Rome, we’ve got a problem

It can take a while for a penny to drop but drop it will, eventually. What seems like years ago the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) drew attention to the catastrophic decline (almost disappearance) of vocations to the priesthood and its implications for the survival of the Catholic Church in Ireland. It was, we pointed out, just a matter of mathematics. Do the maths, see the problem.
The reaction from those who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, take on board the mathematical implications of what we were saying was to depict us as raving radicals or as ‘negative’ or apocalyptic doomsdayers – any excuse for not listening to us. But now that the penny has dropped, it seems that, yes, of course, we were right.
Three bishops have recently said about their dioceses what the ACP has been saying for years about the Irish Church – ‘Houston, we have a problem’.
Interestingly, the three bishops – Denis Nulty of Kildare, Ray Browne of Kerry and Francis Duffy of Clogher – are all in their 50s. In other words they’re going to be bishops for almost 20 years, which means that unlike other bishops with just a few years to go, they can’t find refuge in the famous lateral deflection – ‘It’ll do in my time’.
So it’s time for a direct distress call – ‘Rome, we have a problem’.
The difficulty now though is that while the penny is dropping, it can take a bit longer to join the dots. It’s one thing to say that we’ve a problem, a logical corollary is – what can we do about it?
Regularly now, in what used to be a listing of priests’ changes in June, we have a listing of parishes who no longer will have a resident priest but will be serviced by a priest in an adjoining parish. Unless something practical is done, that will keep happening until there’s only one priest left with a helicopter trying to cover funerals, weddings and baptisms over several parishes leaving most churches in a diocese without Mass, Sunday or weekday.
At present there’s only one diocesan priest under 40 in Dublin, Cashel and Killala dioceses. The average age of priests is pushing 70. Where will we be in ten years time? We need to do more than agree that we’ve a problem. We have to make decisions on what has to happen.
The ACP has suggested three short-term strategies: (i) ordain suitable married men; (ii) invite back priests who left to get married; and (iii) ordain women deacons. When the ACP was founded seven years ago such proposals didn’t receive much support, or as one well-wisher said to me, ‘Are ye out of your (expletive deleted) mind?’
It was a fair point. Benedict XVI was pope, bishops were in denial, priests were all over the shop (as the business was going down the tube) and Catholics in the pew, despairing of any change, were drifting away.
Now, of course, we’ve a pope in Rome who would be happy to discuss all three options, if bishops’ conferences would just ask him. The remaining Catholic in the pews, surveys suggest, would have no problem if a priest was married, women were deacons, etc. So what now?
What now is that the bishops can’t join the dots. They can’t even agree to discuss it with Pope Francis even though when they met him in Rome recently he said to them, ‘Ask me anything you want!’
What the bishops have decided to do about vocations is to set up an office in Maynooth. I suspect that they’re not really serious about that particular initiative. One admitted that it’s just co-ordinating what’s already happening (or not happening). But they have to be seen to be doing something.
It beggars belief that no one is trying to bell this particular cat. Years ago, in the winter-time of our Church, bishops like Willie Walsh, Christy Jones and Brendan Comisky were making waves but now a veil of absolute silence seems to have descended. Say nothing and it might all go away.
But it won’t go away, of course, because a train is coming down the tracks that will devastate the Catholic Church in Ireland unless some decisions are made. What’s needed is vision and leadership and an acceptance that putting heads under the bed clothes hoping that something will go away is a game children play but a bit more bravery is expected from adults – especially from those who have accepted the responsibility of leadership in the Church.
We know what’s going to happen, because it has to happen as there’s no other Plan B. Married men will be ordained; some of those who left the priesthood to marry will be invited back; women will be ordained as deacons and eventually as priests. And when all that happens people will be left wondering what all the excitement was about.
Thankfully, Pope Francis is in Rome, waving a red flag and encouraging very traditional bishops like our own to begin to talk seriously about re-imaging ministry and priesthood for a very different Ireland.
So we have, as we say, a window of opportunity, to get decisions made that everyone (or almost everyone) knows need to be made. Mark Patrick Hederman, the Benedictine priest and writer, has said that we have about five years to sort things out. So it’s over to Denis, Ray and Francis, our ‘younger’ bishops, who have at last named the problem to take the next step and propose some workable solutions. They know what they are, we know what they are, and everyone (including the dogs in the street) knows what they are.
The first step is to say, loudly and clearly, Rome, we’ve got a huge problem.

