ACP needs to address priests’ coalface issues

I write this following the recent Athlone ACP meeting, and in response to the justified questioning of that astute, scholarly, and wise scribe of irony, Eddie Finnegan, whom I always look forward to reading on our ACP website.
I’m a member of Clogher ACP and while we have questioned certain aspects of national leadership, we are more critical of our ACP website, our principal medium of communication at national level. This website is our shop-front window, and every good shop aims at excellence. This website of ours largely defines us. It reflects our vision. It tells our priorities to the world, and, is perceived – fairly or unfairly – as reflecting our leadership.
We stated in our recent Clogher ACP report, that we all need to hold up our hands, and admit our failure to contribute to our shop-front window. We share no opinions, express no concerns or needs, and publish no articles on this website – with a few exceptions. This is our greatest deficiency. It is also largely true of the ACP nationwide.
That priestly contributions are few and mostly negative is not surprising. Clergy have always been cautious in expressing uncensored opinions publicly. Now that this forum is available, those who believe they don’t have to ask permission anymore seem to just want to ‘clear their chests.’ But many more still live in fear, and so they stay silent rather than make any comment. Pope Francis, I hope and pray has come to the rescue and may in-fact inspire greater freedom for all. The ACP could now be the channel of the Holy Spirit to enable priests, value themselves more (within the system),believe more in themselves, think and act for themselves (without the bishop’s instruction); and empowered by the same Holy Spirit be more effective ordained witnesses.
In the interest of priests, it is regrettable that very few dioceses have established an actual branch of the ACP. Our website seems to indicate that only five Dioceses presently meet. How can our leadership team know our real concerns? How can we expect them respond when they have very little feedback or contact from members at the coalface? Perhaps it has been engrained in us that help can only come from outside powers. The culture of dependency bred in ministerial priesthood may have done permanent damage to our self-belief and independence. It may be that many prefer an unhealthy dependency, happy with immaturity and self-pity.
The usefulness, relevance, and effectiveness of our Association and leadership will be largely determined by members at the coalface. Perhaps the most important outcome of the recent Athlone meeting, will be that members, having returned home, will gather the brothers, and breathe new life into our organisation, your organisation.
The big issues are out there. Live issues around Curial control, Church governance, unfair imposition of discipline, compulsory celibacy, ecclesial appointments, women priests, the negating of Vatican 11, etc are all important. I respectfully suggest however, that these issues are not the most urgent or predominant ones experienced at the coalface. They do not occupy the minds of every priest, day in and day out in Parish life or Religious Community.
A missionary priest visited this Parish for a weekend recently. I asked him a question I occasionally ask on meeting a priest, ‘Are you a member of the ACP?’ He replied that he attended the first meeting in Portlaoise, and the second gathering. He said he eventually ‘threw his hat at it,’ as he believed it wasn’t focussed on real concerns of priests at the coalface.
He related that in his promotional work, he was going round parishes every weekend, and staying with the local priest. He said that he found frustration, absence of real leadership, low morale, depression, and alcoholism among priests on too many occasions. Some had very poor living conditions, and no one within their Dioceses seemed to care or give a damn. Others were burdened and feeling helpless at seeing a generation or two gone from the pews, while those remaining seem to lack interest and enthusiasm. He met priests weighed down or worn out by the suicide epidemic, broken relationships, alcohol and other drug abuse, the effects of the recession on people, and other personal and local pastoral concerns. Lived ministerial priesthood appeared to be dysfunctional. He wondered how this is affecting vocations to ministerial priesthood. The missionary thought the ACP should be addressing these realities as a matter of priority and urgency.
In Clogher diocese we are trying to address some of these concerns. We are encouraging greater self-confidence, better self-care, and greater friendship, sharing, and support of one another as priests. We are promoting Pastoral-sharing, reflection, and supervision. We are compiling a directory for priests of counsellors, psychotherapists, supervisors, and other personnel whose services they may find helpful. We also invite guest speakers to address us on relevant pressing concerns to lift our morale. That is our present shop-front window, reflecting our needs, and part of our immediate vision for ACP.
More priests in dioceses, Religious communities, and congregations meeting and sharing their opinions, their needs, wisdom, and vision, would breathe new life into the ACP, and render the role of leadership less demanding. The Holy Spirit works most effectively in open and active minds, hearts, and lives.
Finally, I humbly and respectfully suggest that comments on posted contributions to our website be thoughtful responses and not hasty reactions.

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  1. As you say,
    “The big issues are out there. Live issues around Curial control, Church governance, unfair imposition of discipline, compulsory celibacy, ecclesial appointments, women priests, the negating of Vatican 11, etc are all important.”
    I suggest that if these were really addressed and solved, a lot of what you call the “coal-face” problems would be too!

