A failure of imagination and courage

What’s particularly striking about priests’ changes this year is the number of foreign priests listed. Elphin has five listed: a Pole (Athlone); an Indian (Ballyleague); a Phillipino (Sligo); a Nigerian (Aughrim and Kilmore); and another Pole is taking sabbatical leave. The diocese of Tuam has listed three: an American (Castlebar); an Englishman (Knock) and an Indian (Tuam) with a Polish priest already in place in Achill. The Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin has indicated he’s in ‘ongoing conversation with the Diocese of Lasi in Romania for a couple of priests from there to spend a few years in our diocese’ while Kilmore has appointed two Nigerian priests.
The direction is clear. Whereas for the last two decades priests from Irish missionary congregations, most of whom were retired, were pressed into service in Irish dioceses to mask the gradual decline in vocations to the diocesan priesthood, now with fewer former missionaries available priests from foreign lands are filling the gaps.
It’s a short-term strategy because (i) it’s clear that there’s no bottomless well of foreign priests and (ii) unless supported by home-grown priests, problems understanding the culture and traditions of the Irish Catholic Church can lead to difficulties.
Part of the difficulty with resolving the vocations crisis and the resultant fall-out of priest-less and Mass-less parishes is that realistic appraisals of the situation are studiously ignored.
One example was a recent article in a Catholic paper that suggested that a change in admissions policy would do the trick. This was the argument: (i) there are 14 times more Catholics in the USA than in Ireland; (ii) America has applied a policy of accepting candidates with an attitude of ‘dynamic, unapologetic orthodoxy’; (iii) apply the same policy in Ireland and, proportionately, Maynooth would have 180 seminarians instead of 55, and 43 entrants every year instead of 13.
The proposal has the merit of simplicity but it’s also rather simplistic. Apply the same formula to, say, Nigeria and Ireland should have 265 ordinations a year. The stark truth is that Ireland is not America or Nigeria. Candidates with a ‘dynamic, unapologetic orthodoxy’ (in one person’s opinion) can be regarded (in another person’s opinion) as ultra-conservative, reactionaries who will empty the churches of Ireland of their remaining worshippers.
In Ireland a rigid, ultra-traditional approach would be spectacularly out of sync with the vast majority of people in the pew. If that proposal was adopted the few last remaining priests in Ireland would be wearing soutanes, encouraging pious devotions and presenting an image of religion well past its sell-by date. The ensuing damage to religion would be horrendous. The Church isn’t a heritage society.
Another problem is that dumbing down the quality of candidate, in terms of aptitude, ability and formation is no solution. There’s significant evidence that the Irish Church is paying a high price for the policy of some bishops (who should know better) accepting unsuitable candidates for the priesthood, just to increase numbers.
For years a Catholic paper has campaigned against Maynooth’s refusal to accept unsuitable candidates for priesthood. In asking candidates who were rigid, fundamentalist and authoritarian to seek another life, Maynooth was open to the accusation that such candidates (as they sometimes claimed) were simply orthodox, especially when the perspective of rejected candidates was presented by the same paper in a positive light.
It can be persuasively argued not that Maynooth should accept a larger number of very traditional candidates but that it’s accepting too many.
Another example of unrealistic attitudes is the decision of the Irish bishops, as announced recently by Bishop Denis Brennan, to set up a National Vocations Office in Maynooth. At present it’s not clear what’s envisaged by such an office but the hope would be that it won’t be yet another office needing another national collection and issuing another tranche of expensive glossy brochures telling the few remaining priest foot-soldiers down the country what they should be doing to encourage vocations – as if enough guilt hasn’t been dumped on us already for not implementing solutions that have already been road-tested and failed disastrously.
The simple truth is that the problem with vocations to the priesthood is that young Irish men are no longer saying YES to a celibate vocation, their parents are encouraging them to say No and the vast majority of priests in parishes know that prioritising celibacy over the Eucharist is not just bad theology, it isn’t working. Wasn’t it Albert Einstein who said that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is not a sign of mental health issues.
Perhaps God, by not answering our long years of praying for vocations, may be suggesting that as a matter of urgency we need to do a bit of lateral thinking here – something more effective and real and less stop-gap than clustering parishes and importing priests from abroad.
What we need is a realistic plan to ensure that (i) hundreds of parishes in Ireland are not left priestless (ii) that the Eucharist remains at the centre of parish life and (iii) that vision and hope continue to achieve some purchase in the Irish Catholic church.
The Association of Catholic Priests has suggested three approaches: (i) ordain married men (ii) invite back priests who left to get married and (iii) ordain women deacons.
The first would stabilise parishes and take away the uncertainty that’s draining energy from priests and people. (We already have married clergy in the Catholic Church mainly those who came over from the Church of England so the law of celibacy as a mere Church law can be changed.) The second would logically follow from the first, as priests already educated and formed in priesthood could take up appointments immediately. The third would begin to respectfully provide women with equal status in the Church.
Taken together those three possible answers could provide not just a solution to the vocations crisis but bring a renewed energy and vision to the Church.
Question : why isn’t it happening? Answer: a failure of imagination and courage. The old problem of elephants in living-rooms and emperors without clothes.

