What disenchants the Irish diocesan clergy

Though it is still possible at least theoretically to camouflage intimations of mortality, arriving at my 65th birthday and on the cusp of achieving a life-time ambition (getting the free travel), I have to accept that the evening of life has announced its arrival. As against that, incredibly 65 is the average age of priests in Ireland today. In the present dispensation, as the average age continues to soar, relatively speaking it’s almost impossible to reach the older age-group – a bit like the tide moving out as you walk towards the deep.
As I write, lyrics of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Some Enchanted Evening (from South Pacific) drift from a television in the far room of my vast presbytery: Who can explain it? / Who can tell you why? / Fools give you reasons, / Wise men never try and inadvertently I find a title for an attempt to understand the mood of the Irish clergy now. Once there were dreams of a different life or in a different kind of Church of enchanted evenings but now, I have to say, disenchantment seems the order of the day.
In an effort to sum up the present mood of Irish clergy now, all things considered I think the word ‘disenchantment’ just about fits. There are other words at either end of the spectrum, from naivety to depression, that apply accurately to individual circumstances – burn-out, ennui, weariness, taedium vitae – but, generally, I think ‘disenchantment’ will do. Most of us are there or have been there and have felt the texture. Disenchanted evenings indeed.
As the most pitied, patronised, insulted, isolated, disrespected, neglected and uncared for phalanx of Catholic clergy in recent Irish history, it’s easy to lapse into negativity and dismissal. It’s easy too, of course, to present an optimistic front, Athanasius contra mundum, easy to lapse into the true and tested way of piously writing straight with the crooked lines of life. But what matters ultimately is not how negative or positive my words appear but whether they are true.
In this space I want to ponder a series of group perceptions that ring true for me as reflective of the mood of my fellow Catholic clergy today. Perhaps more accurately I should say reflective of diocesan clergy because my experience of communal religious life is limited almost to the apocryphal and the anecdotal. And I think it’s important to say that difficult and all as it is to understand our own lives, as diocesan or religious clergy, it is (despite what we share) impossible to imagine what it is to walk the very different moccasins of members of religious orders and congregations.
Recently a vocations director of a religious order, in an open letter, took the Irish bishops to task regarding their inability to attract vocations to the diocesan priesthood. Apart from the lethal cocktail of enthusiasm and naivety in his contribution, it was dispiriting to read his casual dismissal of a crisis in vocations and his list of tired, over-tried and failed recommendations to stem the tide. A bit like Jack Preston playing for my native Ballycastle in the North Mayo Junior Championship whose kick-outs invariably landed, not just over the side-line but in the next field. Sometimes, with the best will in the world, you can miss the target completely.
While the solitary life of a diocesan priest can have its perks – Sky Sports in HD, absolute control of the remote control, nobody purloining the Tablet or the Irish Times crossword, no resident bore repeating for the millionth time his life’s great obsession, and the other distractions of the singular, celibate comfort zone – but topping a hard-boiled egg in the gloom of a February evening as the winter wind whistles in the chimney is not an experience those living in religious community, no matter what the limitations, really understand.
Write, a wise man averred, about what you know. So I will limit my contribution to the only life I know, that of a diocesan priest in Ireland, for over forty years, as I attempt to describe the prevailing mood.
In present circumstances, disenchantment among diocesan priests in Ireland is predictable, understandable, even inevitable, given the accumulated wreckage of the last few decades: paedophile scandals, failures of church leadership, vocations in free-fall, haemorrhaging of our congregations; rising age-levels of priests; the ever-increasing demands of our people; the perception of an anti-Church media bias; and, not least, the feeling that we have become endless and usually disparaging news. But I sense, behind that disenchantment, a gathering fear that there’s an enveloping darkness, a series of shadows, something more deep-seated than the clerical equivalent of Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘thinning briefcase of enthusiasm’, something that lurks in the recesses of Catholic priesthood.
The writer and former priest, Michael Harding, explored some of this hidden space in his bleak and disturbing work, Priest, (1986). More recently I heard a psychotherapist tell an audience of priests that there was ‘something’ around sexuality and priesthood that we needed to explore. There is a sense, a fear that whatever is awry at the heart of priesthood is now beginning to boil over as priests, bereft of the traditional support systems, progressively feel more isolated and at risk. A quiet voice, like a delicate flute, complaining in the distance, disturbs our small hours, reminding us that the normalities that could help humanise our lives – personal freedom, respect, independence, intimacy – have passed us by. There seems an uneasiness around the experience of disconnectedness and dislocation in the diocesan priesthood in Ireland today. Something is awry and we’re not quite sure what it is.
Worse still there’s no effort, maybe even ultimately no appetite, for staying with the questions. Certainly there’s no appetite for the naming of difficult truths, apart from oblique fictional treatments – saying the unsayable while holding the reality at a distance.
As far back as 1969, Richard Power’s novel, The Hungry Grass, marked a definitive change in the fictional treatment of an Irish priest. Power broke away from the usual clerical stereotypes in fiction in depicting the half-life of the main protagonist, Fr Tom Conroy. What’s different about Conroy is that he emerges as a credible human being, his humanity is not absorbed by his sense of vocation nor is his calling absorbed by his personality. Conroy, uneasy with his parishioners and alienated from his family, unhappy in his relationships and inadequate at the crucial moments, searches back over his life in a series of dreams and reveries for some pattern or direction but finds only brokenness and darkness.
The darkness which Power suggests or hints at in his depiction of Conroy is a far cry from the gallery of clerical types in Bernanos, Mauriac, even Greene in that Conroy’s very ordinariness surfaces questions of faith, which are summarily dismissed ‘The Mass was something necessary like shaving . . .’ And what remains is a sense of darkness, a bleakness suggested though not directly named.
Unlike Michael Harding’s, Priest, written almost two decades later, which received a mixed reception. Eltin Griffin dismissed Harding’s priests as ‘clerical caricatures’ while Ray Brady, writing in The Furrow in April 1987, was disturbed by the book and ‘began thinking all sorts of weird things about the pathological side of priesthood’. Harding’s ‘fiction’, he believed, was ‘a reminder that the priestly way of life can be a terrible way of death’.
Others, including myself in The Furrow (April, 1989), felt that Harding’s book, peopled by a quite unbelievable litany of clerical weirdos, was over the top in the manner of a Fellini film or a Dali painting, that the prosaic licence had rendered the ‘fact’ so much ‘fiction’, that it had lost touch with its subject-matter. I’m not so sure now. Sometimes it can take years to realise that what seemed to make so little sense names a truth that we find difficult to accept.
In 1988, the National Conference of Priests, against the backdrop of Harding’s faction, chose ‘Priesthood’ as the theme of their annual general meeting. However the papers, under the title, Being a Priest in Ireland Today, worthy though they were, left the distinct impression that profound generalities missed out on experiential particularities, the shadow of Harding’s ‘faction’.
A few decades later, the question Ray Brady posed in 1987 has returned to haunt us: could there be a connection between the pathological side of priesthood as evidenced in Harding’s disturbing portrayal and the experience of lived priesthood?
Even then Brady sensed that fundamentally there was something wrong:My gut tells me that all is not well, that there is some kind of malaise among us clergy. No one is saying too much. It is difficult to talk about priesthood in Ireland today because you can’t be sure who you’re talking about. What is it that keeps the priest going? What keeps him sane? What keeps him human? Does he depend on prayer, faith, companionship, leadership? How can he mature without the exclusive love and support of a woman? What part does family play in his social life? What about his fellow priests? And how does he value the friendship of women?Brady, in his quiet and oblique musings, was beginning to prise open an unexamined vista and while he was tentatively arriving at the questions he realised too that ‘we are not at all anxious to face them’. Once Columba Marmion, Edward Leen and Leo Trese offered solutions; later Karl Rahner and Rene Volillaume and others suggested approaches; but who is there now to counsel the wounded healers?
