Tony Flannery writing in the latest edition of The Tablet – When Father Lets Go

While the synodal process is starting to transform the Church in Ireland, priests are often those most resistant to change.

FROM THE START of his pontificate, it has been evident that Pope Francis is determined to restore the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. It has gradually become clear that he is using synodality as his modus operandi. What he is doing is something very different, and quite radical.

Synods are as old as the Church. We knew about synods of bishops, which Pope Paul VI had established to keep the positive spirit engendered by the Council alive. There had been one or two interesting ones while Paul VI was still alive. Though they were almost exclusively gatherings of bishops, some genuinely open and interesting discussions took place. An effort was being made to follow through, to some extent, on the topics and the spirit of the Council.

Two things put a stop to this. First, Humanae Vitae, Paul VI’s encyclical confirming the traditional ban on artificial contraception. It showed that no matter how much consultation and discussion there might be, in the end the Pope alone decides, whatever the expert advice of those he might have asked to study the matter or where the sense of the faithful might lie. Then along came John Paul II, and while meetings of the synod of bishops continued, there was little real discussion. The agendas were fixed and all the indications are that the findings had been decided before any of the bishops had spoken. There were synods; but there was no synodality.

What Francis is attempting is very different. Synods are no longer just for bishops. Bishops predominate but now they are joined by priests, Religious and lay people, men and women. This is an acknowledgment of a fundamental aspect of our faith, that the Spirit is present in and speaks to the Church through the lives and experiences of all believers, not just those in the clerical and episcopal state. Francis sees synodality as a process that involves prayer, listening, silence and discernment. It is only when the gatherings are conducted in this way, Francis believes, that they will be open to the promptings of the Spirit.

I share the disappointment that few decisions were made at the Synod in Rome last October. A number of the contentious issues which figured prominently in the pre-synodal gatherings around the world – including in Ireland – did not feature in the final report. Francis is focused on embedding the synodal process in the life of the Church. He seems to have felt that there was a better chance of delegates leaving after having had a good experience of that process if the discussion of difficult questions – which would inevitably lead to divisions and rancour – was avoided.

If Francis is successful in making the Church more synodal before his papacy ends (either in retirement or death) it would be a remarkable legacy. He would have left in place a process that would allow development and change to continue. The challenge for him will come in October. If the second and concluding Synod passes without any real decisions having been made it will be hard to resist the conclusion that the whole lengthy and complex project was a waste of time. Given Francis’ understanding of “discernment”, when there is entrenched opposition to change it is difficult to see how it will ever be possible to make difficult decisions. The impasse between the Vatican and the German synodal process has brought the question of who exercises authority in the Church to a head. If the lay group in Germany, which has been in partnership with the bishops in decision-making from the beginning, is sidelined, it might lead to a widespread loss of faith in the process in advance of the synod in October.

IN THE MEANTIME, six of the 12 months assigned to move the process forward in Ireland and to prepare the Irish Church’s input to the gathering in October have passed. Work is ongoing, but it is very much under the radar. Two prominent US cardinals, Blase Cupich and Robert McElroy, said after the synod last October that there could never again be a synod of bishops without the involvement of lay people. I hope they’re right. But synodality has to be embedded at every level of the Church. And we must see that some steps to implement this new way of being Church have been taken before October.

Can the Irish Conference of Bishops continue to meet in Maynooth or elsewhere without the presence of lay representatives? I don’t think so. Can diocesan priests’ councils continue to meet while excluding lay people?

Absolutely not. It would be completely contrary to Francis’ idea of synodality. Parish Councils? Up to now they have been purely consultative. This has to change. Decisionmaking at parish level from now on needs to be made by the whole council. Even if it might not be possible to implement all these changes before October, the Irish Church must make it clear that this is the direction of travel.

All of this will demand big changes. Lay people will need to change, to be willing to be more active in the life of the parish, and to take on more responsibility. But I think the changes will be especially difficult for priests. We are mostly old, we have been trained and lived the bulk of our lives in a very different way of “being church”. We are used to making all the decisions at parish level. Letting go of power is always hard. The system in which we were formed as priests has led us to assume that women are somehow secondary.

