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Priests have earned the right to speak about the state of the Church

Do we sit and wait for church after church to empty and eventually to close?
In his book, Priesthood, The Lost Art of Walking on Water, Michael Heher struck an important note: “At a time of crisis, people often find the freedom to voice things they ordinarily would not express.
A dying woman can give advice to her children, a soldier going to war can tell his brother he loves him dearly, a father as he prepares for dangerous surgery can tell his daughter about fear, worry and faith.”
Heher’s point is that as men who have suffered so many hits over the last years, we priests have earned the right to say whatever we want.
Not everyone would agree, as we know. Loyalty, or what passes for loyalty, in the Roman Catholic Church can have very precise boundaries.
Among priests, moral courage is often wanting. A bishop even loitering without intent on the premises can compromise the naming of elephants in the livingroom. But, if ever there was for church and for priesthood “a time of crisis”, in Heher’s phrase, then surely this is it.
If ever we needed to speak the truth as we see it, then surely this is the time.
A drip of vocations, a consistent bleeding of church members, a massive credibility problem, a leadership for the most part invisible, a priesthood demoralised and Rome at the great crossroads pointing us in the direction of the 19th century.
How did it all come to this?
Fifty years ago this October the Second Vatican Council met in Rome and for three glorious years devised a road map for the future: a people’s church, co-responsibility, collegiality and the other buzzwords that would be given flesh in structures devised to give energy, direction and purpose to the church in a different age.
The road map, we were told, would help to negotiate a changing culture, but we tore it up and threw it away. In a few weeks, when we commemorate the opening of that great council, they’ll be telling us how wonderful it all was. God forgive them.
In my new book, Where Do We Go From Here? The Crisis in Irish Catholicism, I feel entitled to claim my own space and the authority of my own experience to attempt an answer to that crucial question.
After almost 40 years of priesting I feel I have earned that right.
I start from the position that we need to be brutally honest about where we are, minimising neither the problems nor the promise. I reflect on the window opened by the founding of the Association of Irish Priests (ACP) and the Association of Catholics of Ireland (ACI) and the successful “assemblies” organised jointly by them – more than 1,000 people at the Dublin assembly, with Galway coming up this Saturday and Cork the following Saturday. And I point a direction into the future – where we might go from here.
Even apart from breaking new ground, which clearly in future years we will have to do, there’s so much we can do – now. Two examples.
1: Imagine if Mary McAleese, former president of Ireland, was made a cardinal. Or Nuala O’Loan. Or Sr Stan.
Imagine the lift it would give to our church if instead of patronising women at almost every turn we appointed them to head some Vatican congregations (departments). It could be done – tomorrow – because either responsibility does not necessitate ordination.
2: We’re “clustering” at the moment in the dioceses of Ireland. That’s PR for managing the decline and ageing of priests. In 20 years (2032, when we’ll be celebrating 1,600 years since St Patrick came to Ireland) the statistics clearly show we’ll have very few priests left.
If no priests means no Eucharist and no Eucharist means no church, the Irish Catholic Church will have effectively disappeared.
Yet, now we could ordain (with minimal formation or instruction, as presently with ordained deacons) viri probati – men of proven worth. At one fell swoop we would have solved the Eucharistic famine already knocking at our doors.
So where do we go from here? Do we sit and wait for church after church to empty and eventually to close?
Or do ask the key question: Where do we go from here? – and then claim the freedom to answer it.
Sitting on our hands is no strategy at the present critical time.
Fr Brendan Hoban is parish priest in Moygownagh, Co Mayo, and a founding member of the ACP. His book Where Do We Go From Here? The Crisis in Irish Catholicism (€ 9.95) is in most bookshops and available by post from The Pastoral Centre, Ballina, Co Mayo (€ 2 extra for pp).

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  1. Kevin Walters says:

    So where do we go from here? Do we sit and wait for church after church to empty and eventually to close?
    The Head of our church is God’s only begotten Son Jesus Christ its earthly manifestation (head) is Rome. The difficulties we now face are due to the lack of INTEGRITY within the priesthood you the Sheppard’s are responsible for these who serve you.
    AUTHORITY only comes with TRUTH and your DUTY is to bring about changes (at the Head Table) Rome INTEGRITY must be restored any other action will be DIVISIVE.
    “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.
    God’s Word (Will) is Inviolate and supersedes any tradition in the church’s magisterial office. A servant must give full account to the ones he serves
    And WE the laity have to (know) see this in action.
    In Christ

  2. Brendan Butler says:

    Brendan writes that ‘ at one fell swoop we would have solved the Eucharistic famine already knocking at our doors’ by ordaining ‘viri probati –men of proven worth , with minimal formation or instruction’.
    I cannot agree with his solution to the Eucharistic famine by adding yet more men , this time of a yellow-pack variety, to the ranks of the clerical state as it is more apparent than real. Such a pragmatic solution might solve the crisis of priesthood in the immediate short term but in the matter of justice it adds yet another layer of injustice against women in the Catholic Church who are already excluded from the male only Diaconate. This exclusion of women to the Catholic Priesthood is according to Pope Benedict based on Catholic doctrine almost on a par with the Divinity of Jesus Christ but in reality is the result of active misogynist attitudes over the past 1500 years by successive Popes . Are there no ‘feminae probatae’ out there ?
    Reforms in and to the Catholic Church must be based on justice and a recognition of the equality of all the baptised and not a continuation of exclusion based on human male fallibility.

