Conversations Irish parishes need to have — Tony Butler

I thank Pat Seaver for his challenging words (posting below).  I believe he may have started an important conversation, one that is being avoided and indeed with other necessary conversations that are fear-full.
What happens if the present charade of First Holy Communion is questioned?  Full church for the day, tiaras, face tans, videos, hotel booked, guests invited and indeed as happened last year with regards to the Sacrament of Confirmation, a glass coach with horses brought down from N.Ireland at some cost to carry the young person to church?
The following and subsequent Sundays? How many of the parents and the children who received on that First Communion Day are present with the parish community celebrating the Risen Christ? It is a charade and it must come an end. Indeed that ending may be in sight as the numbers attending mass and sacraments are in deep decline. I have spoken of this to other priests and usually the response is, ” ah yes….but…..” Others will say you cannot deny anyone the sacraments, I am not at all saying the sacrament be denied, I do not agree at all with denying the sacrament, the Eucharist was never intended to be used/misused as a penalty. But the game-playing, the charade cannot continue. Anyone willing to enter into conversation on this point, any parish priest, parent, teacher, bishop, anyone?
May I issue an invitation to another conversation? Parish membership.
If everyone in your parish geographical area and those who attend by choice from other parishes were written to or contacted and asked to affirm that they wish to be counted as being members of the sacramental worshiping community known as the parish of X.
Those who reply agreeing that yes they wish to be counted and known as members, these are now the parish community. If out of 500 hundred people written to 150 reply in the affirmative, those 150 together with the ordained make up the Church in that area. Those who do not reply or those who reply negatively are not nor ever outside the mission of the Church.
From those who affirm publicly that they wish to belong the Parish Pastoral Council is elected – but given teeth! with responsibility, empowered to minister in parish areas of Finance, Education and in all other areas that can be given to them to enable the pastor to be just that, pastor, priest and Presider of Eucharist.
A third – and for now final conversation!
A lady I know of tells of her story of meeting a gay man for the first time – her own son. She had listened over the years to what the Church was saying about homosexuality, particularly she remembered that word used ” disordered.”  Now in knowing and meeting her son as homosexual all the stereotyping she had of gay people was challenged. When her son told his story to her she was confused and admits that she cried and for a long time kept this to herself.
So many questions arised for her. But now being able to ” put a face ” on a gay man for the first time she knew the risk her son had taken in telling her and also she began to understand that he took the risk of losing her love and that of his father, this is a real risk for any gay man or woman.
My invitation to conversation here is acknowledge the presence of gay men and women in our worshipping communities, to thank them for their presence, for all of us to recognise that human sexuality in all its richness is a gift from God and to issue a welcome and indeed ask forgiveness from those who were told or felt they were not wanted within the People of God.

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  1. Soline Humbert says:

    In connection with your last point, isn’it a very sad reflection on our current church life that gay priests in Ireland cannot be open about who they are? Their unique witness is urgently needed. Their being in the closet isn’t Good News for anyone, and certainly not to God’s glory. The glory of God is the human being fully alive, including our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. They are wonderfully and beautifully made in God’s image and likeness so it’s time to “shine”! The English theologian and priest James Alison, is a great example and inspiration.

  2. Theodore Fink says:

    Re: Parish Membership
    Why not to have two types of parish membership?
    1. Known parish members proposed by Tony, and
    2. Anonymous parish members proposed by Jesus (Mt 6:6)
    Sounds outragous, but in the current ecclesiastical context, I prefer to be an anonymous parish member.

  3. Tony Butler says:

    Thank you for that interesting comment. I never saw that Gospel sentence in that particular light and I am happy your raised it as for a long time I have been intrigued by the man mentioned by Jesus in Matthew 26.18.
    I have thought about him so often that I consider him a faith-friend by now. ” So -and -so ” a disciple unknown to the other disciples? That thought has fascinated me for years.
    I believe that he reappears -again as an anonymous disciple – in my third conversation.
    In my prayers and in my preaching I have often referred to him.
    St. So-and So, pray for us.

