Fear or Faith

Pope Francis has just made two significant appointments to senior dioceses in Italy. Matteo Zuppi was deeply involved at the coalface of poverty in his diocese and was appointed archbishop of Bologna. Corrado Lorefice, a parish priest who opposed the mafia, was appointed archbishop of Palermo. The appointments, like that of Blasé Cupich to Chicago last year, are regarded as the result of direct interventions by the pope. They are ‘Francis bishops’.
What Pope Francis is doing is pointing a way forward for the Church, specifying the Vatican Two route. That’s what he did too in the recent synod on the family in Rome. He was like a steward at a car rally, standing at a cross-roads, frantically waving the traffic in one particular direction.
What was important in the synod wasn’t the distance covered but getting on the right road. Effectively it marked an end to the rigidity of the John Paul II/Benedict years and the adoption of a new way of being church. The synod, the prestigious paper, the Tablet commented, was ‘a snapshot of a Church in transition’.
While some lament the fact that more progress wasn’t made, on particular issues, the studied ambiguity of the final document delivered the necessary two-thirds majority and handed the decisions over to the pope, decisions awaited with great interest.
Francis has a problem, however, with those who might be drivers of the new reform. The Church is packed with John Paul and Benedict appointed bishops, most of them more comfortable with the rigid ethos of those four decades than the Vatican Two Church that Francis is sponsoring. So the more bishops’ conferences and Curia congregations in Rome are filled with Francis’ people the more progress Francis will make.
It won’t be easy. In Ireland, for instance, since Francis became pope there’s no sign of a ‘Francis bishop’ being appointed. Even though there’re plenty to fit that profile, none has been appointed, probably because those doing the appointing have no appetite for the direction Francis is taking.
Worse still, at a time of huge crisis for the Church in Ireland, when all the graphs are going in the wrong direction, there’s no bishop with the vision, creativity or courage to take advantage of the Francis tide. Instead what we get is a fall-back position – neutralize criticism by dismissing it as negative or undermine those who name uncomfortable truths.
There’s also the difficult truth that if a team manager insists on picking a retinue of safe corner-backs in order to defend the goal at all costs, no one should be surprised if there’s no full-forward to score at the other end or that inevitably own-goals are conceded.
Recently, Michael Neary, archbishop of Tuam, in speaking to World Priest, dismissed talk about a crisis in priesthood, as ‘a rather simplistic view of the situation. The real crisis is a crisis of faith’. He proposed the idea that fear is part of the problem. ‘Fear causes us to recoil, to become stagnant. Faith by contrast enables us to take risks, to go forward, to face the future courageously’.
The archbishop is, in a sense, both spectacularly wrong and, at the same time, unintentionally gets it nearly exactly right.
A few questions. Why do bishops keep inferring that there’s no crisis in priesthood, when all the indicators comprehensively indicate the opposite? Is it that bishops are simply in denial of the stark reality, and couch their denial in a flawed optimism or seek to camouflage it with pious words? Or that they keep denying the reality in order to convince themselves that they might be right? Or that they’re hopelessly out of touch with the lives their priests lead and what Catholics in the pew think and feel?
At the same time the archbishop is almost right. Fear is a debilitating condition, especially in bishops, who are expected to lead the Church. ‘Fear causes us to recoil, to become stagnant . . . Faith by contrast enables us to take risks, to go forward, to face the future courageously’.
But it’s not the Francis people or the critical commentators who are fearful or who won’t take risks. And the crisis in the Catholic priesthood is directly related to the refusal of bishops to do just that – ‘to take risks, to go forward, to face the future courageously’ – what, in effect, Pope Francis is hoping for.
A priest-friend of mine, in his 60s, had five (yes, five!) funerals in his far-flung parish last week. Imagine. It’s not just unfair or bizarre, it’s clearly unsustainable. Spool the next decade or so forward, and where are we? Unless, of course, those in positions to make the decisions, make the decisions.
The problem for Pope Francis and for the Catholic Church is that among the bishops there’s so much resistance to making decisions that simply need to be made. To paraphrase Archbishop Neary: ‘to take risks, to go forward, to face the future courageously’.
Take what Archbishop Neary has to say about celibacy: ‘the celibate life lived honestly is liberating and edifying’. But nobody is arguing the opposite. Nobody is suggesting that celibacy for priests should be abolished. Or that marriage for priests should be compulsory, the Lord be between us and all harm!
What’s being suggested (and what the dogs in the streets can see is necessary) is that celibate priesthood and a married priesthood can exist side by side, will have to exist side by side if people in hundreds of parishes in Ireland are to have Mass. And what needs to be suggested very forcefully to the Irish bishops is the corollary that those who refuse to name that obvious truth (that is, the Irish bishops) are effectively preventing Catholics in parishes all over Ireland from celebrating the Eucharist – in a decade or more time. Possibly it might be said from fear and that what bishops seem to need, in the archbishop’s words, is faith: ‘to take risks, to go forward, to face the future courageously’.
Which is why I wish, I long for, I pray for ‘Francis bishops’ who will pay attention to the flag Francis is waving, who will generate the vision, the creativity and the commitment to take the road that God’s Spirit pointed out to our Church over 50 years ago in the Second Vatican Council. Why? Because bishops need to facilitate that change of direction which so many in our Church long for so desperately. And if they don’t, history won’t treat them kindly.
Saying ‘It will do in my time’ is no excuse.