In a contribution to The Furrow in 1996, ten years after Harding’s Priest appeared, under the title Elephants in the Livingroom, I attempted to ‘acknowledge some difficult truths about the Irish priesthood, to hold the lived reality of priesthood up to the light of day, to own the shadows, to give it our attention’. It was an effort to name the isolation and loneliness that Bishop Brendan Comiskey, would later allude to when he resigned in 2002.
While the article generated quite a reaction, many felt that the landscape of priesthood I had presented was too bleak, too frightening, too extreme. Some felt that such issues should not be surfaced at all; others felt that I had betrayed my priesthood and my Church; yet, some too accepted that I was telling it as it is.
Gradually, in succeeding years, as the abuse scandals and the reports that detailed them demanded our attention, huge question-marks were placed on the formation of priests, the imbalance between function and person, the definitive isolation of celibate priests and more generally the pressing need to redefine and re-image priesthood in the modern world. But, as the abuse scandals compounded the general unease, the issues involved were referred to in passing rather than systematically examined.
It took Marie Keenan’s book, Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church, Gender, Power and Organisational Culture (2012) to open a different window. While Keenan’s aim was to ‘understand and analyse child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy in its individual and systemic dimensions’ her research, reflection and knowledge produced a graphic analysis of the limitations of what passed for formation and the lack of structured support in living a celibate commitment:
‘Making a commitment to a life of celibate commitment without adequate self-awareness was based on a theology of sexuality with the split between matter and spirit at its core, and on a notion of spirituality that was devoid of the human realities of young men’s lives’.
Keenan’s research depicts a culture of secrecy and denial where emotional and physical loneliness and emotional vulnerability are ignored or at least not dealt with, where sexuality ‘became something dark, dirty and unclean’ and the gap unbreached between the reality of living and ‘the ideal theoretical world of moral theology’. Keenan doesn’t set out to produce answers but ends with some searching questions:
‘When will the Catholic Church provide an appropriate support infrastructure for its clergy, respecting personal autonomy and individual conscience? Can the Catholic perception and suggested practice of sexual mores for clergy ever be reconciled with the demands of biology, psychology and social and intimate bonding?’
Keenan’s focus is on trying to understand the roots of the abuse crisis in the Catholic Church but her analysis has wider implications for understanding the roots of some of the problems in Catholic priesthood today. While not everyone would agree with her conclusion – ‘Making celibacy mandatory for all Catholic clergy no longer serves anyone well’ – few, specially diocesan priests, would question the need for a more in-depth, critical examination of Catholic priesthood and the shadows surfaced in recent times.
Sense of an ending
There’s a gathering sense among diocesan priests that we’re coming to the end of something. A sense of the dying of the light, the morning after optimism. With vocations dwindling and priests ageing a great disenchantment is settling in as the problems seem so overwhelming and efforts to respond to them seem so inadequate. In my last book, Who will break the bread for us? Disappearing priests, I crunched the available figures and arrived at the conclusion that in two decades the few priests left in Ireland would be over worked, over-wrought and over seventy. In Killala diocese, there are now seven priests under 55 for 22 parishes; in seven years time there will be just 30 priests in Tuam for 55 parishes; in 1990 there were 525 students for the diocesan priesthood, now there are 70; this year, 2013, Dublin diocese with a reputed population of 1.2 million accepted a lone seminarian. The vocations crisis is now a matter of arithmetic.
Compounding this problem is a growing disillusionment among priests in their fifties and sixties and a consequent drift out of priesthood, not because of celibacy but in search of companionship and what might be called ‘normality’. It’s the isolation that gets to us in the end. Compounding this drift is the often ritual acceptance in clerical company that many others would opt for the equivalent of early retirement if such was offered to them. More and more, still clinging to the wreckage, seem to be hanging on to a life that’s no longer satisfying because they haven’t the energy or the courage or the money to opt for a different, more amenable existence.
As priests age and become more aware that life is closing in around them and as the experience of isolation is exacerbated, the culture of distraction that helped them cope in their earlier years no longer delivers. Andrew Greeley, the priest-author of several books, was once asked how he found the time to write so many. He replied, ‘I’m a celibate. You have to be doing something’. But not everyone gleans the same satisfaction as Greeley from a hobby (or obsession). Golf days, poker schools, pilgrimages to Medjugorje, breeding pedigree cattle, travelling the world, writing books, attending Charles de Foucauld prayer groups and similar obsessions that helped distract us in the past no longer deliver. As life closes in, interests diminish and eventually melt away. Priests who attended the Wexford Opera Festival for decades wouldn’t cross the road if Luciano Pavarotti rose from the dead and was singing Nessun Dorma in the local hall. Or the equivalent.
Michael Harding, with disconcerting accuracy, catches in Priest that vague emptiness in his image of the priest sitting in his armchair ‘staring at the telly and thinking that it is a terrible world’. In the last century in the parish of Kilcommon Erris in Mayo, Fr John Lavelle – poet, teacher, intellectual, antiquarian, member of the Royal Irish Academy and a noted member of the literati – was once described by a parishioner as ‘above there in the house, looking out the window, mad at everything’.
A growing source of disenchantment among diocesan priests is the unhappy prospect of ending our working years with work and responsibility expanding rather than contracting and the almost inevitable prospect of not living long enough to enjoy any kind of worthwhile retirement. At present, within the limited lexicon of church rule, as priests become too ill to continue or retire or die, the antidote to the decline in priest-numbers is the clustering of parishes and the consequent encouragement of decreasing numbers of clergy to co-operate across parish boundaries. Then as priests die out the remaining complement of priests takes responsibility for the work of their deceased colleague.
Clustering is not presented as a solution to the ongoing scarcity of priests because it’s obvious that it has no long-term purchase, apart from killing off some ageing priests. Clustering is no more than an administrative method of managing the decline in vocations and has nothing to do with solving the present priests’ crisis. Even though it’s sometimes spoken of as if it was a solution even a panacea, it’s clear 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. It’s also now mathematically certain, as indicated above, that in twenty years’ time there will be few priests left to ‘cluster’.
Another ‘solution’, or rather another way of pushing back difficult decisions, is to extend the age of retirement beyond the already advanced age of 75, to ‘encourage’ priests not to retire at all, to keep going as long as their health can stand it. This policy, now being pushed in some Irish dioceses – a proposal in Tuam is to raise the age to 78 – started some years ago in America when the depth of the priest-shortage became obvious there.
An early example was a letter in 2001 from John Myers, Bishop of Peoria, Illinois – now Archbishop of Newark, New Jersey – to his ‘senior’ priests designed to encourage as many as possible to continue in ministry. It was reprinted in The Furrow, September, 2001.
All the predictable buttons were pressed: (i) spiritualising – priests are not ‘of this world’ and ‘the holy priesthood is not a career’ so priests shouldn’t be enticed into blindly following their secular counterparts into retirement; (ii) exploiting the guilt factor – ‘the Church needs you’; (iii) manipulating – ‘Moses was already an old man when the Lord gave him the mission to lead the chosen people out of Egypt – what if he had said No, Lord, I am retired?’ (iv) minimising the alternative – ‘many priests find retirement disappointing’; (v) appealing to vanity – ‘In some instances, when it is judged appropriate by both the priest and bishop, the honorary title of Pastor Emeritus may be conferred’; and finally (vi) a financial inducement.
This approach to the retirement of priests is unjust, disrespectful and patently manipulative. Priests, after lifetimes of service to the Church, deserve to be encouraged into retirement rather than made to feel guilty if we seek to enjoy life in the few years God may give us. Surely, manipulating priests in their 70s and 80s into continuing to work in parishes as some kind of part solution to the crisis in priest-numbers is unworthy of our Church. And adds to the growing disenchantment. Active priesthood shouldn’t be a life sentence.
Uneven burdens
