29Oct Threatened with excommunication, Tony Flannery holds firm to his beliefs

Tony Flannery has done what few of us could. He sacrificed his career and his passion for his principles. It’s been anything but easy.

All four of the Galway Flannerys joined religious orders. The three priests and one nun were the children of an ambitious Irish mother who well understood that an affordable religious education was her best hope of saving them from poverty.

“So I was third on the conveyor belt,” says Flannery, now 67, who grew up to love his Catholic faith, his Church, and his work as a Redemptorist preacher traveling from Irish parish to Irish parish holding revivals to renew that faith. He would have celebrated 50 years in religious life this year, save for this: For years now, he has very publicly spoken out against the Church’s stands on the origins of the priesthood, ordaining women to it, contraception, and gays – some of the same issues cardinals debated and commented on publicly at the synod in Rome.

But Francis was not yet pope when Flannery’s Vatican superiors began their investigation.

When they insisted he sign a paper renouncing those views, he refused. When they told him to keep silent, he refused again.

So two years ago, the Vatican stripped Flannery of his ministry. Last year he said he was threatened with excommunication for heresy, a word that conjures up images of Joan of Arc burned at the stake. And on Monday, this ousted itinerant preacher told his story at a friend’s home in the West Roxbury neighborhood of Boston.

“I love preaching,” he said. “I still love the Church.”

But his censure has at least done this: turned Flannery into an even bigger celebrity in Ireland, where he’s already known for his writing and his nine books on faith and Catholicism. And now he’s in the midst of an 18-city, American preaching and listening tour sponsored by a coalition of reform and progressive Catholic groups including Call To Action, Catholics United, Catholics in Alliance, Future Church, and the National Coalition of American Nuns.

He’ll be speaking at just one Catholic Church. That’s in Minneapolis. Mostly he’ll speak at Protestant churches or in union halls and public buildings from Boston to Chicago to Seattle, telling his story again and listening to faithful but frustrated Catholics tell theirs.

Flannery said Monday he was ordained amidst Vatican II’s hopes for a more open Church willing to hear and respond to the laity. Then he lived through 40 years “of disappointment, when the main thing we heard from Church authorities was about law, what you could and couldn’t do, like the Pharisees in the New Testament,” he said, who were always fretting over minute details of Jewish law. “And not seeing how ridiculous the whole thing was, or how appalling it is to withhold the Eucharist instead of seeing it as nourishment for our weakness.”

Flannery has spoken and written, in words that often echo Francis, about the need for a more welcoming and merciful Church, one that treats women as equals and does not demonize sex. He is one of the founders of the Irish Association of Catholic Priests, an association of about 1,100 reform-minded priests who’ve also been willing, like Flannery, to speak to the media, challenge the Church, and bemoan, for example, the loneliness of celibacy.

“Oh,” Flannery said Monday, “when I see children, when I see grandchildren, I think, ‘it would have been nice ….’ ”

His association is totally independent from the Church and unlike anything in the United States, where dissenting priests mostly keep their complaints, quietly, to themselves.

Looking back, says Flannery, it was naïve not to expect some blowback. Still, he was a surprised that the mighty Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under Pope Benedict, even noticed him. “I’m the only priest in Ireland who’s out of ministry for heresy,” he said. Other priests are out of ministry, too, but because of Ireland’s decades-long priestly sex abuse scandal. One can’t help comparing the swift ferocity of the hierarchy’s actions against Flannery with its slowness to act against hundreds of child-abusing Irish priests. Meeting Tony Flannery, one can’t help but notice, too, the sad irony here: The Church sought to silence a priest whose ministry had attracted disillusioned souls back to that very same Church. You can understand why he did so well. Tony Flannery comes across as a kind, compassionate and thoughtful man — and a man still wistful for the priestly vocation he has lost.

Flannery thinks he may not have been censured under Francis, “but who knows.” He said many have written to Francis on his behalf. There is no word on any reconsideration of his case. Yet Flannery is a huge Francis fan. “I think he’s trying desperately hard to make change,” he said. “We’re praying he lives long enough to get some reforms through,” ones not easily jettisoned by his successor.

Among those reforms: a dramatic change of emphasis. The point of being a Catholic, says Flannery, is not citing from memory “The Catechism of the Catholic Church.” The point is “to follow the gospels. To follow Jesus, and the big thing about Jesus was the way he accepted and loved everybody.” Misfits, sinners, prostitutes, thieves, the sick, the outcast, the desperately poor. “That’s what drew people to him. That has to be the core of the Christian message. That’s what we’re hoping for.”

11 Responses

  1. Roy Donovan

    “But he sees his ministry as that of a prophet who must speak his truth no matter what the cost” – this is a quote from the site’s reflection on today’s gospel. Many people were inspired and uplifted during Tony’s visit with us in Caherconlish.

