‘the world has changed and so must the Church’

Overworked priests can blame their bishops

Pope Francis keeps on beating the same drum, but is anyone listening? His Christmas message was that ‘the world has changed and so must the Church’.

If you wouldn’t mind, dear reader, could you please read those two short sentences again?

Is there anything complicated about them? No. Is there anything that any Catholic, ordained or non-ordained, could possibly misunderstand? No. They simply sum up what Francis has been saying since he was elected pope. And saying again and again and again.

So if Catholics see something that needs to change, what should we do?
A template emerged a few years from a chat Francis had with his friend, Bishop Erwin Kräutler, who worked most of his life in the Amazon basin. Kräutler lamented the scarcity of priests in his area and the resulting fact that so few could attend Mass. Francis told him to work through the Brazilian bishops. The result was the discussion at the Amazonian synod and the expectation that by March of this year, Francis will announce the ordination of married men for specific regional areas.

Here’s another question. At what stage will it become clear that Ireland qualifies as such a regional area and have the help of a married priesthood?

While opinions on the answer to that question may vary, one thing is clear, priests are disappearing in Ireland. We’re an endangered species. Just give it a decade or more.
I’ve used this space before to make a plea for the introduction of a married priesthood (and indeed a female priesthood) but my interest here is not in the priesthood issue.
Rather it’s on how the failure to address this issue by the leadership of our Church is impinging on the immediate victims (the present priests) caught in the slipstream of an on-going decision by the Irish bishops to continue to avoid ‘the elephant in the living room’.

While the presenting problem is the virtual disappearance of priests – and it follows as night the day, the virtual disappearance of Mass and the Catholic Church in Ireland – the immediate victims of the bishops’ abdication of responsibility are the present priests.

We’ve watched for decades as vocations to the priesthood have melted away. Now there are hardly any young priests, a few middle-aged, with most either elderly or old. (An indicator of the present age profile of Irish priests is that the new bishop of Clonfert, who’s edging towards his 50th birthday, is younger than all the Clonfert priests!)

The simple truth is that the present priests are left carrying the can for at best the prevarication of their bishops or at worst their conspicuous lack of leadership. We remember a time when we had the wind on our backs: full churches, teeming vocations, and the respect of our people, the support and appreciation of society. We had our place in the sun – though, in retrospect, the jury is out on what that was worth.

Now, the present cultural context for the Catholic Church in Ireland is almost invariably hostile. What we say is ignored as our authority has diminished if not disappeared entirely; brash and ambitious movers and shakers use us as a handy punch-bag confident that their knee-jerk dismissal has popular support; those who support us opt to do so in silence or in private; and, at best, we’re figures of fun, banished to the periphery of things, unless we’re needed by the media for quirky appearances dressed in Roman collars and black suits. Now, as an ageing and progressively more fragile ‘lost tribe’, we’re swimming against the currents of Irish life.

It isn’t just that in the main, we’re elderly and old, with few coming after us prepared to put their shoulders to the wheel. As we get older, with the number of priests ever-decreasing, our workload is ever increasing. The issues we’re expected to deal with are becoming more complex; the demands of parishioners getting more and more out of hand. And we’re now at the stage where it’s obvious that the increased pressures and stresses of a priest’s life in Ireland today are leading to a breakdown in health.

If there was some hope, some light even at the end of a distant tunnel, it might make the present situation more tolerable in the short-term. But all we can see is more of the same – fewer and fewer priests, older and older priests, ever-increasing workloads and progressively more and more ill-health.

We’re not being offered any hope. There’s no Plan B – just a vague, unconvincing sense that we all have to keep doing what we always did, keep saying what we always said, yet (against all the odds) keep expecting something different to happen, as if some day we’ll meet a bend in the road that will lead to some promised land.

We’re expected to give credence to vague and sometimes daft ideas about importing priests from abroad or amalgamating dioceses or other versions of the deck chairs being moved on the Titanic; nothing more significant than giving the impression that something is being done.

Priests are struggling to cope. Full stop. Over-work, difficult to get a break, health breaking down. Nothing to look forward to except late retirement and death. The treadmill, it seems, is expected to continue until the very last.

‘The world has changed and so must the Church’. All the evidence would suggest that we’re at the beginning of the end, a fracturing of church life that wasn’t just predictable but avoidable. Yet the Irish bishops still seem to be sitting on their hands.

Are there not a few bishops who might do a Bishop Kräutler on it and have a chat with Pope Francis about the implications of his Christmas message – ‘the world has changed and so must the Church’?
What is it about that sentence that the Irish bishops don’t understand or refuse to accept, even though almost every Catholic in Ireland seems happy to acknowledge?

