Delegates from international reform groups meet in Austria

From 10 to 12 October, Sean McDonagh and I attended a meeting of renewal and reform groups in Austria. There were people, lay and cleric, men and women, from Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Australia, United States and Ireland, — about 30 people in all, at the meeting. It was a great experience, and I was glad to be there.
Among the issues discussed were:
1. How to respond to the new message coming out from the Vatican since Pope Francis was elected. We were generally impressed by what he was saying, though with some reservations. Does he really mean these things?  And if he does, will he be able to bring about the necessary structural changes to make them happen?  The women among us were disappointed by some of his statements about women, particularly his emphasis on women as mothers (which they saw as traditional stereotyping!) and his call for a ‘theology of women’ (why separate women as if they were a different species?).  But, allowing for these reservations, there was a general feeling that Pope Francis was at the least creating a new atmosphere in the Church and deserved our support and encouragement.
2. The Synod on the Family.  The meeting agreed that if this synod consisted only of cardinals, and other celibate clerics, it would be of little use.  A lot of discussion concerned how to find ways of influencing the make-up of the synod, and ensuring that the voices of families and women would play a significant part.  Specific actions are being planned in this area.
3. With declining numbers of priests, what happens to parishes without priests? This is a more urgent reality in some European countries, and in the United States, than it has become here as yet – though of course it is only around the corner for us also.  Two points were strongly made: (i) That it was a shame that local communities were deprived of the Eucharist because of the rigidity of the Church in not being able even to discuss the limits placed on those who are eligible for priesthood.  (ii) That parish communities should be much more assertive, and not allow themselves to be dispersed at the orders of a bishop.  It was clear to me that some local communities on the continent and in the U.S. were much more organised and vocal than parishes here in Ireland. We need to hear the voices of the lay Catholics more strongly in this country.
On the final morning, at a general session, some of the difficulties (the ‘wounds’ was the word used by the facilitator) faced by reform groups, and by the Church in general, were aired. Two in particular caught my attention.
(a) There can be a degree of tension between priests and women in the movements.  Some priests prefer to work only with other priests, because when women are in the group it is inevitable that the difficult issues around womens’ place in the Church are brought up, and many priests prefer not to discuss them. Some women in the group expressed a great deal of hurt over their treatment in the Church, and strongly asserted that no real reform can happen without the active involvement of all.
(b) That led on to another major ‘wound’ of the Church, the way it deals with people of differing sexual orientation, the LGBT group. One priest spoke openly and very impressively about his experience of being gay and a priest. He talked of his struggle, and how he had now come to a place of contentment in himself and in his priesthood, while being very unhappy with a lot of what the Church says about gays. He then went on to tell us that he agreed with those who said that there was a greater percentage of gays among the clergy than in the population as a whole, maybe especially among the younger clergy and those in higher office. While he believed that this in itself should not be seen as a problem he felt that it may have an impact on their attitudes and beliefs around priesthood, and that it would be good if these matters could be openly discussed in the Church. The group was impressed by this contribution, but we neither had the time nor, I suspect, the ability to pursue it further.
I think that meetings like this are of immense importance to us here in Ireland. (I was at a similar type meeting in London in August). It is a source of great encouragement to learn of the wide range of groups springing up in many parts of the world among lay and clergy, and how their agendas have so much in common. I get a strong sense that the movement for reform and renewal has great momentum now, and I am hopeful that it will not be denied.  Of course the presence of Pope Francis is a big help. The people I have met from the various different countries are enormously impressive, and the energy that is present in these meetings is to me a sign of the Spirit at work.  Let us hope and pray that this be so!
Tony Flannery

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  1. Indeed, this must have been a very exciting meeting to have attended. There are a number of things, I could comment on, but, what strikes me the most, is that, if there are as many gay clergy, as you say, then, I would think, that the women of the Church who are seeking full inclusion, and in particular, ordination,have many a sympathetic ear, with those same gay clergy!
    How things could change!

