ACP Letter to Irish Bishops

Co Mayo

9thNov 2018


Dear Bishops,

We write in the aftermath of the visit of Pope Francis.

It was a strange few days. On the one hand, the palpable delight of so many in the visit of Pope Francis and the lift it has given to the Irish Church. On the other, a sinking feeling that the visit and the expectations it generated were dominated by an unexpected, though not unpredicted, focus on the sexual abuse issue.

What surprised and upset so many (not just Catholics but priests and bishops too) was the virulence of the negative commentary and the lack of engagement of so many Catholics with the visit.

The conclusion, we believe, is that the papal visit was a stunning reminder that the Catholic Church in Ireland is now in a different place and the challenges deserve and demand our unremitting focus on the reforms proposed by Pope Francis.

We believe that the day is long gone – and the papal visit was yet another reminder – when we can indulge the luxury as a Church of pretending that it’s enough to just keep doing what we’re doing and that somehow we’ll turn some mythical corner when all will be well again.

We believe that unless we are prepared as a Church to face up to the compelling need to make difficult decisions, using the ‘synodal’ approach that Pope Francis employs and recommends, then we will have missed the tide of the present moment and our Church will become more and more peripheral in the lives of more and more Catholics and less and less credible in our society.

We believe that the present downward momentum is obvious and requires an immediate focus of resources and personnel on fundamental issues as well as a level of seriousness that demands more than a formal ‘ticking of a box’.

For that reason, while we welcome the invitation extended by Archbishops Eamon Martin and Diarmuid Martin at our last meeting, we believe that – in deference to the critical situation in which we find ourselves – more is needed in terms of a committed and realistic engagement with the Irish bishops than what has been delivered so far.

It’s clear to everyone now that we are at crisis point, entering a post-Catholic Ireland. We believe the key question is: Will the Catholic Church become a ‘culturally irrelevant minority’, or can it take the road of renewal and reform that Pope Francis is pointing out, with space for open debate and consultation? Will we take ‘this path of synodality which’ he writes, ‘God expects of the Church in the third millennium?’ In these critical times we cannot afford to turn a deaf ear to the plea of Pope Francis.

In your letter following your March 2018 plenary meeting, you state that ‘the Episcopal Conference is open to continued constructive engagement with the ACP’. We are very happy to co-operate with that engagement, though we are anxious that as well as being ‘constructive’ any engagement would also be realistic, ongoing, coherent in terms of time-scale and commitment and, above all, that it would engage with key critical issues.

What we can’t afford to do is to do nothing. And there is much we can do. For example, the Irish Bishops could convene a National Assembly to discuss ‘The Reform and Renewal of the Catholic Church in Ireland’, at which all groups could be represented, including the disaffected and the young. In preparation for such a national event, individual dioceses could convene diocesan and parish assemblies. And there are other options that could be explored, like some of the interesting listening processes in individual dioceses at present.

This is not a time for wringing our hands in frustration or for sitting on our hands in despair. We need to talk. We need to work together. We need to stop deferring decisions that need to be made now. We need to focus our resources and personnel on dealing with the reality of unease, discouragement and disenchantment on the ground in parishes and dioceses. In short, we need to set in train a process of discussion and debate that is open, credible, respectful of all views, confident in its endeavour, bold in its range, serious in its intent, at once prophetic and pragmatic, taking advantage of the deep faith, the good-will and the individual and communal resources we can still draw on as a Church.

The ACP urgently appeals to the Irish Bishops to engage with both the crisis in the Irish Church and the promise offered by the reforms of Pope Francis by leading the renewal of Catholic life in parish, diocese and country. We are all in this together. We need to act together. We need to act now.

Yours sincerely


(Rev) Brendan Hoban
on behalf of the ACP Leadership (Tim Hazelwood, Gerry O’Connor, Roy Donovan).




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  1. John Farrelly says:

    Congratulations on a most welcome and timely letter which I think articulates the current state of affairs and the growing urgency for needed action very well.

    I hope it is given the attention that it needs by the Bishops and that their prayerful deliberations on the content will bear fruit in the convening of the parochial, diocesan and national synodal type assemblies you suggest.
    My God bless your efforts.

  2. Sean O'Conaill says:

    “It’s clear to everyone now that we are at crisis point, entering a post-Catholic Ireland.”

    Huh? With 78.8 percent of the population claiming a Catholic identity in the 2016 Census?

    How exactly did the ACP arrive at this formulation of the issue? By concluding that if Catholic clergy are disappearing, Catholicism must also be?

    That is far from the interpretation of wise clerics such as Des O’Donnell OMI. It was Christendom, not Jesus, that gave Catholicism the cultic priesthood. Catholicism, post Christendom, is rethinking ‘priesthood’. The ACP needs to catch up!

  3. Sean O'Conaill says:

    “… we are entering a post-Catholic Ireland… will the Catholic Church become a culturally irrelevant minority?”

    Could we have clarity please, on how exactly the ACP defines the ‘Irish Catholic Church’?

    In particular does the ACP include an unknown number of Irish people who, while declaring themselves ‘Catholic’ (78.8 percent of the population of the Republic of Ireland in the 2016 state census) are alienated (for whatever reason) from those religious practices that make church-going a defining characteristic (for some) of membership of a church?

    Given (i) the wave-upon-wave of alienating events occurring since 1992 in the Catholic Church in Ireland, (ii) the studied indifference of the Irish Bishops’ Conference to the obvious questions that arise from this, and (iii) the continuing absence of any sign whatsoever that this alienation will be researched by the same Conference, would it not be far safer to believe that most of those who call themselves Catholic in Ireland are in fact still members of the Irish Catholic Church, and would be practising members of it if it was competently led?

