, rather than because they had the qualities required to do the job’. By common admission, church governance and administration, under Benedict and his predecessor, had become a series of personal, independent fiefdoms where local churches were accountable to Rome rather than the other way round.
I would worry too whether, as an appointee of Pope Benedict, Archbishop Brown appreciates the new spring in the Catholic Church that Pope Francis represents. If there’s one thing clear in the focus of the new pope, it’s that there is a wider and deeper perspective on what’s good for the Catholic Church than the narrow wisdom that emanates from Rome.
Just three years ago as archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis delivered a scathing critique of clericalism, an ecclesiastical virus that places clergy at the centre of the Church in a way which infantilises the people when what they need is empowering. Bishops too can do the same with priests – infantilise them. And bishops know what it’s like because so many bishops from around the world, during the last two pontificates, were treated by the Vatican officials in the same infantilising manner.
A second focus of Pope Francis is on his role as ‘Bishop of Rome’, which he has consistently underlined from the day of his election. In other words, that there will have to be greater role for bishops in determining what is good for the dioceses of their country rather in simply assenting too and putting into effect directives emanating from the corridors of the Vatican.
A corollary of that is that people and priests need to be given greater involvement in decision-making appropriate to their positions – people in their parishes and priests in their dioceses – in effect the principle of subsidiarity and proportionality (so often preached by the Catholic Church and so seldom implemented) which states that an issue ought to be handled by the lowest authority capable of addressing the matter.
It follows that the virtual exclusion of the priests (or people) of a diocese from any effective say in the appointment of their bishop is an unacceptable form of ‘infantilisation’ – treating people as children and disrespecting their rights.
For years Irish priests have protested at their unfair, unwarranted and unwise exclusion from participating in a decision to appoint a bishop – a matter of compelling interest to them. Meetings were held, delegations sent to the nunciature in Dublin, pleas made by priests’ associations – all to no avail. A few years ago a former nuncio told a delegation of priests to go home and say their prayers and to wait for whatever bishop the Pope would send them! On another occasion a papal nuncio told the leader of a priest’s association who attempted to raise this issue on behalf of 6,000-plus Irish priests that he was ‘a nobody leading nobodies’. You can imagine the wonders that did for the morale of priests. Is it any wonder that so many priests are disenchanted.
If God surprised us by sending us a pope so in tune with the ordinary and the everyday, maybe the Irish bishops might take their courage in their hands and suggest to Rome that we’re grown up enough to be able to make some decisions for ourselves. We should no longer be patronised as errant children.