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  1. Ned Quinn says:

    Brendan, I think we may well have a “Francis Bishop” in Dublin. On Sunday at a special Mass marking 150 years of the Catholic Institute for Deaf People, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said: “The church is slow to change. Inertia may seem to mean that things can go on as they were and are, but the opposite is the case. We need a church which can respond more effectively to change. I spoke some time ago of a ‘reality check’; I could also have said ‘a wake up call’. Times have changed in Irish society and the church must change.”7

  2. Peter Shore says:

    If it is obvious even to the “dogs in the street” that a married priesthood is necessary in order for people to have Mass in future, would it be unreasonable to ask for something in the way of evidence? A poll perhaps, of hopeful candidates queuing to sign up to a newly married ministry? If not that, then examples of vigorous vocations in churches that allow married priests?
    Is it not the case, that our nearest geographical neighbours — the Anglican church which has permitted married clergy for nearly 500 years — is haemorrhaging priests? The numbers are projected to have declined 15% just from 2002 to 2017, in spite of the fact that women will make up a quarter of the clergy by then.
    On the other hand Catholic vocations and numbers of Catholic priests have been growing worldwide for over three decades. It would seem our vocations crisis is a local one. Perhaps we should start by comparing the places where vocations are growing and where they are declining, before we assume what the fix might be.

  3. Michael C. says:

    Peter, it’s time that that old chestnut about our Anglican friends was put aside.
    A quick check of their site; http://www.anglicannews.org/news/2015/07/newrevs-1,000-to-be-ordained-into-church-of-england-this-summer.aspx
    “Around 1000 men and women will be ordained into the Church of England this summer to minister in communities across the country. To mark the occasion the CofE has published new video and audio faith stories, and is encouraging Twitter users to shares pictures using the hashtag #NewRevs.”
    Also; world wide statistics mean nothing if a priest is expected to cover 14 or 15 churches as is the norm in many places in Europe and soon will be here.
    Besides the fact that world wide the number of priests despite a little recovery is still below the 1970 figure; How much has the world population increased in that time?
    Data from http://cara.georgetown.edu/caraservices/requestedchurchstats.html
    WORLD DATA OVER TIME: Total priests
    (1970 – 419,728):
    (1980 – 403,173):
    (1990 – 405,178):
    (2000 – 412,236):
    (2010 – 413,600):
    (2014 – 414,313)
    Apart from all of this celibacy is no longer an absolute with many former Anglican married priests now practising as Catholic priests, not to mention the Eastern Rites in full communion with Rome.
    I have waited for years for a convincing argument against women priests.
    I am still waiting.
    Michael C.

