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Living Positively in the face of Injustice

A Personal Reflection on my current situation
By far the most frequent question asked of me nowadays is: “How are you getting on; are you coping?” It is asked with great sincerity, and, as often as not, with a pitying look. I don’t mind that. It is nice that people are concerned, and I appreciate their support. If the context is such that a conversation can take place, the questioner usually follows up with something like “What do you miss most?” If I am talking to a group of people in a fairly intimate setting, as I was recently in the Friarsgate Theatre, Kilmallock, the question can be asked in public. After my attempted answer on that occasion, the questioner followed up with “And are you happy?”
It is now almost four years since I first got the rap from the Vatican. I tell myself I have coped reasonably well. Apart from a brief setback about eighteen months ago (a mild stroke which did no damage), the indications are that I am in good health, thank God. Involvement with the Church Reform Movement, first at local level through the ACP, and later at an international level, has given me a new and absorbing interest, and has introduced me to a range of new people and places. I think it has also served to strengthen my views on the urgent need for reform in the Church, and motivated me to do whatever I can to push that agenda forward. Through my own personal experience in dealing with them, through the people I have met, and all that I have read, I now have a far greater knowledge of the workings of the Vatican than I had four years ago. (Sometimes I wonder would I be better off if I knew a lot less!!)
During the first couple of years after I went public, my life was busy with talks here and there, first around Ireland, and then in England and the U.S. That has eased off now, and, while I still get some very interesting invitations to speak, they are less frequent. (I had two really enjoyable ones in the last few weeks — the Friarsgate one on Pope Francis, and Aidswest in Galway for World Aids Day). I still get a kick out of standing at a microphone in front of a crowd of people; I suppose a lifetime of preaching leaves its mark!
At almost sixty nine years of age, I am happy to be taking things a bit easier. While I do miss parts of the mission and novena work that I spent my life doing, I am glad not to be travelling around to parishes, and living out of suitcases, any more. I also think that if I did go back to that work now the content of my talks would be a fair bit different. The bit of advice that someone sent to me at the beginning of this whole saga — “You must wait to see who you are when this thing is done with you” — has proven true. I think I have changed a great deal over these four years.
At a recent Redemptorist jubilee celebration which I attended (my 50th of profession) someone prayed that I would be able to endure the “agony” I was going through. I responded that I didn’t see it as such, and that it some ways it was a positive experience.
From the beginning I told myself that it was very important that I would not allow myself to get consumed with anger or bitterness. I conceded that the Vatican were fully entitled to question me over certain views that I had expressed, but I believed the process they engaged in with me was seriously unjust and abusive. But I knew that if I dwelt too much on that, and allowed a sense of grievance to get a hold on me, I could do myself great harm. With God’s help, I think I have succeeded fairly well in that. The arrival on the scene of Pope Francis has also been an enormous help. I responded immediately to his attitude, to the way that he spoke and to a lot of what he said. His coming brought a great ray of light and hope for the Church, and lifted my spirits also.
But there are times when the reality of this enormous upheaval in my life hits me, and I feel oppressed by it. Some of the things that tend to make me angry are the following:

