ACP has proved its worth during past decade
Western People October 6, 2020
It’s been a short ten years for the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP). In June 2010, as any hope of any reform of the Catholic Church was perishing before our eyes, a number of priests gathered in a hotel in Athlone, more in hope than in expectation, to wonder if a distinctive priests’ voice might light even a candle in the enveloping darkness and despair.
More than half a century after the compelling vision of the Second Vatican Council had been firmly and systematically side-lined during the long winter of the pontificate of John Paul II (and more of the same was what Pope Benedict was offering) there was little enthusiasm for gathering at the base camp of what seemed another Everest.
It appeared, in the circumstances, an unpromising enterprise. Priests were ageing and their work increasing; the fall-out from the sexual abuse enquiries had left many feeling depressed and overwhelmed; vocations to the priesthood and religious life were declining (and in some cases, disappearing); church pews were emptying; church authorities didn’t want to know; alternative voices were silent; and not least the problematic policy of introducing foreign priests in an effort to camouflage the disappearance of Irish priests – as if using a plaster to bandage a gaping wound would solve, even in the a short term, the imminent reality of a priest-less Ireland.
With so much so obviously falling apart, and with few if any green shoots appearing in the enveloping desert – apart from ambitious clerics imagining them in the hope of episcopal preference – despair rather than hope seemed a more reasonable response as the weight of the child sexual abuse scandals took a terrible toll on the morale of priests.
Ten years ago the prospect of reforming the Catholic Church seemed, well, hopeless. And when a small group of priests gathered in Athlone in June 2010, it seemed little more than a last psychological throw of the dice. Yet somehow a decision emerged to test the waters.
A meeting was arranged for Portlaoise in October and when the nominated venue was overwhelmed with a large gathering of priests, we were forced to move to a larger space. What appeared like inefficiency was fortuitously transformed into a providential sign as ‘the march of priests’ was captured on the main RTÉ television news.
It was, we discovered, easier to get the dancers on the floor than we imagined and in a relatively short time we had over 1,000 members, about 30% of Irish priests – as well as a ground-swell of support from Irish Catholics. A very memorable gathering (in the later infamous Regency Hotel) open to everyone attracted a crowd of over 1,000 and we felt the wind on our backs.
There were, of course, multiple ‘cows in the drain’. The Irish bishops were mesmerised by the awkward entity that had suddenly arrived on the Irish Catholic landscape and seemed anxious to ignore us if not oppose us. It was difficult, indeed almost impossible, to get them to meet us and when they occasionally agreed it took, in line with their antiquated structures, an unconscionable period of time to organise it. (Sometimes over a year.)
Catholic papers, presuming our platform would be unacceptable to their traditional readers, used us as a handy target to enhance their dismal levels of readership. And the extreme end of the Catholic tribe had another excuse to label those who disagreed with them as ‘heretics’ and ‘apostates’.
Despite the opposition, and sometimes maybe because of it, the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) achieved quite remarkable progress in a short time, not just in the level of membership we achieved, but in the support we received from priests outside the association who weren’t involved directly with us (for different reasons) and in the public profile we achieved in the national and other media.
An example of the latter was the defamation of ACP member, Fr Kevin Reynolds, on a Prime Time Investigates programme on RTE television in May 2011, which alleged he had raped and impregnated a Kenyan teenager while on the missions. The accusation – ‘the worst that could be said about a Catholic priest’, the judge in the defamation proceedings noted – was later shown to be false in two separate DNA testing procedures and led to a sizeable out of court settlement, the end of the RTE series and a huge dint in the credibility of the national broadcaster.
The Reynolds case raised our profile considerably because it underlined our commitment to defend priests when we believed accusations against them weren’t credible and it surprised commentators that our resources extended to financing such expensive legal proceedings. (In fact, our legal representatives were acting pro bono.)
It also garnered widespread support for the ACP among priests as, we made it clear, that we would support any priest in difficulty, regardless of whether they were members or not. The Reynolds case also encouraged us to defend priests who were being badly treated (and sometimes bullied) by their bishops and to provide them with credible canon lawyers to uphold their rights as priests in church law.
Support for priests has been the main focus of our work: supporting priests out of ministry; providing resources for worship; responding to their needs by providing a listening ear in these COVID-19 days; responding to issues that surface at priests’ (people’s) meetings; and not least employing an executive secretary to streamline the services we provide.
Another feather in the ACP cap was the election of Pope Francis in 2013 and his adoption of an unapologetic mission to reform the Church by giving the Second Vatican Council a second wind. We discovered to our surprise and joy, that Francis was, in effect, singing from the same hymn-sheet as ourselves.
As we remember our 10th birthday, such were some of the ACP pluses of that decade. There was another side too, not least the terrible price Tony Flannery paid for his adoption of the platform that Francis now endorses – but I will come to that in another column.
Meanwhile, the ACP has a new leadership nucleus, a sign of renewed hope as we enter our second decade.