A letter from Alan Hilliard to Tony Flannery

Dear Tony,
I listened to your talk at yesterday’s meeting about your present predicament. You described how you have been stood down from ministry following an investigation by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). To be honest I don’t know the basis of, or the reason for the investigation. Neither do I know who instigated it or how it can be resolved. You further described how this has left you in a space in which you never imagined you’d find yourself in.This space, in this 66th year of your life, leaves you pondering how you will live the remainder of your life without the faculties to minister as a priest.
There are some who might say you broke the rules so you have to take the consequences. There are others that may even delight in the fact that the Church has called an errant priest to task for his so-called disloyalty. There are many however, who are saddened and shocked that not only has it come to this but they are distraught at the process which brought you to this point. To be honest I wasn’t surprised by much of what you had to say until… Maybe it’d be better if I come back to the ‘until’ later.
Your predicament is not startling in our present age. Many feel the fallout from the sad yet predictable way in which large institutions grind people down. Today many people are receiving unwelcome phone calls from banks; some even receive a number calls in the one day from officials trying to squeeze money out of them; money that they don’t have; money that the bank irresponsibly gave them in the first place. Others find themselves redundant after a lifetime of service to an industry, corporation or business with little hope of future work. Others just simply feel left out; they feel they can never achieve their potential. They see themselves as ones who are left on the platform watching the train leave the station knowing or at least feeling they can never get a ticket because of their age, a disability, a lack of educational opportunity or just sheer bad luck.
Tony, there are many like you who feel that they have been dropped. They once thought they were held in the highest esteem and were of value to those they served. Now they see that it was merely an illusion on their part. You describe how the organisations shut down and shut you out. Many of those in the situations described in the last paragraph feel the same. A few years ago banks were their best friends now that are torturous enemies.
Organisations are not humble; they cannot kneel before you and say sorry; only people can. They cannot, no, they will not give you a status that makes them look foolish or weak. Banks won’t forgive debt, societies are effectively letting people know they are on their own; they are slowly and assiduously dismantling welfare systems while ignoring their responsibility to provide opportunity and support to their citizens and those they conveniently describe as non-citizens. More and more people are literally ‘on their own’ and are familiar with feelings of insecurity and despair. This is felt more astutely today because this generation was convinced at one point in time that they were important to whatever organisation or corporation they committed to.
Fortunately for you and unlike most of the population, there is a platform for you to share your angst. You have brothers and sisters in the familial and ecclesial sense who are not only willing but who are anxious to hear your story. There are many people whose story burns a deep hole into their being. As it bores deeper into their fragile being they discover that it only serves to release a dark, black liquid that invades every fibre of their being, blocking out whatever light of hope shines towards them. You are lightened and enlightened by people’s attention to your plight
Back now to the ‘until’. It wasn’t until you described the experience of being an outsider that something began to make sense. When you listened to your brothers in community share stories of their daily activities in ministry…this made you feel as outsider. You once shared these activities and you know you may never share in them again.
No matter where I go, I know I’m not there.
I look at those who know they belong.
I live in a place called nowhere.
from Outsider, Brendan Kennelly, Reservoir Voices, 2009
It wasn’t until that moment, that moment when you mentioned ‘outsider’ when I saw ministry take hold of your being in a new and inspiring manner. This same moment shook my complacency towards your plight and your future. Your status as an outsider resonated with so many other voices that I have I have heard over the last few months and years. Maybe it is because I have worked with migrants that I understand both the power and powerlessness of the outsider.
Tony, your ministry has never been as powerful as it is now. You represent the many Catholics who still attend but live as outsiders, constantly looking in at a Church of ever widening gaps. Among those who feel this way are the men and women who are actively involved in the life of the Church. But if we are to be honest, it must be said that many priests, religious and yes even bishops feel this way. Maybe you can take heart from the words of Archbishop John Shelby Spong. Writing about the exile of God’s people in Babylon he observed, ‘in exile your God either grows or dies’. I have no doubt that your God will flourish.
Let your ministry begin afresh at this gentle age of 66. Never before was there such a mandate given to you to minister. Are not the scriptures anything more than the defrocking of those who thought they were the insiders? Is not the narrative of the Gospel nothing more than restoring those there were cast aside and branded as outsiders to their rightful place as children of God and heirs of the Kingdom?
Le grá Dé,

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  1. There are a few things here that greatly concern me: We have a man, Tony Flannery, who has devoted his life to the care of the needs of the people of God. The crisis for Fr Tony and others who are sympathetic to his cause, is that, he and they believe that he needs Rome’s approval to minister.
    In the New Age of the Church, with the emphasis on the empowerment of the laity, we need to be rethinking the nature and work of the cultic priesthood. I think, Tony Flannery is very capable of continuing his work: does he let Rome stop him?