  • The total indifference shown by the Irish bishops to the sanctioning of myself and five other Irish priests. A number of requests to them over the past few years have fallen on deaf ears. The only response we got was to say that, since all the priests involved are members of religious communities, it was none of their business. I do believe that all this sanctioning and silencing of priests by Rome has done a lot of damage to the Irish Church, and that it should certainly be the business of the bishops. I would also have hoped that the Conference of Religious (CORI) might have used their influence, but they too remain silent.
  • Bishop Crean’s banning of my invitation to speak in Killeagh was a particularly pointed case, that did hurt me more than I was inclined to admit at the time. It was a sharp illustration of how the Church disowns someone, and pushes them out. “You don’t belong to us anymore”.
  • Reading of the opposition to Pope Francis by very senior figures in the Church these days. There are so many of them, I will just mention four, all cardinals: Burke, of course, who carries on this charade that he loves the pope, while doing everything he can to undermine him. Chaput of Philadelphia is not too far behind him, and indeed about half a dozen other U.S. bishops. Sarah of Guinea expresses views that are not only contrary to Francis, but also to Jesus; but even he does not match Cardinal Nicolas de Jesus Lopez Rodriguez of the Dominican Republic in the things he said about the U.S. ambassador to that country, who happens to be gay. And nobody in the CDF is issuing a bull of excommunication against any of these, not likely.
  • The report of the U.S. bishops’ recent conference is depressing. It was as if Francis’ visit there in September hadn’t happened. The ‘culture warriors’ still reign supreme, and in spite of all Francis’ efforts to change the agenda, and to focus the attention of the Church on poverty, migration and climate change, the U.S. bishops continue with their obsession about sex. Their attack on pornography has some justification, but resorting to yet another condemnation of masturbation, while barely mentioning the papal agenda, is hopeless. And the few voices, like McElroy and Kicanas, who tried to introduce these topics, were quickly dealt with.
  • Despite Francis’ call for a humbler, simpler Church, it is disappointing to see so many of the top people in the Church clinging on to status, titles, and indeed wealth and comfort. Titles like “Your Eminence” and “My Lord” should never be heard in today’s Church. I find it hard to understand the mentality of people who cling to these trappings of power and distinction. How can they possibly reconcile this with the Man from Nazareth? And to read of old men in the Vatican and elsewhere providing themselves with luxurious retirement ‘pads’, at enormous expense, is amazing. What do they need them for?

I have great support from my family and close friends, which of course is crucial. There is also a wide body of people who give me encouragement. I regularly meet people, maybe in the shops or walking the streets, who come up to me and say lovely words to me. Mostly I will not know them.
The ACP have been wonderful, both the leadership and a great many of the members. At the recent AGM I experienced a great feeling of warmth, and unanimous support for a resolution of my case during the Year of Mercy. I have also made many friends, on the continent, in Australia, in America, who regularly keep in touch. That is all good.
Though I do not live in community at present, I get great support there, and I am always welcome when I call. I wish the men at the top of the congregation had shown more ‘bottle’, but maybe I was expecting too much there. Two theologians, a Jesuit and an Augustinian, have been of enormous help, and I am very grateful to them.
There it is; my effort to partly answer the question I am constantly being asked: “How are you?” There are other layers to the answer, but they are too private even for this blog. If you have read this far, I hope you haven’t found it too self-indulgent!!

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  1. Dairne Mc Henry says:

    I don’t find your account self-indulging, Tony, rather I find it reassuring: and a powerful witness to a truly Christian (and merciful) response to adversity. Thank you!

  2. Mary Vallely says:

    I echo Dairne’s comment @1. You are a powerful witness indeed, Tony, and I am quite sure that as the Holy Spirit has opened one door already for you to enable you to engage with a wider audience than before She/He will open another door this year and allow that vital dialogue to take place between those poor frightened men in red and pink birettas who are a little transfixed by fear, I think, behind their closed doors! We shall see what transpires but the mercy which Pope Francis begs us to avail of and to bestow on each other HAS to trickle through to all who believe. I’ve been singing that wee hymn to myself for days now, “Lord of mercy and compassion, look with pity upon me, Father, let me call thee Father, ‘Tis thy child returns to thee.” It moves me deeply and I hope and pray that mercy will be shown to yourself, Sean Fagan et alia before long. Let us put our trust in the Holy Spirit and you keep the heart up, Tony. You are doing more good than you know.

  3. Willie Herlihy says:

    Tony, your account of how you are coping is reassuring,I think you are very close to the Lord.
    The forces of Pope John Paul II, still permeate throughout the Church and particularly the Roman Curia.
    These people, are certainly not close to the humble Nazarene.
    Poor Pope Francis,is like a voice crying in the wilderness.
    Don’t hold out any hope for the year of mercy,it is just a smoke screen.
    It will take many years to reform the present set up.

