Brendan Hoban: Priests must embrace a new era of synodality                  

Western People 21.5.2024

A Dublin parish priest recently took exception to what he regarded as critical comments about priests by Pope Francis and Fr Tony Flannery in The Tablet, a weekly Catholic periodical. He concluded that both of them seemed ‘to hold the view that diocesan priests were into power and control’ and concluded that both shared ‘a low opinion of diocesan priests’.

What was interesting was that the Dublin priest didn’t attempt to respond to what Francis and Tony had actually written but dismissed it on the grounds that neither ‘had held an appointment as a parish priest’.

What seems to have irked the Dublin priest was the recent news that dioceses in the west of Ireland (Killala and Achonry) were to be merged, that both had 38 and 36 priests respectively, and that he and another priest were under great pressure in Dublin as they were struggling to serve 20,000 Catholics in their united parishes.

The Tablet exchange comes at a time when there’s a particular focus on priests, especially the challenge we face in adapting ourselves to a new way of being church. Up to now ordination was the governing sacrament – only the ordained were ‘in charge’ – now, with baptism as the fundamental sacrament, the new way of being church is ‘a synodal way’.

Once the clergy – priests, bishops, cardinals  – were in charge; now with synodality the baptised and the ordained work together. For instance, up to now, the parish priest made decisions for Parish Councils which were merely consultative bodies. Now priests and people will together follow a synodal pathway: together listening attentively to one another; together discussing issues; together discerning what God wants them to do; and together making decisions.

Most priests, it seems, are struggling to make the transition from ‘being in charge’ to ‘becoming synodal’. Hence the focus now on the role of the priest. And why, a few weeks ago, 200 parish priests were called to Rome – two from each country – to share their experiences of the transition to synodality.

The main speaker was Fr Tomas Halik, an eminent philosopher, who described the transition to synodality as a conversion ‘from the old and the present to the future God is preparing for us’. We must, he suggested, have ‘the courage to change much in the Church’. Priesthood, he said, is going through ‘a time of trial’ when a number of crises show us that ‘we can no longer (as a church) continue on our current path in our thinking, living and working style’.

Halik repeated what has become a mantra of Pope Francis, the need to dismantle what he calls ‘clericalism’ – effectively, an elitist and exclusivist understanding of vocation, as a power to be exercised rather than a service to be given. Halik described it in direct terms: ‘We priests are not called to be the ruling class but the servants of all’. There are still places, he writes, ‘where the parish priest sees himself as the pope of his parish’ rather than part of a co-responsible community of equals.

Halik’s focus is on the need for change. We have to try new and fresh approaches, he argues. If the nets remain empty, is it because we remain in the shallows and haven’t the courage to push off from the shore, to go to the deep? Or because we are ignoring ‘prophetic voices’? Or is it a refusal to move from ‘the unchanging certainties of the past’? Or because we are not listening to the people? For Simone Weil, the French mystic, attention is the greatest form of generosity.

In talking to the parish priests, Halik pointed out that adapting to the synodal way didn’t just apply to them or to parishes but to the wider life of the Church. This surfaces a series of questions, for example, about how bishops will adapt their structures and their practices in becoming more synodal.

What effect will the synodal pathway have on the present dynamics of operation that bishops take for granted? On the format and make-up of their meetings? On the way decisions are made and on who makes them? And on the culture of what a recent report from Durham University called ‘hierarchicalism’ which was defined as ‘the exclusive power culture of the episcopacy.’ And indeed on the titles and practices that serve to confer an exaggerated and unreal status, station and rank, whether ‘Your Eminence’, ‘Your Grace’ or the dreadful Americanism ‘Your Excellency’. Or the lesser titles of ‘Monsignor’, ‘Canon’ and ‘Archdeacon’ bishops distribute among priests often as a reward for unquestioning obedience and deference? Or distinctions like ‘Reverend’, ‘Very Reverend’ and ‘Most Reverend’?

While popes, cardinals, bishops and priests can see their lives as serving the people, an old comment from the late Enda McDonagh places that in context: ‘It is still very difficult for laypeople to recognise in the privileges and practices of priests, bishops and popes their proclaimed status as servants’.  

But to get back to the Dublin parish priest I mentioned at the top of this column. I think he was very unfair to both Tony Flannery and Pope Francis. To Tony Flannery, by suggesting that because he has never been a parish priest he has no right to comment on diocesan matters – even though he has spent over 40 years leading missions in parishes. To Francis, in suggesting that he has no right to challenge parish priests – even though he is only the pope.

I have every sympathy for the Dublin parish priests and their ‘exhausting efforts’ to minister to huge numbers of Catholics – practising and disinterested – and for the ‘increasing number of priests taking sick leave for stress-related illnesses’.

The real tragedy, of course, is that all of that need not be happening. If sensible decisions could be made to moderate mandatory celibacy and to allow women priests ­–­ both of which now rest on increasingly unsettling foundations – the present agonies and illnesses of priests would decline significantly.

Even some parish priests are beginning to recognise the inevitable and are adding their voices to the gathering acclamation.

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  1. Sean O'Conaill says:

    It is not just to have lay people ‘helping Father’ that the church needs to be synodal. Everyone is a subject in the Gospel story with their own unique gifts and circumstances. Even if we never serve on a pastoral council or read scripture in church, we all have a human context and gifts to shape into meeting the challenges that everyone is faced with – e.g. bullying in the workplace.

    It is surely because clergy were not typically taught to see Baptism as the key sacrament – and Ireland’s National Vocations Office is still implying that to ‘take the risk for Christ’ one must be ordained – that still in church the risks to all Christians in the world are not highlighted and the role of lay people in the world (e.g. re Catholic social teaching) goes unexplored. Most clergy have still not gone beyond patronising lay people – to explore, in dialogue with them, the challenges that now present themselves to everyone. Especially the challenges to protect children and to guide their consciences.

    Back in 2014 Archbishop Michael Neary spoke of the ‘death rattle of Christendom’. We are still hearing that death rattle – in the opposition to synodality and in the passive aggression that persists in simply doing nothing to forward the cause of a church that is fully alive to the challenge of Baptism.

  2. Sean O’Conaill says:

    #2 Has it ever occurred to Pope Francis that the problem he alludes to – of over-representation of gay men in seminaries – could be an inevitable consequence of the exclusion of women from ordination, simply on grounds of gender?

    Still baulking at an historical investigation and full revelation of the causes of the global episcopal omerta on clerical sexual abuse of children, the pope needs to realise that the continuing linkage of celebration of the Eucharist with males only merely consolidates global scepticism, undermining his own bid to put the whole Catholic church on a mission footing.

    Increasingly it is possible to foresee a future catholic Christian church truly devoted to restoring the primacy of baptism, with men and women sharing all leadership roles, including that of Eucharistic celebration.

    Who on the other hand sees a future for the exclusively male seminary?

  3. John Collins says:

    I was struck by these two sentences at the ordination of Donal and the welcoming of Paul…..
    +Donal Roche: ‘My hope and my strength come from the promise of Jesus to his disciples which we heard in the Gospel today. He sent them out to make disciples of the nations, not by their own strength, but with the strength of the Holy Spirit. And with the promise ‘know that I am with you always; yes, to the end of time’.

    +Paul Dempsey: ‘We have come through an enormous amount of change as a society and a Church. We have had to confront difficult truths that were necessary to face. This will always be part of our story.’
    ‘It is important to remember that the Church is not dying, it is a model of Church that is dying. We are on the cusp of something new. The Church is always in a process of renewal. We, as the baptised, are part of that story, right now in this moment.’

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