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  1. Einstein also said the “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” So I’d be inclined to agree with Brendan that the lack of imagination among those who have the power to implement change is a serious problem, as it might be even harder to find than courage.
    And may the Lord protect us all from ‘dynamic, unapologetic orthodoxy’.

  2. John Murray says:

    What do laicised priests make of all this? There are quite a few of them out there sitting in the Sunday pews.

  3. It is deeply saddening to experience the slow methodical melting of the Catholic Church as a whole in our days. The mass exodus of parishioners from the Church is not a localized event but happening in all corners of the globe. The article above is filled with accuracy however; I have read so many similar “accurate” articles over the last 20 years that have fallen on the deaf ears of pompous ecclesial authorities that the language has almost become cliché. God bless those who have the courage to continue to point to the obvious! You can find Catholic clerics who do provide credible answers to the questions that face our current human reality ( i.e. .association of catholic priests website) but it is rare, and the search will be time consuming.
    People are drawn to ideas that make sense and the continued resuscitation of Aristotle through the words of Thomas Aquinas that brandish Apologetic (orthodox) theories has long passed the point being defined as “making sense”, no matter how much “head banging against the wall” many US and Irish Bishops want to do.
    The language that is utilized by many Church authorities, that privileges the metaphors of power and judgement, that defines the “law” as a god term while holding the faithful over the fires of Hell with a rotten stick, is morally bankrupt. I can attest, through personal experience, that in a Church that does not attempt to confine the Holy Spirit, growth is not only evident but unstoppable. People are naturally drawn to their Source of light and life that is recognized in the Holy Spirit. People confined to ecclesiastical laws eventually become deprived of pastoral oxygen and move to another area in order to spiritually breathe and thrive.
    I, as a “Cradle Catholic”, have come to accept that if those in authoritative positions of the Church are determined to blindly march in the opposite direction of the Holy Spirit, I cannot stop them. It gives me solace to remember that the Holy Spirit does not need the Catholic Church to continue Its work. The Catholic Church without the Holy Spirit is an oxymoron. I also find peace in the understanding that the words of Jesus placed in John’s Gospel that read, “love one another as I have loved you” will eternally ring long after the Apologists have gasped their last utterance. In these words Christ does not provide us with choices about who we love but does call us to examine how we love. This does not spell the end of the truest essence of the Catholic Church, which is located within the Spiritually inspired congregations not in those who have been bestowed with ecclesial authority.
    I often suggest to those Catholics who have discontinued their participation in the ritualistic celebration of the Mass but still long to be involved in an inclusive Catholic community to start by discussing and organizing a Eucharistic Celebration that embraces a fuller understanding of love. These celebrations would include priest and deacons of all genders, include priests that are married or not, and would not deny Holy Communion to those who are in most need of the Spiritual food. These celebrations would welcome all who had entered the door of the church and accept them in whatever moral state that they happen to be in at the time. These celebrations would place any sense of authority squarely in the hands of the Holy Spirit. These changes in the way Catholics practice ritual and understand God’s call will come to be whether the Church hierarchy is involved in the changes or not. This is going to happen, so it is important to have some idea as to what to do once the ball is in play rather than wait until the ball is in play to design a plan. The moment you begin to answer the question, ‘what would a Catholic Church look like if it functioned out of an understanding that all are to be included?’, the mind automatically sets to the work of creating such a Church.
    I always like to include in such writings that I may be wrong in my interpretations of these affairs. If this is so, please provide me with an education in your response.
    Guy Schell
    Decatur, Illinois USA

