04Apr Addressing the shrinking priesthood: Chris McDonnell

Parishes in the Archdiocese of Birmingham received an important pastoral letter from our Archbishop, Bernard Longley during the weekend of 24-25 March.

It addressed the question of an ever-diminishing number of priests and the consequences for our parishes. Whatever we might be hearing about the increase of numbers of students in our seminaries, the age profile of current priests serving our communities is already high, and getting higher. I suspect that this may well be true in other dioceses in England and Wales.

If we move towards a grouping of parishes in order to meet the needs of the people, two issues arise. Firstly, would this actually meet the pastoral need of parishes and secondly, and I would suggest initially more importantly, what will be the pressure on priests given the increased workload?

We should welcome this pastoral letter and the discussion that has been initiated by our Archbishop, involving both priests and people.

Would it be too much to ask that any outcome from such discussion will recognise the existence of a significant number of men who left active ministry to marry? They should be invited back to resume their ministry if they so wish. Further, given the way that we have seen fit to welcome the establishment of the Ordinariate, is it not time that the hierarchy actively petition Rome for secular clergy to be given the option of celibacy or marriage in their service to the Church from the start, rather than wait for experience to catch up with them later?

It is wrong that we seek solutions to Eucharistic need by continuing the celibacy discipline currently imposed and loading ever more on to the backs of those hard-working priests who have served so faithfully over the years. I sincerely hope that the people of the archdiocese respond in good measure to this pastoral letter.

Chris McDonnell, Staffs

21 Responses

  1. Soline Humbert

    Not only the compulsory celibacy discipline needs to be reexamined, but also the exclusion of women’s vocations to the ordained ministries.You cannot quench the Spirit for ever!

  2. Sean Walsh

    I worked as a journalist in the U K after leaving the priesthood (and the Frati) in 1968. On one occasion I had the good fortune to interview the Australian novelist, Morris West. (The Devil’s Disciple, The Shoes of the Fisherman etc.) The defection of Charles Davis was still causing tremors in the Catholic Church in these islands – and, I suspect, further afield still. As the interview progressed I asked West what was his thinking re clerical celibacy. He thought for a minute, then said – “The way I look at it is this: the priest is the shepherd, the people his flock; what does it matter whether he be married or celibate, as long as he is a good shepherd…”

  3. Simmary

    “Male and female He created them. Male and female they ordain them.” So runs one line in a lighthearted recommendation of Episcopalian (Anglican) life. Who first ‘confected’ [ugly word] the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ? A woman, Mary by name.

  4. Blarney

    I think we should be careful not to use this as a solution to the vocations problem, the experience of those churches with married clergy and even women priests suggests that it is not. Does anyone know of any survey which compares how the various denominations are doing in terms of vocations, what is the experience of church closures in other denominations etc. It would also be interesting to look at the decline in marriage and track this with the decline in vocations, the two are related not because either depends on the other but because it will probably highlight the general shift in culture.

  5. Des Gilroy

    Tonight we hear that the Vatican is trying to silence Fr Tony Flannery and on the same day Pope Benedict says he will not tolerate any dissent among his priests. Did anyone notice he said “his priests”. The priests are not Christs, not ours but “his” priests. Additionally, he once again sternly rebukes those who advocate a priestly role for women.

    So sad to see him losing touch with the ordinary people of the church, to see the Papacy losing relevance.

    It would appear that the Vatican will only be happy when our priests are mere robots, programmed to toe the Vatican line and not think for themselves or their flocks. In their blindness, the Curia fails to see that attempts to silence genuine critics such as Tony Flannery only strengthens the resolve of the committed laity to work more strenuously for real reform and renewal.


  6. Soline Humbert

    Yes Des,I did notice “his” priests,and it shocked me….I thought surely these are priests of Jesus Christ…. Who called them?They are Christ’s men (and women!)not the pope’s men! It reminds me of a previous nuncio telling me the pope would not change HIS plan for the church because of people like me….. Whose church? whose priests?whose plan?
    On the exclusion of women from ordination, it is plain to see that this teaching is not being received by a growing number of the faithful.The passage of time makes this increasingly clear.