  2. Donal Dorr says:

    Alan, I agree with what you say so well and I’m sure it will provide some comfort for Tony. Not playing down the importance of what you say, I want to add that it is also vitally important that all of us in the Church pray and work (especially at this Kairos moment) for a situation where our Church leaders exercise their authority in a way that will be a model and challenge to banks, industrial companies, and governments. Otherwise we are not genuine followers of Jesus. Yes, Jesus suffered unjustly. But after that he rose from the dead. Tony and others have waited longer than three days for their experience of ‘resurrection’.

  3. Soline Humbert says:

    Welcome to the church-outside-the-walls!

  4. I just read an excellent book by Jean-Claude Barreau, now 80 (L’Eglise va-t-elle disparaître, Seuil, 2013) urging the ordination of ordinary mature lay folk who’ll keep their families and dayjobs, and thus bring an end, gently, to the failing Tridentine epoch. He has a sturdy idea of priesthood as transmitted by laying on of hands since the night of the Last Supper, and a sturdy idea of the Real Presence, though he has not much time for the Tridentine language of transubstantiation. Personally, I see no reason to change basic dogma on this and I think to say that “the Eucharist is a fake” as Garry Wills did on the Steven Colbert show is utterly vile.
    Barreau points out that non-apostolic churches (not believing in a priesthood) quickly reduce the Eucharist to a mere commemoration. He counts Lutherans and Presbyterians as apostolic.
    “We must dare to say that the eucharist is an extraordinary sublimation of sacred cannibalism, a sublimation witnessing to the genius of Jesus though he was formed in the crucible of a Judaism that held such things in abhorrence.”
    On p. 56 he writes: The subject of priestless churches has been raised “also in Ireland by Fr Tony Flannery, founder of an Association of catholic priests to which a quarter of the clergy belong, and by another priest, Fr Fagon (sic)…. The CDF has opened a proceeding concerning the writings of Fr Flannery — and today threatens to suspend Fr Fagon.”

  5. Jane Anderson says:

    I know of a small number of priests here in Australia who have been jettisoned from their priesthood in uncharitable and unChrisian ways and which border on the criminal. It is not easy for them to exist on the margins; one even died of a broken heart. But those who were well supported by friends found substantial and satisfying ministries on the edges and where compassion and pastoral skills are sorely needed.
    It seems to me that badges of honour should be awarded to those who challenge our dysfunctional church and as well adapt the Catholic legacy to new and needy situations. Catholicism has much to offer our world, but not in its present and intransigent form. These priests who suffer for their efforts (along with reformist minded laypeople) will not go unrewarded in the long reach of history.
    Tony and the rest of you that have earned the honourable badge of being an outsider, may you attract many disciples.

  6. Liamy Mac Nally says:

    Alan, Thank you. Such a ray of hope, for Tony and everyone else. ONEderful!

  7. Bain Wellington says:

    The issue is truth, is it not? Nothing remotely comparable to banks and other mundane institutions. No individual is the arbiter of the Word, no individual may legitimately preach any Gospel other than the Gospel handed on by the Apostles (Gal.1:6-10). Who is the arbiter of the true Gospel if not Christ’s Holy Church? Think carefully what direction this is leading you in. Lumen gentium, based squarely on the teaching of the Lord, insists (n.20, some citations omitted) :-
    the Sacred Council teaches that bishops by divine institution have succeeded to the place of the apostles, as shepherds of the Church, and he who hears them, hears Christ, and he who rejects them, rejects Christ and Him who sent Christ.(Lk.10:16)
    As for “outsider” theology, consider this, too, from Lumen gentium (n.14, some citations omitted) :-
    They are fully incorporated in the society of the Church who, possessing the Spirit of Christ accept her entire system and all the means of salvation given to her, and are united with her as part of her visible bodily structure and through her with Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops. The bonds which bind men to the Church in a visible way are profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical government and communion. He is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a “bodily” manner and not “in his heart.” All the Church’s children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged.(Lk.12:48)

  8. Alan,
    I think it is fair to say that with reference to the predicament that Tony finds himself in, the sentiments expressed by many within the ACP are reverberating very strongly throughout the Church in Ireland. Never before, and certainly never so succinctly, has the anachronistic and sadly dysfunctional nature of the institutional functioning of our Church been so shamefully exposed in so many ways. It is not too extreme a view to say, that unless the power and authority structures of the Church are seriously reformed, we will not have a Church in this country much longer. I for one would be very sad if that were to be the case; at the same time it would be a defining moment for us all, for then the Holy Spirit would indeed be free to influence, re-kindle and fan into flames a new gospel based reality with a community that truly reflected the Kingdom envisaged by Christ.

  9. Con Carroll says:

    nice one Alan. words of wisdom

  10. Wow, what a page I woke up to read this morning! I will look for the book of Jean-Claude Barreau…………….My comment above which was very skillfully moderated, aligns perfectly with what you commented from Jean-Claude’s book…..Thank you Father Joe……..

  11. I have a question: When did Gary Wells appear on the Steven Colbert Show? and another question: In what sense did he say that the Eucharist was fake? Was he referring to the concept of transubstantiation? or something else?