While it’s a fact of parish life that ability, energy, commitment and work-load vary from individual to individual, many priests now find themselves struggling to deal not just with their own lives and work but effectively carrying their colleagues, who for whatever reason – laziness, ill-health, burn-out, etc – are no longer able or prepared to carry the burden of their mission. The ‘clustering’ phenomenon is exacerbating this condition. The result is that at a time when priest numbers are falling and expectations are rising, a huge burden is being carried by fewer and fewer priests. The dividend in ill-health and burn-out for those who were expected to carry the heaviest burden is becoming more and more obvious. Decisions, decisions, decisions need to be made in the narrow window before the great collapse takes place.
Appointment of bishops
For years the role (if such there is) of priests in the appointment of bishops has been a running sore in the Irish Church. Once there was some effort at consultation, even though it was minimal at best and often had the appearance of a public relations exercise more than anything else. Now no one is even pretending that priests have any real say anymore in the appointment of their bishops.
In recent months, five new bishops have been appointed to dioceses other than their own. All of them no doubt are good and honourable men but it’s a safe bet that none of the priests of their new dioceses voted for them. The present policy of appointing to dioceses as bishops priests from outside that diocese may make sense in the United States but it makes little sense in Ireland. The intention, it would seem, is to give the incoming bishop a certain independence and the priests of the diocese a new start in that cliques and allegiances end with the appointment of a stranger. But there are two clear limitations to this growing practice. One is that being a bishop in Raphoe is not the same as being a bishop in Cork, even if being a bishop in New York is not much different from being a bishop in Los Angeles. The history, heritage, nuances and practices of Irish dioceses vary considerably and there is ample evidence that bishops appointed from ‘a far kingdom’ can underestimate the importance of respect for the traditions of a diocese. Another is that, contrary to official wisdom, bishops need priests more than priests need bishops and if a bishop cannot quickly assess the strengths and weaknesses of his priests he is at a distinct disadvantage. It can take years for an outside bishop with no knowledge of a diocese to run himself in. Far from giving a new bishop a strong hand, a lack of knowledge of diocese and priests can reduce his effectiveness.
More to the point the virtual exclusion of the priests (or people) of a diocese from any effective say in the appointment of their bishop is an unacceptable form of ‘infantilisation’ ­– treating people as children and disrespecting their rights. For years Irish priests have protested at their unfair, unwarranted and unwise exclusion from participating in a decision to appoint a bishop – a matter of compelling interest to them. Sometimes semi-official priests’ meetings were held in dioceses; sometimes delegations were sent to the nunciature in Dublin; for years pleas have made by priests’ associations – all to no avail. A few years ago a former nuncio told a delegation of priests to go home and say their prayers and to wait for whatever bishop the Pope would send them! On another occasion a papal nuncio told the leader of a priest’s association, the National Conference of Priests of Ireland, who attempted to raise this issue on behalf of 6,000-plus Irish priests that he was ‘a nobody leading nobodies’. You can imagine the wonders that did for the morale of priests. Is it any wonder that so many priests are disenchanted?
I have a sense that Irish priests are generally disenchanted with the performance of Irish theologians. In recent years, more specifically in the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, theologians, instead of critiquing documents that emanated from Rome and placing them in the context of the Church’s teaching, seemed to operate as cheer-leaders for officialdom. Efforts to raise what were essentially disciplinary issues to the status of definitive church teaching – as in the infamous campaign to attach the word ‘infallibility’ to a church document – often produced an embarrassing silence in the Irish theological community. It is not unknown too that Irish theologians can be privately critical of an official document but publicly and fulsomely endorse it.
The new Missal is a case in point. It was introduced in Advent 2011 to replace a translation that after forty-plus years had become part of the groove of our worship, but was deemed to be banal and not sufficiently ‘sacred’. However, it was obvious to most people that the new translation – effectively a literal translation from the Latin – was more complicated, less user-friendly and needlessly obscure. It is, Donagh O’Shea wrote in his recent book, Faith Questions, ‘an invented language, spoken or written by nobody in the world’, its imposition ‘an exercise in power . . . to teach the English-speaking world a lesson’ and ‘to bury the Vatican Two doctrine of the collegiality of bishops’. Experts in linguistics dismissed the translation as incompetent and even a cursory reading of the texts shows that the language is archaic and convoluted and ignores the natural rhythm, cadence and syntax of the English language.
No one, including bishops, theologians and liturgists, shouted stop. Some priests felt betrayed and continue to feel betrayed by the supine response to the new missal, forced through without effective consultation and which has damaged the scaffolding of worship in Ireland – and in some cases reducing congregations to silence.
Is it any wonder that priests in the front line of introducing the translation in parishes felt betrayed by those who realised the enormity of what was being proposed and its possible devastating consequences for worship in Ireland but who hadn’t the courage of their convictions to state the truth as they saw it? Is it any wonder that the introduction of the new missal has effectively decimated whatever morale is left in a depleted presbyterate?
It was disappointing as well to witness the studied reluctance of some of our aspiring theologians, to join the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP). Did they imagine that they might pick up some heretical virus from the raving radicals of the ACP or was it that membership of an unofficial association might damage their future careers? And why, for that matter, the studied prudence of writing in theological journals that few read and most priests don’t understand? Is it that building up an academic CV is more important than responding to the pastoral needs of the people? And why the reluctance to express in popular media, without the security blanket of theological footnotes and quotations from papal encyclicals, what theology actually has to offer. And where stand our theologians now that Francis seems to be beating a different drum? Will we see in the distance a drift in a new direction?
Another source of disenchantment is the absence, as we grow older, of any real care. Care of diocesan priests may exist in theory but it doesn’t in fact. For the simple reason that the organised individual care of diocesan priests isn’t possible, apart from when we’re actually in transit across the last great threshold. While in some instances huge efforts have been made by dioceses to establish a structure of care, effectively it peters out in cliched bits of advice about playing poker, going for walks, getting your bloods tested regularly and not drinking on your own. If we live on our own, prepare our own food, often do our own laundry is it any wonder that we become Lone Rangers without even a Tonto in sight? Is it any wonder that progressively we become more isolated and alone?
The vocations director mentioned in the introduction is apparently oblivious to the actual lives diocesan priests lead and feels free to presume that what makes sense for religious applies to the priest on the side of a mountain topping his egg on a miserable February evening. Not indeed, as I’m told, that religious community life is often that great shakes but even the environment of community life – regardless of how ‘communal’ the life really is – creates some of the conditions that help relieve some of the burdens of old age. Recently a member of one religious community passed out during lunch and the procedures for his medical care immediately went into overdrive. The man survived whereas his contemporary diocesan suffering the same fate in an isolated presbytery probably would not. The religious community was in self-congratulatory mode on the effectiveness of their response. One member averred that it was lucky he passed out at lunch: ‘If he had passed out in the oratory’, he added, ‘he mightn’t be found for a week’.
In another life I sometimes visit a retired community of missionary priests. The contrast between their experience of old age and that of their diocesan contemporaries is marked. Their living conditions, socialisation, health supports, food, even dress are all markedly different from the minimalist conditions of diocesan priests living alone in presbyteries, often in the back of beyond. The conversation, the flow of ideas, the exchange of views, even the community night-cap represent a care that is light years away from the experience of the ageing diocesan priest.
