The Church should listen to its priests

Sometimes the suggestion is made that the answer to the imminent priest-shortage in Ireland is to invite hundreds of,  say,  Nigerian priests to pastor the emptying parishes of Ireland. On the face of it, a logical proposal. But, of course, as we know it’s not that simple. Such a scheme doesn’t allow for a sufficient understanding of the nuances and complexities of Irish life and culture.
Take a recent meeting of Irish priests. The meeting was convened to discuss the need to explore regulations regarding the retirement of priests at 75. This particular diocese (not Killala) is examining the possibility that parish priests instead of retiring at 75 would, at that age, become curates and keep working – for as long as they are able. After the meeting was over, the focus of the gathering changed completely when the priests began to discuss among themselves whether they would be able to live on the old age pension if they retired at 66!
At first sight the two discussions seem at odds with one another. But not if you understand how priests function. For example, bring a group of priests together on their own and usually issues are thrashed out efficiently and effectively. Put a bishop sitting among them and a great silence descends. Part of the reason is that priests know (or if they don’t know, believe) that what a bishop usually wants is not a discussion but agreement with an established position. It’s hard to blame priests for this. Take Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s recent criticism that priests are not helped by ‘negative polemics’ by priests on priesthood. Leaving aside the obvious questions begged by the phrase ’negative polemics’ (for example, who decides something is ‘negative’ or ‘polemical’), Martin’s intervention is clearly meant to bat aside a growing constituency of priests unhappy that the Irish Bishops, on behalf of the Irish Church, seem to accept the official template for ‘renewal’ coming from Rome. Behind the growing chorus of disapproval among Irish priests is a great mixture of unease, worry, anger that the Irish Church is imploding before our very eyes and our leaders seem to be sleep-walking into the future.
Here are two statistics from two dioceses in the west of Ireland: at present one has just five priests under 50; the other, with 57 parishes, will have 50 priests by 2020. Is it ‘negative polemics’ to point out the logic of those and other worrying statistics, to insist on the obvious truth that without priests there is no Mass and without Mass there will be no Church? Are Archbishop Martin and others suggesting that they don’t want priests (or people) to discuss these issues, even though the very scaffolding of worship through the dioceses and parishes of Ireland is now at risk for the first time in centuries?
Leaving aside the fact that the right and the responsibility of priests and people to bring matters of serious pastoral concern to the attention of church leaders is enshrined in church law – Canon 212, No. 3: ‘the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church’ –is Archbishop Martin seriously suggesting that surfacing these issues is more damaging to the Irish priesthood than not discussing them?
If that’s the case it amounts to a strange volte face on his part. After all Martin was the man who believed that Dublin’s auxiliary bishops by their silence over child abuse scandals should resign even though they were not directly involved in decision-making. Is he now suggesting that Irish priests should be silent even though they can see what’s happening in parishes and dioceses all over Ireland? If bishops were wrong to be silent, why are priests being ‘negative’ and ‘polemical’ if they speak out as church law demands? Or was it a case of, that was then, this is now?
While Archbishop Martin should have a better grasp of Irish clerical culture, the same could hardly be expected of the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Charles Brown. By his own admission on a learning curve, understandably he has still to achieve a working knowledge of the nuances of clerical life here. His visits around the country listening to priests and people seem to have convinced him that the Irish Catholic Church is alive and well with ‘good’ priests beavering away in parishes and other priests looking for attention from the media. He gets a picture, he says, from priests in parishes ‘of vitality, of great courage and great hope’.
Perhaps Archbishop Martin should remind him about that old adage about bishops in Ireland: ‘They’ll always have a good dinner, but they’ll never be told the truth’. That’s part of the problem with Irish priests. We have great respect for bishops, archbishops and papal nuncios and there is a long tradition in Ireland of clerical deferral to our leaders. It is an admirable quality. The negative side though is that even when we have something to say, having reflected on our many years of experience at the coalface of parish life, we tend not to want to share our wisdom – for wisdom it surely is – especially if what we have to say might appear critical to our ‘superiors’ because loyalty to the Church is always a pressing concern.
So Irish priests need to be actively encouraged to name our truth, not encouraged to keep our silence. We need to be given space to say our piece, to communicate that bit of wisdom that is the result of mature and prayerful reflection on our long experience of and love for the Irish Church.
So our church leaders – Archbishop Martin, the other bishops, the Papal Nuncio – should be opening up avenues of communication with the Irish clergy not closing them down, as if we are irrelevant or have nothing to say in these critical times. If we have learned anything in Ireland in the nightmare of the last few decades, surely it is that the Church loses out if discordant voices, especially those who love the Church, are not unambiguously cherished.
The Association of Catholic Priests (ACP), founded just two years ago, to raise the morale of Irish priests and to provide a voice for Irish priests in the most difficult of circumstances, already has over 1000 priest members. We have ideas, energy and enthusiasm for the reform of our Church and it grieves us to see it shrivel year by year.
We lament our Church’s decline not just because we have given our lives to it but because we believe the Irish people and the Irish nation will be the poorer without it. And, more importantly, we believe that the present official template for reforming it is at variance with the views, opinions, needs and wishes of the vast majority of priests and people in Ireland today. We believe, for example, that providing the Eucharist for our people demands a more creative and imaginative approach than the present policy of spreading older priests over a wider area, while they are still able to stand up and say Mass.
When the ACP sought to open up discussion of this and other issues, we wrote to the Papal Nuncio who suggested it might be better if we talked to the bishops – though he recently said that because priests were ‘central to any re-flourishing or reform of the Church in Ireland’, he wanted priests to feel they can ‘pick up the phone and talk to me when they see things that ought to be done’.
When we asked the bishops to meet us, they suggested that we should talk to Councils of Priests in each diocese. And we are now exploring that avenue. Can I, without rehearsing again my credentials as a loyal servant of the Church, can I after almost 40 years of priesthood, with respect and due deference to bishops, archbishops and Papal Nuncio, pose this one question? Why, with the Irish Catholic Church imploding around us, can’t the leaders of our Church, worried no doubt like the rest of us about the very future of our Church in Ireland, bring themselves to speak to an association that represents more than 1000 priests? I can’t understand why that’s the case. As the Papal Nuncio reminded us priests are ‘central to any re-flourishing or reform of the Church in Ireland’.
That’s a reality that should prompt a fresh start to 2013.

