Pope of the possible

The word is that Pope Francis wanted the vocations crisis in the Catholic Church (and specifically the issue of married priests) to be the topic of the next synod in Rome but the Vatican department involved voted against him. It’s all part of the civil war currently being waged between Francis pointing the Catholic Church in one direction and the Curia in the Vatican (the Church’s civil service) furiously waving everyone and anything in the other direction. As the prestigious Catholic weekly, the Tablet, asserts this week, the opposition to Francis is from ‘the enemy within’.
What Francis has going for him in the great trial of strength convulsing the Catholic Church is that he refuses to live in Never-Never Land. He’s not into denial. He knows that change, including dramatic change, is not just inevitable but necessary. And he’s good at maths. He can add, or rather subtract, and he knows what the bottom line is.
Priests are disappearing and if priests disappear Mass disappears and if Mass disappears the Church disappears. He knows too that repeating failed strategies over and over again is a complete waste of time. So, he says, if there’s a problem, let’s talk about it and see what we can do.
And when it comes to vocations, boy is there a problem. In Brazil, for example, there are 140 million Catholics, so they need at least 100,000 priests and at the last count, there were only 18,000. The result is that Catholics in Brazil are moving in droves to the evangelical churches or to the Pentecostals.
However the advantage Brazil bishops have is (i) they take Francis at his word and (ii) they can do the maths. So when Francis says ‘Let’s talk about it’, they say, ‘Okay, let’s do that’. And better still they’ve a workable solution to propose.
According to theologian Leonardo Boff, the Brazilian bishops are asking Francis to allow married priests to resume their priestly ministry, and the word is that Francis is happy to fulfil this request – as an experimental, preliminary phase, for the moment confined to Brazil.
You can see where this is going – the dreaded domino effect. First priests who are married, then married men who can be ordained, then a choice for a married or celibate clergy, then women deacons and eventually the unmentionable.
What about Ireland? Roughly speaking we’ve 3,000 or so priests with an average age of almost 70 but with few being ordained. So we’ve a huge problem and, in general terms, it means that priests in their 70s and 80s will be looking after multiple parishes until they (priests and parishes) collapse under the strain. And the window of opportunity is narrowing all the time.
So shouldn’t we be doing something about it, now? Couldn’t our bishops do what the Brazilian bishops are doing?
The problem is that, for some reason, Irish bishops are not good at maths. It takes them a long time to get their heads around something and then when they do the sums they seem to lose their nerve and back away from the obvious answer.
Like the vocations issue. We’ve known for at least 20 years that vocations in Ireland were melting away and during that time if you asked a bishop a question on priorities he was sure to mention vocations.
In the last few years the word from the bishops was that a new initiative on vocations was on the way. We were afraid that it might be all puff and no pudding, seen to be doing something rather than getting something done.
Last year, the proposals emerged: (i) praying for vocations (ii) increased canvassing of young men and (iii) a new vocations office in Maynooth. The obvious limitations were (i) we’ve been praying for vocations for years so maybe we’re asking God for the wrong things; (ii) we’ve been canvassing young men for years with ever-diminishing success; and (iii) opening an office for vocations in Maynooth seems little more than a PR ruse to suggest that something different is happening, and effectively this was confirmed by a bishop who dismissed the office as having merely a co-ordinating role. In all, it’s an exercise in futility, the equivalent of moving one deck-chair on the Titanic.
Pope Francis is ‘a pastoral pope’, by which I mean that his focus is on people and parish. So his perspective is different. He listens; he hears; and he attempts to join the necessary dots in order to sort things out. He’s a pope of the possible, whereas so much of the Church deals with the impossible, a theological version of the Seamus Moore hit, ‘Ya can’t park here, ya can’t park there’.
But strangely what’s emerging is not a vision of the possible but the disedifying spectacle of a disloyal opposition, led by four cardinals who recently ticked Francis off for attempting to minister to those in irregular marriage situations. Led by Cardinal Raymond Burke, they are insisting that Francis gives then Yes or No answers.
Life is strange. Once we used to be given little lectures on obedience, on the dangers of imagining that we knew better. Pride, we were told, goes before a fall. Who do you think you are? Who asked you for your opinion? Now the people who used to do the lecturing are the disobedient ones.
Remember Bishops Willie Walsh and Brendan Comiskey suggesting that it was possible for the Catholic Church to look at the celibacy regulation, as it was just a church-made rule? Remember how they were summoned to Rome to be ticked off, presumably by some of those now ticking off the Pope?
We live in strange times. Recently Cardinal Walter Kasper, a friend of Pope Francis, said that we could expect some big surprises shortly. Bring them on. We may need to hold on to our hats, birettas and mitres.

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  1. Kevin Walters says:

    “And when it comes to vocations, boy is there a problem. In Brazil, for example, there are 140 million Catholics, so they need at least 100,000 priests and at the last count, there were only 1,800.”—————-
    The figure of 1,800 has a typographical error and should read 18,000; I have read the true figure is slightly above this. Never the less the point is made.
    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  2. Kevin, Thanks. Now corrected.

  3. A baptised and confirmed unmentionable says:

    “and eventually the unmentionable.”
    What if the unmentionable were already in our midst?Called by name by the God in whose image and likeness we are and whose Spirit is in us?