  4. I’m not worried. So what if we have fewer Masses and less opportunity for confession? Maybe we’ll appreciate the gifts of faith instead of taking them for granted. When the Catholics thrived in secret under communists and the Japanese Catholics for years without priest, I’m sure we Irish will do just fine. Do not be afraid. PRAY, hope, and don’t worry.

  5. Eddie Finnegan says:

    “The numbers are projected to have declined 15% just from 2002 to 2017, in spite of the fact that women will make up a quarter of the clergy by then.” -Peter Shore@2
    Peter, just what percentage of that 15% Anglican decline has metamorphosed into happily married Catholic priests in flight from the growing reality of Anglican women priests and bishops?

  6. Peter Shore says:

    #3 Michael C, it is not “an old chestnut”, it’s the most recently published official statistics of the Church of England, from the same website that you cited yourself. You will find it there, entitled: “Statistics for Mission 2012: Ministry”.
    Regarding the 1000 #newrevs in 2015, the actual number is 962, of which half are deacons. Since almost all of these will go on to priestly ordination, they are being double counted. Far from being an increase, the number is at its lowest since 2004, and the second lowest since 1997 (see Figure 18 of the official stats).
    The conservative estimate of a 15% decrease in number of priests from 2002 to 2017 is from Figure 12. It will be a 25% decline by 2022 (or 30% if the projected number of ordinands falls by 25%, which it will certainly do if there are any repeats of the big drop in numbers in 2010).
    Regarding the worldwide numbers of Catholic priests, yes, it has been growing for three decades as I said, but has not been enough to make up for the large numbers that left ministry immediately after Vatican II.
    The celibacy rules for Anglican converts is very much the same as for the eastern rites: no marriage *after* ordination, no ordinations of married clergy to the episcopacy.
    Whether or not you find it convincing, the arguments for a male-only clergy have been made by numerous popes in the strongest terms and are available for all to read.
    #5 Eddie Finnegan, the largest declines in the Anglican clergy are due to retirement and moving to other jobs. An increasing number of Anglican clergy are unpaid and have to support themselves. The number of clergy who have come over to the Catholic Church is small in relative terms — about a hundred since the Ordinariate for England and Wales was first mooted in 2010. That is about 3% of the losses to the stipendiary Anglican clergy in that period (before addition of ordinands).

  7. David @4….”you are not far from the Kingdom of Heaven” with your words….as they pertain…to the Japanese, not just coping, but, thriving even without the Official Roman Pastor…..That sleeping giant, the laity, will hopefully be “risen” by the Lord, to meet the Irish Church’s situation.

  8. Perhaps, there is a Francis’s bishop or two in Ireland. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin has on several occasions stated the need for a ‘ Reality Check’ in the Church. This could only do good and advance the Church in Ireland towards an improved situation. Ned Quinn has already made this point but it is worth repeating as it is of major importance.

  9. Ned @1, this is encouraging to hear. However what we now need are bishops who take the next step of actually naming and supporting specific concrete reforms. I think when they do they will be pleasantly surprised at the support they will receive, if that matters.

  10. Mike Kerrigan says:

    Peter, re Anglicans and Catholics in the UK, whatever the details, here’s one striking comparison: in 2010, the Anglicans in England alone ordained 273 male priests, while the Catholics of England and Wales combined could only muster 19 – and that for approximately the same numbers of practising members.

  11. No Mass : There are other things which one rarely sees. There is creation of a real community of believers who pray for one another and care for one another. It is hard to find much evidence of this at present. There is worshipping God in song – which for a congregation is a real catalyst of community. There is real inspirational preaching – which could be far better than one has presently to endure.

  12. Soline Humbert says:

    “Many people — too many people — in the church are prevented from speaking on this issue, some through outright bans and directives, most through intimidation and fear of losing livelihoods and careers. Those of us with the freedom to speak up against this injustice must do so loudly.”http://ncronline.org/news/faith-parish/editorial-we-need-fearless-discussion-womens-ordination

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