It doesn’t surprise me to hear from people who have worked closely in the synodal process that they are finding that priests are often the biggest block in implementing this new way of being Church. I am glad I am not a parish priest at this hour of my life. They are being asked to do what might be the hardest thing in their life, something they have not been trained or prepared for. It won’t be easy. The temptation will be to keep their heads down and carry on as normal. But those who find the humility and courage to be open to the working of the Spirit, to let go of their habits of command and control, will find real fruit emerging, not only for the Church but for them as priests and as individuals.

Tony Flannery is an Irish Redemptorist priest. He was suspended from public ministry by the Vatican in 2012.

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  1. Joe O'Leary says:

    For once I absolutely agree with Tony. “Can the Irish Conference of Bishops continue to meet in Maynooth or elsewhere without the presence of lay representatives? I don’t think so. Can diocesan priests’ councils continue to meet while excluding lay people?”

    To be a PP at this time, at an advanced age, seems impossibly difficult (not only the responsibility for shifting the church to a new gear when it has been stuck in an old one for all one’s life, but also the crushing weight of bureaucracy), but then Francis is pope at an impossibly advanced age so his example should embolden us all. The church, led by a dwindling phalanx of dying men, plunges bravely into the future… or…

    I am in wonderful Boston College just now, and notice that a huge swath of church property was snapped up by the College when the diocese had to sell off its land to pay compensation for child abuse. One building on that land is the magnificent Ricci Institute led by Antoni Ucerler SJ. A great Catholic university is becoming bigger and stronger all the time, with diligent and dynamic students from all over the nation and the world. This is a tremendous contribution to the life of the church. So we may say it’s an ill wind that blows no good. Cardinal O’Malley, OFM, is a very beloved person here, soon to retire.

  2. Dermot Quigley says:

    Nowhere in the Documents of the Second Vatican Council, is there an abjuration of the Perennially Binding Dogma of Original Sin.

    Good Pope John had no Agenda in this Regard.
    Denying a de Fide Dogma is Heretical.

  3. Peadar O' Callaghan says:

    Tony, at the time of year when priests are invited by their bishops to renew their priestly promises at the Chrism Mass I found it sad listening to the recording of your talk and also reading your article in The Tablet. After listening, I found myself reading again your chapter, The Origins of the Priesthood, in your 2013 book, A Question of Conscience, in which you say, several times: ‘I am not a theologian.’

    As the fundamental theologian is Jesus – the incarnate Word the classifications of ourselves as ‘theologians’ or not will depend I believe on our closeness or distance from him. In an effort for my own faith to understand his mystery – his Pasch, and get my head around the ‘theology of theologians’ I have been greatly helped by the works of the following biblical scholars. I mention these (if you haven’t read them already) because you have said in your talk that one of the advantages of the past years is the time you have to read, to study and to reflect.

    The book I treasure most is André Feuillet’s book The Priesthood of Christ and His Ministers (English edition 1975, translated by Matthew J. O’Connell). I got my hands on this book after Joseph Ratzinger referred to it in his chapter. Jesus’ High-Priestly Prayer, in Vol II of his Jesus of Nazareth. Another part of my bookshelves is occupied by Albert Vanhoye’s: A Different Priest – The Epistle to the Hebrews, 2011; Old Testament Priests and the New Priest – According to the New Testament, 1986; and his Christ Our High Priest – Spiritual Exercises with Pope Benedict XVI,2008/10.

    Finding time to read and reflect is one of the great blessings of my retirement. Not to mention solitude and silence – o beata solitudo o sola beatitude! Whenever I would meet Fr. Tom Lane CM when he was chaplain at Knock Shrine in his retirement he used always ask: ‘What are you reading now?’ He felt it a great pity that priests involved in busy ministries did not have time to read.