  4. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    I for one, am happy you continue to stay the course although this sermon sounds like the signal of a “stepping down” of sorts. Who initially had the idea to poll the parishioners Tony? That was one action that had started that completely lost steam early on. Was there fear that more would be excommunicated as a result? You have 7.5 years to reform the Church (average length of time a Pope serves, right?). Reform the church while the Pope is trying to reform the environment. Imagine if you had a declaration in hand now of 1.8m signatures calling for celibacy to be eliminated from Canon Law. This is what you should have. Without it, that conversation with the Pope might never take place. We get advice from the strangest areas from the people we least expect it from. How do you all proceed? Continue to do what works. Do you still have a clear vision of what works or has it been lost in the bureaucracy of keeping the ACP afloat, its members motivated and its followers entertained? Management must be a strange thing for a priest who is normally very autodidactic in his studies. For as critical as I’ve been in the past regarding the ACP, PI, AUSCP and my perceived lack of direction that you’ve shown, I still offer my friendship. My advice at this time would be for all members to sign a document asserting their agreement with this thing that has kept you out of the pews this long. That they themselves are proclaiming the same beliefs that have kept you from administering. How else would you manifest any kind of strength in numbers? Once they take no action on the thousands of priests who convey their agreement, they will ultimately have to lift your sentence. If they don’t move against you all, then they can’t continue to move against you Tony. That’s how management works, I believe, or at least that’s what it has been in my experience. Were they looking for a scapegoat in you? That would be sinful. You either cover it up or pass it around. In this case, passing it around is to your benefit. There might be hesitance to do such a thing but courage will set you all free. It’s time to rise up. Those who won’t stand for you, what is it they fear? You’ve shown there is nothing to be afraid of. This too shall pass.

  5. Ned Quinn says:

    I agree with Lloyd Allan MacPherson. If all the members of the ACP who agree that our brother priests who have been silenced, have been treated unjustly, were willing to sign a letter to that effect, surely our bishops will listen. Especially in this year of mercy.

  6. Ned Quinn@5,
    If their consciences haven`t already driven them to sympathetic responses to us, which they haven`t, more mere complaining to them will not do. In any case, demonstrations of the Irish bishops` consciences in action have not been all that impressive in recent years, and some have been hard to forget – the egregious “mental reservation” of one cardinal and the “shrouding of things in secrecy” of another coming to mind.
    No, I`m afraid that mere complaining will not elicit the responses you`d like from that particular body, and how could it, since they don`t have to account here for their action or inaction, certainly not to us, the diminishing body of nobodies known as the Irish faithful. Leaving the fold in frustration won`t work either, as though many in Ireland have already taken that step, it has perhaps even encouraged some of the bishops along the way to their dream of a smaller, purer flock.
    Recent contributors to this site have been mulling over the translation debacle, but surely it is a similarly forlorn case in that bishops don`t have to and won`t say anything about it in public. Instead, while the Irish church collapses, they stick to old favourites of calling for our prayers for vocations, and preposterously, given the age profile of Irish priests, planning for bigger parishes. Recently, some have engaged in “listening” exercises, but always careful to be listening to the right people of course.
    In both cases, missal translation and silenced priests, it looks like bishops are terrified of getting involved in discussion and debate with us, the very people they should be engaged with. If they were right in relationship with us, if they trusted and supported us, wouldn`t they have our trust and support in return? I for one will not be holding my breath for it to happen.

  7. Tony Flannery’s position : Jesus himself was not a member of the clerical-ecclesiastical establishment. So Tony Flannery is in good company. The rank and file priests are members of the church establishment, however junior. It has been forecast that peoples’ church observance can suddenly collapse. That can happen I suppose when ordinary people suddenly realise that there is nothing more to be expected of the clerical establishment. Jesus defied the temple establishment. There is little sign that the membership of ACP has the nerve to do this in any numbers. On another level : a look at the manner in which parish councils are constituted suggests that they are there to be tame lay collaborators and to help in a continuation of the same old way. House churches may be the future. That might mean turning one’s back on the church’s assets. No sign that many priests are willing to break out of the trap they are in. That would be a big risk and would require courage. Genuine spiritual leaders are obviously required, and all such persons in history had courage. Young people are hardly likely to follow the faint hearted for long, members of a withering establishment.

  8. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    That’s right Ned @ 5. Solidarity is your only play. The rules of management are very tight. If you don’t unify in some way, and this is the only way forward, then the only other option is disintegration at this point. This letter should read very clearly that you are also expecting judgement if the treatment is going to continue for those priests. This can’t be a complaint. This is affirmative action. They can’t act on this because they’ve only served to identify a few scapegoats that will prevent the Associations from flourishing. As MJT points out @ 6, there can be no secrets and those who support the now international body of priests, being the first out of the gate as the true Catholic leadership (to which Pope Francis now finds his rhythm), have to be as gregarious as we can regarding the response this elucidates. Use your numbers now. It is the time. There are points in this letter that need to be clear but mainly a deadline needs to be established. The ultimatum should point directly to the necessity of forgiveness and mercy and what should happen if it is not found in these situations. How many members are you world wide? It’s amazing the strength you’ve amassed.