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  1. Jane Anderson says:

    There is a one-word answer to the questions posed as to why bishops aren’t able to listen to the wisdom of priests (and others). And that is the Church is an AUTOCRACY (not a democracy). All its structuring (which includes examinations of what is going on is geared to being upwardly deferential) What you, Brendan, are suggesting is that the Church become more democractised, something that the Pope is adamant will not and cannot happen. But unfortunately for the pope, that is how we in democratic societies understand our participation in society. The onus on religion is to produce an appropriate and relevant cosmology, which must include listening to the wisdom of those at the coalface of life – a development that would allow priests (and others) to be heard.
    PS Could you please put a button on this website that allows me to email ACP articles to friends. The ACP is a part of a valuable discussion worldwide, and to quote a friend, it says much about “God as endless communication”.

  2. Dear Brothers in Christ: As your blog is read in Rome, a complex coup d’etat may in fact try to displace you with Nigerian and Indian priests. A new pope will make no difference to this situation. The college of cardinals is stacked against your best interests. May God Bless You and Keep You.

  3. You are the ‘life blood’ at the ‘coal face’ as are all the people ‘at the base’ of this particular tree. Its roots and branches. Christ its Heart and true Life. Without you there would be no ‘Head’.
    Think about it. Don’t underestimate your own power.
    You’ll be trampled upon as long as you allow it.

  4. On the surface of things, it looks like a political problem, it, the problem, is really spiritual. Hence, that’s why Richard Rohr says “we need mystics”.