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  1. What this article suggests makes perfect sense.

  2. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Not exactly a brave suggestion – anyone frequenting the site the last 5 years would think we are living in some kind of “Ground Hog Day” version of reform. The Pope is all about how different cultures can impact decisions (priest selections in Brazil will be getting upgraded hopefully) but I’m just wondering if you all could be in a better position if the polling of the general population in Ireland had not stopped. For me, that data was key to building pressure on Bishops. What does it take to move that original poll into a nationwide conversation that is going to inspire bishops?
    Priorities are everything. Vocations aside, has any one ever stopped to think that possibly the reforms that Pope Francis has aggressively called for might perhaps lead to less of a vocational crisis and a long-term solution to the apparent deficit? From an organisational perspective, it seems that he is willing to be more than supportive of the reform movement and seems to be meeting you all halfway but how much have you all embraced those things that he holds true and dear?
    It seems from the outside looking in, that this is still a one-way conversation. He is waving a lot of red flags, and white ones but it seems everyone is steadfast in their own agenda afraid to move outside the confines of their own comfort zones.

  3. Colm Holmes says:

    This article makes perfect sense only from a patriarchal male perspective! Why are women always left as the last and least desirable option? Are women not made in the image of Christ? And over 77% of people in Ireland support women priests? And women make up the large majority of those attending mass? Do the math ACP, do the math!

  4. Ned Quinn says:

    Colm @3
    Only 12 members of the ACP were willing to publicly support the ordination of women.

  5. Phil Dunne says:

    Personally I have no wish to be part of this suggested Mark 2 patriarchal model

  6. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Ned Quinn@4
    And for better or worse, Ned, the original 12 ACP men (Apostles of Christ + Paul) didn’t give us a very clear steer on ordination of any kind – male, female, deacons or deaconesses. Not so much, ‘Rome, we’ve got a problem’ as ‘Rome, you’ve caused the problem. Sort it!’

  7. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Colm @ 3, when you say 77% support women priests, where does this information come from?
    Ned @ 4, 100% of the members of the ACP support female ordination – ACP membership has to be considered public support at this stage – it is a safe space but still public support.
    There is no instruction manual on how to reform the Catholic Church but it seems Pope Francis is leading the way and those who should be following don’t even know that they are not.

  8. Colm Holmes says:

    Ned @4
    The 12 ACP apostles are leaders indeed! They will each bring home a 100 fold harvest!
    Benny Bohan
    Tony Conry
    Roy Donovan
    Adrian Egan
    Tony Flannery
    Kevin Hegarty
    John D. Kirwin
    Eamonn McCarthy
    Sean McDonagh
    Donagh O’Meara
    Ned Quinn
    Padraig Standun

  9. Colm Holmes says:

    Lloyd @7
    The ACP’s Amarach Survey of 2012 asked:
    Should women be allowed to be ordained into the priesthood?
    Yes – 77%
    No – 23%

  10. Phil Greene says:

    I am not sure why anyone is surprised at these suggestions, for as Lloyd says its like Groundhog Day regularly on this site due to the lack of any progress in this and other areas by the CC at large.
    Given the snails pace of reform I think these are all we can reasonably expect at this time.., if any of these suggestions become a first step in reform then let’s take that step together.
    Am i happy about the order of the suggestions? of course not! Am i surprised? no, unfortunately!
    I was shocked however that only 12 out of 1000+ went public with their support.. deeply disappointed and saddened that men can have so little thought for women.. how can one love thy neighbour as thyself..It feels moreso that you deign to include women in your thinking .. are we supposed to be grateful.. really !!
    How many I wonder went public with their disapproval of such a move?
    Perhaps it is that you are very caught up with all your own concerns at this time, prioritizing what’s more important to you.. ok, that’s a fair point.. but just think for a moment that you actually got to this point.. you were allowed to be who you are.. you were allowed a choice to follow your calling.. “some choice” i hear some say..well then go talk to some lady who wished she was allowed to walk in your shoes for a day (I am not one by the way), ask her what she wished to have accomplished in her lifetime given a choice, what her vision of ministry would be..then decide if you still agree with the order of the 3 suggestions above.
    To those 12 , given the amount of support and service women give to local parishes,I really can’t say “thank you” I am here instead saying “seriously, 12 , only 12 and they are now apostles!!” Given your mature thinking I doubt you would want thanks anyway.
    I hope these bishops now get the support they need when collectively bringing forward their proposals. No doubt you will hear your own suggestions echoed back to you, but take comfort that they are now trying to move in the right direction that should ultimately benefit everyone..
    Ladies .. if any of you are making tea/coffee for your priests over the next few days.. leave the salt alone 😉

