Brendan Hoban on Changing Times in the Church

We are glad to welcome Brendan back to the airwaves, being now well on his way to full recovery from a recent illness.
Less than two years ago, in September 2013, representing the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP), I visited the diocese of Ferns (mainly the county of Wexford) to talk to the Council of Priests there. The ACP had requested a meeting with the Irish Bishops but this was refused and the bishops had suggested, by way of alternative, that individual Councils of Priests might extend individual invitations to us.
While we could have done without the further accumulation of thousands of extra miles driving around the country, we were happy to co-operate, on the basis that half a loaf, even when it’s doled out in minute portions, is better than no bread.
It took me four hours to drive to Wexford where I was welcomed by Bishop Denis Brennan and his Council. It was an interesting meeting. I presented the reasons for the founding of the ACP, the agenda agreed by our 1,000-plus priest-members, and our three suggestions for combatting the now mathematically certain disappearance of Catholic priests in Ireland: ordain married men; welcome back priests who had left the priesthood to marry; and ordain women deacons.
I ended my presentation by suggesting that while the ACP had been founded in less promising times three years earlier – during the winter pontificate of Benedict XVI – the election of Pope Francis earlier that year and his utterances in his first months in office were creating the possibility, even an expectation of real change. Indeed it could be said that if Jorge Bergoglio had been a PP in Ireland he could have been a founder member of the ACP!
Bishop Brennan asked me if I was suggesting that the ACP were now, because of Pope Francis, ‘becoming main-stream’. Most of the ten or so priests around the table laughed (as priests often do when their own bishop makes a joke) but I said, ‘Yes I was suggesting just that’, on the basis that, for example with vocations, there was simply no alternative but change. Every priest didn’t have to be a celibate but every Catholic had the right to Mass. And if the Church decided to change the church-made rule on celibacy, the Church could and would do that, if it had to.
In fairness to the Ferns gathering, Bishop Brennan’s was a predictable enough response because until Francis became pope, anyone, particularly any bishop who suggested that the celibacy rule should be looked at would have their knuckles rapped by Rome. No one was allowed to mention the elephant in the room.
A week, someone said, is a long time in politics. And two years, it appears now, can be a long time in the Catholic Church, which is supposed to think in centuries. But, less than two years on from my visit to Wexford, it is now beginning to appear as if a significant game-change in Catholic priesthood is now on.
It started with a meeting between Erwin Krautler, a bishop in the Brazilian rain-forest, and Francis. Krautler explained that with the small and declining number of priests in his diocese, he was unable to ensure that Catholics in his diocese would have Mass regularly. What would he do? Why not bring this to the Brazilian bishops’conference, Francis suggested, come up with a proposal and bring it to him?
In discussions with Catholics in different dioceses – listening exercises – meetings invariably conclude that Catholics would have no problem with married priests. This conclusion, of course, is often air-brushed out of the final document, as bishops invariably try to sing from the Vatican hymn-sheet. But not every bishop.
In a consultation with Catholics in Kilmore diocese (Cavan, and parts of Leitrim and Fermanagh) Bishop Leo O’Reilly promised his people a few months ago that he would bring their suggestion (about ordaining married men) to the Irish bishops. He has discussed it with some of his bishop-colleagues and it now seems that it will find its way on to a future agenda for a bishops’ meeting in Maynooth.
Last week, a retired bishop in England, Crispian Hollis, wrote to The Tablet, a highly reputable Catholic paper, supporting the case for ordaining married men in the Catholic Church and this week he was supported by two other retired bishops in England, Thomas McMahon and John Crowley.
Hollis has suggested that up to ten English bishops would support the move and Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor said that if he were a bishop in a diocese that needed priests he would ask Rome for permission to ordain ‘suitable married men’.
Cardinal Parolin, the pope’s right-hand man, said recently too that celibacy was ‘an ecclesiastical tradition’, and that modifications could be made in it to solve the problem of the shortage of priests.
So what does this all mean? Straws in the wind? Kites flying? Much more than that. In simple terms it’s what Archbishop Diarmuid Martin would call ‘a reality check’.
The bad news is that, despite all the huffing and puffing about vocations, the mathematical reality is that unless some drastic change happens and happens fast, priests and Mass will disappear effectively in Ireland in the next decade or so.
The good news is that such change has actually begun. Francis has created the freedom for cardinals and bishops to say what a few years ago was unsayable, to voice their opinions on what’s actually happening rather than to mutely pretend to Rome that what Rome wants to believe is happening. As in the predictable conspiracy to imagine that there are green shoots everywhere! As with the New Missal . . .
So maybe, just maybe, pace Bishop Denis Brennan of Ferns, the ACP might become ‘main-stream’ because Francis has decided to steal some of our clothes.
We live in interesting times.