Another source of disenchantment, for some at least, has been the consistent and systematic undermining of the promise of the Second Vatican Council in the last two pontificates. Phrases like ‘reforming the reform’ and ‘the hermeneutic of continuity’ tried to dress up the grim reality. Without the vision, the direction and the energy of the Great Council, we were bereft and diminished as the Church perished visibly around us. We were told to our dismay that no matter how out of touch with the world we became, no matter how unreal was the small sanctuary with its lace and incense that we sought to inhabit, no matter how miniscule was the tiny enclave (‘the small chapel’) we formed, ultimately what mattered was that the authentic deposit of the Catholic faith was carried on by the few rather than diluted by the many. What defined us was what we were against rather than what we were for. And what unnerved us was that the bizarre and the nonsensical seemed to warrant more attention than the reasonable and the astute; that simple-minded enthusiasm seemed to trump the longer, more considered view; that particular ‘obsessions’ – like abortion, gay marriage and Humane Vitae – became more important than respect for a hierarchy of truths; that narrow rules became more important than a broader vision; that dodgy messages via even dodgier visions seemed more important than quotations from Scripture; and, to paraphrase the words of poet, John F. Deane, that saying No! No! and No! became easier than saying Yes! Yes! and Yes!
I hope you can see where I’m going here. My words and phrases echo the September interview with Pope Francis where he talked of a new balance in our Church, a new openness to the world, a new inclusivity, a less judgmental attitude, effectively a return to the insights of the Second Vatican Council for slow-learners. Who would have thought it? Who would have believed it?
So, to conclude, what would help to enchant us now?
-A collegial spirit
Perhaps now that priests are disappearing and the cardinals realise that the cul-de-sac of the last two pontificates – that long Siberian winter of our discontent – pointed the Church in the wrong direction, perhaps now we will, as a Church begin to take collegiality, that fundamental ‘dogma’ of Vatican Two, seriously. Giving flesh to an ethos of participation and debate would release huge energy, would put flesh on co-responsibility, and lift our Church (and our spirits) to a different level entirely. People owning their baptismal rights and obligations in their own parishes (and diocese); priests owning their presbyteral rights in their diocese; bishops owning their leadership responsibilities at a national level and feeding into a Synod of Bishops where the final document wouldn’t have been written by mandarins in Rome months beforehand; and Rome operating in the service of the Irish Church and not the other way round. ‘Hearing’ instead of mere ‘listening’ could generate a life and an energy that would give us all a second wind.
-A spirit of realism
We could achieve a new confidence if the level of debate in our Church exhibited a spirit of realism. Discussion would be based on what people actually thought and how they felt. Sycophancy has served us badly, at parish, diocesan, national and international levels. A first step would be to recognise how out of sync the clerical Church is with what the Irish people think, feel and believe. Enda Kenny’s broadside at the Vatican received huge support from Irish Catholics, as the surveys attest. Kenny was clear, emphatic, nuanced and captured the public mood. On the other hand Archbishop Eamon Martin’s intervention in the abortion debate was badly received by many Irish Catholics. Leaving aside the issues involved, what struck me about it was the tone and tenor of it. There was no acknowledgement of the human hinterland or the complexity of decision-making in acute medical circumstances. No sense that those with a different view might be convinced if a different strategy, respectful of other sincerely-held opinions, was to be employed. There’s an immense gap between the Catholic Church and the ‘lived’ lives of our people and we need a new approach, a new language to traverse it.
-A spirit of tolerance
Catholicism is and will be a broad Church and we need to develop ways of engaging with a spectrum of different views. A divided Church will have to learn to do its business with respect and graciousness. A good start would be to recognise that while certain truths, like the primacy of conscience, are inviolable, the principle of subsidiarity should be unambiguously cherished and implemented. Most difficulties, as Pope Francis recently attested, can be and should be resolved at local or national level. It is difficult to imagine that if the principle of subsidiarity was implemented that the problem of ‘silenced’ priests would not have been satisfactorily resolved.
-A spirit of inclusiveness
While some groups believe that the ordination of women (and nothing less than ordination) would represent a full acceptance of the role of women in the Church, others (including many clergy) believe that ordination is the end of, rather than the beginning of, a process of implementing a policy of systemic respect. What often presents in our Church as a pathological fear of women has stymied the development of their role. What would enhance the lives of priests now would be a clear programme for advancing their profile and respecting, what Pope Francis, calls ‘their unique charism’. The discomfort, resentment and anger among women, many of whom are clinging to the Church by their fingertips, at their second-class status have become a huge pastoral deficit, alienating old and young. Priests would be more than happy if that burden and the negativity it represents in the course of their working lives was lifted from their shoulders. This inclusiveness would involve too a reaching out, in the manner of Francis, to gay Catholics, and to those who have moved or felt themselves pushed to the margins of church life.
-A sense of responsibility
Promotion to positions of authority in the Church should be based on ability to shape the future rather than as a reward for past. Leaders are expected to lead. And part of leading is to make decisions. The Catholic Church in Ireland is not able to provide a scaffolding of Masses to sustain faith-communities, built up over centuries. And those in positions of leadership need to tell Pope Francis that Ireland’s priests and accordingly Ireland’s scaffolding of Masses and logically Ireland’s Church are disappearing. There’s a small window for decisions to be made. Ordaining married men, welcoming back priests who have ‘left’ the ministry, looking at the link between celibacy and priesthood are decisions that need to be made now.
-A ‘poor’ Church
The witness value of the Gospel is compromised by the accumulations of centuries of ’tradition’. We are tillers of a garden, John XXIII wrote, not curators of a museum. The way we dress, the titles and honours we bestow on ourselves, the social status we enjoy seem a far cry from the stable in Bethlehem. We need to dispense with the fripperies and the fancy dress that are out of sync with the compelling need to witness to the Gospel. We present to a world uneasy with self-proclaimed importance a mirror-image of East Germany with old generals sporting their medals. ‘The carnival is over’, Pope Francis is anecdotally reputed to have said to the officials who tried to dress him in papal regalia before he appeared on the balcony of St Peter. Would that Monsignors, Canons, Archdeacons and other embarrassing (and from the outside) laughable and childish titles and their accompanying regalia were consigned to the dust-bin of church history.
Schools occupy a huge portion of the unease and inconvenience of priests’ lives. As we age and as we become less able for the innumerable conflicts that arise and the conflicting expectations of the different participants, schools have become the bane of our lives. While visiting schools and organising sacramental programmes are necessary dimensions of our work, lifting the responsibility of membership of Boards of Management and all its requirements (from fund-raising to the appointment of teachers) from our backs would enhance our lives considerably. Arguments around the notion that priests have some kind of special managerial expertise is really an excuse for everyone having someone convenient to blame and for the Church wanting to control the situation, effectively distrusting the gifts, commitment and expertise of our people.
-Ticking off boxes
As the number and ability of priests decline precipitously, a mock strategy has emerged which might be described as the ‘ticking-off-the-boxes syndrome’. This is an organised pretence that we’re still a competent, energetic, administratively astute bunch who will respond to whatever challenge is presented to us. So the strategy is to tick off all the appropriate boxes by pretending that we’re dealing with the issues when in truth we’re only discussing them so that we can say they were discussed. A huge farrago of conferences, seminars, group discussions and meetings of every possible ilk continues to be organised which in theory appears impressive when listed in a report but which in fact doesn’t bear much scrutiny, as elderly clergy snooze their way through sessions occasionally coming up for air to check their watches or to enquire when time the sandwiches will be served. It’s time for us to call a halt to this endless sequence of meetings that achieve nothing apart from pretending that somehow we can still hack it.
-Pope Francis
Suddenly and unexpectedly, our Church (and the world) has received a huge lift with the election of Pope Francis, in the wake of significant pre-conclave discussions by the cardinals. It is as if suddenly out of the shadows a great light has pointed out a familiar path, a road spurned by those who preferred the certainties of the nineteenth century to the challenges of the twenty-first.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, as the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is almost over, and our day is almost done, wouldn’t it be wonderful if the old man from Argentina could usher in a new spring even as the last refugees of the Great Council take their reluctant leave? If he gets a fair wind, he could well enchant our last evenings.
Who can explain it? / Who can tell you why? / Fools give you reasons, / Wise men never try.

