23Jun Denial is not an option for bishops

Some months ago the then Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan dismissed the recent Garda whistle-blowers as ‘just 2 out of a force of over 13,000’. Once he said it we instinctively knew it had to be untrue. It wasn’t just common sense. A defensive circling of the wagons always has denial written all over it.

The papal nuncio, Archbishop Charles Browne, recently said that, after a winter of twenty years in the Catholic Church in Ireland, a new springtime is beginning. He sees ‘green shoots’, a renewed enthusiasm among young Catholics, ‘a new generation who will lead the Church forward into the next decade’. Again, once he said it, we knew it to be untrue.

At best such comments betray a naive belief that in our present circumstances as a church we can jolly up the troops by pretending things are better than they are; and at worst they betray a disrespectful patronising of Irish Catholics and their priests – because we know that what he says is simply untrue. Sometimes, with the best will in the world, you can get things exactly wrong.

At present, in the Irish Catholic Church, we have a huge problem with denial – sheer, unadulterated denial. We skirt around crucial issues, refuse to analyse them, reject empirical data without bothering to refute them, imagine we’re turning some mythical corner, pretend that the situation is not as critical as it is and, worst of all, smother everything in piety.

Recently the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) met the Irish Catholic bishops. We talked to them about the crisis in vocations. We quoted statistics from their own web-site. We explained in graphic terms that in 10 to 15 to 20 years time Irish priests – apart from a tiny cadre of aged individuals – would have virtually disappeared. In Dublin diocese (with 199 parishes to pastor) there are now just two priests under 40 years of age. The crisis is now mathematically certain. If we keep going the way we are, the future of the Irish priesthood is now unsustainable.

In fairness, the bishops accepted that the vocations situation was critical. So we asked them, in view of the fact that bishops (by virtue of their office) are responsible for ensuring that Mass is available to the people, what was their considered response to this train coming down the track at great speed. They pointed to three strategies (i) the clustering of parishes; (ii) praying for vocations; and (iii) organising weekday Communion services in the absence of a priest.

We respectfully suggested that (i) clustering is a short-term management strategy for the decade or so that we have priests to cluster; that (ii) praying for vocations hasn’t worked (that maybe God is pushing us in a different direction); and that (iii) weekday Communion services will not solve the weekend loss of Masses.

It seemed to us that the prospect of attracting sufficient male celibate vocations is so remote and that the implications of the crisis so far-reaching (the imminent closure of hundreds of parishes) that the triple solution proposed by the bishops was a wholly inadequate response to the crisis.

We proposed three strategies; (i) ordain married men of proven responsibility and virtue (there are thousands available in the parishes of Ireland); (ii) invite priests who ‘left the priesthood’ to get married to return to ministry (many would be happy to respond to the call); and (iii) to extend to women ordination to the Permanent Diaconate.

We knew we were pressing buttons that the bishops would prefer we left untouched. We knew that our proposals would give added authority to the belief that we had lost the run of ourselves. But the situation is so serious, the implications so potentially disastrous for our parishes, that we felt a huge responsibility to name the truth as we saw it.

When the ACP was founded five years ago, we were dismissed as malcontents, dissidents, trouble-makers, heretics, anti-Catholic – all because we sponsored a programme of reform and argued trenchantly for it. Then when our numbers grew to over 1,000 priests (between 25% and 30% of Irish priests) it wasn’t quite as easy to rubbish our ideas. Or dismiss our proposals when so many Irish priests and eminent theologians, who had given such sterling service to the Irish Church over several decades, rowed in behind us. We had earned the right to speak.

Yet the Nuncio didn’t want to meet us. ‘Catholic’ papers consistently did everything they could to blow us out of the water. The bishops kept us at arms length and even still some try to depict us as ‘negative’ because we hold up their solutions to the light.

We wanted to say, and we said, to the bishops that (i) the crisis in vocations is now clear from the bishops’ own statistics; (ii) that it’s obvious to everyone that there won’t be sufficient male celibate vocations to pastor the Irish Church in the future and anyone who thinks there will be is whistling past the graveyard; (iii) that it’s intellectually incredible to try and pretend that we can solve the vocations crisis without ordaining married men; (iv) that it’s disrespectful to try to jolly priests up in an effort to boost morale by pretending that the situation is other than what it is; and (v) that it’s unacceptable for bishops to blame others when it’s their responsibility to analyse the problem and to propose workable solutions.

Over the last few years I’ve listened to several bishops explaining that there’s a vocations crisis because the people have lost their faith, because priests are not encouraging young men towards the priesthood and because no one is praying enough. In essence, because it’s someone else’s fault.

I’m afraid that’s not good enough.