  5. Mary O Vallely says:

    Yes, it is easy to almost despair, isn’t it? I am nodding my head at Jane’s and Dr H’s comments and I can feel the sheer frustration, anger and sense of bewilderment at the injustice of being ignored that cries out from Brendan Hoban’s words.
    Remember Oscar Romero’s advice that we are planting seeds “that one day will grow” and that we are “prophets of a future not our own.” Patience, patience.
    Here in Cardinal Brady’s parish we have an Admin in his early 40s and curates who are 26, 32 and 34 years of age. There are also, in terms of numbers, healthy congregations across the whole age span. There is no call at all for reform in the church but then the north has its own problems with ongoing sectarianism etc; People tend to cling to the one constant in their lives, the church, so the problems the rest of you face with dwindling numbers of ordained are not a priority here. (as yet)
    Why can’t the bishops speak to the ACP? I don’t understand it either but I do believe that each bishop has to be tackled as an individual because the danger is that when he becomes part of a corporate body that his heart gets locked out. He can hide within the group but not on his own. There is a new bishop in Limerick now. Why not start with him?
    Brendan and the others of the ACP can at least hold their heads up high knowing that they are acting as the Spirit moves them. It must be a terrible thing at the end of one’s days to regret that fear held you back from acting according to your informed conscience. Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. Sure look at the wee north. Wouldn’t you think we’d learned that fact by now, that we must meet each other and listen to each other with respect and an open mind. Ongoing dialogue.
    Never forget that this is “but a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.” (O.M) Keep the heart up, Brendan.

  6. The frustration in your words Fr Brendan is very evident. Almost 40 years a Priest of God, and you and your colleagues are denied access to the hierarchy. With the problems we are having within our Church, it is reasonable to assume that the hierarchy would welcome any advice/suggestions from those working at the coalface. That said, there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Reading the CI News, it is expected that meetings will shortly take place between the ACP and the Councils of Priests. Let us hope and pray that these meetings will be fruitful, and that some of our Bishops will attend. All the faithful need to come together, face our problems, and plan the road ahead.

  7. Extremely well articulated Mary! Yes, we are prophets, PERHAPS for a future, we will not know, is how I like to see it! However, it is as scripture says: “They go out sowing in tears, but return reaping in joy” We must also remember Mary’s canticle which promises “that God brings down the mighty from their thrones, and raises up the lowly”, or from St. Paul,: “Praised Be God, Who In Jesus Christ Always Leads Us in Triumphal Procession”.

  8. m.m.mccarron says:

    It needs to be accepted that priests get medical certificates once they feel in any way above a normal stress level. These should release them from ministry. Of a similar age to many, I cannot hear or see very well and have arthritis in knees and hand. I am not sure that I have the faculties to teach with what strength is available to me and I would be an uncomfortable imposition on a class. I need to know when the quality of health and my ministry is impaired and take action on it. There must be a free choice to give up active ministry when one feels it is no longer possible by age, by health…

  9. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Yes, Canon 212 asks for this to be done. But you have to stop playing the seekers and start playing the role as the messengers. Really, it is completely insubordinate for priests to hold a difference in opinion on these topics. You can’t sit there and politely poke a finger in the eye of the curia – that won’t work.
    Canon 212 states that the faithful are bound to follow what the sacred pastors (the bishops) declare as teachers of the faith. This statement is balanced off, however, by an annunciation of the right and obligation of all the faithful to provide intellectual input to the governance and indeed the very life of the Church.
    I feel that all the Associations need to become the voice of the parishoner network. Every time you ask of the Vatican, it’s on behalf of your parishoners and not out of your own doings. This is imperative. Use your website as a feedback to us – let us know how the Vatican is receiving our requests. This is a sound strategy because as much as the Curia can turn their backs and deaf ears to you and your occupational concerns, they can’t simply dismiss a parishoner uprising. The two questions that should be officially posed to the Pope are 1. how many signatories on a petition would it take for them to entertain a world-wide vote and 2. why is it that Canon Law does not adhere to Natural Law. Once you release that little tidbit in his ear, he’ll know you mean business because this is “the loophole”. We, the parishoners want to know, immediately if not sooner – once we get that number, we’ll be more than happy to start working on the marketing to bring people to the petition. Is this too much to ask of them?

  10. The ‘Church’ is not the hierarchy.
    Neither are the ‘priests’, not even ACP, the ‘Church’.
    The upper echelons of the hierarchy don’t listen to lower – the priests. Newsflash. They don’t listen to us either.

  11. Frank Graham says:

    As long as Rome selects and appoints Bishops who are ‘Yes-Men’and as long as these Bishops select and appoint Seminary Staff (mainly male celibate Priests)who also are ‘Yes-Men’ to train and form Seminarians,as future Priests who will then themselves become ‘Yes-Men’, some of whom will become Bishops…….. then I do not see any hope of changing the dogmatic, rigid, authoritarian and pre-Vatican 2 Roman mindset.They will only listen to themselves. Who will break the vicious circle?