  4. Dear Tony,
    Many thanks for your words which touched my heart.I am teacher of
    Religion here in Austria and I am half Irish. It is everywhere the
    same. I understand your view of First Communion, I have the same view.
    I would be interested in a meeting of Irish and Austrian teachers
    and priests to build up a kind of strategy how we could bring parents and children to a much better understanding of the EUCHARIST. I think this is one of the main problems.
    And we have to think to become more and more credible.
    I hope that nobody is annoyed that I am writing to you, but
    I think it is really HIGH TIME that we start to work together over our countries’ borders.
    Take care and God bless all of you.
    Reading this page: It still smells like a little bit of spring in
    our sometimes very cold church HALLELUJA!
    Brigitte Patricia

  5. Kevin Walters says:

    First Holy Communion
    Reflection of thought Not Shop Bought God’s Message taught
    Charade or no the heart of each child will know.
    A Sheppard should have taught his flock simplicity will not mock
    Not a normal Sunday first communicants on display
    Boys all dress the same but this is no game
    No scuffed shoe all black and new
    White shirt and sock no black polish did mock
    Grey trousers clean leg and knee for all to see
    White shirt no speck of dirt
    Spotless hand stay together Sisters command
    Red tie symbol of valor white face pallor
    No noise all good boys nor runny nose angelic pose
    Swirls a clutch of girls
    From head to toe only white must show
    Frill and lace dresses of taste
    Silk and satin a perfect happening
    White rose display a perfect array
    Show stopping a white veil topping
    Mothers pride none did hide
    A venial sin but no smile or grin
    The essence of this tale can now begin
    Arriving remnants of a party game
    Mothers heads bow in shame
    A mothers love but misunderstood
    Perhaps Old Joe but we will never know
    White stiletto shoe lose fit, misfit
    Nylon stocking mocking not white nor tight
    Back comb of hair I cannot swear
    Powder and rouge but I think not a stooge
    Veil no tale full curtain of this I am certain
    Down the isle travelling in style front row all must go
    Stiletto heel we all could feel
    Curtain call occupant small
    Our Fathers gift is given
    Reflection of thought not shop bought
    Innocence protects head held high as the rest
    Radiant smile as her Spirit did shine
    In Christ

  6. Tony Butler says:

    As ever – thank you for your words. I agree with you in regards to James Alison. There is another priest, Jose Matero also writing, his blog is ” La Casulla de San Ildefonso”. Both of them writing of their experiences as being priest and gay – and with very different styles of writing.
    I also think of Matthew Kelty,( who died recently aged 90) a Trappist monk of Gethsemani, for many years he was confessor to Thomas Merton. Kelty wrote on ” Celibacy and the Gift of Gay” in his book ” My Song Is of Mercy” ( Sheed and Ward,1994.) a wonderful collection of his homilies and chapter talks.
    Alison so often refers to Rene Girard’s understanding of mimetic rivalry, scapegoating and conflict and indeed Girard’s understanding of Christianity cannot but speak to the closeted world of so many gay men and women, religious, ordained and non ordained.
    It’s interesting that Alison often uses the phrase ” the joy of being wrong ” combine that with Kelty’s ” My Song Is Of Mercy ” and surely we arrive back to the ” felix culpa ” a good start to look at a new theology of sexuality in a positive and grace-filled way.

  7. Soline Humbert says:

    Many thanks Tony for these other references. I will look them up.
    I feel strongly about that issue because of the immense suffering caused to so many by our failure to embrace the inclusivity of the Good News Jesus brought us.
    Advent blessings of joyful hope.

  8. Excellent posting by Tony Butler. First Communion has become a charade. A fashion show has replaced the spiritual. But what to do is the question.
    Regarding the question of homosexuals – I deplore the use of the word ‘Gay’, as in many cases that is one thing they are not. I recall, when I was Pallottine Director of vocations for the U.K.,a good-looking, educated young man called to the presbytery in response to my advertising in the Catholic press. Just the type of man the Society was looking for. Then late in the conversation, he admitted that he was homosexual- his word- but that he had not been ‘active’ for some time. Reluctantly I had to reject him.
    Away from the above topics: in my travels around Munster placing my book in shops, I have detected a faint whiff of indifference to things spiritual. One young lady in Thurles was going to place “No love Here – a priest’s Journey” in the fiction section.