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  1. Shaun the Sheep says:

    Reading this article (I feel depressed already, only half-way through), whilst there is much to disagree with, it is clear that there is a problem… Why would any young man give himself over to a life of isolation? I believe the reason why orders with a real community (with prayer, social time, and eating in common) are thriving, in Ireland and elsewhere, is because this is what people need. I believe that what we are seeing in the diocesan system is the playing out of the implementation of ‘the spirit of vatican ii’. Anyway, on another point: It is not good for the man to be alone. I am not arguing for married priests. But a priest alone in a lonely presbytery doesn’t seem like a good idea to me. Priests need to have people in their lives, and not just the shallow, superficial Sunday morning meet and greet. They need real fellowship and fraternity. I’ll give you an example of what’s wrong. In my town in Ireland, the priest lives in one big house on his own, the curates in another house on their own. Now why can’t they all live together in one big house? How can it be justified to have two big houses and most of the rooms empty?
    Something is dying: I think the diocesan system is more or less finished. I don’t like the term west-doc, but I see in the future priests in high performance vehicles serving their disparate and remote communities, offering Mass and sacraments in one place, before driving to another. The sick and dying will be attended by priests in the rapid response cars. Perhaps in Audi R6 Avant estate cars. But what will grow, I think, is the monastic communities that serve the Catholic people round about and also those who are able to travel to them to attend Mass, spiritual direction, fellowship etc…
    In all of this, we have to ask WHAT is God trying to tell us in this present situation? I believe the solution to the crisis is a very deep spiritual renewal and re-evangelisation, back to JESUS and away from the worldiness that we embraced, the very same which Pope Francis spoke of today, when he addressed adolescent progressivism and human sacrifice. Strong words.

