Is the Bishops of Ferns right? Is the ACP now ‘mainstream’?
On September 18 last I travelled the long journey to Wexford. I was representing the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) at a meeting with the Bishop of Ferns and his Priests’ Council. It was part of an effort, on the part of the ACP, to make contact with bishops and priests around the country.
We had asked the Papal Nuncio for a meeting but he felt it was more appropriate if we met the Irish bishops. We had then asked the bishops for a meeting but they thought it was more appropriate that we should meet the Councils of Priests. It was, you could argue, an ecclesiastical version of Pass the Parcel but nonetheless we took the invitation at face value and travelled up and down the country for almost a year. Ferns, the Wexford diocese, was one of our final meetings.
I was very graciously received in Wexford and the discussion ranged over a wide area:
- the dearth of vocations;
- dealing with allegations of child abuse against priest;
- the new English translation of the Mass;
- the method of appointing bishops;
- the ‘silencing’ of priests;
- the decline in religious practice;and so forth.
Running through the meeting was a lively criticism of the ACP: by setting out our own agenda we were damaging the unity of priests, with people confused because of different voices expressing different views; we hadn’t taken a public position in the recent abortion debate; we were perceived as ‘radicals’ and ‘dissidents’, wanting to set up our own church, independently of Rome; we were getting too much uncritical publicity in the media; and so forth. Some members of the Council of Priests had genuine criticisms and expressed them trenchantly; others took on the role of devil’s advocate.
I made the point that in the three years of the life of the ACP we had witnessed an extraordinary turn-around in the Catholic Church. When we started it was clear that the views we were expressing found no favour in Rome. In fact, quite the opposite. It was clear, particularly in the treatment of Fr Tony Flannery, that an effort was being orchestrated to nullify independent priests’ associations in the Catholic Church that were cropping up all over the world. The strategy seemed to be: remove the shepherd and the sheep will scatter.
Then six months ago, I explained, with the election of Pope Francis ,we suddenly discovered that the platform of reform the ACP had established was being consistently echoed in his words, thoughts and symbolic actions. We had discovered to our amazement that the new pope was stealing all our best ideas!
I indicated some of the resonances between what the pope was saying and ACP policy:
- the reforms of the Second Vatican Council were to be implemented and could not be set aside;
- the Church needed to be become more ‘collegial’ in its structures;
- the Roman Curia was not fit for purpose and needed to be pruned back;
- we needed a simpler people’s liturgy and not a Roman liturgy of bells and smells, of linen and lace;
- we needed to look at re-imaging Catholic priesthood, including its connection with obligatory celibacy;
- we needed to look at Catholic sexual morality; and so on.
So, I suggested to the Ferns men, that instead of the ACP finding ourselves outside the official Church waving our tattered flags and seeking attention for our ideas, now – incredibly, extraordinarily, incomprehensively – we suddenly found ourselves on the inside track with Pope Francis, sponsoring a shared platform of reform. As I laid out the tectonic shift in attitude, tone and content that the papacy of Francis was clearly sponsoring, the Bishop of Ferns responded, ‘So the ACP is now mainstream!’ Everyone laughed, including myself! But, incredibly, incomprehensively, it may well be true.
What the Ferns priests didn’t seem to get (and they’re not the only ones) is that with Pope Francis, we’re in a very different ball-game. A cardinal recently said about him, ‘The new Pope plays for the same team but he kicks the ball in a an entirely different direction’. We’re not used to popes kicking the ball anywhere but straight between the posts. Now Francis is, like the Dublin goalkeeper, Stephen Cluxton, very effectively spraying the ball everywhere.
Part of the problem is that Irish priests, based on lifetimes of experience, doggedly refuse to believe that Rome can or would change. Or indeed that a 76-year-old Argentinian will have the energy or the resilience or the time to introduce the kind of structural and systemic reform that the Church needs. And that’s very understandable.
But we’re in a different place now, after half a century of that long winter of our discontent. Suddenly we can dream again, as the Church did 50 years ago; suddenly, everything is possible, because a pope, effectively commissioned by the cardinals and now working closing with a representative group of eight of them, is pointing the Church in a different direction, the way of reform.
Let me give you an example. At the Ferns meeting the priests were very critical of the ACP for not publicly supporting the bishops in the recent abortion debate. I tried, unsuccessfully I have to say, to respond to their concerns.
If I could have said that in preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Pope Francis believed, as the ACP believes, that the Church had become too obsessed with sexual issues – abortion, same sex marriages, contraception – and that we needed to become more balanced in our approach, then that would have been compelling justification for the ACP position. The extraordinary thing was that the day after our discussion in Wexford, Pope Francis was exactly that – in his now famous interview.
A few days later I read a report in an American Catholic newspaper, the National Catholic Reporter, that Pope Francis was contemplating the appointment of a woman cardinal. In a recent book I had argued for the same thing, even suggesting that Mary McAleese, might be a worthy candidate for such a ground-breaking position. Like the Wexford priests, people laughed at such an extraordinary prospect.
We might not be laughing soon.