  2. Brendan Peters

    Ironically, it was while attending a mass at a Redemptorist parish in the late 1980’s and witnessing an elderly priest (pre-Vatican II trained) celebrating the eucharist in such a mechanical fashion that I had what I consider to be a ‘Francis of Assisi’ moment (albeit less dramatic!)when I became convinced that God was calling the Church to be less remote and stand-offish and more incarnate and submerged in the life of the people – changing a heart of stone for a heart of flesh, if you like. The quarter of a century since that moment has been spent in search of such a Church and it has been a largely frustrating and, at times, heart-breaking experience. Now, with the dawn of a new paradigm under Pope Francis and the voices of people of conscience, like Tony Flannery, I am experiencing the first stirrings of something that has been dormant rather than, as I thought, dead. Thank you.

  3. Martin Harran

    I’ve just recently got around to reading Tony’s book “A Question of Conscience”. That book is required reading for anyone who wants to know what is fundamentally wrong with our Church today, as the writer above summed it up: “The Church sought to silence a priest whose ministry had attracted disillusioned souls back to that very same Church.”

    I know that the hierarchy has always been somewhat remote from the reality of everyday Catholic life but I can’t help wondering whether the disjoint has ever been as pronounced as at present. In everyday life as a Catholic, I see people fighting to hold onto their faith despite all that has hit the Church in recent times yet those inhabiting the abstracted world of our hierarchy seem determine to put every obstacle in their way from banishing good men who have given their lives to Christ’s service to rejecting the word “welcome” for people who would dearly love to be part of our Christian community but don’t meet the standards set by those in lofty positions.

    Pope Francis seems determined to change all this, I wish him well and my prayers go with him – I think he will need every prayer he can get in this monumental battle he has undertake.

  4. Brendan Cafferty

    I wish Tony good luck on his American tour. He is a good priest who has much to offer,especially at a time when there is a scarcity of priests. Imagine if Pope Francis had the bottle to welcome good priests like him back, not as a prodigal son but as one who has been wronged. I recall two parish missions that Tony gave and they were superb.If this new era of Francis is to mean anything it must be that the Flannerys of this world get the justice they deserve. It is amazing that there were hawk eyed people in the Vatican or here on it’s behalf watching out for people like him and turning a blind eye to those who brought dishonour on their church.
    I think that,for me at least how the priests of the calibre of Flannery are dealt with will be a measure of Pope Francis’s reign,however long or short that may be.Justice and fair play must surely prevail ?

  5. Maire

    Why is the treatment, meted out to Tony and the many others so cruel,so unchristian, so un Christ like,while the pedophiles among the clergy were simply moved to another parish where they continued to celebrate Mass, teach and preach and in many cases continue with their evil actions.
    When will this hypocrisy stop? When will the CDF begin to act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with their God?
    Many God bless Tony and the other great men and women who long for the Kingdom to reign on this earth.

  6. Adrian Grenham

    Does Tony Flannery still deny that Jesus founded a priesthood, a hierarchical church and an Apostolic Succession in the way the Catholic Church understands these things – if so then no wonder the Vatican and any Catholic trying to understand their faith would have a problem with him.

    Also, if this association is ‘totally independent from the Church’, why does it have ‘Catholic’ in its name. I believe it would be more sincere and appropriate to call it ‘Association of ‘dissenting’ Catholic priests’ maybe.

  7. Joe O'Leary

    Adrian, the problem is that as a matter of historical fact it is more than doubtful that Jesus explicitly founded a priesthood, hierarchy, or apostolic succession. For a long time theologians and even the church authorities have conceded that these emerged in recognizable form only in the second century. So the claim is that they are part of “divine positive law” — that they are a providential and divinely willed development of the church’s structure that is irreversible.

    While subscribing to this doctrine, one may still ask if there are not some things to be learned from the more pluralistic images of ministry and authority found in the New Testament, and also whether there is not room for much further spectacular development that does not conflict with the doctrine.

    In particular the image of “priesthood” (a word never applied to Christian ministers in the New Testament) could be rethought.

  8. Eddie Finnegan

    “His Association (ACP) is totally independent from the Church . . .” – M. Eagan (above)

    Either Margery Eagan knows very little about the ACP or she has a very narrow interpretation of “the Church”. To put Adrian Grenham@6 out of his torture, could the ACP reject Eagan’s categorisation of their stance? I believe the Association, and Tony Flannery, have always seen themselves as at the heart of the Church, not as a bunch of dissenters or bellyachers.

  9. Prodigal son

    On a question of fact concerning the heading of this article?

    Was Tony Flannery threatened with excommunication?

  10. Garry Webb

    St Thomas Acquinas said, “Better a man be excominicated than loose the right to excercise his conscience”.
    I find that Father Flannery who has been well rooted in Vatican II adhears to what the Council has asked of us…To respect each person’s consciousness as a unique gift worthy of our deepest respect.

  11. Dawn Morais

    While the US Bishops rail against Pope Francis’ call for renewal and reform, truly pastoral priests like Fr. Flannery advance it. So grateful to have heard him. http://dawnmorais.com/2014/11/16/fr-tony-flannery-envisioning-a-more-christ-like-church/