  4. Richard O'Donnell says:

    “You can see where this is going – the dreaded domino effect. First priests who are married, then married men who can be ordained, then a choice for a married or celibate clergy, then women deacons and eventually the unmentionable.”
    Aah now, God would never allow this, would s/he?

  5. “if priests disappear Mass disappears and if Mass disappears the Church disappears.” Brendan, what a gross overstatement and clericalised point of view. In many missionary countries for hundreds of years the Church has existed and thrived on Mass being celebrated very irregularly, in some places only a few times a year. The Church often thrived in these areas because the laity were trained and given their rightful place as catechists and leaders of weekly Services of the Word and house or cell groups. Often parishioners then met during the week, under lay leadership, in the small house groups to re-read and pray the particular passages of Sacred Scripture from the previous weeks Service of the Word and discuss how they could apply them to their everyday lives. When in Africa I met people who told me of their experience of the above and how their lively and committed local Catholic community was ruined by the arrival of a permanent priest who said daily Mass and strongly encouraged the people to attend. The house groups eventually declined as the priest celebrated Mass at them when he attended (irregularly) and thus unintentionally gave the impression that without Mass the house group had really little spiritual meaning or value. It was noticed that he never attended a house group meeting without saying Mass. When the permanent priest eventually left and was not replaced the people were left with nothing, far worse off than before the priest had arrived. Many then transferred to local Evangelical/Pentecostal churches where they enjoyed the lively singing and felt empowered by the scriptural teaching. I also heard many missionary priests disparagingly describe themselves as ‘Mass machines’, rushing from one community to another to say Mass and hear confession and then quickly pass on to the next. “Over sacramentalised (i.e. over Massed) and under evangelised”. Is that what Europe, including Ireland, has experienced for so long and is now ill equipped to face the future of the shortage of priests? It will unless Bishops and priests train laity (male and female), and not just permanent deacons, for leadership of para-liturgies and participation in Scripture-led house groups. When this happens then Mass will be really appreciated and better understood whenever it can be irregularly celebrated.

  6. Jim Mc Hugh says:

    Brendan, you write,
    ” Priests are disappearing and if priests disappear Mass disappears and if Mass disappears the Church disappears.”From an earlier entry on ACP; Community :
    “I felt warmth, welcome, acceptance, joy, a deep sense of the presence of God and the powerful sense of community – not a gathering of individuals who happen to be in the same place because of a common belief – but a real, joyful sense of community. In other words, it truly was ekklesia in its fullest sense.” The Sunday Mass where I attend holds but little of this for me, I confess; much as I long to be part of, to help create.
    The eucharistic homily which most finds a home in my still searching heart, consists of three words, Me for You; “take this all of You and eat.. my body given up for you” ( Me for you, Do this in memory of Me). is this the Sunday Eucharist whose disappearance is ‘feared’ ? Go néirí an Lá linn

  7. Phil Greene says:

    Whilst I realise and fully respect that this is a priest’s association and the courage it must have taken to even start this organisation I find it difficult to understand why the next step is never taken. At over 1000 strong you act as if you are but one small voice. As long as you only talk and take no action then the bishops can think of you as only a talking shop and they will continue to ignore you because they know they can.. It is also quite upsetting as a member of the laity to feel equally impotent in effecting change, we are always the last resort.. instead we could stand together and show that this situation is not good enough , no-one is impressed and we all deserve better. The Papal Nuncio has said that vocations are increasing in other parts of the world and that we will have priests from other parts coming to us… do we get a say in this..? Obviously not, but why not..? How can we ,bishops,priests and laity, together, help Pope Francis attain his vision of our Church in the 21st century sooner rather than never? Will I ,just like so many people I know , eventually , through sheer frustration say, “leave them at it” and walk away… I pray not!

  8. It is, surely, very hard to disagree with Phil Greene’s sentiments in the above@7.

  9. The proposition that catholics in South America (or elsewhere, perhaps Ireland) left the catholic church for evangelical churches because there was not enough priests is an unresearched presumption. I have heard of no survey that asked ex catholics why they left and demonstrated such a conclusion. From some investigations in central and South America it appears that many catholics found the evangelical churches to be closer to the gospel, had less formality and ritual, better preaching, better community, more participation in decision making, a warmer and more demonstrative spirit in worshipping God, more committment to bible study, more respect for the individual. The proposition that a shortage of priests is “depriving catholics of the eucharist” and thus causing a crisis has often been said. However, this is a simplistic evasion of the real problems. The criticism that catholic churches are often mass factories rings very true. It is often said that “catholics cannot sing”. Yes indeed, having been made powerless and almost mute. Leavers might well feel “I don’t want any longer to be moulded like that any longer”.

  10. Richard O'Donnell says:

    Phil @ 7 above makes a very good point. As a group of 1000+ priests, you could bring about great change if you act rather than just talk. Most of you are in leadership positions, of some sort, in your communities: are well respected and have many friends. If the bishops ignore you, well, why not as a group, ignore the bishops? I think you might be pleasantly surprised.
    Who knows, given the opportunity, the bishops may not be as homogeneous as we think either.

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