  11. I wouldn’t critique the article writer for outlining a course if action that had been discussed for some time. The question is as to why the bishops aren’t listening. Will this generation of bishops oversee the removal of the church from Irish society due to a fear of behaving like leaders. No Eucharist …no church

  12. Ned@4, are you sure about that –“only 12”. I find that very hard to believe. In Colm’s list @8 there is no Padraig McCarthy nor Seamus Ahearne. So, that’s another 2 more for starters –please excuse the tautology but I am struggling here!!
    And, no Brendan Hoban either I have just noticed.

  13. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Paddy@12, I think Ned and Colm are referring to the sparse response (12 / 1,000+) to Tony Flannery’s October 2015 appeal or challenge for at least a dozen or so priests to take a stand and sign up to a statement favouring ordination of women. [see “The Equality of Women, and the Question of Ordination”, 22 Oct 2015 above]. I hadn’t seen the above list or any response to Tony’s call until now.

  14. Padraig McCarthy says:

    I would suggest a more radical approach. The first principle is that every Christian community has a right to a full celebration of the Eucharist. All else serves that.
    Bernard Kennedy had an article in the June issue of Intercom. I replied to it with a letter in the July issue (page 20), as follows:
    Bernard Kennedy has some interesting input on clerical mobility in the June issue of Intercom. He emphasises the three most important words to “recreate the Church, community and vocations: consultation, consultation, consultation.”
    He also writes: “Instead of continuing with the system until there is a last man standing, it might go a good idea to close a number of parishes. The criteria could be one of geography.” I would like to suggest an alternative.
    The criterion should be that of community. The Church is the living Body of Christ. Closure should only be considered when there is no longer a Christian community, whether a single community in a parish, or several communities within a parish. Each such community has the right and privilege and duty to have a Sunday celebration. A viable community could perhaps be one of 50 to 100 active members. Consultation. They themselves would decide what building they would use for their gatherings.
    The Methodist church has a system of Lay Preachers, with appropriate training. We could adopt a similar idea, so that the Table of the Word of Life would be available. Each such community should have perhaps three or four people, appropriately prepared. When Paul was establishing new communities, he appointed elders. However, when the need arose in Jerusalem, the community selected candidates, upon whom the Twelve laid hands. Consultation. No such thing as “last man standing.”
    A similar procedure could be adopted for a community to select three or four candidates who would lead the celebration at the Table of the Eucharist. Consultation. We would not let the ways we have become used to become an obstacle to fulfilling what Jesus said: Do this in memory of me. As Bernard Kennedy quoted from Gerald Hughes: “We can become too attached to the way in which we formulate our beliefs and understand God and God’s creation.”
    There may be some argument about what titles might be appropriate for those in these ministries, but that should not prevent us from dealing with the task, just as did the early church in Jerusalem, even though Jesus had left no instructions that they should do this. He said the Spirit would guide them into all truth.
    The other dimensions of parish life, like administration and pastoral care, need not be part and parcel of those selected for the above ministries, but would be carried out by the wider community.
    May the Spirit bring a new creation from the chaos.

  15. Just a wee reminder of what the eminent Catholic theologian, Werner Jeanrond has had to say about this matter recently:
    “The fact that for centuries cultural forces have prioritised men to take on religious, social and political leadership in European societies is a result of a gender power game. But please let us not blame God for this patriarchal development and let us refrain from imposing such a patriarchal plot on God.”