  9. It is a sad fact that within the present church climate it takes bravery to even ask questions. So thank you for your brave questions. Without them we certainly won’t find creative answers. I am a firm believer in the need for conversations such as you suggest, to break out all over the church. Sadly the silence is deafening. I/we have been reduced to silence through either fear of the reaction of the boundary watchers, or by an overwhelming sense of futility. But your questions deserve a response. Here is my effort:
    Unfortunately I haven’t much to say on your questions around first communion and the circus that it has become in many places (exceptions acknowledged). It’s a mighty hole we have dug for ourselves. Maybe the only hope is for the gradual cooperation of enlightened parents who will support each other in going against the trend.
    In regard to your second question of church membership and pastoral councils with teeth – As part of our recent diocesan listening process I welcomed the apparent move towards mandatory councils and stressed the crying need for an ANNUAL CONFERENCE FOR PARISH PASTORAL COUNCILS in the diocese, to be attended by both the clergy and laity who together make up their membership. Its purpose should be; (1) give the councils the status they deserve, (2) provide joint envisioning and formation of clergy and laity together in the one room, (3) nurture mutual trust building between clergy and laity; (4) facilitate the progressive development of a partnership strategy for ministry. Surely this would contribute to the breaking down of the increasingly unhelpful demarcation between clerical and lay ministry and help create a level playing field, at least at local church level.
    Additionally, with whispers of a reinstatement of a DIOCESAN PASTORAL COUNCIL, I expressed an opinion that there needs to be an organic link between it and the Parish Pastoral Councils; i.e. the Parish Pastoral Councils need a system which allows them to decide who represents them at that level. (This could be an additional function of the annual PPC conference proposed above). A Diocesan Pastoral Council simply appointed/selected by the bishop from above, would do nothing to alleviate the sense of disconnect between parishes and diocese, which is the inherent weakness in our current system of diocesan commissions. Commissions may be easier to control, but are unrepresentative and tend to be bereft of any creative impulse.
    Your idea of church membership, would give all these Councils much needed teeth. To my knowledge , there is nothing in these suggestions that is not compatible with present church law, but could still offer hope of some prospect of a move towards an accountable system of church government in the future.
    Finally on the issue of welcoming gay people into our church communities. It is a sad fact that I know no openly gay/homosexual person in my parish community and I have never asked why. To be openly present, they need to be openly welcomed. We need an open Eucharistic table and not just for our gay brothers and sisters (a whole other conversation that needs to happen). The historic Jesus excluded no one from his table. Why do we suppose the Risen Christ would not do the same?

  10. Mary Burke says:

    This is at least the second time that you have used this website to publicize your book.
    The attitude you have shown here to gay people is disgraceful. One would imagine that your experience of marriage would have had a more humanizing effect on your views.
    Who wants to hear you making a derogatory comment about all gay people. The generalization alone speaks for itself quite apart from the homophobia it contains.
    And who want to hear that you rejected that man from joining your order simply because he was gay? If all of the gay priests and bishops in Ireland or further afield did not say Mass next Sunday where would we be? And where have you bee?
    Were you serious when you requested that 200 members of the ACP would buy your book? Or just an unashamed self-publicist?

  11. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Mary, many thanks for expressing what many others must have felt on coming across Martin Gordon’s intolerant sense of entitlement yet again.
    Martin, it is no doubt an achievement to publish your book in your 81st year and I’m sure we all wish you many more years of good health, not only to write a better book but to take time to reflect on the people you are addressing, whether here in the Association of Priests (some, like Fr Des Wilson, older and I believe wiser than most of us), on your own website or in your book(s). The “faint whiff of indifference” you noticed in Cork or Thurles may have had more to do with your book than with “things spiritual” in Munster. I sympathise with that young lady who may have thought it should go on the Mills & Boon shelf.
    What too often leaps out from your pages, as well as from your publicity and your ACP posts, is your tendency to blame others for your about turns or occasional culs-de-sac. And no, I don’t think Richard Dawkins is about to be converted, vanquished or even tickled by your off-the-cuff argument – though I do agree that his ‘God Delusion’ is rant, not argument.
    Finally, Martin, I have spent most of the past half-century here near your old London stomping ground, from Clerkenwell along the banks of the ‘New River’ north to Harringay and Tottenham. I can only say that your website comments in August on the London riots, which had their initial spark in Tottenham, were less than insightful and could be dangerous on a real website. If you want to say something useful about a Tottenham or Manchester riot in 2011, you don’t go searching for a sub-racist quote from Hilaire Belloc !