    The octogenarian priest, bishop and pope, Francis, is an inspiration to every ordained minister, sick or elderly, youthful or downcast, to live again with great trust and confidence the priestly commitment we made at ordination and renewed at Easter – on the anniversary of that day when Christ our Lord conferred his priesthood on his Apostles and on us.

  4. Paddy Ferry says:

    Peadar, I was interested to read your post and your book recommendations for Tony re our Catholic priesthood. I would have expected that Tony has already read more than most priests. He certainly has helped me with some recommendations and I have also read all the books that Tony himself has written.

    However, one book which was not a Tony recommendation was Garry Wills’ “Why Priests”. Early on after the ACP was founded a contributor to this site who only identified himself as Fr. S told us about a book he had just read, “Papal Sin” by Garry Wills, Professor of History at the Northwestern University in the US. Fr. S was impressed by “Papal Sin” and on his recommendation I bought and read it. To be honest I found it to be rather dense and quite hard going. Many years previously I had read Peter de Rosa’s “Vicars of Christ” which I thought was much better.

    I discovered that Garry is a practising Catholic, once a Jesuit seminarian and someone who dedicates some of his books to those priests who have influenced his life. Garry Wills, I learned, is a genuine scholar and is regarded as one of America’s most distinguished intellectuals. And he just doesn’t write on church issues alone. He is Pulitzer Prize winner for his book on Nixon.

    After the success of his book on Papal Sin people asked him why he was still a Catholic. So, Garry’s next book was titled “Why I Am a Catholic”.

    Now, this is a great book which I can recommend. One of the most interesting sections is where he examines what he calls Twelfth Century Papal Populism.

    This era began with the First Crusade during Urban II’s pontificate, (1088-1099) and so began the process of going to the Holy Land and slaughtering the infidel and later, if I remember correctly, applying these new slaughtering skills to some infidels in Europe too.

    Then to compensate — pay — those involved in the crusades a new currency had to be introduced and this was the beginning of indulgences. It obviously must have seemed like a good idea to Urban at the time but would, of course, prove to be a great curse to the church later on. So, what could you pay for with this new currency? Then, we got purgatory. The purgatory doctrine was a necessary adjunct to the theory of indulgences. But more had to be added and that was venial sin. Only venial sins could be punished in purgatory — mortal sins sent you to hell — for ever!! So, this new currency — indulgences — could buy us redemption from purgatory. The system in which mortal sins are contrasted to venial sins was fully worked out only in the second half of the twelfth century.

    However, that was still not the end of it. Something else was needed to complete the doctrinal jigsaw. And that, of course, was confession. The discipline of the confessional was only formally established in the western church by canon 21 of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215). This is when the formula “I absolve you from your sins” first came into use.

    How true of Fr. Kieran O’Mahony when in that wonderful and courageous letter in the Tablet he explained how the claim at the Council of Trent that all seven sacraments were somehow instituted by Jesus “brings with it insurmountable historical difficulties”.

    I am digressing now.

    After that I sought out more of his books to read.

    And, that’s when I discovered “Why Priests”.

    Now, I am not sure what my view was of the priesthood and it’s origins until then. I probably accepted what we were told each Holy Thursday that we were celebrating the anniversary of the institution of the priesthood and the eucharist. However, once I began to read “Why Priests” I realised there was a problem.

    And, the source of the problem lies in the fact that only one writer in the New Testament (NT) refers to Jesus as priest and that is the unknown author of the Letter to the Hebrews.

    I began to understand that Jesus himself never claimed to be a priest, nor did the Gospel writers make that claim nor is it claimed in the uncontested letters of Paul according to Fr. Joseph Fitzmyer SJ, another hugely respected scholar of scripture. Jesus was a practising Jew and knew his scripture and, as he wasn’t a descendant of Levi, so, obviously, he knew he could not be a priest. In fact he spent a lot of his time challenging the priests of his day.

