26Oct ACTA Conference, (the Catholic Church Reform Movement of England and Wales)

On Saturday October 21st last I was one of the speakers at a conference in Birmingham organized by ACTA, the Catholic Church Reform Movement of England and Wales. It was a marvelous event, with a packed hall of over two hundred people in attendance, representing every diocese in the two countries. The main theme of the day was to reflect on the future of parishes in the context of the rapid decline in numbers of priests available for ministry.

The first speaker was John O’Sullivan, who spoke on discipleship. After him Kevin McLoughlin gave a marvelous account of what has become known as the Lobinger model.  Fritz Lobinger is a retired bishop, native of Germany, who worked most of his life in South Africa. In view of the shortage of priests, Lobinger presented a new model of priesthood which he believed would meet the challenges of preserving parish communities into the future. Basically it would involve two different forms of priesthood. Each parish community would choose from among themselves maybe three people of mature years and character, be the women or men, and they, having been approved by Church authorities, would do a shortened course of study, and be ordained as priests specifically and only for their own community. They would not, of course, be expected to be celibate, and would continue with their normal life, be it in work or retirement.

Along with this, the traditional notion of celibate priests would also continue, but their role would be different. Three of four full-time, life-long celibate priests would live in community in some central area, and their main function would be the training, animating and supporting the priests in the local parishes.

In Kevin’s presentation this notion of priesthood for the future really came to life, and I could see the value of it, — though it would not of course be without its own problems. It particular, Kevin said, it would break through the damaging ‘clerical culture’ that has caused so much problems in the Church, and that is continually being lamented by Pope Francis.  It is believed that Francis is very familiar with Lobinger’s proposals, and that it is possible it will feature in the ‘Amazon Synod’ which he has announced. South America, with its experience of basic Christian Communities for many years now, would be fertile ground for an experiment in the Lobinger model.  Watch this space!!

I was asked, following on from Kevin, to speak of my experience of the reality of Church and priesthood on the ground, both in Ireland, and, from my experience of working with the International Network of Reform Movements, in various other parts of the world.

In speaking about Ireland, and the sharp decline in belief and practice, I said that the problems really began with Humanae Vitae — not as much by the document itself as by the rigidity with which it was imposed by the Irish hierarchy at the time.  It created a residue of anger among a whole generation of young married women, who struggled with their faith and their marriage relationships, and trying to plan their families. I said that a wonderful opportunity was missed at that time by the Church. Instead of rigid imposition of a rule effecting the most intimate area of people’s lives, it could have been used as an occasion to educate and assist people in exercising individual conscience. If that had been done, instead of producing a generation of angry people, especially women, the Church could have grown in maturity and a deeper understanding of the living out of their faith.

I went on to say that, when the revelations of clerical sex abuse emerged two decades later, the reaction of that generation was made more negative and dismissive by their experience of what they saw as the oppressive teaching that had so blighted the early years of their marriage.

Lunch break followed, and a succession of women, now close enough to my own age, came up to me, some with tears in their eyes, to say how much what I said represented how they felt. How dare a Church, which had demanded so much restriction and abstention from young married couples, under pain of mortal sin and eternal damnation, be at the same time covering up such damaging sexual abuse by some of their own priests. They said it helped them to have that acknowledged by someone who, while not in ministry, was a priest.

On that note, I hadn’t intended speaking about my own situation. But, as I always do now when I am speaking to a group of people, I mentioned at the beginning about being suspended from public ministry by the Vatican. I think it is only fair that my listeners should be aware of that fact.  And then I moved on with my talk.

But when I was coming to the end, the organizer of the event came up and said that the people would like to hear a little more of my experience with the Vatican.  So, in the short time available before lunch, I gave a brief account of my dealings with he CDF. When I finished I was greeted by a sustained standing ovation, which was both embarrassing and very supportive!

ACTA is an impressive association. It’s beginning was as a result of hearing about the founding of the ACP in Ireland. It was initially planned as a priests movement, but quickly decided that it should embrace all the faithful who wished to be members. From what I experienced that day in Birmingham, it would seem that they made the correct decision.

For me last Saturday was a great experience, meeting with so many great people, so many people with an enormous love for, and commitment to, the Church, and getting a chance to speak,and listen, to them. While I have moved on in many ways in the past five years, since my suspension, and have had a very interesting and stimulating few years, one thing still causes me some hurt and a lot of sadness. That is the fact that I am a ‘persona non grata’ to speak to any Catholic group of people or in any Church affiliated building. And all of this at a time when Pope Francis is emphasising the importance of dialogue, and being open to listening to people of many differing opinions. C’est la vie!

Tony Flannery


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