  12. The issue is truth, is it not”? You are right Bain Wellington @ at 7 above, but it is also about governance. I would love to cross swords with you on scripture interpretation, but being honest I would be completely out of my depth. You have forgotten more about scripture, than I will ever learn. I have taken the easy route to Gods commandments, “Love God, Love your neighbour, is all that matters to me.
    Through both the spoken and written word of Fr Tony, and other members of the ACP, they clearly state that they totally accept all the core values of our faith. The Eucharist, Commandments, Sacraments, are not, and never have been questioned. What is being questioned is the manner by which our Church is being governed, and the need for change, so that our Church will grow and prosper, to serve God’s people now, and in the future.
    I thank you Alan Hilliard. Your letter was so profound and covered a multitude of issues, not just for Fr Tony, but for many, many others.

  13. Stephen Edward says:

    Shelby Spong! Oh dear, he believed that Jesus was God’s adopted son and as human the rest of us. A bit worrying (if not altogether surprising) that a Catholic priest would quote a heretic.

  14. wiliam o'b says:

    It seems to me that prophets are always “outsiders” looking into the institution and seeing more clearly the faults that it has. It takes great courage to be a prophet especially when cast out like the servants who come to the vineyard in the gospel. The current leaders have all bought into their own power and wealth and have abandoned the role of prophet to the world (except in matters of sexuality). We have only to look at the American bishops to see the paralysis brought on by their adherence to the republican party line. None of them have dared to say a word about gun control in a country that is being systematically destroyed by violence. We must have prophets who challenge us. However we never want them too close. God bless Tony Flannery and those like him. God give me a portion of that courage.

  15. Bobby Gilmore says:

    Well done Alan. Tony’s plight is another example of the colonising Trent era in the church that put dogma before people. Hopefully, we are seeing the end of that era. In the gospel the “outsiders” had to knock a hole in the roof to meet Jesus. This is a time for a Euro-centered church to let go and choose an “outsider” who will reform, renew and repair 500 years of damage that began with Columbus and perpetuated in the present in the victimisation of people like Tony.
    In Hope
    Bobby Gilmore

  16. Margaret Hill says:

    Thank you Alan very well written, from another outsider and very sad follower of the Way, the sign posts have been changed, and we are lost we need a true Shepherd to find us and lead us back.But we have a part to play and we must stand together with Tony Flannery and all the other brave people and priests who are not afraid to stand up and say enough is enough and these injustices must end in the name of God.

  17. Therese Tynan says:

    Vatican 11 stated that we Catholics are a church from the people up. Surely it is up to us then to say who we want to administer to us as priest in our community? And what changes we see as necessary to help us to live Christian lives. But, that would take
    dialogue, would it not? Dialogue would mean acceding power.
    The only way to kill a dictatorship, or at least disempower it, is to withdraw all support from it.
    Obviously we also have to continue to try to live up to the principals laid down by its Founder.
    Was this not precisely the situation of the Jewish Church when Christ came ‘not to condemn, but to resolve?’

  18. Thank you Theresa….Yes, it is made clear,in the New Testament, that overseeers of the Church ARE NOT TO LORD IT OVER PEOPLE!
    There is such a difference between how the Church is governed compared to how Christ instructed “all of us” to live….
    I call it, a very, very, serious, in fact, fatal CONFLICT OF INTEREST….There is such a huge, huge, difference, in the understanding of Church and World reality, between, those of us, on the ground, and those Roman Princes, as they have been called, on this website, (the Cardinals in Rome) and may be even bishops, the world over…..It’s like they live on Pluto, and we live on earth, I hope! I am refrained from entering any comment on the first two topics listed below, as I have reached my saturation point of reading more about the scandals! I would love to see some “Prodigal Sons” in Rome, but I wonder who that could possible be. We have had the CBC showing us, an interview with Canadian Cardinal Marc Oulett for the last couple of nights, and while, I believe, a really good and decent Canadian, never mind, Canadian Cardinal, couldnot possibly stomach this the scandalous curia, I also wonder, how removed he is also from the reality of the Church and World, outside the Vatican walls!…I continue to pray that the conclave, is only, going to do, what our Lord permits,

  19. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Darlene, Marc Ouellet has only been in the “scandalous Curia” for two-and-a-half years so he probably hasn’t ‘gone native’ so soon. As for “how removed he is from the reality of the Church and World, outside the Vatican walls . . .” well, he should certainly know Quebec well enough. Even in Alberta, surely Quebec Libre counts as part of the Church and World??? And any cardinal who’s been to both the Royal Dublin Society and Croke Park in the space of a week deserves a nod from the Holy Spirit and maybe a few votes too.

  20. Yes, Eddie, I agree that he deserves the votes and the opportunity to lead, however, I’m somewhat skeptical, after listening to his responses to some of the questions Peter Mansbridge had for him. I have no doubt, that Cardinal Oulett is at the very least, not corrupt, and is more than capable, of discerning in right relationship with Christ. I just concerned that he considers “issues” that might well be “primary” for the Church Institution to address, rather than “secondary”….but, overall, yes, I think, I prefer him to anyone else….

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