  7. Sean (Derry)

    Soline, your complaint about the Church’s unenlightened understanding regarding women priests, reminds me of the story of the newly qualified driver who complained that everyone (except him) was driving the wrong way down the motorway.

  8. Jo O'Sullivan

    I have often wondered how I would behave if I had lived as a Jew in Jerusalem when my church leaders presented this ‘dissenter’ to me and urged me to call for his crucifiction. If I wanted to be a good rule-keeper and believed that I had to be obedient to my leaders, I would have called “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

    I didn’t get the opportunity to be there, but I now have the opportunity to follow my leadership and agree with the silencing of Tony Flannery and any other sincere questioners of current teaching and shout “Silence him! Silence him!” or to stand up and say “No!I can’t agree with that. And I can’t stant passively by”

    I beg of those of you who do not see and hear that our church is being strangled by blind obedience to teachings that NEED to be challenged and a blank refusal to listen to those who want to challenge them to to open up your hearts. Nobody is saying h/she has the TRUTH, to the best of my understanding, all are asking for open dialogue- for a freedom to express opinions/theories/conclusions/ arrived at as a result of honest searching of conscience.

    My heart is very heavy this morning. But I want you good people in the Association of Catholic Priests know that, as a lay person who can’t be silenced (my voice is irrelevant in high places!) I will do all in my power to shout from the rooftops “Listen to our voice”.

    Can I call on others to do the same?

  9. Reg Owens

    Where in his homily did he say “My Priests”? or where did he say “he will not tolerate any dissent among his priests”

    I cant seem to find either of these phrases in the homily? I see this phrase is used on the rte website but it is not in the homily, if you are going to criticise someone for using a phrase such as “My priests” then at least make sure they said it!!!

  10. Mary O Vallely

    I think Soline would make a most wonderful priest and like so many women I know would bring much needed qualities of real compassion, tolerance and love into the priesthood. However, I accept that there is no possibility of that happening for the time being and I am not going to waste what little energy I have in arguing about this particular issue. I do find it incredibly sad to read such rigid views from those who believe they alone are right. The Jesus of the Gospels went out of His way to interact with the marginalised and thank God for Mary Magdalene and the other women on Easter morning. Thank God also for Tony Flannery and the Redemptorists and I pray that this dark time may pass soon. Bail ó Dhia oraibh agus orainne go léir.
    Mary V

  11. Martin

    Des said, ”It would appear that the Vatican will only be happy when our priests are mere robots, programmed to toe the Vatican line and not think for themselves or their flocks.”
    The priest must think with the mind of Christ, enunciated by His Bride, the Church. Pope Benedict addressed this when he said,
    ”Recently a group of priests from a European country issued a summons to disobedience, and at the same time gave concrete examples of the forms this disobedience might take, even to the point of disregarding definitive decisions of the Church’s Magisterium, such as the question of women’s ordination, for which Blessed Pope John Paul II stated irrevocably that the Church has received no authority from the Lord. Is disobedience a path of renewal for the Church? We would like to believe that the authors of this summons are motivated by concern for the Church, that they are convinced that the slow pace of institutions has to be overcome by drastic measures, in order to open up new paths and to bring the Church up to date. But is disobedience really a way to do this? Do we sense here anything of that configuration to Christ which is the precondition for true renewal, or do we merely sense a desperate push to do something to change the Church in accordance with one’s own preferences and ideas?”

  12. Spencer

    Oh come on, I am sure that it is common for any bishop to talk about “my priests”. The only shocking thing about the words are that the Holy Father would apply them so charitably to priests who have no respect for him or the Magisterium. Des Gilroy says how sad it is that the Pope is “losing touch with the ordinary people of the Church”. I am one of the ordinary members and he certainly isn’t losing touch with me and I do not regard him or his words as irrelevant. You are a fractious faction familiar to all large organisations, you are not the Church indeed the positions you hold are clearly incompatible with membership – face it and decide for obedience or the CofI, there is no other logical way.