  2. ‘What often presents in our Church as a pathological fear of women has stymied the development of their role’. This pathological fear of women has stymied the development of the Church and will be the cause of its demise. Is this pathological fear of women implanted in men in their priestly formation? Or is it the type of men who present for the priesthood that have an inherent pathological fear of women?

  3. You need to wash those men right out of your hair and send them on their way.
    Wise men never try cause they have lived long enough to know better.
    ‘You can’t light a fire when the woods are wet,
    You can’t make a butterfly strong,
    You can’t fix an egg when it ain’t quite good,
    And you can’t fix a man when he’s wrong !’
    Hardly on a par with Solomon but you get the drift.
    Not sure it’s a pathological fear of women so much as that ‘some enchanted evening’ when he might meet a ‘stranger across a crowded room’.
    The real fools being those who never allow to question.

  4. I must say I feel for Fr. Brendan, while I disagree with many of the solutions he offers, I respect the honesty and clarity with which he presents them. To my mind what he describes sounds like nothing so much as a relationship grown cold. He describes the same loneliness you can find in marriages and in families, between husband and wife and between siblings if the relationship is not nurtured by both parties. Married priests and women priests and all the gimmicks in the world won’t solve that kind of problem.
    One other thing that struck me, maybe it would be considered overly sentimental for an academic journal like the furrow I don’t know, but there is no mention of prayer life in this article, no mention of Fr. Brendan’s(or anyone elses) relationship with Christ or God the Father. I’m not presuming to judge Fr. Brendan’s prayer life, far be it-I can barely judge my own! I am simply noting that prayer and trusting in the Lord don’t seem to be viewed as viable solutions, or even beginnings on a road to ‘enchant our last evenings’

  5. Thank you Brendan for continuing to say what so many priests feel.
    DV Pope Francis will see your article.
    DV Pope Francis will indeed usher in a new spring