  2. Fergus P Egan says:

    With reference to the “wounds’ in the Church, from my experience I have witnessed hatred where there should be love, exclusion where there should be inclusion – and the list goes on. I fear the wounds are so deep that a major infusion/transfusion is required before it is too late. The living Church is in the members – the wonderful men and women who strive to live the Gospel. The vast majority of these wonderful men and women are outside the governance of the Church.
    Perhaps it is already too late for many who will never experience meaningful acceptance within our lifetime. In the USA, for example, the second largest religious group is lapsed Catholics. I fear that attempts to reform the existing structures is like whipping a dead horse. The structure itself is irreparable. It needs to be replaced from the bottom up and from the top down, replaced with a Church in keeping with the spirit of the Church founded by Christ (as opposed to an obsolete and dysfunctional structure modeled on the Imperial Rome).
    Fergus P Egan

  3. Fergus, I concur with your last statement wholeheartedly and so doing the Church might well have to raised from the apostolic ground. An appropriate reference might be William Harrington’s work about House Church. I know that there is concern about valid Eucharist, but I believe there is a way of doing that even in a house church situation.

  4. At Jesus last supper there were only twelve present besides Himself. The model of Eucharist would seem to be a small intimate gathering, not large crowds following a closely prescribed ritual as favoured in traditional churches, especially the Catholic church.

  5. I tried to ignore this article because it upset me so much, but as usual ‘fools rush in where angels fear to tread’! The idea that a Synod on the Family would consist of only Cardinals and other celibate clerics would be like a re-run of the Humanae Vitae encyclical that was passed into doctrinal teaching by the conservative celibate few. At (a) in the article it highlights the unease among clergy of discussing women’s role within the Church. How dare those clergy. What in their priestly formation gave rise to this attitude? It is not fear of women. It is dualism, that goes back to the adoption of neo-Platonic philosophies by the early Church Fathers, Augustine, Gregory of Nysssa and all those other men, held in high esteem, who influenced the infallibly held teachings that the Church holds sacred today. Both Augustine and Aquinas upheld Plato’s and Aritotle’s belief that a woman is ‘a mutilated male’. The reason for the lack of engagement by clergy on this forum, I believe is twofold. One is fear of being ‘fingered’ by an anonymous informer and reported to Rome for their views and the other is whatever was inculturated within their priestly formation that gave them their god-given right to be disinclined to engage with women. To all of those priests who do not engage with women or with this forum, ‘Don’t take any burning torch with you. Don’t be seduced into the notion that fire burns in you and nowhere else. Watch and stay where you are until the hidden fire of the divine Spirit flares up, and kindle your own flame by that. Learn there what you must say, and discover there what you must do’ (Borgman).

  6. I had read another review of the reform meeting in Austria in the N.C.R. I was reminded that I had suggested on this forum, that the reform groups from around the globe, needed to come together as one voice, so that, as one, huge voice, they might be heard at the Vatican. As a result of this gathering in Austria…what has been assembled is the “Network of Networks” and I truly hope that as such, they are a reform force to be reckoned with by the Pope and his Vatican elite. The caution is that this “reform conglomerate” could become another professional group in the Church and not really achieve a beneficial situation for all of us.
    However, if the Lord, is driving their agenda…something positive and enduring could happen for change, for reform, and for our fidelity to Christ and Vatican II.

  7. “The living Church is in the members-the wonderful men and women who strive to live the Gospel. The wonderful men and women are outside the governance of the Church”. Fergus P Egan @2 above, you are so right. Those high ranking civil servants in Rome who make all the rules and regulations which govern our Church, do not, and never have, lived in the real world. That is why we have so much hope in Pope Francis, to turn things around. Living with the poor of Argentina for so long, has given him a totally different view of Church, than those who have never worked at the coalface of Church. Hope springs eternal.

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