  16. Mary Vallely says:

    I agree, Pádraig@15. Consultation (x3!) is the answer but it means a letting go of control and power and presupposes respect for the other. That’s a big shift in mindset for some. It’s not just the hierarchy of the Church of course but so many in the political sphere who need to change mindsets and to let go of pride and arrogance and be courageous enough to give a little, to listen to the other and to take on board the other’s grievances. It’s possible and it would be such a changed and a brighter, better world if consultation ( even without the x3 ) was the norm. Let us hope and pray it may be so. Thank you for sharing those thoughts.

  17. Colm Holmes says:

    Excellent suggestion by Pádraig @14!!
    “Consultation. Consultation. Consultation” mirrors Pope Francis’ call for “Dialogue. Dialogue. Dialogue.”
    There are certainly a number of communities who have been following his more radical suggestion.

  18. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    #16, Mary, you are right in thinking you can’t have consultation and collaboration without there being a shift in mindset and Pope’s call to “invert the pyramid” is the solution – the political sphere can’t be looked upon to provide the same support because politics is not based on this format – our Church is : “the greatest among you will be your servant”.
    Pope Francis has given us the opportunity to make it so; hope and prayers are no longer needed. Girard would say “politics can no longer save us” – in fact, it was never meant to be our saviour – it’s been a part of an unchanging hierarchy that seems to have been in self-preservation mode from the beginning.
    The better world that we all have in mind can take the form of a path and an eventual destination even in these dark times. Those among us who have the eschatological imagination to attempt this journey are given strength within an inverted church and if there is a document that provides a template to avert crisis, in both parish life and the search for vocations, it is certainly Laudato si’.
    Rome, there are no problems we can’t overcome.

  19. Chris McDonnell says:

    Cardinal Sarah’s recent Letter relating to the use gluten-free breads suggests that it is a ‘liturgical abuse that must be stopped’
    Why is it that we seek to belittle the goodness and generosity of God with our pettiness and mean-spirited attitude? Surely the Eucharistic presence will not be diminished by a chemistry that allows a Christian with celiac illness to share with all of us at the table of the Lord?
    Meanwhile the larger issue of who will break the bread for us as our priests advance in years is met with a defiant ‘head in the sand’ mentality by bishops that gives rise to open frustration and despair for so many both in Ireland and the UK. All rather sad really.
    Chris McDonnell
    Movement for Married Clergy

  20. Just imagine that if only women were allowed to be ordained.would the men accept it . Need I ask?.

  21. Soline Humbert says:

    Amen to Padraig@ 14:”May the Spirit bring a new creation from the chaos”.The good news is that
    She has been tirelessly at work,and looking for open hearts and minds to partner Her.Better to send our distress calls to Her than to Rome which itself struggles with addressing its own many problems,and not very effectively…..The long history of the church shows repeatedly that Rome seldom initiates or even authorises changes when requested.Many changes are first initiated from below under the impulse of the Spirit without institutional clerical permission before they are,eventually(meaning with much resistance and delay),recognised by Rome.We,women,who so often are left aside or dismissed,kept endlessly waiting at the end of the queue(“eventually,women”)know this.A case of God calls,Rome stalls!
    For example,it took brave priests and girls/women here in Ireland and elsewhere to have female altar servers decades before Rome allowed it officially,even if somewhat grudgingly.I know because I was one of them serving Mass in the early seventies in the chapel in Trinity College,twenty years before Rome removed the interdiction…..Without these widespread transgressions we would still be waiting (again:”eventually,women”).
    And the same process of new creation is now at work for our Eucharistic celebrations….and women are an integral part of it :No” eventually women”for God!