  3. Fr. Bob Cushing says:

    Brendan, we are walking with you. As our board for the Association of US Catholic priests met yesterday again, our thoughts were of you, our brothers across the sea, and how you continue to speak and act pro-actively, responding to the crisis at hand. Thank you, for not hesitating a moment longer. We are slowly waking up here as well, recognizing the failure to fully implement Vatican II and trying to do what we can to create viable forums for dialogue and a faithful response of the larger body of Christ, the people of God, who are waiting for us priests to really walk them into the new creation that the Spirit desires of us all.
    in Jesus, Bob Cushing

  4. Association of Catholic Priests says:

    Somehow I feel that when “Churchmen” proclaim the slogan: “No Eucharist, no Church” they are not entirely sincere and convincing. Many Catholics in the Philippines do not go to Mass on Sunday for a variety of reasons. But one step proposed by Fr. Brendan in his article would go a long way towards solving these problems, viz. let us get good, qualified, laymen to preside at these eucharists. So bring on the viri probati, and indeed why stop with the men only!
    We already have these kind of men running “Liturgies of the Word” on Sunday and many of these include Holy Communion. These men are specially trained for this ministry.
    Christ was not a priest. He has nothing specific to say about priests. These were introduced later in the early Church from the Old Testament. So if we can have these viri probati we would be close to the Pauline communities portayed in the letters.
    Fr. Sean Purcell CSSR

  5. This is a great article, right on target, and certainly needed these days. We priests need to speak up out of love for our Church and our folks, not to mention our own integrity. Bob Cushing’s comment that we are slowly waking up shows some hope if we can rise to the challenge and do what has to be done – and something has to be done. A real question is whether or not we have the intestinal fortitude to act. Fear is a great motivator to stay safe, hidden, and out of sight, and keep our thoughts to ourself.

  6. Gearóid Mary says:

    “Imagine if Mary McAleese, former president of Ireland, was made a cardinal.” Imagine! The Canon. 351 §1 of the Code of Canon Law reads as follows: “Those to be promoted Cardinals are men freely selected by the Roman Pontiff, who are at least in the order of priesthood and are truly outstanding in doctrine, virtue, piety and prudence in practical matters; those who are not already Bishops must receive episcopal consecration.” It is difficult to see how Mary McAleese fits the measure! It seems that there is much to change before such a thing could occur. We occupy ourselves with moving mountains, when there are so many little things that might be done, to enhance the faith and experience of Church of the starving multitude.

  7. Jim Johnson says:

    There are plenty of vocations in the Institute of Christ the King and in other orders where there is an emphasis upon Tradition and upon faithful adhesion to the Magisterium. What we need to do is to emulate these success stories. We need much wider emphasis upon the Extraordinary form (with regular Traditional Latin Masses in every parish), a return to competent and well thought out catechesis and a reassertion of the traditional strengths of the Church. We need properly educated priests who are familiar with the riches of the Church. We need to dispense with the clap-trap of the 70s which is beginning to look as dated as wall-paper from that era and start doing things properly. The oath against modernism needs to be reintroduced and there needs to be a much more coherent rebuttal of modernist ideology on all fronts.
    Simples !

  8. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Well Fr. Hoban, I hope that this was a statement to the US Association – their numbers are huge but they don’t realize what kind of dent they can make with 700+ members. I don’t think any of the associations realize what can be made of this. At the moment when you start to ask the worldwide parishoners their thoughts on all of this, you can expect similiar results from your initial focus group of 1000. But the fact remains, if you don’t start a healthy dialogue with your Bishops concerning Natural Law and Canon Law’s failure to adhere to it, then you are all just spinning your wheels. You all owe it to St. Thomas – he is your one great supporter in all of this – his spirit still lives on. And Rome points you in no direction. They are not the be all end all in all of this – it is your pews where the true power sits in the Roman Catholic Church. The more parishoners who understand St. Thomas’s teachings, his position of authority in the Roman Catholic Church and what is imposed on you through Canon Law despite St. Thomas’s warnings, the more people will come to your side and support your call for Reform. Plain and simple. I’d like to hear how Benedict would explain it? So please, do something and stop waiting for divine intervention – I believe that has already happened.