  9. Lloyd Allan MacPherson@8, re your “necessity of forgiveness and mercy”.
    In this particular season of Advent, when we are enjoined to mercy and forgiveness, could someone explain how it is possible to forgive when the wrong-doer apparently doesn’t see any wrong being done? All sorts of errors and wrongs and weaknesses may be forgiveable if forgiveness is asked for, if not forgettable, on the basis that we are all human and imperfect, but for those who perpetrated the present translation of the Mass on us, and who now will perpetuate it for goodness knows how many more years, I confess I am baffled as to how to find a way to forgive. If the wrong inflicted is actively an obstacle to worship of God, how can it be forgiven?

  10. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    MJT, @ 9, if you are speaking about the new missal translation, that’s quite the case. I’m going to say that the majority of churchgoers find it awkward, as do the priests. Bishops want to keep the peace, therefore they are in the middle management style of 1. pass it around or 2. cover it up. Stop me if this was not the process. Priests received a memorandum advising a change in the way mass was to be performed. The Bishops are not in the position to kick up a stink with the people they report to (as is the rule in middle management) so they become the simple deliverers of the message without having to show any type of support/disregard for the changes. It hits the priests. The Bishops don’t really need to care how you feel about it because they are in the supreme position where they didn’t make the change. Now strategically, there are a few things that these “peacemakers” respond to : one being a disgruntled churchgoer. Well, this is not going to happen if the priests bite their tongues and stay the course no matter what they might be saying in the background. This is the issue. Now, how is it intervened? Well, feedback is the breakfast of champions and best served cold and at times when you can control it. This is one of these opportunities when you want feedback from your parishioners. Why? Because they will be your support. If you don’t like it, they probably don’t either, and more often, they despise it. People can deal with change but this is the type of bureaucracy that causes people to cringe. You poll the parishioners. Tell them to be honest about the changes they see and to perhaps put them in writing. Document what you find and report back to the Bishops the state of unrest it has caused, set a deadline for your Bishop to report back and when that deadline is surpassed, (and I assure you, it will be surpassed) revert back out of good faith to your parishioners. You certainly weren’t sinning all those years prior right? There can’t be backlash if it is a format that was attempted, investigated for feedback and reverted awaiting details from your Bishops – that’s just proper process. When formats change, they can’t be looked at as an obstacle to worship of God. That doesn’t even make sense. How can it be forgiven. It will have to be forgiven because that’s the foundation of bedrock the Church is found on. MJT @ 9, my initial comment has little to do with the missal translation which I find to be a blip on the radar of true reform that needs to take place but like anything else, if priests are determined to listen to those in their pews and seek feedback, the people will back you in your quest to simplify their lives and your own. They really do like you and like it when you seek their approval on such trivial matters where they still have a voice. Am I being overly optimistic that this approach should work for all day to day operations? When we get in the habit of being able to say, “The backlash from the church-goers was so apparent that we had no choice but to revert back”, then I believe we’ve truly struck on the collegiality that the Pope would love to see in the Church. No more covering it up or passing it around. It is better that the final result is a result garnered from action, not passive submission, right? I think the laity deserves this process. No forgiveness or mercy needed, just a little intuition maybe for this type of change.

  11. Lloyd Allan MacPherson@10. Thank you for the seriousness with which you replied. However, I think you may be mistaken about a few things.
    First, you write as if you may think I am a priest. Though I am allowed to post things here from time to time, I am not a priest. Secondly, I do not regard the quality of the text of the Mass as a “trivial matter”. Quite the reverse: I think that it is vital that Mass, the “source and summit” of our spiritual lives as it has been described, should be celebrated properly, but that it very rarely is celebrated properly, and cannot be with the language and theology of the present translation.
    Though you propose a very democratic model for progress on the problem, with consultation with the lay faithful at the heart of it, you must know that it won`t wash-our church hasn`t worked like that for many many centuries. My point was that a great deal of harm is being done and will go on being done by the present translation and nothing short of a change of heart by those who had the power to impose it in the first place, will change that. How likely is that? And how to forgive them remains an open question, for me at least.

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