  6. That is a very interesting and insightful point of view, Diffal.
    I know some non Catholic Christians who talk about their ‘relationship’ with Jesus, so deep, personal and fulfilling. Wonderful. I am always telling them how I’d love that kind of relationship with Jesus. I ask for it, seek it, pray for it.
    Yet the same people go on about how lonely and unfulfilled their lives are too. I ask how that can be when they have Jesus – the Lord, God of all in such a personal and intimate relationship. How that could not be enough.
    Leaves me confused and them speechless. So it’s not just a Catholic thing.
    I agree with you too on all kinds of relationships growing cold, stale if not nurtured constantly.
    From what I have read it seems to be possible to have a real relationship with Jesus that fulfills. Seems to take work and and prayer.
    But then the likes of Padre Pio felt the intensity of human loneliness at times and was grateful for the friendship, companionship of others, even women.
    However, as much as any human relationship can fulfill – we can also rightly ask if it can/does fulfill completely.
    I think Shaun makes a good point too regarding fraternity and community. I’d imagine given what most priests deal with on a daily basis that there is greater need for a real sense of community and support.
    Say he is called to a fatal car crash to give last rites. He is supposed to go back to his house alone and just get on with it. Though not the only ones in such situations. I think we are all in need of a greater sense of real community.
    I don’t believe that a pathological fear of women has stymied the development of the role of women as much as it stymies the development of the men who are and would wish to become clerics.
    ‘Formation’ would seem to be an aspect of that and something worth revising on a regular basis. Get the lay folk involved too.

  7. Shaun the Sheep says:

    Martin you mention formation and this is KEY. I honestly believe we need to see a renewed priestly (and religious) formation that takes into account the ENTIRE human person who is created, loved, redeemed, and healed by God (a work of a liftime). I recommend heartily the work of Catholic psychiatrist CONRAD W. BAARS. His books on healing the unaffirmed and on ‘feeling and healing your emotions’ are very helpful. This is precisely the sort of thing that needs to be incorporated, not only into priestly and religious formation, but in all our lives. Please, do yourself and everyone else a favour and check out his books.As Pope Francis has said, we need to look at the person, and surely we do, in the bright and warm light of God’s love.

  8. Donal Dorr says:

    Thank you, Brendan, for this insightful and heartfelt article. As a missionary priest I live in a fairly small community and I agree with you entirely that our situation, our living conditions, and the supports we have are quite different from those of isolated diocesan priests. I love your final paragraph where you offer us some hope in terms of the coming of Pope Francis. I pray that in a couple of years time you will be in a position to give us an account of how that new hope shall have percolated right through our ailing Irish Church, bringing new realistic approaches.

  9. Reading Brendan’s thoughtful piece in relation to priests in active ministry and the perceived challenges confronting the institutional church is painful. Yet, there is hope. The very essence of the Christian narrative and our cherished faith is that each day brings with it the prospect of new beginnings. In the absence of such hope, we will become rudderless and drift to a most dangerous place.
    In the midst of difficulty and crises, the Lord invites us to listen intently to the WORD that the Spirit speaks to us individually and collectively for our time. In addition, the Lord invites us to listen intently and to boldly speak forth with a prophetic voice what God purposes for His people and the nations in which they dwell.
    In the words of Parker Palmer, there is a need to be vigilant and recognise ‘when the way closes behind us’. Could it be that the way we have know in the Church for many decades is closing and that a new way is opening up. Could it be that clericalism in the Church is coming to an end and that the future carries with it the promise of a richer church that draws on the great gifts and ministries of its members.
    Learning from the Biblical Narrative and particularly the life of Christ, resurrection is always preceded by abandonment and death. Christ, our great Lord and Master experienced utter abandonment followed by death and ultimately a profound resurrection. Learning from the rhythm of abandonment, death, and resurrection, is it possible to recast the challenges confronting the Church and with the eye of faith see a new resurrection narrative in the making.
    As a married man, I am deeply aware that it is the rhythm of grace at work in my soul that brings deep contentment. As long as I remain abandoned to God, that grace has a tendency to spill over everywhere. It brings deep joy and contentment along with a profound sense of being watched over and loved by the Risen Christ.
    In closing, be encouraged by the prophetic words of I Hear The Sound of Rustling by Ronnie Wilson:
    I hear the sound of rustling in the leaves of the trees
    The Spirit of the Lord has come down on the earth
    The church that seemed in slumber has now risen from its knees
    And dry bones are responding with the fruits of new birth
    Oh, this is now a time for declaration
    The word will go to all men everywhere
    The church is here for healing of the nations
    Behold the day of Jesus drawing near
    My tongue will be the pen of a ready writer
    And what the Father gives to me I’ll sing
    I only want to be His breath
    I only want to glorify the King
    And all around the world the body waits expectantly
    The promise of the Father is now ready to fall
    The watchmen on the tower all exhort us to prepare
    And the church responds-a people who will answer the call
    And this is not a phase which is passing
    It’s the start of an age that is to come
    And where is the wise man and the scoffer?
    Before the face of Jesus they are dumb
    A body now prepared by God and ready for war
    The prompting of the Spirit is our word of command
    We rise, a mighty army, at the bidding of the Lord
    The devils see and fear, for their time is at hand
    And children of the Lord hear our commission
    That we should love and serve our God as one
    The Spirit won’t be hindered by division
    In the perfect work that Jesus has begun
    Take heart from the great leadership that can be found in places within the institutional Church. Watch Nicky Gumble interview Cardinal Christoph Schönborn – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o32XPso5upM. A truly inspirational interview and a truly inspirational Cardinal.
    In closing, we may not like the darkness that looms on the horizon. But, let us never forget that darkness has its own light and the Lord promises to give us the treasures of darkness.

  10. Property in rural Ireland hasn’t been as cheap in years. Time maybe to get a place to retire to. If 500 priests retired on the one day it might wake some people up. Then perhaps practise your ministry as seems right and human, without the benefit of pope or bishop.

