Priests – Ministers of Religion or Messengers of Joy?

Joe McVeigh


The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) changed the way we understand the Church and the Church’s mission. It also changed the understanding of the role of the priest in carrying out that mission. However, that new understanding has not been implemented in any official way in the Irish or European church – with the result that many good men who were ordained priests left the priesthood and some left the church. The older priests rearranged the altars and carried on as before. Others influenced by the new teaching of Vatican II tried, as best they could, to live their priesthood according to the way proposed by the Fathers of the Council and the Gospel. This created many tensions within parishes between the old and the new.

I know because I experienced it. I remember when, shortly after I was ordained in 1971, I first proposed introducing a folk group in the Mass there was strong resistance from a senior priest. Guitars were not suitable for the liturgy, I was told!  The matter was referred to the bishop who arranged a compromise-the Pipe organ and the guitar. Needless to say, the acoustic guitar could not be heard above the sound of the organ. But it was a victory for progress. It was the first time a guitar was ever played in the Cathedral and I am happy to say it has been played there without the pipe organ ever since.

Most of the older priests resigned themselves to living as priests had done for centuries, many of them living lives of quiet desperation, saying their breviary and carrying out their duties in the parish. Some found satisfaction in the power and control they acquired automatically in running their parishes or schools. (It saddens me to say that Opus Dei wants to maintain the old way of being the priest as ‘the man in black’ whom people depend for the Sacraments and for salvation. That is a disempowering approach.)

In the old pre-Vatican II days there were many good and dedicated priests intent on serving God and caring for their people in parishes and schools. I remember some of them who were not power hungry or obsessed with collecting money but who went about doing good in their parishes. In those days, as is still the case, the priest said the Sunday Mass, as well as daily Mass, heard Confessions and performed the other Sacraments. The Parish Priest’s job was to ensure that Catholic schools were available for Catholic children. He was automatically chairman of the Governors of the School and the man who appointed all the teachers – and fired some if they were not to his liking. A priest I knew once said that the schools were more important than the Churches for the future of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

Many Catholic Bishops still hold this belief and continue to demand control over the schools that were established during a period in Ireland when the Church was triumphant after the Penal times and after the Great Starvation. This Church grew in importance and in wealth as it became more established in every part and parish in Ireland. The Church acquired more property and became aligned with the wealthy class. It also became politically important in supporting the status quo and conservative politics. Most Bishops and priests could live with British occupation and military rule so long as they were given power and control over their dioceses and parishes. The Vatican was happy enough with this situation so long as the Church was recognised and the bishops remained in absolute control. The political leaders gradually came to have more and more influence over the Church.

Vatican Two set out to offer a different vision of the Church and by insinuation a different understanding of the role of the priest. The Council saw the priest in terms of a special minister of the good news for the poor -the herald of the gospel, the Messenger of Joy as described by Cardinal Danneels of Belgium. According to Vatican II, the priest’s primary role was to witness to the Gospel by standing in solidarity with the poor and oppressed and accepting the painful consequences. Many Church leaders in Latin America, where injustice and poverty were so blatantly obvious and causing such human suffering for the majority, were convinced that this was the way forward for the Church in the world. The Church, if it was to be a witness for the truth, had to confront the rich and powerful. The leaders had to bring about fundamental changes in the distribution of wealth and in creating a just society based on equality. Many in those countries suffered grievously for the stance they took.

In some parts of the world, women soon realised that they could just as easily fulfil the role of a priest in the Church. It became obvious that the law in the church that prohibited women and allowed for male only priests was based on a flimsy argument – that there were no women at the Last Supper! Who cooked the supper? As the education and liberation of women spread throughout the Western world, women in the Church became more vocal in demanding equal rights. It is a slow process but have no doubts women will eventually be ordained priests in the Catholic church when males are no longer answering the call.

I was ordained to the ministerial priesthood in 1971 just after Vatican II had concluded and after its findings were published. Some of our theology teachers in Maynooth gave us some idea of the new thinking of the Council but it was mostly the old idea of the priest as part of a hierarchy that I had imbibed when I left Maynooth. I soon found myself in a parish, under a Parish priest, dispensing the Sacraments and bringing the Sacraments to the sick and the dying. I am sure that some people, if not all in that situation, found great consolation, when the priest came around with the Sacraments.