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  1. Cornelius Martin says:

    Welcome back to good health.
    The only thing that’s changing in the Church is the numbers of the baptised who practise. There are no changes in teaching. The teaching of the Church is perfectly safe with the Holy Spirit. The Pope and bishops are still the successors of the Apostles. The Church proposes a wonderful understanding and way of life that brings a certain joy to those who seek to be faithful. There will be a Mass and confession near where I live until the day I die. Yes we are on the way to marginalisation and probable persecution but we know the end of the story. Our prayers are always answered according to our need. The poor present us with an important part of the roadmap to Heaven. We have the Bible and the lives of the saints, Vatican documents and a never ending stock of traditional teaching for our perusal. We have Mary for our Mother. Etc, etc.
    What goes around comes around. Eventually many more in the culture will want what Christ has to give through us and join us in the pasture of the Lord. Thankfully they are free to choose.
    Let’s be glad we are still able to pray and do good works.

  2. Well, you might achieve the ordination of married men…but, I doubt, it will do little to address the greater ecclesial issues that Fr. Seamus Ahearne speaks to on another ACP website thread.

  3. Joe O'Leary says:

    “There are no changes in teaching” — well, what about Nostra Aetate 4, which is a huge change in the Church’s teaching on Judaism.
    Must I quote again Newman’s great dictum with regard to a living, developing Catholicism: “To live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often”? Please read the recently deceased Owen Chadwick, “From Bossuet to Newman” (Cambridge, 1957).

  4. Mary Vallely says:

    Delighted to hear that Brendan Hoban is on the road to good health again. I have always admired his courage in speaking out and his passion and commitment to his calling but Cornelius @1 he is only talking about practical solutions to the shortage of priests so I don’t understand why your comment is so defensive on the teachings of the Church.
    The solutions, bringing back married priests, ordaining married men and at the very least, opening the Permanent Diaconate to women, all make such sense and are of no threat to church teachings. Those women with vocations to the priesthood are admirably patient and their suffering and sacrifice have my utmost respect. We are ALL the poorer because of an atavistic blind spot in this attitude towards how we think of women.
    However, what I really fail to understand is how grown men in positions of authority in the Church cannot feel comfortable in speaking out against these injustices. Courage does seem to strike some on the cusp of retirement but unfortunately, too few. Freedom to speak the truth as one sees it is surely the hallmark of a Christian organisation.

  5. Cornelius Martin says:

    Mary at #4.
    Your comment on defensiveness raises interesting considerations. Does being on the defensive mean being more concerned about our image than about the issue at hand? One common defensive statement is “But I never said that.” The subject and predicate unite to defend the self rather than the issue. God proposes and never has to go on the defensive. But as written, some Divine statements in the Bible could be interpreted outside the faith as defensive – Micah 6:3 “My people, what have I done to you?” So whither defensiveness?
    God proposes though His Church. We pray at Mass “look not on our sins but on the Faith of the Church (Mystical Body). Generally speaking the Church proposes the faith and goes on the defensive for its sins.
    The said sins derive often from what were deemed practical solutions. Think of our own recent history. What practical solution would any of us have offered Christ on that fateful night in Gethsemane? The criterion is not practicality but truth of which the Holy Spirit is the author. He sees to it that the Church does not err in matters of faith and morals. The truth has to be proposed in season and out of season and St Paul expresses a clear view about the consequences of not doing so. (2 Timothy 4: 1-5)
    I think Blessed John Henry Newman’s maxim on change is also based on truth. Otherwise he could be accused of endorsing some practices of Henry VIII. He knew that change is in the nature of things, and in teleological terms God wished change to be directed towards Him, (Truth and Love). It human terms it consists in growth in virtue, character, conscience and faith.
    We differ in our practical solutions and on the reasoning underpinning them. There has to be an intelligent system to expose our solutions, practical or otherwise, to Gods authority. A most important part of this process are the prayers of petition “hallowed be Thy name, Thy kingdom come, Thy Will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” God always answers according to His plan, according to His grace. As Katie Taylor used to say, “God is great.” Our discussions and tensions in relation to solutions are impacted upon greatly by the Newman notion of ongoing personal change in conversion. We will never agree on the basis of argument.
    As it says in the Mass, the kingdom, power and glory belong to God alone. In our afflictions we can trust in (albeit often with some effort) and enjoy His munificence and direction in season and out of season in a God-forgetful world. Do we have that much to worry about in comparison to the plight of our co-religionists in the Middle East, and their perception of our indifference to it?