    Believing this as firmly as I do, and identifying more and more with that alienated Church I would argue that in fact the Irish Catholic Church should now be spoken and thought of as a DIASPORA, a dispersed multitude of both churched and unchurched believers, very like the ‘sheep without a shepherd’ that Jesus went in search of in his own time.

    It seems to me that the indifference of our Irish ‘shepherds’ to ‘synodality’ is proof of their contentment (in the main) with the non-dialogical and alienating ‘church’ we are lumbered with. It’s fine to appeal to those shepherds yet again – but what is the ACP’s Plan B?

    Why should the ACP, ACI, WACI etc not plan an Irish national Catholic conference ANYWAY – to take place if the February 2019 Conference of Bishops in Rome fails on the Christian principle of accountability? That will be the equivalent of complete abdication, in my book, and must not happen unmarked and unprotested.

  4. Paddy Ferry says:

    Sean, I think there is a great deal of truth in what you say.
    But why is nobody willing to engage in conversation with you on this very serious matter??? Nobody has either agreed with you or challenged your point of view since last week, Nov.15th.
    I do wonder myself if those “claiming a Catholic identity in the 2016 Census?” can rightly be regarded as Catholic. Or should only those who practise their faith –attending Mass once a month, I think, is the benchmark — be called Catholic. But, then again, who has the right to assert that definition.

    I do, of course, agree with you Sean on the origins, or otherwise, of the “cultic priesthood” as you termed it. I am now uneasy when I hear, during our Sunday Liturgy of the Word, readings from Hebrews. And, we have had a lot of Hebrews recently. A discussion on that would be beyond the pale on this site, I think.

    However,I think I do accept that the decline in priestly vocations will contribute to the decline in the numbers of those who practise their faith. And, of course, those young men who do enter seminary these days all seem to be extreme right wingers which offers no hope at all for our future as a church.

  5. Sean O'Conaill says:

    We don’t need to reject Hebrews to reject a cultic priesthood, Paddy. By that term I mean a priesthood that promotes a cult of ITSELF, and a necessary comparative dismissal of the priesthood of all of the baptised.

    A cultic priesthood is also a priesthood that prioritises symbolic service (e.g. in ritual, ‘the Mass’) above actual service (e.g. in self-sacrificial financial or other support for the poor).

    We do this routinely in Ireland by taking up one collection INSIDE the church to go to the altar, for clergy and infrastructure, and another collection OUTSIDE the church for the poor, via the SVP. That was not what happened in the early church, where the sacrifice of the people for the poor was an integral part of the Offertory procession.

    Do we need to look any further for the reason that the ‘Holy Sacrifice of the Mass’ is associated solely in Ireland with what the priest does, and not at all with what the people do – e.g. parents (women especially) for children? It is not Hebrews but sheer silliness and thoughtlessness (and Maynooth?) that gifts us with that.

    With the closed book of Catholic Social Teaching also, of course, and with the daft notion that lay people who are charitably active are not ‘involved in the life of the church’ unless they are ‘helping the priest’.

    Hebrews stresses Jesus’ gift of himself outside Jerusalem on Good Friday far more than it stresses his Holy Thursday institution of the Eucharist. If clergy could see and preach that Jesus priesthood is reflected in the gifts that we (the merely baptised) give of ourselves in the world outside, where would be the problem?

    Never happens! I’ll die before I get to hear that in chapel!

  6. Joe O'Leary says:

    “most of those who call themselves Catholic in Ireland are in fact still members of the Irish Catholic Church, and would be practising members of it if it was competently led?”

    One interesting sign of that is the popularity of the old hymns as sung in concert performance:

    As with English affection for the Church of England, many people want the church for ceremony, for beauty, for edification, and if that seems a too soft Catholicism it’s certainly better than nothing.

  7. Donal Dorr says:

    Congrats, Brendan, on this very fine and necessary letter on behalf of ACP. Please don’t give up.

  8. Joe O'Leary says:

    I see that Regina Nathan (born in Kuala Lumpur in 1960 and graduated from Maynooth in 1982) is someone I discovered 30 years too late. The concert in the Point that I linked to is probably from the 1990s. So the popularity of the old hymns may no longer be a live item. In any case, it’s sad that the church seems to fail to attract people as it did back then.

  9. Sean O’Conaill says:

    Charlotte Church two years ago: Panis Angelicus

    Hope this link travels!

    And then there are ‘The Priests’, of course, and Pie Jesu.

    The problem is not lack of relevance, but lack of clerical perception – as proven by the continuing absence of an answer to my question: for the ACP just what is the Irish Catholic Church? Is it just the ‘currently paying customers’? If so, why?

  10. Sean O’Conaill says:


    “The Catholic Church in Ireland (Irish: Eaglais Chaitliceach na hÉireann) is part of the worldwide Catholic Church in communion with the Holy See. With 3.7 million members, it is the largest Christian church in Ireland. In the Republic of Ireland’s 2016 census, 78% of the population identified as Catholic, which represents a decrease of 6% from 2011. By contrast, 45% of Northern Ireland identified as Catholic at the 2011 census, a percentage that is expected to increase in the coming years.”

    If this needs updating, how exactly would the ACP do that?

  11. anne Stack says:

    Modernism cannot convert. It is, after all, a heresy. Only holiness converts: become saints and people will return to the church. The Church leads: She has never conformed to the standards of the world. We are in a place where laypeople don’t know how to pray because no one has taught them. They have no experience of Benediction or Eucharistic adoration. They don’t know about transubstantiation, what Jesus can give them. They don’t know the power of the rosary or devotions to the saints. There is no mystery or wonder in the type of “reform” you are interested in. I know a parish that has 40 plus families engaged in adoration and catechism classes. That is the future of the Church in our country. I know about ten people who have returned to the faith in their adulthood. They came back orthodox.

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