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  1. Jo O'Sullivan says:

    I’ve always read and valued Brendan’s pieces on the ACP site. From my perspective, he’s one of the guys who “gets it” and who’s willing to say so. I’ve just read this piece and my immediate reaction is to have my heart go out to him. I can so understand his pain and frustration. I understand the pain and frustration of so many good men who have experienced a sea change in life experience here in Ireland over the last number of years.
    You used to be on pedestals – you used to have the respect of almost everyone (without actually having to DO anything – the collar guaranteed it). You were important in the community you served, and your words and actions carried great weight. You were taught in formation that you were special, you had a special calling and you had the responsibility that went along with that God given gift – you had to ensure the laity in your care were shown the right path, morally and spiritually. And, to a great extent, the laity accepted you as such.
    Now, you have to cope with a great number of the laity who view you with , at best, irrelevance, at worst disdain and disgust. Added to that, you are left working well into your autumn years and, rather than being able to wind down, you’re expected to carry heavier and heavier loads. Because there’s nobody coming after you to share the burdens and fewer and fewer of the laity are volunteering in their communities.
    I truly feel for you. Having such a “fall from grace” must still hurt. You were never given the skills to deal with going from the pedestal to the gutter (somewhat of an exaggeration, but you know what I mean). Those of us who parented growing teenagers had to experience that fall from grace during those years – we went from being adored Mam and Dad, to those nagging, stupid people who just didn’t have a clue!
    I suspect that some of you can only cope with it by surrounding yourselves with those who still show the deference you used to expect. It’s a natural way to respond – and I don’t blame you for wanting to do so.
    But you have accept those of us, laity, who want to be equal partners with you in reforming our church – those of us who challenge you. You can’t just SAY you accept us – you have to do more than give us our head when we’re coming up with initiatives you agree with. You have to hear us say the uncomfortable things and trust us when we want to challenge existing structures and teachings. You have to respect our lived experience.
    It’s not easy being a member of this church from where I am either. I want, with all my heart, to work within my parish structure to have Catholicism reclaim a relevance in Ireland in 2020, but I feel I’m constantly coming up against the mindset of those who want priests to stay on the pedestal – both priests themselves and their “faithful followers”
    The sad part is, I know I’m speaking to the converted on this site. Those priests and people who cause me such heartache don’t read what’s written here. So, Brendan, this really is not much of a comfort to you – but know that your feelings are understood.

  2. William Herlihy says:

    Brendan, I so admire Priests like you.
    Sadly in my parish, we have regressed, back to the days when the  priest was the church.
    I was a member of the parish pastoral council,we were all sacked by the P,P.
    He went on to form a “helping father type of parish pastoral council”.
    He has recently prohibited, the running of ALPHA courses in parish schools.
    Our Bishop appears to be in agreement with the above.
    A Bishop in a neighbouring dioceses, has recently requested if an ALPHA course could be run, in all parishes of the dioceses.
    Is our church descending into an ALA CARTE type of organisation?

    It gets worse, of the few new priests coming out of Maynooth ,one in a neighbouring parish, is suggesting having a Latin Mass.
    People are still amazed, why our educated young people, no longer see the church as relevant to their lives.

  3. Brian Eyre says:

    I am a married catholic priest. I have recently returned to Ireland with my wife to live in Tralee. As both our children are also living and working in Ireland we decided to come back so as to be near to them.
    It was a very big change for me to settle back in Ireland after spending 50 years in Brazil, 18 of these years as a celibate priest and 32 as a married priest.
    In Brazil it is estimated that there are 7 thousand married priests, some of these are actively engaged in pastoral work as I was. I was accepted and welcomed by the Brazilian people. They knew I was a married priest and my wife and children were also welcomed.
    I have no idea how many married priests there are in Ireland and also I cannot say how many of them are doing pastoral work or would wish to do pastoral work again.
    A church without the Eucharist is not the church that Our Lord intended it to be, he was very clear when He said: “Do this in memory of me”, yet Brendan`s article paints a very startling picture of the church in Ireland today and its future.
    Perhaps the ACP could organise a meeting of married priests in Ireland for a day of reflection and dialogue. Bishops could be invited to this meeting to listen to the married priests and who knows this could be the beginning of cooperation between them and the married priests which would benefit the church in Ireland.
    I am not suggesting that married priests be called back to take over parishes but that they be invited to be collaborators so that “the virtual disappearance of Mass in the Catholic church in Ireland” as Brendan mentions in his article be avoided and that “the world has changed and so must the church”.

  4. Joe O'Leary says:

    Brian Eyre is to be congratulated, and he shows how the furore about the Amazon synod possibly compromising sacred celibacy is miles and miles away from realities on the ground. I would like to see Cardinal Sarah interviewed about realities on the ground in his African context.

    By the way, if there is any scheme to replace the vanishing Irish clergy with Africans or Asians or Latin Americans or East Europeans it is likely to run into problems with the Irish Government’s immigration policies.

  5. George Allen says:

    Jesus said, “Do this in memory of me”, but he didn’t say you had to be ordained to do it! The all male clerical caste system seems to me to be a major problem for the spreading of the Gospel. The early ‘followers of the way’ were male and female and were not ordained. I think the Roman Catholic Church is far too Roman and rapidly declining in universality. I doubt if Jesus of Nazareth, the barefoot Son of Man with nowhere to lay his head, would recognise our Church today if he reappeared, and I doubly doubt if he would identify with it!

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