The Last Priests in Ireland
The Furrow / September 2014
It’s a privilege to share a few thoughts with you as you gather for reunion at this historically significant and truly grand seminary. As you give thanks for the sustaining graces of the past you can’t help but feel the present pressures weighing down on the priests of Ireland. So, you gather to give thanks but also to ask for wisdom and strength to remain wise servant leaders of the Church.
Even in these days of celebration unsettling questions well up about the future of the Church and the Church’s priests. Could you men gathered here at the seminary that formed you possibly be the
last priests in Ireland?
Could it be that the ground is shaking under this hallowed seminary? Under your very feet?
I understood my invitation to come to Saint Patrick’s College as an opportunity to paint a picture of what it’s like to be a priest today when our numbers are down, our average age is up, and the
respect and trust of past years has been mostly shattered.
Good people look at us with a wary eye. We want to say, ‘You can trust me. I won’t hurt you nor will I hurt your children.’ But trust has been broken. Children have been hurt – and ‘hurt’ is far too weak a word for the spiritual and physical violence some of us have inflicted. I know, of course, that most of you have good friends and loyal parishioners who are proud to stand with you.
But still, you live in a very different Ireland from even a generation ago. Still, in the hostile climate of suspicion and mistrust, where do we priests find courage and hope? Where do we find wisdom and prudence? Where do we find that exquisite judgment of soul that allows us to hang on to our integrity, to be rightly prophetic, and authentically pastoral? Like it or not, we priests are central players in the current drama of crisis and reform. How we stand up to the realities and challenges of our time will really test our mettle.
Years ago, while on a writing sabbatical at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, I met Kilian McDonald, a Benedictine monk and priest and an established theologian who had recently
turned, in the late autumn of his life, from doing serious theology to writing poetry. In his poem, ‘The Monastic Cemetery,’ three short lines burned themselves into my memory.
‘No grand betrayals,
we lacked the impudent will,
we died of small treasons.’
No grand betrayals … That’s true for most of us. We hold fast to the core teachings of the gospel, to the essential doctrines of our faith. We remain, for better or worse, men of the Church. We do
our best to be pastoral priests who resist the legalisms and the rigid moralisms of our Jansenist predecessors.
Though we’ve struggled with the burdens of celibacy, we haven’t molested children or abused young men or women or wealthy widows. For the majority of us, we are indeed a respectable lot. And I’ll go further, many of us are true men of prayer and humble service. We love God, we love the Church, we
love doing what priests do to bring the compassion and joy and freedom of Jesus to our people.
No, we’re not guilty of grand betrayals. But I know my petty betrayals and I suspect you know yours. Owning our small betrayals is good for us. This owning keeps us real and grounded. I’ve found it’s easy for us priests to be self-absorbed. Some of us can be quite taken with ourselves. But the Holy Spirit isn’t calling perfect Christians to the priesthood, the Spirit is calling men like you
and me. And God’s grace is enough for us.
No grand betrayals…but we surely have our share of small betrayals.
‘We lacked the impudent will …’ Now again, most of us aren’t impudent or arrogant, but if Irish priests are anything like American priests, we have in our ranks our share of stuffed clerical shirts. But the poet Kilian McDonald wasn’t referring here to pushy or arrogant priests.
He was, it’s clear, giving the adjective ‘impudent’ a positive spin. He was saying that he and his brother monks, and by extension, you and me, were lacking a spirit of daring. We were preaching the gospel, but we were taking few risks. Kilian McDonald was suggesting there wasn’t enough courage and passion in our preaching and teaching and writing about the radical message of the gospel.
For most of us, this isn’t the case, at least most of the time. But aren’t there times when we do lack the impudent will, the daring will, to speak truth to power, to stand our ground, to be priests
who are also men?
‘We died of small treasons …’ Are there any small treasons?
Well, yes, at least in the poet’s eye. But even small treasons carry a dollop of poison. Small treasons chip away at our integrity. They lead to existential guilt. Existential guilt, as I’m using the term here, is a shade different from moral guilt. We’re feeling existential guilt when the weight of our guilt can’t be traced back to any formal moral lapse or sin. It’s the feeling that can come over us when we’re not being honest with ourselves or when we’re too careful about our reputation or about not offending our superiors.