I also found myself on regular visits to Long Kesh prison camp which was newly opened in 1971 to hold hundreds of the civil rights activists and those suspected of having republican tendencies. That place was a complete eye-opener and a real shock to the system. My first visit to celebrate Mass with the prisoners in Long Kesh was in Christmas 1971 and that experience made a deep and lasting impression. I soon realised just how corrupt and dysfunctional the northern state was when it could lock up many citizens without charge or trial. There were about 400 internees, with about 50 prisoners in each of what were called compounds or cages. These were not sentenced prisoners. They were interned without trial. My young cousin was one of them as was a former student in Maynooth. This situation cried out to the highest heaven but for the most part the Irish Bishops were silent. Most priests went along with their bishops and kept quiet. Fortunately, there were a few who did not toe the party line and who raised their voices in condemnation.

Priests, in the old pre -Vatican II days, were clear about what they had to do if they were in a parish representing their bishop. All has changed during my lifetime and especially during the past 20 years. I learned the other day that only one man will be ordained this year (2018) for the whole of Ireland. When I was ordained there were about fifty other young men ordained. There were two or three priests in nearly every parish. All that is changing and already some parishes have no priests.

The priests in Ireland nowadays are older, most of them in their seventies. Very few are under 40 years of age. There are fewer active Catholics for all kinds of reasons. We live in a new world, in a very different culture. Young people have grown up in a very different world and culture to us who grew up in the 1950′ s and 1960’s. The attitude to prayer has changed. The family used to pray the Rosary frequently and attend Church devotions throughout the year. Very few families nowadays take the time or trouble to pray together.

In this new developing situation, I have had to think out for myself a new way of being priest and still stay within the diocesan framework. This has not been easy for me or for the bishops who were in charge of the diocese. There was a clash of two different cultures, two different ways of understanding the role and function of the diocesan priest. I was being influenced by the new thinking of Vatican II and also by reports of how priests in South and Central America were involved in social justice issues. They were discovering the new more radical meaning of the Word of God in the Bible and trying, with their people, to put it into practice. Fortunately, my most recent bishop now retired due to ill health, had a broader understanding of my position and vision. Some other priests in Ireland have had to do the same. Some whose bishops were not flexible were isolated. It would seem that missionary priests had to do this years ago, perhaps even before Vatican II. Unlike in the Irish church they were encouraged by their bishops especially in Brazil and South America, to live differently and become a different kind of priest –ministering to the poor, to prisoners, listening to the radical Gospel, adapting the liturgy to the local needs and the local people, engaging in Bible reading with the people who were the poor.

In Ireland, we are now in mission territory. We who have been ordained and who have survived this long are missionary priests in our own country. We are no longer maintenance priests in charge of maintaining churches, schools and parochial halls, providing spaces for people to come together socially for bazaars and bingo. We now need to adjust to the entirely new situation facing us and adopt new practices and a new ways of being church. We could pursue the small communities model, which brought about such a revival in the Church in Latin America – even though it seems to have been somewhat undermined. We might consider other alternative ways of being church in the local parish.

I would hope that, because of my own struggle to find another way of being priest, I could offer some ideas about the priest of the future and the church of the future in this beautiful country with such a rich history and such a long experience of oppression and colonialism.

The Church of the Future must be a Church of all the People and a church in which women are on equal terms as men. It must be a church where women who feel the call to be Messengers of Joy are accepted and encouraged in their special vocation. How the priests of the future minister and become Messengers of Joy will evolve when women are granted their full and equal place in the church. Secondly, those men who may feel the call to be Messengers of Joy must not have the law of celibacy imposed on them. It is a basic human right to marry. Those who wish voluntary celibacy may pursue their preference for that lifestyle in a way that is respected. There must be no more compulsory celibacy for those men or women who wish to pursue their calling to be ministers of the Gospel of Christ in the Catholic Church.

Sooner or later the leaders in the Catholic Church will have to grapple with these difficult issues.





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  1. Mary Wood says:

    It happens that immediately after reading this contribution I turned to another regular port of call. Pat Marrin who writes and sketches it has a gift for focusing on the kernel of a text.
    Faithful Stewards, written 14th January

    Another insightful comment came from Fr Seamus Ahern a few days ago. I suffered much from one of the “escapees from an ecclesiastical museum” until I left my church.

