What happened in Limerick should not stay in Limerick: 2nd international meeting of priest associations and lay reform groups take up the tough questions
From April 13 – 17, 2015, thirty-eight Catholics from priest associations and church reform organizations across ten countries met in Limerick, Ireland to discuss some of the most pressing issues facing the Church today and to work together for change. Traveling from Austria, Australia, Germany, India, various regions in Ireland, Italy, Slovakia, Switzerland, the U.K and the United States, men and women, ordained and lay, familiar faces and new, came together around some of the most difficult and painful problems facing the Church today.
This was the second such meeting. The first meeting in Bregenz, held in November 2013, was called by Fr. Helmut Schueller, the founder of the Pfarrer Initiative. It was the Pfarrer Initiative who issued the prophetic and controversial “Call to Disobedience” challenging Church leaders to halt the consolidation of parishes while calling for a “new image of the priest.” Many who had been in Bregenz also came to Limerick and were joined by more than twenty new participants from four new regions.
The “Limerick 38,” as I affectionately like to think of them, called on bishops to courageously support Pope Francis’ vision for reform. Fr. Tony Flannery conveyed the group’s sense of urgency at a press conference on the final day calling this “Francis era” our “last chance” to get renewal right.
Early on, a number of participants, myself included, raised the issue of women’s equality and gender justice as central areas that needed to be addressed. And throughout the conference, we worked in a small group to develop strategies that would advance those reforms including promoting a commission of women to work with Pope Francis on his desire to develop a “theology of women” and create a more “incisive presence for women” in the Church. Had nothing else happened, I would have left Limerick with a strong sense of satisfaction in having created solid plans for working together across diverse regions with plenty of “to do” lists to keep us all busy for months ahead. But, the real formative moment was still ahead.
On the third day, the group entered into the most poignant, painful and ultimately transformative moment of the conference.
A small group of women, myself included, had approached Tony Flannery with the idea that one of the women at our conference might co-preside with one of the priests at our shared Eucharist. We reasoned, the Eucharist, the sign and symbol of our unity in the Church, should reflect our common work together in Limerick as co-equals working for change. One person asked, “After working alongside each other these last few days, how can we celebrate a Eucharist that isn’t a sign of our unity?”
Tony wisely suggested that we submit the question to the group. And we did.
On Wednesday morning, participant Kate McElwee, put the question of a woman as co-presider to the group. And it started a conversation like no other I’ve experienced among priests and lay women and men. Thirty-eight women and men wrestled with the question for several hours. With the guidance of our skilled facilitators, we held the space open as each person expressed their support, concern, pain and, yes, fear.
Tears fell without shame. The space became a sacred space…a transformative space…maybe not so unlike the Council of Jerusalem where Peter and Paul and the community wrestled with who was in and who was out in their day.
After the long, deep and rich conversation, we decided to forego the celebration of the Eucharist in favor of a prayer service that would continue to help us hold the space and the pain felt around the issues of women’s participation. A small group volunteered to coordinate it and it turned out to be a sacramental sign in and of itself.
The wine and bread placed on the altar was not shared, a symbol of the painful reality of women’s place in the Church and the divisions that tear at the heart of our communities. And all thirty-eight of us took a candle and placed it on the altar, a sign of our solidarity with women in the Church and our hope for a healed, whole and just Church where women can participate fully as co-equals.
Even as I write these words, tears flow. I was transformed…by the grace each person offered in that circle…by the authenticity and honesty of the conversation…by the tears of my dear friends and colleagues…and by the Spirit that washed over us as we struggled together to find a way to come together as a Eucharistic people given the realities of our roles, as well as the injustices in our Church so poignantly and personally felt in this cherished setting.
What happened among the “Limerick 38” was not just for the thirty-eight gathered there. It is my hope that the Spirit felt so deeply in Limerick will flow out of each one of us in a new way so we can create every space necessary to work with our differences and build on our common hope for a renewed and revitalized Church, not only for ourselves, but for those who will certainly come after us longing for a God and a community where justice, love, compassion and mercy are made real in each other.
I am grateful for all those who made the gathering possible, but also for those who participated with such courage and honesty. Every once in a while we get a chance to see the heart of God in each other. Limerick was such a moment for me.