My name is Brendan Hoban. I’m 64 years of age. I’m a priest of Killala diocese. I’m almost 40 years ordained.
Over two years ago I was part of a small group of priests who founded the Association of Catholic Priests. We did that to give priests a voice, to provide a platform for responding to a church in crisis; because authority is collapsing, vocations are in free-fall, practice is declining, the average age-level of priests is now 64; and we felt in desperation that someone had to do something.
In less than 2 years we had 1000 members so we knew we were on the right track. What we wanted was to start a conversation about what was happening to our Church; about what needed to be done; and, in these strange and difficult times, to attempt to plot a track into the future.
We realised quickly that we shouldn’t and couldn’t do this on our own, that many lay people – forgive the use of that disrespectful term – we realised that many lay people felt as strongly as we did about it, that the reforms envisaged by the Second Vatican Council had been modified, resisted, rejected by popes, bishops, priests and sometimes people too.
One thing was very clear to us – that unless structures were put in place to give the Spirit of that Great Council substance, that our task was hopeless. So we attempted a first step towards an Assembly of the Irish Catholic Church, what should have been happening in our Church years ago, and more than 1000 people participated in a wonderful day in the Regency Hotel in Dublin . . . As a result we were confirmed again that we were on the right track, that God’s Spirit was guiding us . . .
Last Saturday in Galway, 430 people gathered for another Assembly and it was another great day . . .and again here in Cork it’s wonderful to see so many people gathered here . . .
I have no doubt but that God is with us, that God wants his priests and his people to come together and to save the Church that we love . . . We are doing no more than our duty.
Last Saturday in Galway Denis Crosby talked about the demon of fear that stalks our Church. He mentioned Orlando Figes’ book, The Whisperers, Private Life in Stalin’s Russia, where speaking out against the official wisdom was so dangerous that people had to whisper their criticisms.
We’re the Whisperers now but we have to do more than whisper, we have to find our voice, to stake a claim for the right and the responsibility to speak our truth about the Church we love.
There are those, we know, who for different reasons would like to pretend that we’re left-wing, radical, raving extremists, that we’re trouble-makers and dissenters, that we’re out to destroy the Church.
Well, let me put the record straight. The ACP does not seek to overturn the defined teaching of the Catholic Church. I say the Creed at Mass every Sunday; I’m proud to say it; and I believe every last word of it.
We mustn’t confuse what’s church teaching and what some people are saying is church teaching; we mustn’t confuse teaching and governance; we mustn’t confuse dogma and discipline; we mustn’t confuse what can be changed and what can’t.
The ACP is not a threat to the unity of the Church. We cherish and we value and we wish to further the unity of all our people – unity among lay Catholics, and with our fellow clergy, with Religious, with our bishops, with the Papal Nuncio, and with the Successor of Peter.
The ACP platform is firmly rooted in the Gospel, respectful of all God’s faithful and grounded in the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, teachings that were promulgated by the pope and the bishops of the world.
The ACP wants debate and discussion and dialogue because we profoundly believe that, in the present critical context, it is irresponsible not to debate and to discussion and to dialogue. So we say to our leaders and to every Catholic in Ireland:
- Don’t say to us that we’re against church teaching when we cherish it.
- Don’t tell us that we’re damaging Communion when we’re working for it.
- Don’t tell us that we can only reflect on our experience, if we keep silent.
- Don’t tell us that we can’t discuss the problems of our Church because we have a right and duty to do just that.
- Don’t pretend that silencing us will make the issues go away – it won’t.
- Don’t talk down to us to us as if we don’t matter.
- Don’t refuse to meet with us because we’re not going away.
- Don’t pretend that freedom of conscience and the dignity of every baptised person are strange concepts that we can pull conveniently out of the air to suit ourselves.
- Above all, don’t ask us to walk away.
- It’s our Church too.
- We are not dissidents and it is insulting to depict us in that light.
- We’re at the heart of our Church.
- We want to remain at the heart of our Church.
- But we know that our Church is in deep crisis.
- We know we need to talk.
- We know we need to listen.
- That’s not just our right as baptised Catholics. It is our duty and, in present circumstances, it is our supreme responsibility.
At a time when our Church has lost so much credibility in so many areas, we need the pastoral and intellectual credibility of a robust debate in the Irish Church and the much-needed confidence that will bring.
Living the Christian life has taught us all – lay, religious and priests – a great deal.
Surely it is important that we be allowed to share what wisdom we have gained.
As I said earlier I’m ordained for almost 40 years, why should I apologise to anyone for reflecting on my experience over 4 decades of priesting, and sharing the results of that reflection.
There is a wealth of experience and commitment and energy and faith here in this room, why should we apologise to anyone for stating out truth about the Church that we love?
I mentioned Denis Crosby earlier who spoke in Galway last Saturday. Denis told a wonderful story from centuries ago about the erection of an obelisk, a great column in St Peter’s Square in Rome. Hundreds of men gathered to haul the column with ropes into a standing position. It was a very delicate task and the men were warned to focus on the job because there could have been disastrous consequences if they got it wrong. Indeed such was the pressure on everyone that under pain of excommunication they would have to remain absolutely silent during the entire procedure. To focus their minds even more the Pope supervised the proceedings from an upstairs window.
The procedure didn’t go according to plan and the ropes began to frazzle and break. It looked as if the whole thing would end in disaster until one man shouted out at the top of his voice, ‘Water the ropes’. They did this immediately and the ropes held and as a result the task was completed. Afterwards, the man who technically should have been excommunicated because he broke the silence, that man was honoured by the Pope for his courage. If he hadn’t spoken, the column would have collapsed.
When Denis Crosby had finished telling that story, he paused and he looked down at the gathering in Galway, and he said, ‘That’s what we need to do.’ And then he repeated slowly and clearly three times, ‘Water the ropes. Water the ropes. Water the ropes’.
In a time of crisis, what’s needed particularly is courage, courage to say clearly and respectfully whatever we believe in truth needs to be said for the good of our Church.
There are many ‘whisperers’ in our Church at present, people who mutter about what needs to happen if our Church is to survive in today’s world.
But we need people too who will shout to the rooftops some equivalent of ‘Water the ropes’.
• Brendan Hoban first gave this talk at the ‘Towards an Assembly’ gathering in Cork on 13 October 2012