    So, the writer of Hebrews invented a new line of priesthood for Jesus and here’s where Melchizedek enters the story.
    He tells us that Jesus is a priest in the line of Melchizedek. Melchizedek is a minor figure in scripture who in Genesis in chap. 14 had a chance meeting with Abraham when Abraham was returning from sorting out his nephew, Lot’s enemies. The only other place he is mentioned in all of scripture is in Psalm 110.

    There are problems which undermine Melchizedek’s credibility. Scholars, including Prof. Fred Horton, author of The Melchizedek Tradition, explain how those verses in chap. 14 of Genesis, 18-20, represent an intrusion into the text as it has no connection with what follows or what precedes it. So, it appears to be an implant. Now, in fact, there is a school of thought that all of chap. 14 of Genesis is an implant as it does not seem to show any of the primary sources of Genesis.

    There is a number of fallacies in Hebrews which Garry Wills highlights. If you want a readable and in depth critique — suitable for a non-scholar — of Hebrews then “Why Priests” is the place to go.

    Another major problem with Hebrews is in its presentation of human sacrifice as an improvement on animal sacrifice. This goes completely against what cultural historians have held. The change from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice had been regarded as a sign of greater enlightenment and towards a greater civilisation. The opposite contention is to be found only in Hebrews. Today even harming an animal would land us in court!

    I mentioned Fr. Joseph Fitmyer SJ above. We have already discussed here on this site on many occasions the section which I am about to share. This is what he had to say: “Paul never says that Christ was sacrificed for our sake. That notion enters the later theological tradition, but it is not one that can be traced directly to Paul……The notion of Christ’s death is more tributary to Hebrews and to the Deutero-Pauline Ephesians 5.2 than to the uncontested Pauline letters.” (from his book on Romans, p.122)

    I must confess that reading that for the first time was when I first became aware that there were such things as contested letters of St. Paul.

    I mentioned Holy Thursday above and being told since I was a child that we were celebrating the anniversary of the Last Supper and the institution of the priesthood and the eucharist. I have also mentioned Fr. Kieran O’Mahony OSA and his letter to the Tablet. The primary purpose of the letter was to express a view on the ordination of women. However, I thought it might be of interest to read what he had to say about the Last Supper.

    The opening of Fr. Kieran’s letter asks: “Has the Holy Father made a mistake in not permitting the ordination of women, even initially only to the diaconate? The exclusion of women from ministry can be traced not only to tradition but also to an erroneous reading of the evolution of “church” and its ministries. In common with many other biblical scholars, I would affirm the following. Firstly, the historical Jesus encountered very few non-Jews. His ministry was “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. Jesus did not foresee a separate religious movement, later given the name Christianity. Much less did he foresee a Church (the term is found in the Gospels in Matthew alone), with specific structures and ministries. In the New Testament, varieties of ministries are indeed evident, in particular in Paul, Matthew and Luke-Acts. Towards the end of the first century, these settled into servants, elders and overseers (the later deacons, priests and bishops). The Council of Trent, in affirming that all seven sacraments were somehow instituted by Jesus, made the mistake of accepting the way the Reformers posed the question. This was unnecessary (though understandable in pre-critical times) and brings with it insurmountable historical difficulties. If the above is substantially accurate, then the historical Jesus “ordained” nobody at all and the Last Supper was not an ordination service, simply because the historical Jesus did not reckon with a body separate from his own Jewish faith. As a result, the argument from the Last Supper that only men can be ordained makes no sense. What we have inherited, across the Christian centuries, is the Spirit-guided tradition, reflecting a graced evolution. There is no reason to think that the Holy Spirit has stopped guiding us in these critical times. Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the Churches!” (DR) KIERAN J. O’MAHONY OSA BIBLICAL STUDIES COORDINATOR, HOLY CROSS DIOCESAN CENTRE, DUBLIN, IRELAND

    So, Peadar, Garry Wills and his book “Why Priests” certainly was a great source of enlightenment for me and I can strongly recommend to you.

    For many, I am sure, such revelations may be upsetting and disconcerting.