  9. Gearóid Mary says:

    Jim Johnson #7 makes a clear and valid assertion “return to competent and well thought out catechesis and a reassertion of the traditional strengths of the Church.” This is a real possibility; the undercurrents of parish life are swaying that way. Unfortunately, these undercurrents are a cohort of faithful Catholics who love the Church, who see her as their “maternal hearth” as Congar put it. There are, however, people who do not feel at home in the Church, they are estranged, faith is incredible to them, liturgies are alienating and they prefer to go it alone, to find God in their own way. Does this place them outside of the Church, outside of salvation? We’ll leave that discussion to those more competent! Radically changing structures, introducing married, or female clergy to hold off a “eucharistic famine”, elevating women to the College of Cardinals will not make a difference to them. They simply, don’t believe and don’t want to believe. The Church will be utilized for putting order and ritual on the great events of life – baptism, marriage and death. Their origin and destiny misunderstood, and at these momentous occasions, they are as it were, akin to Eskimos in the Sahara. As a Church we are failing in our catechesis and in the assertion of the traditional strengths of Catholicism. We are no longer visible, in our accommodating embrace of the world, we became worldly and ceased to be Church.

  10. Mary O'Brien says:

    I welcome your ability Brendan to describe so clearly the reality of where we are and where we could go- not that I hold out much hope that we will move in that or indeed any new direction in the near future.
    At our parish council meeting last week I mentioned some of your suggestions and straight away our parish priest dismissed me saying ‘Oh sure Brendan Hoban is always so negative- we have to keep looking on the bright side of things’.
    However as we began to ‘talk then about the bright side’ we failed to find much good news.
    When we retires in 2 years time we’ll have no priest – the young parents, he told us, won’t bring their children to mass and our church account is fast running out of money.
    But we mustn’t be negative!!!
    I think that is alot of our problem.
    We just can’t live with naming hard facts and until we do we are powerless to begin to plan a way ahead.

  11. Joe O'Leary says:

    Brendan Hoban is obviously calling for a change in the current Code of Canon Law to allow lay people to be cardinals, as in the past; and if lay men, why not lay women? We cannot say that Jesus made only women cardinals, since he did not create any cardinals.

  12. Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh says:

    “Imagine if Mary McAleese, former president of Ireland, was made a cardinal. Or Nuala O’Loan. Or Sr Stan.
    Imagine the lift it would give to our church if instead of patronising women at almost every turn we appointed them to head some Vatican congregations (departments). It could be done – tomorrow – because either responsibility does not necessitate ordination.”
    As I read the above words of Fr Brendan Hoban, I thanked God that here is a man who loves our church and who longs for it to become relevant to people’s lives. Brendan Hoban is a man of vision and has the courage to speak his truth for the good of our church.
    When I type the words “our church”, I have to wonder why the celibate men in the Vatican act as if this is their church and not our church. In fact, lately, I have been wondering if we are in the church of Joseph Ratzinger, rather than in the church of Jesus Christ.
    Thankyou for posting the radio interview of Mary McAleese. It is wonderful that she is studying for a doctorate in canon law in Rome. It would be even more wonderful if she, and women like her, could be made cardinals, and have a voice in our church as members of the hierarchy.
    There is need for dialogue in our church, and there is need for women’s voices to be heard, for the benefit of us all, both men and women.
    In my understanding of reading the gospels, Jesus treated women as equals.
    In this upcoming Synod of Bishops in Rome, I would hope that the Pope and hierarchy would reflect on the way that Jesus was with women, and his comfort in having them be among his close disciples.
    As the Year of Faith is being launched, the New Evangelization, in my view, needs to be focused on a renewal of the Roman Catholic Church for the 21st century, a divine infusion of courage in the Pope and hierarchy to face the reality that we are in the 21st century, and the need for the inclusion of women in the hierarchy to help to bring our church into the 21st century.
    It breaks my heart to see our church revert to a pre-Vatican II church.
    Thankyou to the ACP for your courage in working to bring our church into the 21st century. I pray that the Holy Spirit will allow this to happen soon.
    Sincerely, Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh, Chicago, Illinois, USA

  13. Sandra mc sheaffrey says:

    Brendan, if I had a hat I would take it off to you. Now, if you have a wee read of Mary T Malone’s books on Women in Christianity you could estimate how long you might have to wait for ‘permission’ to say what you want! Seriously, thanks for your witness to your integrity. All the best for the meeting on Saturday.

  14. Sean (Derry) says:

    Fr. Sean Purcell @4
    I am a bit confused that you say that “Christ was not a priest. He has nothing specific to say about priests.”
    Jesus was and is, the Great High Priest. The twelve Apostles, were ordained to the priesthood by Jesus Christ Himself.
    CCC 783, Jesus Christ is the one whom the Father anointed with the Holy Spirit and established as priest, prophet, and king.
    Have I picked you up wrong?

  15. Father Sean Purcell, CSsR……..I like your thinking……..
    I see the Church is about to celebrate the Feast Day of Thomas Acquinas……..wouldn’t it be nice……..to have a special discussion or discussions that day……..around the “theology of the priest” and the “theology of the eucharist”? A day of revisit and revise, perhaps?
    I know a Father David Purcell, CSsR,……..Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. I was raised in a redemptorist parish.
    Happy Christmas to our Orthadox brothers and sisters!

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