  2. Mary Vallely says:

    Hear, hear, Fr Joe McVeigh! Never afraid to speak out, to acknowledge the need for change and for flexibility in approaches. I love that image of ‘messenger of joy!’ Something all Christ followers should aim to be, not just the ordained.
    Delighted to read this honest plea and to know that Joe is still what he showed himself to be when I knew him in Maynooth so many years ago. That kernel of compassion is still very much intact. ( I still remember the words of the song, ‘‘Connie”, you co-wrote with Pádraig O Standún, which won the First Song Competition. Was it 1970/1? God rest the singer, Tom O’Gara, taken so early in his priesthood. Such a loss.)
    Bail ó Dhia ar an obair, a Sheosaimh.
    Here is someone else who is open to change. With eight sisters Cardinal Tobin has more opportunities than most to reflect on the great injustice of how women are treated still in the RCC. Hope the link works.

  3. Many thanks, Fr Joe, for that. It is great to be assured that the memory of Vatican II, and of what the council advocated for the missionary role of the priest, is far from dead.

    Lumen Gentium (1964) urged also that we lay people – as our specific mission – would ‘consecrate the world to God'(34). Who can remember any occasion since then of being called together in a parish or diocesan assembly, to discuss what that might mean – and what it might involve by way of prayer, sacrament, re-structuring and action?

    Vatican II also affirmed that all of the baptised receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit. As these include the gift of wisdom, why did an effective embargo descend instead on any such open parish or diocesan assembly – effectively imposing a lay-clerical apartheid on the Irish church?

    That this was catastrophic – preventing the people of God from together facing and interpreting a storm of social change while at the same bunkering bishops in secretive denial of the celibate peccability of clergy – is now obvious to all except the blindest.

    Recently in Würzburg, Germany, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin ventured an explanation of what happened to the Irish Church in the last half century. As his analysis did not once mention Humanae Vitae (1968) it was the equivalent of a dazzling explanation of World War II that forbade any mention of the Treaty of Versailles of 1919 – the treaty that ruined postwar Germany and made it a seedbed for Nazism.

    Later in this half-centenary, no doubt, we will read more of that 1968 encyclical and its impact on the church more widely. I will be fascinated to see if any other explanation is provided for the death of the Vatican II promise of dialogue and renewal here in Ireland. I remember Humanae Vitae as the true source of Irish Catholic clergy-lay apartheid – because it imposed upon clergy an official obligation to uphold a teaching they were, by virtue of the same celibacy, totally unequipped to convey persuasively. Unable to discuss that with lay people, they became unable to discuss anything, for fear of the discussion reverting to that.

    So mandatory priestly celibacy is indeed most intimately connected with all of the disasters that the Irish church has suffered since 1968. When Archbishop Martin can admit that in Würzburg, or somewhere else, he will have released the Irish church from the plague of the deadly Wyssn Protocol (‘whatever you say, say nothing!’)

    In the meantime what prevents us from now discussing what ‘consecrating the world to God’ might mean, in this Year of the Family, 2018? Has not Pope Francis already blown the whistle for that?

  4. Gerry McFlynn says:

    A really inspiring and thought-provoking article, Joe. Should be compulsory reading for every bishop and priest
    in the country. It’s implications need to be studied and acted upon.
    As Thomas Merton once famously said: we have more to do than sing hymns while the ship goes down!

  5. Eddie Finnegan says:

    In a rather earnest piece (one of a trilogy), “Is the ACP an All-Ireland reform movement or not?”, on this site on 27 March 2013 I wondered about the absence of men such as Joe McVeigh and Padraig Standún. Nearly five years later I’ve grown up and stopped writing earnest trilogies to allow the diocesan clergy a bit of elbow room – but the vacuum remains largely unfilled. So a big welcome to you, Fr Joe, and I hope +Liam McDaid’s successor has a similarly generous appreciation of your charism.

    Alas, on one of my rare return journeys through parishes in South Monaghan and South Armagh last weekend I found no evidence of Messengers of Joy (or messengers of anything much, come to think of it) in two sanctuaries of Clogher and Armagh. No message of joy even in a couple of gabbled Glorias and Credos – so I see now why Seamus Ahearne’s folk might just skip them.

    But time to repeat for Joe and any other Nuntii Laetitiae out there Padraig Standún’s funeral tribute to his young classmate, Tom O’Gara, in July 1982:

    “There is a lesson in this for a church establishment which seems at times to have barely contained and tolerated one of its finest assets. Flair, imagination, contagious loving, the bending and bucking of stagnant systems are not sins. They help transform the drab reality of many lives and bring the spark of the Incarnation to what for many is a sterile and pompous institution. Such creative priesthood is too often met by threats and suspensions, rather than encouraged as a complement and embellishment of the hard and sincere graft of the more conventional priests.”

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