Councils of Priests – are they relevant?

‘As regards the voice of priests, the bishops emphasised that the strategic role of the diocesan Councils of Priests is particularly important.’  (Bishops’ letter to ACP)
I was part of the ACP delegation that met with the bishops last May where we put before them concerns we gathered from our members. I felt it was a good meeting; a sharing of views in what I thought was a constructive manner.
The letter in response was disappointing, as it seemed to end the possibility of future engagement. The above line stayed with me as it seems to be an answer for the bishops with regard to any engagement with the concerns of priests. So how do they work …. Priests’ Councils? I can only speak about what I know and my own experience in the Diocese of Cloyne.
Our Council is made up of the Bishop, the Vicar General, an Archdeacon, five Canons, the Bishop’s secretary who is an ex officio member, and eight other priests. Some are elected, others appointed by the bishop. With all those titles so much for the humble church Pope Francis speaks of.
Lately I have written to the Council with a concern. I wished the council to look into the procedures and practices used ‘against’ priests when an allegation is made against them. The experiences I quoted in the letter were based on my own experience and based on facts that I can prove. (cf: guilty-until-proven-innocent). My letter was never put before the council as it was felt that people could be identified.
A previous concern I raised was dismissed as it was felt it was a matter for the bishop to deal with.
My experience is that the Council of Priests does not want to deal with the concerns of priests.
So what do they deal with?
Well at present the major concerns of our council are:

  1. The Permanent Diaconate… It was introduced without any dialogue or engagement with laity or priests.
  2. Setting up a trust for Diocesan property.
  3. The introduction of Parish pastoral councils in all parishes in the diocese.

Rarely if ever is there any meaningful discussion of the real concerns of priests. How could there be as there is no engagement from the council with priests. No feedback, no coming together to discuss any issues. All we get is an email a few days before the next meeting with a copy of the previous minutes.
I would suggest the council is in need of rebranding and be given a name that more accurately reflects its purpose. Something like, “The Bishop’s policies implementation group.”
For diocesan priests the council is irrelevant in our lives. We get on with it as best we can as the work and weight of expectation grows, dreading the next edict to come from the council or the diocesan office to add to our busy work schedule.
At the AGM of the Association of Catholic Priests I was asked if Brendan Hoban’s reflection of the life of a diocesan priest was accurate. In my experience it was spot on. Many lean on medication to help them through, glad to have an emphatic GP who understands loneliness and depression. Others of us survive by dipping in and out of our particular addiction; glad of the momentary comfort it may give.
I think of the many great men who have left the active ministry of priesthood and the sadness of the reaction of shock by their confreres …‘we never saw it coming’…. not understanding their reasons or maybe not wanting to.
Others just break down or just give up seeing no other way out. All the while we are getting older and becoming even more vulnerable. The most recent threat is that that our savings will be taken from us or if we have our own house we will have to sell it to pay for nursing home care.
Is there any care for priests?
I don’t think so. This belief was reinforced lately when I spoke with the family of a priest who had to be moved to specialised care. When a family member informed the diocese, believing that someone cared, she was told to let them know when his move happened so the appropriate paperwork could be adjusted. No mention of the man himself or his wellbeing; it’s so sad at the end of a priest’s life, yet he is one of the lucky ones to have family members who care.
Why do I bring all this up? Am I just being negative as the ACP is often accused of being? I mention it because it is the reality, and when you name what is true then progress can be made. The other reason I mention it because I believe there is another way. A way where things are done differently, where Christ and people are put first.

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  1. Seamus Ahearne says:

    Tim is a very honest man. His courage and toughness of spirit has been refined by experience. His words on Priests’ Councils are sharp and relevant. He needs to be listened to.
    The role of Priests’ Councils is important. Its strength depends on it being used properly. Its weakness is in its legal set-up. If it is seen as advisory to the Bishop in a similar way as a Parish Council is advisory to the Parish Priest; then it can be strangled and often is. It is stacked with the Bishop’s appointees. The Priests on the Council defer to the superior wisdom of the Bishop. The Chairman shapes the Agenda (and is careful) according to the wishes and preferences of the Bishop and little is done.
    If it is genuinely seen as a Structure in the Governance of the Diocese; if it is seen genuinely as an effort to share the experience and wisdom of the workers out in the parishes and to apply this pastoral richness for the diocese; then it will work well. If anything of the synodal method is applied; then the Councils will evolve into something better. The Bishop has an overall outlook on life in the Diocese but is usually at a distance from the day to day routine of Church life. The Priests live there!
    I served on a Priests’ Council. It was full of straight talking. It was quite relaxed The Bishop spoke much too much. I did however enjoy a clash between two Chancellors (the present one and the former one). Different legal understandings emerged. That debate needed to go on and maybe it has. The actual legal set-up is a model in which everyone and everything defers to the Bishop. It is utterly destructive in a similar way to the legal framework for Parish Pastoral Councils. If we hang onto the view that it is consultative only etc – then it goes nowhere. In my own case of over 40 years with Parish Pastoral Councils (and Parish Teams) , I have never come across the need to appeal to the law for the boss to reign supreme. Now if Bishops want us to use Parish Councils properly or Parish Teams properly – they will have to adjust thoroughly the meaning of Priests’ Councils. Thanks Tim for your words. Seamus Ahearne osa

  2. Bernard Cotter says:

    A noted priest in our diocese (Cork & Ross) often comments that the Priests’ Council is the place where good ideas go to die.
    Still, I am a member of a deanery conference which has survived five years without any representation on the priests’ council (and thus no reports from that body) and it seems so much healthier than the frustration of dealing with it.
    Amazing (or not amazing?) that bishops set such store in meeting councils’ chairmen….

  3. DR. HENRY says:

    Very respectfully to priests: Go on strike one Sunday morning.

  4. Depressing to see nothing has changed since I worked in the Dublin archdiocese in the 1960’s. It is clear that the hierarchical structure of the church is such that it will never be able to change from its rigid authoritarian ways.
    Francis or no Francis, bishops still spend their careers looking over their shoulders for fear of being out of step with the expectations of SOMEONE [God know who – maybe just a figment of their own imagination!] whom they assume is watching them, ready to pounce at the slightest deviation from the rules.
    Such a system inhibits men in authority from sharing it with others; the system demands that they at all times project the image of being in control. In such a scenario bodies like councils of priests etc can only have a role of rubber-stamping what the bishop has already decided.

  5. Dr Henry seems to have diagnosed the problem correctly and prescribed therapeutic action. Go on strike on a Sunday? Is the ACP capable of organising a strike? Well you don’t need to actually go on strike – you could go walkabout, or on pilgrimage, or otherwise do something different, an independent action. For that you need to be capable of making decisions. Is the necessary spirit described somewhere in the Bible? Remember how the Romanian revolution started? The “official” pro-government demonstraters just stopped in front of the dictator’s (Ceausescu) podium and just looked at him for a while, then started chanting – their own chant, about bread and food and proper wages. For that you need to be have courage – not the kind of spirit that knuckles under when the bishop[ demands that you can’t discuss women priests. Is the ACP capable of organising a public forum on women priests? Has it occurred to you that the bishop may be more afraid of you than you are of him?

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