  11. I hope people see and hear the wisdom in Professor Joe McDonagh’s assertion that something new is coming to birth….(paraphrased) I have to admit that I do have a tendency to say…ah..enough talk..let’s just get on with it…I also experience impatience with what I perceive as so much nonsense and darkness of thought in the Church. In other words, there’s just a whole of bull crap, so sometimes, I frankly, give a few heavy sighs and silently scream, but…Jesus says, “How you demons weary me”…and I simply say, “How things in the Church often weary me”.I appreciate the honesty in your entry…The poem could use inclusive language though…just a thought!

  12. Martin Murray says:

    I thought this related quote from an article by Catholica’s Brian Coyne was reassuring:-
    “Some people get really scared by what is going on at the moment. They feel it is all too complicated; there are too many conflicting opinions. I don’t think we ought be scared or anxious. We live in an exciting time where a new metanarrative or consensus is emerging in human society. The present discussion needs to be encouraged. Something really good is going to emerge out of all this provided we can just keep our anxieties under control — and just provided society as a whole can keep the insecure sectors within our ranks in their trees and not running around trying to blow everybody up as a way to quell their anxieties.
    There is much beautiful stuff emerging in the world at the moment that does “exercise our neurons and minds”. It is very good exercise though. We need this present discussion that is going on and we need to be “opening our minds” to the rich canvas of ideas emerging in our world. Some of it we will agree with, some of it we won’t. We need to sift through it all though and ultimately it will be the “social consensus” of ordinary people that establishes the new metanarratives in religion, theology, philosophy, politics, economics, business, ecology, the social and hard sciences, that helps build the world our children and grandchildren inherit in the future. You yourself might never write a single word in your entire life but what you think and believe does help form the “social consensus” that eventually emerges in a society.”
    Read whole article at
    Your article gets a mention Brendan.

  13. Joe O'Leary says:

    I was very struck by Brendan’s beautiful article. It is to my mind as much an Everyman story as a clerical tale. The pope has been scoffed at by abortionsamesexmarriage obsessives for saying the that the two biggest problems of our society are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the elderly, but the point is perceptive and timely. On Saturdays here in Tokyo I see hordes of lonely elderly men descend like vultures on the secondhand books on display in a local garage-like bookstore — they do not speak to each other, but get their fix for their reading hobby for the week ahead. Less literate ones sit in coffee shops staring into space. Their wives have probably divorced them — and unlike their wives they have no social network after a life spent working extremely long hours. In Paris, too, there is a vast population of the lonely elderly, who are more “out of it” than ever, since the young have emigrated to another planet called the internet. Brendan is quite right to suggest that lonely old bachelors are likely to become weirdos of some sort. To a large extent such unhappy destinies are self-chosen, even selfishly chosen (as analyzed in Henry James’s extraordinary confessional tale “The Beast in the Jungle”) whatever the social and ecclesial determinants. Clerics can have the role of pathfinders for their fellow-elderly, even if it be just to record their desolation in the language of the Psalms.

  14. Shaun the Sheep says:

    ‘the young have emigrated to another planet called the internet.’
    I wonder did I inspire that comment? Nice to see you back on ACP Joe after our little meeting on Amazon! (Jesus of Nazareth ring any bells?) 😉

  15. Ciaran Blake says:

    Well done Brendan and well said. You articulate with disarming honesty the plight of many of us diocesan clergy. keep up the good work.

  16. I found some comfort in these words:- “Settle yourself in solitude and you will come upon Him in yourself.” (Terese of Avila).

  17. A very interesting article but no surprises. Given that the Church decided to stop teaching the Catholic Faith in the 60s it is hardly surprising that the end result is atrophy and death. I am often reminded of that saying of Our Lord “But yet the Son of man, when he cometh, shall he find, think you, faith on earth?”.

  18. Well, maybe Yeats is too strong for some, hard to understand. Maybe it’s time to have him banned.

  19. Shaun the Sheep says:

    Indeed Gerard. And the saddest thing is, the shepherds, by and large, have no clue. They scratch their heads wondering ‘What did we do wrong?” And then they think of novelties to try to bring people back – dumbed down liturgies and popular, banal preaching on empty humanism, or maybe if we tinker with the doctrine, that might help? Such desperation. And all the while, the true faith is ignored and the people perish. How thoroughly and utterly sad. It would be enough to make a kitten cry.

  20. Canadian Priest says:

    It has taken a while for me to accept it but Canadian society is no longer Christian. There is no Lord’s prayer in the schools. We now have Holiday Trees instead of Christmas trees. Many went to Mass or service because it was expected of them in the culture. Today, we are seeing only those who really have faith at Mass.
    Women priests, married priests, golden retriever priests – new programs, welcoming committees, Donuts after mass – all of these do not work. Only rediscovering our faith and recognizing that we are counter-cultural like Jesus will help. We are in a period of persecution so rejoice! and do the best we can with God’s grace.

  21. I wonder has anyone has anyone surveyed the bishops and asked whether they are disenchanted like priests and people. Or are they on the contrary quite enchanted with their lives?

  22. #21 John
    Could the problem here be the bishop’s understanding of what we all expect of bishops? Do they think we expect them to have all the answers, to be people of vision and wisdom – shepherds to whom everyone must always look for decisive word on what to do next? If so, could they say ‘Yes – I’m disenchanted, and unable to fix that’?
    That’s why the Clogher feedback on Brendan’s article is especially interesting as a clerical confession of existential crisis. And a bishop was present for the discussion that led to that. Do we need to reassure our clergy that its OK to say ‘I’m not OK’ – even for a bishop to say that?
    The next step will be meetings at which we can all be entirely honest and vulnerable. That’s what happens at twelve-step meetings – and for Richard Rohr that’s the emerging church. Hasn’t Pope Francis shown the way for all bishops in admitting his own past mistakes, and in putting solidarity ahead of hierarchy? The day of the aloof, always in control, bishop is surely over.

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