  2. John Dwyer Kirwin says:

    A word of thanks Jimmy McPhillips, for your thoughtful and good words, from a retiree across the pond. After almost forty-seven years of presbyteral service, I still have hope that we can assert our independence ‘within the system’, and arrive at a healthy maturity.
    I am encouraged by Francis and his beginning moves in Rome. As Tony Flannery writes, the fact that he comes from a religious community and is schooled in consultation and dialogue, should serve us better than imposition from above.
    The fact that many of us fall into a pattern of lone ranger behavior in our priesting, might indicate the need for greater support and encouragement of each other. I’m convinced that the Association in Ireland and other countries, which are exploring and forming the same, can steer us in the right direction. Growing pains are an indication that we should continue the momentum and share our thoughts, hopes and fears, on the net and in local face to face settings.
    Happy Eastering to you and thanks for taking the time to raise such issues,
    john d. kirwn, diocese of albany in new york

  3. Thank you ever so much Father Jim for your honest, clear, and thorough explanation as to why the majority of ACP priests are absent from this website. Thank you also for sharing what supports are being implemented for the priests in Clogher. I do hope that the ACP is guided by the Holy Spirit and produces the fruit of renewal and reform that is surely needed.
    Thank you to Mr. Eddie Finnegan, who scanned the website for the material to write his articles. I suspected that there was something to be produced from his work: I believe Father Jim – you produced the “pearl of great price”.

  4. The ‘coal face’ problems – if this is what the priests are experiencing, living certainly – then they need to be looked at very seriously – regardless of Curia or the rest. The latter will take care of itself when you have healthier human beings, priests ‘at the coal face’.
    Depression, drugs, shattered self worth/esteem, no morale and on and on. And I have heard priests in the past say the Diocese did not give a damn. Watched an older one sicken chronically – and eventually died, which was a blessing to him, and the ‘Diocese’ rarely crossed his threshold.
    Said it before – you people need to learn to support each other – seriously. It is highly dysfunctional if this is the reality, and I can well believe it to be so. Good to hear moves are being made in that direction to change and create support systems.
    Charity begins at home, they say.
    “1 Timothy 5:8 – But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
    You have to look after your own health, see to yourselves spiritually too, or you’ll be no good to anyone.
    I very much hope it’s the beginnings of the priests of the diocese or/and religious congregations really reaching out in support of each other, as human beings, and real brothers and sisters (religious sisters too). One step a time. Even it’s just to lift a phone and ask how some poor man/woman is, how she/he might be if having a difficult time in life.
    And if anyone needs help and I can help in any way – ‘Jack of all trade’ master of none. 🙂 All you have to do is ask and I’ll be more than happy to do what I can to help and get others with me if able and necessary.
    As priests, if you are having a difficult time, struggling with loneliness, addictions – the things that can afflict all people – you should not be alone. You too are human beings and as human beings, members of the same Body, need help and support as well – from the rest of us. Family. Body. Community – those kinda ideas come to mind. When are we going to really get to work on those.
    It does not have to be this way and it’s sad that it is. But it can change.
    Speak up, ask the help of which you are so deeply deserving – even it not be through here – the site.
    That’s Church anyway – helping each other, loving one another. And maybe if we all focused more on that, with there being so much need for so many on so many levels – ‘Curia’s and the likes will fade from consciousness, and they can get on with what they want, need to do.
    I do hope if there is a man, or woman, out there, and of you are suffering alone – that you will take that step and reach out. Just ask. You’re not super men. Just human beings, and we all need help, need company, and we all at times get sick, tried, burned out – and might have turned to God knows what, whatever ‘drug of choice’ at times in life. Running away from the problems can be a ‘drug of escape’ too.
    Yes ACP – SUPPORT is a very important word, idea, concept, reality – and not only for the clerics on ACP.
    Go for it and all the very best of good and luck !!!
    God bless

  5. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    This is probably the most positive thing I’ve read on this website in a long time. It’s planted firmly in reality. I urge members to see the goals of the ACP as a micro-representation of the world’s problems. I see the members of the ACP as a group of people who see fit to fix a problem, from the inside. Despite all the odds and powers that be which rally against them, they still try their best to accomplish it, democratically seeking out support from believers from around the globe. It is as much a social experiment of trying to rise above “an oppression” as we’ve had in recent times. If it fails, then all hope is lost, that I guarantee. How can you fail at trying to reinstate a sense of dignity and respect within a religion where “forgiveness” is the foundation of which the Church is built. The Vatican knows, but could never say, that this is the heart of the New Evangelization where the Church rises back to power and helps clear a future for those oppressed in some form or another. Gentlemen, you have the right Pope at the helm and it is now time to start strong dialogues with the Vatican about other issues rather than your own consciences. If the ACP starts to get strong about certain issues that the Pope feels close to, you may be able to forge a relationship and start the dialogue you wish to have. Any thoughts? I’d recommend the environment first and foremost.