  6. Willie Herlihy says:

    Welcome back to good health Brendan,It is great to see you in print again. I love the manner in which you always call a spade, a spade.
    I agree completely with your practical solutions to the shortage of Priests.
    In my humble opinion, the fundamental problem with our Church is, to use a theatrical metaphor,“Bums on Seats”.
    The young people,in particular the the parents of the next generations i.e.the 20-30 -40 somethings are no longer going to church.
    Therefore the onus is on us, the people of God to come up with solutions.
    One that springs to mind, is first Holy Communion.
    There is great emphasis placed on the sacrament,but one aspect is being completely ignored,the children with a few exceptions, do not receive Holy Communion again until their Confirmation.
    Therefore, they and their parents are effectively lost to the Church.
    In the meantime church buildings are beginning to look like museums.
    We must start to think outside the box,one suggestion for encouraging parents and children back to the church is, to have a post communion celebration,invite the parents and the children to the church.
    Don’t be prescriptive about the format for the celebration, encourage the parents to suggest how it should be structured.
    If the celebration is a success and everybody leaves in a positive frame of mind,encourage the parents to come up with a formula for a get together approximately every two weeks or so,the key here is the children,if they enjoy it they will want more.
    In time, it might be possible to encourage the parents to bring the children to Mass and again Holy Communion.
    For the above to be a success,buy in from all the priests must be obtained.
    Unfortunately, some are full of their own importance and their modus operandi is, to talk down to the few of us who are left.
    To change this mindset leadership is required.

  7. Richard O'Donnell says:

    Cornelius @ 5.
    Indeed “God always answers.” But it seems to me that it is only very recently that the church leadership is beginning to listen.It will take a while for them to develop this new skill.

  8. Prodigal Son says:

    Richard # 7
    It is human to desire to be listened to, to ice-one’s-own-cupcake, especially in a culture fog that tells us that everything can be just the way we’d like it to be. The Church teaches that everything is of consequence, because the Son of God became incarnate, suffered, and died to redeem everything. He did this for an ice-you-own-cupcake world that since the dawn of humanity recurrently forgets its need for redemption, and creates an ice-your-own-cupcake religion incapable of calling that kind of world to recognize the reality of sin and the need for conversion.
    The anonymous second-century Christian who wrote the Letter to Diognetus gives us insight into how the early Christians lived in an alien world. He notes that “Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. . . .With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.”
    “The true markers that separate a Christian from a non-Christian are extraordinary, but not in the way the world judges such things: “They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labour under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives. They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law.”
    There is much more, but this view of the givenness of things seems to have underpinned the growth of Christianity in a world alien to it. Christians then were divided on issues. At one stage the bulk of Christians were followers of Arius’s doctrine. To whom did people ultimately listen?
    Today a similar divide exists in Catholicism in relation to which elements of the ambient culture to succumb to. In a recent lecture, Janet Smith of Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, demonstrated how Pope Francis’ views on the “throwaway culture” concur with Pope St John Paul’s underlying philosophy on the issue of culture.
    Much of literature explores understanding of “things as they are.” Catholicism proposes an answer to that quest, and invites people to avail of it on the basis of the truth conferred through the Holy Spirit. In my own case I can be upset at the ways things are done at times, but I have come to see my solutions as just that, my self-iced-cupcake, which if pursued could result in a blithe disregard for the givenness of things. I do not expect to be listened to on doctrinal matters. The key is to rely on the work of grace (and the wickedness that grace seeks to repair) through what Catholicism deems realistic, but which is regarded by the ambient culture as pie-in-the-sky.

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