If the bishops don’t bite the bullet on this one, we will really know who to blame. Doing nothing is not just irresponsible but a counsel of despair. Denial is no longer an option.

We need pragmatic leaders in tune with the expectations of their people, and ruthless in their perception of reality. Fantasising about failed strategies is a waste of time.

When will that self-evident truth be accepted?

9 Responses

  1. Willie Herlihy

    Brendan, with respect you are whistling in the dark, for the following reasons;

    1. The Irish Bishops have been selected, by Pope John Paul II and his successor Pope Benedict XVI.
    2. They were selected from a template that required, sound men, who would do Rome’s bidding and would not rock the Boat.
    3. Your article, brilliantly illustrates, the stupidity of such a selection criterion.
    4. If the following template was used, (a) Leadership ability (b) pragmatism (c) ability to think out side the box,the Irish Hierarchy would be populated by very different Men.

    The present Bishops would be much happier, listening to the Papal Nuncio Archbishop Charles Brown,talking about how he sees ‘green shoots’, rather than listening to a pragmatic man like yourself, telling them that the sunny uplands are no more.

  2. Clare Hannigan

    Could the crisis in vocations be related to the fact that the vast majority of teenagers and young adults have completely abandoned the faith into which they have been baptised. Apart from blaming the parents the Church appears to be unconcerned about this situation. I have a candle which was lit at my grandfathers baptism in 1880’s. It was lit for my dad’s first communion and later for my first communion and for each of my children. I wonder will there be a reason in the future to light it again.

  3. M. G. O'Riain

    I remember a lecture given by Rev. Prof. Liam Ryan in Maynooth in 1970 in which he said that asking why there were so few vocation now (1970!) should be followed by another question, why were there so many vocations in the past?
    He gave a list of non-theological factors which he said did not produce vocations but helped to encourage them. Among these factors were; 1) large catholic families, 2) limited educational opportunities, 3) limited employment opportunities, 4) the status of the priesthood and the religious life, 5)the expectation of the family, 6) the expectation of the community.
    He may have added more but I trust that what I remember is more or less the gist of what he said.
    Those factors no longer exist so it is unfair to judge the present situation by the standards of the past.
    The response to the present situation cannot be based on the responses from the past but requires more imaginative or even just sensible solutions.
    When people ask why there are so few people going to Mass these days they should also ask why so many went to Mass in the past?

  4. Willie Herlihy

    Clare Hannigan @2  You really have hit on the kernel of the problem.
    There is an old saying (there are none so blind, as those that will not see).
    I think this fits the Irish Hierarchy perfectly.

  5. MM

    Back in the late 80’s I remember a Dublin bishop at a Charismatic Renewal Conference in the RDS ask everyone to pray for an increase in vocations to the priesthood. After the bishop left (early, for another engagement), the wonderful Fr Jack McArdle who was sharing the platform said, that if God answered the bishop’s prayer then the laity of the future wouldn’t be allowed to light the candles. A brave thing to say back in those days when bishops received standing ovations wherever they went and lay ministry was considered a contradiction in terms. Maybe we can be thankful that God hasn’t answered that prayer, or is answering it in a different way – only the bishops are the last to hear it. The irony is that the longer they leave it the more radical the change that will be required. Maybe that’s what the Spirit has in mind.

  6. Lloyd Allan MacPherson

    Clare @ 2,
    I think you share the same hallucination in perception as the Church does. The youth of the world have not abandoned their faith, the church has abandoned them. There are a multitude of situations to be concerned about in the world today and perhaps young people would be more engaged in the church if leadership seemed to be in the forefront of engaging these issues and simply not being a sideline spectator with the occasional commentary. These young people are a whole lot more savvy than we give them credit. They know the real issues in the world. “We need pragmatic leaders in tune with the expectations of their people, and ruthless in their perception of reality” speaks to many of these issues.

  7. Shaun

    Lloyd Allan MacPherson @6, that’s all well and good, but as Pope Francis said, the Church must not act simply like an NGO. The Church must preach Jesus Christ and introduce all people to Him as the solution to their problems and the happiness they desire.

  8. Lloyd Allan MacPherson

    Shaun @ 7 – another hallucination. When the Pope says that the Church can’t simply act like an NGO, this isn’t a compliment to NGO’s nor the church and falls directly in line to the point I’m trying to make. The church needs to become less bureaucratic and more actively engaged in the “ills” of society. Church leadership has enough of a hard time to “tell” us what Jesus would do in current situations when truly isn’t it their job to “show” us what he would do? The Pope urges the church to “strip” itself of its worldly attachment to wealth. Have you seen any signs of this yet?

  9. Mícheál

    Clearly denial IS an option and is the choice the bishops have already made. There is no other excuse for the shambolic behaviour that passes for leadership in the hierarchy.


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