  6. Padair,
    I think we might be discussing the chicken-or-the-egg problem here. I think that the exhaustion, worry and loneliness you refer to among priests today come in large part from the roles imposed by tradition on priests, only too enthusiastically embraced, and then consequently from an inability and unwillingness to accept limits. Father must be in control of everything, General Manager of the parish, builder, architect, financier, pastor, cantor, counsellor, politician, educator, energiser, evangeliser, liturgist, sportsman and philosopher-spiritual guru. (I`m sure I`ve left something out.)
    My point above was that the “coal-face” problems would not be nearly so burdensome if the Church and Father had long ago recognised that the laity can actually carry out a lot of these responsibilities effectively, if only they were to be trusted. If the larger problems you identify had been addressed by those in the church hierarchy whose role it is, the “coalface” priests would not suffer as you describe. But that responsibility, it is argued in this site by many contributors, has not been exercised responsibly over the decades. If it had been we would not be in the mess were in now.
    And if it were the up to ordinary priests to find solutions, don`t you think they would have found them long before now?

  7. Anne Walsh says:

    Having read the views of Fr Jimmy, I sense their frustration with the ACP leadership team and I wonder if their expectations of what ACP can deliver is in keeping with what is either possible or desirable for / by the Association.
    My own take is that they are looking for a ‘care of priests group’ rather than a group promoting reform – one which would provide ‘self-confidence, better self-care, greater friendship, sharing, and support of one another as priests’.
    I think it would be impractical for a national association to provide this level of care at local level to priests but perhaps if this could be clarified the Council of Priests in their own diocese might be invited by the ACP leadership to put such a structure in place for them.

  8. Hmmm… Psychotherapy, counselling, self-help – the Pope is guiding priests in a different direction (homily at the Chrism Mass):
    “It is not in soul-searching or constant introspection that we encounter the Lord: self-help courses can be useful in life, but to live by going from one course to another, from one method to another, leads us to become Pelagians and to minimize the power of grace, which comes alive and flourishes to the extent that we, in faith, go out and give ourselves and the Gospel to others, giving what little ointment we have to those who have nothing, nothing at all.”

  9. Fr Jimmy McPhillips paints a very sad picture of the lives of some our Priests. Depression, low self esteem, alcoholism are all part and parcel of the few, who, for a multitude of reasons, are and continue to be in a very dark place. At the same time they continue to carry out their Priestly duties to the best of their ability. Fr Gerard Moloney wrote a similar article in this website a few months ago. I would imagine that Priests in Religious Communities are not as badly affected as Diocesan Priests, many of whom live on their own.
    It must be 30years ago that on T.V. a Priest was interviewed about his priestly life, and in particular about celibacy. He told the story of how recently, he said the funeral mass for a child who had tragically died. He had done all his Priestly duties to the best of his ability. He left the family home late at night, and left the Mother, Father and other siblings to comfort each other. When he closed his own front door, there was no one there to comfort him. The story has remained with me all those years, and as I do not have his permission to release his name, let us just call him Fr J.R. I hope he can recognise himself.
    So what can be done about these Priests who need help? First, if there are Priests living in those big stately houses which those of us who are 50 and more years clearly remember, close them down immediately. Bring these Priests into modern, well maintained, heated homes, preferably in an estate where their parishioners’ live. Let them mix with their people. Very quickly they will enjoy their new surroundings, and they will get a new lease of life. Naturally, as Fr Jimmy states, priests must keep in touch with priests, as no man is an island. Bishops and we laity must do more to look after the human needs of our Priests. Their spiritual lives are well taken care of. Let us laity make sure that our P.P, Curate or missioners are welcome at any time. Was it Joseph Locke who sang: IF I CAN HELP SOMEBODY AS I PASS ALONG, THEN MY LIVING WILL NOT BE IN VAIN.
    Our priests have helped us along the path of life. Now the boot is on the other foot.

    Ennismore Retreat Centre, Montenotte, Cork – a Dominican Retreat Centre – is offering three days of support for clergy. The goal of these days is not to discuss work or pastoral strategies. It is a support for men who are priests. The three days – Tuesdays May 7th, 14th and 21st – aims to offer a fraternal space for priests. The Programme is simple and uncomplicated:
    10.30 am Tea/Coffee
    11.00 am Session 1 facilitated by a Dominican
    12.00 noon Open Forum
    12.45 pm Mid day Prayer
    1.00 pm Lunch
    2.15 pm Session 2
    2.45 pm Open Forum
    3.30 pm Closing Prayer and departure
    Further Information: 021-4502520

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