  13. Chris McDonnell

    I am new to the ACP website and my letter quoted above is my first posting with ACP. It points to one single issue, that of compulsory celibacy associated with ordination to major orders. Whilst other matters such as the ordination of women are not without significance, I have focused on the celibacy matter alone.
    I have heard that Tony Flannery is now facing problems with Rome, but have no details availble. It must be of concern that censorship seems to be the way out of problems. I wish him well.
    It is surely time that we nurtu red and cared for the priests who honestly and sincerely serve the people of the Lord rather than find reason to be critical and closed to views expressed as members of the Christian Community.
    If the church had listened in the early days of the European Reformation, we might have saved all a great heartache.
    Members of a family often disagree; they stay united by listening to each other and by exercising tolerance and forgiveness. Let’s keep trying the path of dialogue and remember each other in time of prayer.
    Chris McDonnell

  14. Soline Humbert

    Reg,thank you for pointing this out. You are perfectly correct, and so I withdraw my earlier comment, based on the RTE version.
    While reading the text of the original homily I noted the pope carefully refrained from describing the exclusion of women from ordination as an infallible teaching. Definitive & irrevocable are terms which don’t have the same weight.

  15. Martin

    Irrevocable means final Soline. I’m not sure what can be said beyond that. The only reason that the teaching on women priests was not made infallibly in an extraordinary act by the Roman Pontiff was probably because the then Card. Ratzinger was afraid that if that teaching had to be rubber stamped infallible, then anything that wasn’t pronounce infallible by an extraordinary act of the Roman Pontiff would be up for grabs. I have a picture in my head of the Pope frantically rubber stamping all the beliefs of Catholics. It all gets a bit silly. Accept that there will never be women priests. The Church has spoke on this matter through the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II. That should be enough. You might read a book, Butler was her name I think, who was once in favour of women priests, but on researching it, realised she was wrong and she changed her mind.

  16. Sean (Derry)

    so what is your definition of ‘irrevocable’?
    A quick Google of dictionary definitions state:
    ‘Not able to be changed, reversed, or recovered; final.’
    ‘Impossible to retract or revoke’
    ‘cannot be undone or changed’
    ‘not to be revoked or recalled; unable to be repealed or annulled’
    ‘something that cannot be undone or changed’.
    The exclusion of women from ordination sure sounds like an infallible teaching to me.

  17. Soline Humbert

    I have put my wholehearted trust in the One with whom nothing is impossible. The One who raised Jesus from the dead can overturn definitive and irrevocable decisions!
    I believe God’s promises will be fulfilled. The God who calls us, women, to the ordained ministry is a faithful God.Our vocations will flourish and in God’s good time will be recognised by the whole church and bear much good fruit. A very Blessed Easter to all!

  18. Mary Burke

    I’m afraid, Martin, and Sean (Derry), that Soline is more adept at reading Vaticanspeak than either of is. It is most significant that the word chosen is “irrevocable” and not anything else. I’m afraid (for you) that it contains an implicit acceptance by the Vatican speech writer that while the ban on women’s ordination will have been impossible to revoke for its own time, when they decide to face reality the position will be expanded in such a way as to recognise that the prohibition is made by human beings and may be unmade by human beings just as easily.
    What has either of you to fear? It won’t affect you directly.

  19. Martin

    Mary, an excerpt from the Responsum from the CDF re: women priests:
    ”Dubium: Whether the teaching that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women, which is presented in the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis to be held definitively, is to be understood as belonging to the deposit of faith.

    Responsum: In the affirmative.

    This teaching requires definitive assent, since, founded on the written Word of God, and from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium (cf. Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium 25, 2). Thus, in the present circumstances, the Roman Pontiff, exercising his proper office of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32), has handed on this same teaching by a formal declaration, explicitly stating what is to be held always, everywhere, and by all, as belonging to the deposit of the faith.”

  20. Mícheál

    For anyone who might be interested in looking at the serious queries that have been placed on the ‘infallability’ of the teaching regarding women priests, the following link will be of interest:


    It lists different sources which have called this teaching into question, not least on the grounds that it does not meet the strict requirements of infallible teaching.

  21. Me

    Who better to be an example of a proper family than a priest if he was allowed to marry. Jesus never said that clergy should be celibate. I understand why Catholics might think its a good idea, but in the end it just hurts people. God saw that Adam was alone and created a wife for him.