In other words, it’s the kind of guilt that follows upon our small treasons, our small acts of infidelity to our conscience.
Here’s a time from my own past when I felt the weight of existential guilt. But, come to think of it, it may be an example of moral guilt as well. That’s because existential guilt and moral
guilt often bleed into each other. It’s not always easy to distinguish between them.
Like many of you my age or older, Pope Pius X’s order that seminarians take the Oath against Modernism before ordination was still in place in 1965 when I was ordained (it remained in effect until 1967). As you know, key aspects of the oath were in stark contrast to the Council’s teachings. Moses didn’t write the Pentateuch, there is a development of doctrine, the Church is the people of God, freedom of conscience is sacrosanct, the Church will always be in need of renewal and reform, the laity do have a voice.
Just months before our ordination, my twenty classmates and I were told that signing the Oath was required before we could be ordained. I confess I took the Oath. My classmates took the Oath.
God help me … I was soon to be ordained to preach the word of God, to be a bearer of the Word. My credibility and integrity as a priest, I knew full well, would be grounded in the truth of the words I spoke, especially words sworn to under oath. What had I done? A small treason? A grand betrayal?
I remember a comment from a classmate when I confessed my conflicted feelings and guilt at signing the Oath. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I would have signed anything to be a priest.’ And he meant it.
The point here is that it’s easy for us priests to lose our integrity. And to the extent we do, we fail our people, the Church itself, and the gospel. I believe Pope Francis understands this. I believe Francis is standing at the crossroad with us. He’s seen the small treasons built into our triumphalistic Church and her regal papacy. I believe Francis is telling us to shake off any vestiges of existential guilt, to surrender our small treasons to God’s mercy, and to get on with being priests at this critical time.
At this point on our common journey, perhaps pausing on shaky legs, it’s really important that we don’t lose our nerve. In spite of everything – the drop in our numbers, fewer seminarians, the graying of our ranks, sexual and financial scandals, the very limited role of women in Church leadership, clericalism, culture wars – this is our time to be priests. This is our time to do our part and to do our part with confidence that we’re capable of doing much more than simply getting on with it.
First, let’s claim our role as presbyters, as elders. Presbyters, at least in theory, are counsellors to bishops. But we soon learn not to sit in our parish house or rectory waiting for the bishop to call and ask for our advice on a given matter. From my experience, that’s not likely to happen.
Think of the pastoral experience you bring to this jubilee celebration. We priests have a front row seat at the drama of grace playing out in the lives of the people we serve. We know a thing or two about the human condition, about the joys and sorrows that make up the lives of our parishioners and friends.
I’ve known a few bishops over the years; some have been my friends. But most of the bishops I know I know from a distance. And many of these men don’t seem to really want to know what our lives are like day in and day out. Maybe they have enough problems of their own and they don’t have the energy to really want to know what’s going on in our lives. Bishops have other things on their minds. And if they really listened to us, they would see that changes are called for. And change threatens what many bishops, it seems to me, desire most deeply – tranquility.
Bishops pay a terrible price trying to maintain surface tranquility. Obsession with appearances, with how things look, the bella figura of the Roman Church, inevitably leads to denial and deflection, to dissimilation and deceitful spins.
If our bishops aren’t interested in our counsel, we can at least be elders to each other and elders to our people. And to be good elders we need, in addition to pastoral experience, to be men who
read, think, and pray. Tell me what you’re reading and you’ll give me an idea of what kind of an elder you are. If we don’t have time to read then something’s really wrong.
Without reading, we’re likely to remain irrelevant answer men to people who don’t bother to bring their questions and human problems to us. If you haven’t read Pope Francis’ The Joy of the Gospel don’t brag about it. And if you are reading good stuff – theology, scripture, history, literature – bring it to the attention of your brother priests. Nothing makes us stronger or better elders than honest conversation about things that matter.