    1. Sean O Brien says:

      A timely article judging by today’s article in The Examiner about the Diocese of Kerry.

      “Five of the 53 parishes in the Diocese of Kerry are now without a resident priest and changes announced yesterday by Bishop of Kerry Dr Ray Browne, are to take account of five deaths as well as retirements.
      The need to cover for neighbouring parishes means “no priest is full-time in his own parish” in these areas, and the laity are responsible for more work, the Bishop indicated.
      While five priests have died in the past nine months, at least three priests are coping with long term illness, Dr Browne said.
      Three priests who retired last year were above the age of 75 and one elderly priest has retired this year.
      Now just one priest in the diocese, which includes parts of west and north Cork, is under the age of 40.
      For only the first time in 10 years, Kerry hopes to see an ordination next year and four people are studying for the priesthood.
      “I have tried to keep the number of new appointments to a minimum this year, mindful there were a large number last year. Each movement has a significant effect on priests and people throughout the whole local pastoral area,” the bishop said.
      The parishes without priests are being served by priests in their pastoral areas, equivalent to the 12 old deaneries.
      Already, Valentia Island in the south west; Allihies in west Cork, and Tarbert in the north are without resident priests. These are joined now by Ballyheigue and Duagh.
      “I realise that this in particular will cause upset and be unsettling for both priests and people. The total number of parishes without a resident priest is now five. If in a pastoral area there are four parishes and just three priests, then no priest is full-time in his own parish,” Dr Browne added.
      A quarter of each priest’s time is dedicated to the fourth parish that is without a resident priest. More and more responsibility rests with the laity, he said.
      “Overall it is clear that more responsibility for life in the parish is in the hands of the laity. It is the same spirit of service to the parish that we see in all areas of local community life: the GAA, amateur drama, Kerry Parents and Friends, bridge clubs, etc. Thank God so many people find it life–giving to give freely of their time to activities in their community,” Dr Browne added.”

      No imagination, no courage, just the same type of spin that has totally discredited politicians far and wide. Bridge clubs I ask you! The church in Ireland dies parish by parish and those who have the authority to call to Pope Francis for change sit idly by.

  4. I am afraid the bishops won’t acknowledge that there is a problem because they cannot see it staring them in the face. So they patch the edges of an already worn out garment and think that will suffice.
    The reality that they wish to recognise is a self- perpetuating story from a previous age when all was well.
    Meanwhile those who left are cast aside from active ministry.
    Now things are very different.
    Wake up and smell the coffee.

  5. John Murray says:

    No imagination, no courage, just the same type of spin that has totally discredited politicians far and wide. Bridge clubs I ask you!
    How very true.