  12. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    See, the other important issue is that the Church is now acting like a totalitarian state. This is exactly what St. Thomas Aquinas warned us about; that when humanity is subjected to unnatural laws, the doorway to ethical relativism is opened, on an individual level. When this happens on a political/state level, then regimes become authoritarian. It’s comforting to know that we will see his important writings come to life in the very religion he was so commited to protecting. His doctrine, if any will loosen the gags that are being placed on both priests, bishops and the Curia alike. But only if we start to *question* the right people, draw attention to the right doctrines (Natural Law) of the faith and never give up.

  13. Stephen Edward says:

    We know EXACTLY what happens to a Church that does what you want it to do because Anglicanism has and is trying your model. What happens? The people stay away in even greater numbers. You know this but you still want the Church to deny millenia of teaching as the Anglicans have done. I wonder why?

  14. David Murray says:

    While I love the Mass it seems to me that to say: “….the obvious truth that without priests there is no Mass and without Mass there will be no Church?” misses those countries around the globe where priests are presently in very short supply or virtually non-existent but where nevertheless there are active, even thriving, basic christian communirties, surely Church. But in any case it is not Church, nor Mass, nor priests, but Christ who must be at the centre.

  15. The bishops need to listen to the priests and the people, and the priests need to listen to the people, although, they would be receiving many different perspectives. I have to say, that most clergy, that I have encountered practically “run away” from me. They simply cannot or will not engage me in theological discussion.
    So, consequently, I’m generally dismissed……but I think, I have something to offer, don’t you?

  16. While viewing the various websites for Catholicireland.net, I came across a speech from Archbishop Diarmud Martin, given in 2003, shortly after his installation. The title of his paper is: “A Listening and Humble Church”. You might well speculate correctly as to what thoughts went through my head! The web address for this talk, is http://www.catholicireland.net/a-listening-and-humble-church/ or you can probably just google the title of the paper and his name. I was “consumed” with annoyance, because, this bishop writes so clearly, so emphatically, so directly, that all of us, including himself must be evangelized, yes, and that he too must be humble and listening. He specifically says, in this paper, that the priests must be listened to and supported. Is this the bishop that the priests have encountered? Would Father Hoban say that Bishop Martin has been humble and listening? Such men could be powerful servants of the Lord, if, they heeded their own sermons! The paper is well worth reading, but I am saddened, that it would seem more like a political platform that is dismissed after time and after other voices of power, trump the best of intentions! I really hate to use the “H” word, hypocrisy, but the bishop leaves me no choice, unless, your, experience of him, ACP, has been exactly what he preaches! I should probably say for people, who might be unfamiliar with his sermon of 2003, that he, on the surface would appear to support the entire constitution, goals and objectives of the ACP and of the ACI. Read it for yourself, you will see what I mean!

  17. Joe O'Leary says:

    “you still want the Church to deny millenia of teaching as the Anglicans have done”
    A very sweeping allegation both against Irish priests and Anglicans. Don’t forget that we are in real albeit imperfect communion with our Anglican brethren. To scoff at their faith like this is unacceptable. As to head counting, while mass attendance may be lower in some Anglican churches, the quality of worship may be more authentic than in our somnolent routinized and sloppy Masses. We should be learning from Anglicans about liturgy.

  18. Rather than again attack the ACP and now again insult Anglicans
    (@13), maybe a few words of wisdom to save our Church would be helpful.

  19. Yes, Ger, back to the task at hand! I was just injecting some levity! “Saving the Church” is already in the works with Christ, and the various renewal initiatives in Ireland. Actually, while on the surface, it may look dire, I believe, that at the HEART, of it all, the Church as the People of God, is alive and well on the Emerald Isle!

  20. Joe O'Leary says:

    No, the Anglicans, worldwide, have a sterling tradition and exemplary praxis of liturgy in English with great sermons, music, community spirit, charity outreach, scripture study etc. We have everything to learn from them.

  21. I cannot say Joe that I know any Anglican Ministers, but I do know a few Anglican lay members who are exemplary Christians.They also take great pride in their contribution to the management and policy making of their church. Wish we could do the same.

  22. I would suggest that the 1000 priest members of the ACP, resign from their dioceses and set themselves up along with those who have supported them from their parishes, and then see how long it will take for the institutional church to begin discussions!

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