    However, I think we should heed the wise words — again — of our greatest poet, WB Yeats when he advised us that we should always regard knowledge not as a threatening bird of prey but rather as a beautiful butterfly.

    I like so many others think that Tony’s treatment has been appalling, not just shame on Rome but shame also on the Redemptorists and the Irish bishops.

    I have shared on this site on a number of occasions my meeting with Archbishop Diarmuid Martin over here in Edinburgh a number of years ago. The World Council of Churches and the Catholics had had a joint project, Towards a Common Vision of Church (Sharing Future Church).

    A conference took place in Edinburgh to evaluate the process and Diarmuid was over taking part. I was representing our archdiocese. He was staying with a priest friend of mine and, so, we were introduced. I had always regarded him as one of the good guys.
    And, his mother was from Donegal he told me so that was an important connection.
    We got on very well.

    Then I spoke to him about Tony’s situation and what a great scandal so many of us thought it was and I put it to him that surely he, as a leading and influential bishop, or as part of the hierarchy, could surely act to bring Tony’s suffering to an end.

    Well, he obviously wasn’t up for that.

    I finally put it to him that what Tony had said about the origins of the priesthood was extremely mild when compared with what Garry Wills had said and I wasn’t aware of anyone challenging Prof. Wills. Diarmuid agreed with me on that.

    1. Peadar O'Callaghan says:

      Paddy, thank you sincerely for your considered and learned reply to my post which I only read now, also, for recommending Garry Wills’ book “Why Priests”.

      My own understanding of Christ has been greatly influenced by my reading of Albert Vanhoye’s ‘A Different Priest’ (2011); ‘Old Testament Priests and the New Priests’ (Fr. 1980 and English 1986/2009; ‘Let Us Confidently Welcome Christ Our High Priest’ (2010). This was all triggered by my finding at a priest’s auction of a copy of Vanhoye’s 1984 ‘A Structured Translation of the Epistle To The Hebrews’.
      I’m hoping you are not dismissing the Order of Melchizedek. I would not like to see ‘et quod tibi obtulit summus sacerdos tuus Melchisedech’ disappear from Canon Missae.

      My first understanding (and fascination) of Melchizedek came when on my knees as an altar-boy contemplating this figure between the images of Abel the just and the sacrifice of Abraham the Father of our race, carved on the marble panels of the altar before which I later lay prostrate at ordination on the Feast of Pentecost between the attempted assassination on Saint John Paul II (May 13) and the extraordinary events reported from the village of Medjugorje (24/25) June 1981. Need I mention it was also the year of the Stardust Fire-Tragedy and the Maze Hunger Strike deaths.

      Yes, as you clearly point out we can learn a lot from the opinion of theologians and experts about priesthood – but we should also keep in mind the work of artists. I am thinking of the mosaics in Ravenna and Santa Maria Maggiore depicting Melchizedek. Even in his last book Carl G. Jung couldn’t leave him out. He says in Mysterium Coniunctionis (quoting various alchemical sources): “Over the grave where the cross would stand there grew a tree, and there too was the altar of Melchizedek” [par. 556] and also in an interesting note (3) to par. 350.
      However, for those commissioned by the Church with the task of preaching the gospel in this year of Mark (B) the authors of Days of the Lord, The Liturgical Year, Vol 5, (The Liturgical Press) have useful material on the Letter to the Hebrews (selections read from the 27th to the 33rd Sunday) and the Priesthood of Christ – Melchizedek in which discussing “the silence of the Scriptures” about Melchizedek say “All this … make of him a figure of Christ. His priesthood, like that of Melchizedek, antedates every historical institution and, as a consequence, is not submitted to the ups and down of history.” (p277)

      As regards the Lord’s Supper I think any discussion on this and the institution of the Priesthood is best when informed by Hartmut Gese’s article on The Origin of the Lord’s Supper (chap. 5) in his Essays in Biblical Theology and the ‘Todah’ meal-sacrifice which Joseph Ratzinger discusses in his Feast of Faith.