  6. Soline Humbert says:

    Where the Holy Spirit is present and active,there is love,faith and hope and therefore new life and creativity …and women are not excluded ,might I add!
    For memory,some who didn’t lack courage and imagination were the Dutch Dominicans who at their June 2005 provincial chapter in Holland formed a committee of experts to study “whether celebrating the Eucharist depends on the ministry of ordained men, or whether it is possible that the Church community or the pastors it has appointed, celebrate the Eucharist themselves.” In August 2005, the outcome: “The Church and the Ministry” was sent to every parish in Holland. The 38-page booklet proposed that parishes choose Mass presiders from among their community and present selected candidates “women or men, homo-or heterosexual, married or single” to the bishop for ordination.
    The booklet ends with “An Urgent Plea” well worth quoting here in part:
    “With some emphasis we urge our faith communities, the parishes, to realize what is at stake in the present emergency situation of the shortage of ordained celibate priests and to be allowed to take the extent of freedom which is theologically justified to choose their own leader or team of leaders from their own midst.
    … If a bishop should refuse such a confirmation or ordination on the basis of arguments not involving the essence of the Eucharist, such as obligatory celibacy, parishes may be confident that they are able to celebrate a real and genuine Eucharist when they are together in prayer and share bread and wine.
    We urge parishes to act in this way with a great amount of self-confidence and courage. … we would like to emphasize once more that our argument is based on statements of the Second Vatican Council and on publications of professional theologians and pastoral experts which have appeared since this council.”
    The Full Text is available on https://www.futurechurch.org/sites/default/files/DutchDominicansThe_Church_and_the_Ministry.pdf

  7. Mary Vallely says:

    Nothing wrong with bridge clubs, Sean @4, as such groups are part of necessary community building but I take your point. Lay people, we non-ordained, ARE vital members of the Church and it is time we started thinking outside of the clerical box and took the initiative. That is hard for my age group, the over 60s, who have been conditioned to follow meekly although how many of us have been slapped down in attempts to change the status quo in parishes because of those not prepared to relinquish control? ( not in any way referring to my own parish – just talking generally). Enda McDonagh’s prophetic words haven’t yet come to pass. ” We have to be broken down more.” Looking at so many Irish dioceses we seem to be almost there. How long will it take before we hit rock bottom? Married priests, those already working and willing to help out ( ‘ once a priest, always a priest?’) are surely a first step but the question of women either as deacons or priests needs to be opened up for serious discussion and study. Do women really want to add another layer of clericalism or do we need to think again, start again and do what I think Jesus would want? We cannot solve this crisis by simply ordaining more men. The world is changing and we must think in a new and more effective way.

  8. Yes, I had said many, many articles ago…that the Irish Bishops do have a plan….and that is…to recruit priests from other countries…and so…it has come to pass…..This is the universal strategy….I agree with Einstein…but…I choose to say….that Old Wine….cannot generate….new wine……

  9. Noel Casey says:

    As a comment on this article I reproduce here a letter I had published last year, itself a comment on a Leader in the Irish Times of 25th August, 2015: ‘It is celibacy or a future.’
    “In my recent readings on the subject of the shortage of priests in Ireland and how to tackle the problem I have noted many suggestions for its solution. I think at least three of these need to be questioned: abolish celibacy, invite priests from other countries to minister in Ireland, invite back those who have left the ministry to marry.
    It may be my bad memory, but I cannot remember ever reading any statistical evidence given to support these solutions.
    What evidence is there to support the belief that abolishing mandatory celibacy will lead to an influx of new aspirants? What evidence I have from dealing with young people indicates that the drop in vocations is due more to a shallow faith, a change in cultural priorities and a change in economic circumstance, than to mandatory celibacy.
    Where is the evidence that there is a large number of foreign priests (and compliant bishops) willing to reverse the historic missionary trajectory and come to minister among us?
    Is there a significant number of men who left the priesthood to marry in a position to, and willing to, return to the ministry?
    We can do without plans to solve the problem buoyed up on false expectations.
    Incidentally, is the idea, that removing the barrier of mandatory celibacy will lead to an increase in vocations, not an insult, subliminal at least, to the dedication of today’s young people who, all things being equal, might be willing to take that extra step taken by so many generations of men over the past millennium or so?”
    To date I have got no offer of any statistical data counteracting my current understanding. I don’t know what the solution is to the vocations’ crisis; but we might be better employed in trying to deal with ‘shallow faith’ and ‘change in cultural priorities’, mentioned in paragraph three of the above-cited letter, than building our hopes on ‘false expectations’.