A number of the priests I know have a hard time being a real elder. The reasons are very complex, I suspect, but a partial explanation might be found in contemporary psychology. A real elder, according to psychologist Erik Erikson, is capable of generativity. And that’s true even for celibates. We priests should be ‘life giving’; we should, by our very presence, engender joy and hope in others. We aren’t parents or grandparents, but we ought to be generative. The irony is that many still call us ‘Father.’ But here’s the kicker. Before we can be authentically generative, developmental psychologists have found that we first must be men who know authentic human intimacy, in our case, authentic celibate intimacy. If we priests don’t have the aptitude for celibacy or the gift of celibacy, we are likely to find our often unrecognized hunger for intimacy in all the wrong places.
Here’s a sidebar for you. When I was a young priest working at a Catholic high school in Akron, Ohio, I lived with five priests in a large rectory. The retired pastor, Ed Conry, in his middle nineties at the time, was a hero of mine. One day, when the two of us sat alone, I asked him this rather personal question, ‘Monsignor, what do you think of celibacy?’ He paused for just a second. ‘It’s okay … during the day!’
When our souls are capable of authentic intimacy, we elders are spontaneously generative. When that’s the case, we are a blessing to those we serve.
I think we fail as elders if we aren’t men who read. It’s the key to our intellectual life. The American scripture scholar, Walter Brueggemann, (the author of the classic, The Prophetic Imagination) summoned up the importance of the intellectual life when he wrote, ‘What we are about is serious conversation leading to blessed communion.’
Elders hold people together by encouraging honest conversation, by posing keen questions about what’s happening in the lives of the people they serve. Real elders spontaneously connect with people. They listen. And often their very listening is healing balm for the wounds inflicted by the realities of life and by our Church.
People don’t look to us for answers; not anymore. If they look to us at all, it’s for understanding and compassion. They look to us for confirmation that mercy is free flowing and trumps the moralisms and legalisms of our Church.
You’ve probably heard that Cardinal Walter Kasper and Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio were assigned rooms across the hall from each other in the Santa Marta Hotel as they readied for the conclave. Kasper took this opportunity to give Bergoglio a copy of his latest book, Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life. ‘Ah mercy,’ Bergoglio said when he saw the title. ‘This is the name of our God.’
Most of us are elders chronologically, now it’s time for us, no matter our age, to be humble, joyful, spiritual elders holding God’s people in holy communion — true wisdom figures for our
If we priests are elders, the present state of the Church leads me to think of us as trail guides for a pilgrim people. Trail guides, like the pilgrims they lead, are out on the trail. They have their hiking clothes on. A trail guide in a lace surplice really doesn’t work. Trail guides, of course, are pilgrims too. They share in the excitement of the journey, but like everybody else, they get wet when it rains, they shiver when cold winds cut through their clothes. Their feet hurt at the end of the day.
It’s important for us priests to remember we’re not the only trail guides. We’re accompanied by vowed religious, theologians, and scripture scholars. And often our parishioners seem to know the
trail better than we do. The wise trail guide listens and consults and discerns.
But there are dangers all about. You know as well as I that many of the old trails are no longer trustworthy. And some of the proposed new trails are yet to be proven sound and safe. But Pope
Francis encourages us to move ahead and not to be afraid of making mistakes.
As trail guides, we priests are helping our fellow pilgrims stay on the path. We don’t bark orders, we don’t threaten, we don’t scold. We encourage our companions to keep moving if ever so slowly, trusting the light will never fade and that the Spirit’s in our midst. At the end of the day, we tell stories and read the scriptures. We break bread and share the cup. And then we try to get some
rest for the next day’s journey.
Our map is the vision and spirit of the Second Vatican Council. And our lamp is the light of Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit. If we don’t know the map by heart, if we don’t know the silence of prayer, if we don’t listen, we can betray the trust of our pilgrims on the journey. The Catholics of Ireland, like the Catholics in the United States, can’t tolerate any more betrayals by their trail guides. So, God help us to be true. If we fail, we might just be the last priests in Ireland, the lasts priests in America.
The Last Priests in Ireland