      Regarding other matters raised in your post Eamon Maher in his conclusion to his book review of Austen Ivereigh’s recent book on Pope Francis in the Irish Times ‘Book Reviews’ yesterday in TICKET p.28 calls for discernment – from Rome.

  5. Joe O'Leary says:

    Paddy, Here is the context of the sentence from Fitzmyer:

    ‘Pace Lohse ( Martyrer, 152), the word hilasterion [Rom 3:25] cannot be said to mean the same thing as tou hilasteriou tou thanatou auton, “the propitiation/expiation of their death” in 4 Macc 17:22. First, the reading there is not certain,…
    ‘Second, in the Pauline text hilasterion lacks a modifier, and there is simply no evidence in any Jewish writing of the expression hilasterion thyma , allegedly meaning “propitiatory sacrifice,” which Lohse and others claim is the meaning of hilasterion in Paul’s phrase. Although the adjective hilasterios occurs in secular Greek writings joined to thysias , “propitiatory victims (for the gods)” (Papyrus Fayum 337 [second century A.D.]), the entire context of Paul’s paragraph has so many allusions to OT motifs that it is highly unlikely that he would mean by hilasterion anything like the secular “propitiatory sacrifice” or even the “propitiatory death” of 4 Macc 17:22.
    ‘Third, it introduces into Pauline vocabulary a term (thyma) that Paul never uses for the Christ-event in any of his uncontested letters; he never says that Christ was sacrificed for our sake (contrast Eph 5:2, where thysia is so used). That notion enters the later theological tradition, but it is not one that can be traced directly to Paul; it is at best a reformulation of an implication of hilasterion, because Christ’s “blood” is here implied to be the substitute for the sacrificial blood of the animals in the Day of Atonement rite. Indeed, the notion of Christ’s death as a sacrifice is more tributary to Hebrews and to the Deutero-Pauline Eph 5:2 than to the uncontested Pauline letters.’

    I notice that Paul does here what you say Hebrews does — put human sacrifice above animal sacrifice: ‘Christ’s “blood” is here implied to be the substitute for the sacrificial blood of the animals in the Day of Atonement rite.’

    A thorough discussion of Rom 3:25 is found here:

    I still do not see how Fitzmyer can say that Paul ‘never says that Christ was sacrificed for our sake.’ Does not Paul say so in 1 Corinthians 5:7 ( (

  6. Sean O’Conaill says:

    #4. As Jesus did indisputably call all of us to follow him – and then accepted death as the penalty for speaking the truth about the unjust elitism of the religious system of his time – whether or not we call that example a ‘priesthood’ depends entirely upon how we define the word ‘priest’.

    So why is it not obvious that in redefining the meaning of sacrifice as self-giving Jesus was also, arguably, redefining the meaning of priesthood also, as voluntary actual service of others – the universal priesthood of mutual love and care?

    That instead we tend to identify ‘priesthood’ only with a purely symbolic and sacramental role, especially that of ‘saying Mass’, is surely the problem that Paddy Ferry and Garry Wills cannot let go of – but this mistake arises solely out of the empowerment of clergy by Christendom – and Christendom is visibly over.

    The primary Christian call is to love one another, and as everyone knows, love demands sacrifice. If our Masses are not a reminder of that they are futile and unnecessary, but has no priest’s homily ever called anyone to self-giving? Has no Catholic ever heard such a call, and given his/her service to e.g. the SVP?

    Could Paddy please, please let this one go? If we agreed to abandon the word ‘priest’, and to abolish the ordained priesthood, we would still be left with the obligation of mutual service. St Paul indisputably called his followers to sacrifice their bodies in mutual service, so why is it a problem if we identify that sacrifice as the essence of Christian priesthood? The symbolic ritual and sacramental role surely need not be the problem if is seen as secondary rather than primary – and if co-responsibility (shared power) is truly implemented canonically?

    Isn’t that the inevitable trajectory anyway?

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