  22. Con Devree says:

    I suggest that it’s not a case of “Heuston we have a problem” but “God, please show us what our problem is and how I contribute to it.”
    The music died on The Iron Curtain the day a million or so people shouted up at a Pope “We want God.” Is it any surprise that Poland was blessed with so many vocations? And similarly for those US and African diocese who enjoy the same experience.
    A little over a decade earlier the Dutch bishops also said we want God but put in the qualifier “Him of the Dutch Catechism.” The latest reports on the rationalisation of parishes and physical assets in the Dutch Catholic Church show that the Dutch version of God is less than vigorous on foot of the same catechism.
    During the first synod on marriage a German Cardinal of note warned an African Cardinal to keep his hands of the current German version of the Catholic God who it seems is also running out of votes at an accelerating rate.
    And what about the Irish version of God. No need for surmise. Since the late 1960s the Irish attendance at Mass has declined to the current estimate of 900,000 per week. Not only are those staying away revealing that they have no great need for the Catholic God but they enjoy a financial saving as well, both in the Church building and at the Church gate. The Irish baptised as a whole, including some of those attending Mass, have used referenda to clearly reject any aspect of Church moral teaching, as preached by the current Pope, and posed to them.
    Of course the majority are grateful to many misfortunate priests for facilitating aspects of cultural watersheds such as christening, communion, weddings etc. What better place than a nice or indeed beautiful Catholic Church for the pageantry prelude to the main event. At least they know why they attend the latter.
    THE MOST IMPORTANT OBSERVATION OF ALL IS THAT THE IRISH BAPTISED DID NOT LOSE THE FAITH BECAUSE OF A SHORTAGE OF PRIESTS. The baptised made free decisions about relevance for happiness elsewhere. Put women and married men in cassocks and it’s “Heuston we have solved the problem.” Really?
    If the Irish baptised really want God the vocations will follow. God knows how to cultivate that desire. Central to our responsibility here is an accurate sense among priests and laity of the different vocations they are expected by God to exercise. Joe Soap can begin by listening to St Paul’s urge “that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made,” the latter for having the faith. “Behold the lilies of the field….”
    In the meantime one must beware of pragmatic instant solutions, some of which are confused at times with social, political or cultural agendas rather than on promoting the glory and praise of God’s name, of enabling Catholics to conform to the wishes of Him “who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” The pragmatic experiment of the Genesis duo failed. Nothing wrong with wanting to be God, but be careful about the method.
    There is no reference anywhere in this thread, for whatever reason, to any empirical evidence from dioceses in the First World who have been blessed with significant increases in vocations, knowledge of which has been available for almost two decades. Analysis of such is necessary to inform genuine, reasonable but still unproven practical ideas.

  23. John A. Waters says:

    Every mature man and that includes the vast majority of priests, bishops, cardinals etc. knows that to expect any normal man to
    lead a celibate life is morally wrong and is in contradiction to
    the will of God who fashioned us all. It is my understanding, that
    as a Christian, I am expected to confront what is wrong. So where is the moral fibre one would expect of bishops? The catholic church
    has no respect for priests or would-be priests in denying them
    the right to marry. Thank God the majority of young men nowadays
    have the wit to resist this nonsense.

  24. Ned Quinn says:

    Lloyd @ 7
    You say that 100% of the ACP members support female ordination. Maybe so. But a public letter of support – signed by 1000 priests, would surely have a big impact. Especially considering the fact that we were told, from on high, not to even discuss it!

  25. Phil Greene says:

    @ 23 John A Waters
    “The catholic church has no respect for priests or would-be priests in denying them the right to marry.”
    When speaking of respect in the Church I feel we must not neglect the many “other-halves” (short-term ,long-term and easily replaced ) whose voices remained silent over the years for various reasons. They are also collateral damage and must be part of the conversation when trying to confront the full extent of the damage that this law imposes on human beings everywhere. The sin of course is that so much hurt is caused in the name of spreading the Good News, when the dogs on the street know the law is there to protect the Church’s finances.
    Brave words Padraig @ 14 – completely blew me away!- new eyes !

  26. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Ned @ 24,
    I’ve been here since 2012 waiting for something big to happen – chatting online with the US Association since 2011 – giving my 2 cents wherever I can. It comes down to one thing – if you, 1000 strong, begin to show the rest of the Church that you are willing to lead the church in the direction Pope Francis is requesting, it is a winning scenario. I don’t think you all see how Pope Francis is meeting you in the middle of the concerns you’ve expressed since day one. I just wish you would all band together and do something so very Franciscan, that it would shake the foundations one last time. I have ideas – communications/fund raising has become my game. My proposal is heading to the ACI within the next three weeks – I’ll make sure the ACP gets a copy.

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