  12. Well done to Tony (& Pat Seaver) for beginning 3 very relevant conversations. I agree fully that both 1st Communion and Confirmation are charades. Even with the advent of parish based programmes of preparation like “Do this in Memory” and “Journey to Confirmation”, there is little evidence that they have a lasting impact. I rarely see any of the children from either of the sacramental classes at weekend liturgies outside of the weekends dedicated to the programmes. IN fact on the Sunday after First communion last year there were 12 children who received the sacrament on Saturday at mass the following day. That was out of a total of over 100! Hmmm.
    There is a link between this and the 2nd conversation. I have experience of several USA parishes where registration with your parish and hence involvement with parish have a positive result. It means that commitment and dedication to the Catholic community are part of each families agenda. Obviously in many instances this means smaller communities, but more authentic worshipping communities too, where there is a real sense of belonging.
    And onto the final conversation. How many LGBT people would have any trust in the church after how they have been so shoddily treated over the years? Despite this, their gifts & presence would be a wonderful addition to our worshipping communities. Only at local level can this welcome and inclusiveness happen. A conversation worth pursuing.

  13. Tony,
    All three reflections have found resonance with me. Year in and year out I have seen children presented for the sacraments of First Communion and Confirmation without understanding or commitment. We have been using the Do This in Memory programme for many years and have also used the confirmation rituals in parish – have engaged with children and parents at parish level – but still it seems that in the majority of cases the sacraments are merely passports to a future church wedding – merely rites of passage. It is apparent that these programmes have had little or no effect on the non-church attending families to give commitment to their parish community and very often Confirmation remains the ‘exiting’ sacrament – even for those who belong to ‘church-going’ families. I believe that until the Church starts to take these sacraments seriously we cannot expect families to value them for the sacred moments of recognition they are truly meant to be – signs of Christ with us. What is the answer? would it make a difference if the sacraments were not linked with school and if sacramental preparation was wholely parish-based? I would love for this discussion to be held openly and honestly.
    As for the parish community – I agree that the two issues are linked. I think this would present a very interesting dialogue at local and diocesan level. Yes, I think having registered members of parish could also act as a catalyst for meaningful and commited membership and would make transitions to real involvment by laity (particularly women) easier.
    As to the conversation re ‘Gay’ men and women – we are all created in the image of God – the reflection of God is indeed beautiful. How can the Church condemn people to the margins. Oh for full participation for all – men and women!

  14. Tony Butler says:

    Apropos the ” conversations ” being explored here, the following is the text of ” Believers Speak Out ” issed by four Flemish priests in the week before Advent, and to December 1st the number of signers to this manifesto is 6,000.
    ” Parishes without a priest. Eucharist at inappropriate hours, worship without Communion: that really should not be! What is delaying the needed church reform? We, Flemish believers, ask our bishops to break the impasse in which we are locked. we do this in solidarity with fellow believers in Austria, Ireland and many other countries, with all who insist on vital church reform.
    We simply do not understand why the leadership in our local communities (e.g.parishes) is not entrusted to men or women, married or unmarried, professionals or volunteers, who already have the necessary training. We need dedicated pastors!
    We do not understand why these our fellow believers cannot preside at Sunday liturgical celebrations. In every active community we need liturgical ministers!
    We do not understand why, in communities where no priest is available, a Word service cannot also include a Communion service.
    We do not understand why skilled laypeople and well-formed religious educators cannot preach. We need the word of God.
    We do not understand why those believers who, with every good will, have remarried after a divorce must be denied Communion. They should be welcomed as worthy believers. Fortunately, there are some places where this is happening.
    We also demand that, as quickly as possible,both married men and women be admitted to the priesthood. We, people of faith, desperately need them now!”
    One of the co authors of the manifesto, Fr.John Dekimpe said of those who signed the manifesto; “These are not ‘protest people’. they are people of faith. They are raising their voices. They hope their bishops are listening.”

  15. Paul Connolly says:

    I fully agree with the views expressed by Fr.Tony Butler re the obscene Charade that surrounds first holy communion.All this only brings the Roman Catholic church into further ridicule and is far from what was intended when first incorporated into church practices.
    To see poor people in their desperation not to let their children down on their big day, having to resort to unscrupulous money lenders in order to fund this extravaganza is indeed very sad.This is precisely the type of thing Martn Luther abhored.I believe that The Roman Catholic church would do the Church and the Sacrament a great service if they would consider adopting the Church of Ireland position where first communion is received on the next Sunday after confirmation.There is no mini beauty parade attached to this which I believe was the original intention of the church authorities and I believe that a child of 12 is in a far better position to understand what is happening than is a child of 7.
    I have emailed my views on this to Arch Bishop Martin on this a few months ago but did not as of yet receive a reply.
    Paul Connolly R.C.

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