  10. This is in response to the comment made by Soline Humbert. My first impression to the comment was, “Wow, beautiful!” Thank you for the link that contained, “The Church and the Ministry”.
    The question: How do we know when the time has come for a significant transformation of the Catholic Church? How do we know that we are being called by the Holy Spirit to initiate extraordinary changes?
    The answer: When there is no change.
    One of senior themes that reoccurs within the Biblical text involves such words that embrace change such as, “Conversion” and the ideas displayed by the use of the Greek term “Metanoia” which is simply translated as a ‘changing of the mind.’This statement is a tag to the Einstein quote used in the response of MM above. “No problem is solved by the same consciousness that created it”, you have to change your mind.
    Change is an inevitable part of human existence. To ignore it or resist it is not only futile, but goes against the flow of the Holy Spirit who is continually calling us to daily conversion experiences. These conversion experiences are to be apart of our ordinary, romantic, social,business, and communal, involvements.
    There is no way to discern whether the steps we take forward, as we echo the journey of Abraham in Genesis 12 and walk into the unknown, are where the Spirit is leading us. We are convinced, with all certainty, that the Spirit is NOT calling us to stay where we are at. This would only continue the process of stagnation and death that is upon us. If depending on laity to continue to be able to receive the Eucharist is not effective then we will try something different!
    We are not the illiterate sycophantic masses that were the primary audience of the priest and bishops of the middle ages. We are the new, vibrant, intelligent, versatile, passionate, devotional, and united, Faithful! If those in authority wanted us to blindly follow their lead they shouldn’t have encouraged our parents to send us to the Catholic schools where we learned to read and interpret the scriptures for ourselves.
    For my part, I have little interest in the future of the Catholic Church. I have no influence on the past or the future. I only have influence in the present moment. In this moment the Church is gasping for pastoral, spiritual, air. If we invite the Holy Spirit into this moment and embrace it with urgent, vulnerable, respectful, faithful, honest, involvement the future will take care of itself.
    It makes sense to me that in those parishes that are lacking Celebrants, the congregants immediately begin electing substitutes to function in their absence.The host that is administered can be consecrated by a priest at an earlier Eucharistic celebration.

  11. Winifred Collins says:

    Inviting back priests who had left the priesthood to get married would NOT be a good idea. They have put their desire for a woman before their commitment to God. They have broken their vows. How can they preach the Gospel if they do not lead by example? They have “looked back” (Luke 9.62)
    As regards vocations, we now have the result of the lack of Catholic formation in schools (and seminaries) over the years. The laity have been spiritually starved and a large proportion know nothing about the teachings of Christ and His Church. Thus we have the Ireland of today!
    The advice Christ gave us was to pray for labourers for the harvest, and He knows best. Perhaps we are not praying enough.

  12. Patrick Cully says:

    Surely it is clear that the religious practice of young men (and indeed young women) is very little. How then do you expect to have candidates for the priesthood from such a small pool. What are they needed for anyway if they have such a small flock to attend to? It is looking to other forms of dynamic church community that growth is to come, the growth of the community and thereafter the ministerial needs of that community.. As an example I visited the Focolare Mariapolis on the weekend and there was a healthy sense of earthed and committed christians seeking to take an active part in their society inspired by the Spirit of God. In such lies the seeds of a new church. Paddy (Cully)

  13. anna dunlop says:

    Winifred, Your choice of language makes it hard for me to engage with you: imagine if you’d said ‘love’ instead of ‘desire’.
    You will see that use of the latter word makes the relationship sound disreputable – fleshly, probably sinful in itself, even if experienced by someone who wasn’t a priest.
    Of course we’re talking about 2 different kinds of vocation – and,indeed, 2 Sacraments: Marriage & Holy Orders.
    Might it not be possible for a man to mistake his vocation? He might realise that his commitment to God would be better expressed through marriage. Vows are quite another thing & we need to tease out how far they are man-made ( no doubt for the best of reasons) & how far we make tablets of stone of them,being too sure that we understand ‘The Will of God’

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