What happened in Limerick should not stay in Limerick

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.
Deborah Rose-Milavec

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  1. I found this posting deeply moving, an eloquent expression of heartfelt pain. Merton concluded his journal Wood, Shore, Desert with the words “Hang on to the clear light”. As valid now as it was when he wrote it in 1968.

  2. john d. kirwin says:

    Wonderful – may we all work and pray that the same becomes a reality for the Church, if not in our generation, but surely for the next. Deo gratias, Alleluia

  3. I too was moved by Tony Flannery’s blog account of what happened in Limerick. I have no vocation to be a priest, as a non-male and a non-celibate I would find it impossible, it would be like trying to fit a circle into a square. The ripples are flowing out so what happened in Limerick is being heard. A bit like the mustard seed.

    1. Association of Catholic Priests says:

      An account of the Limerick meeting in the NCR
      Lay reform groups discuss equality of women, church governance at international meeting
      Sarah Mac Donald | Apr. 27, 2015
      LIMERICK, IRELAND The role and full equality of women in church life as well as the governance of the church were the two main issues discussed by delegates at the second international meeting of priest associations and lay reform groups here April 13-17.
      In a statement at the conclusion of their four-day gathering, the 38 delegates from 10 countries, who seek to establish an international “network of networks” to develop strategies on church reform, said: “The election of Pope Francis has begun a new era in Catholicism.”
      Speaking on behalf of participants, censured Irish Redemptorist Fr. Tony Flannery of the Irish Association of Catholic Priests said, “With the resignation of Pope Benedict we are at the end of an era, and this is our best chance to renew the church for a long time.”
      According to Deborah Rose-Milavec, executive director of the U.S. reform group FutureChurch, it became clear during a very open and honest discussion among participants from the U.S., Ireland, the United Kingdom, Australia, India, Germany, Slovakia, Austria, Switzerland, and elsewhere that there is much pain over the exclusion of women from governance, leadership and ordained ministry.
      Despite that, the mother of six and grandmother of 11 said the group focused on how they could bring the role of women forward. “We think there are many ways that the role of women can be improved within the church without even addressing ordination,” Rose-Milavec said as she outlined an idea the group says is “workable.”
      “The pope has said we need a more incisive presence for women in the church and a new theology of women,” she said. “One suggestion we are putting forward is the creation of a council of women, like the commission for the protection of children and the pope’s Council of Cardinals, which would advise him and become a mechanism for launching something like a gender policy within the Vatican and the church.”
      This gender policy could be based on the one adopted by the church in India, which another participant at the conference, laywoman Astrid Lobo Gajiwala, was instrumental in helping the bishops in India develop.
      Rose-Milavec is more hopeful for the church under Pope Francis.
      “There is a new open space. The system of silencing is being lifted to some degree,” she said. “He is stirring up the pot and asking for dialogue. If we have that kind of opening, we can bring in new elements.”
      Nonetheless, the elephant in the room in Limerick was the church’s prohibition on the ordination of women to the priesthood. On the third day of the gathering, a group of female participants, including Kate McElwee of Women’s Ordination Conference, approached Flannery with the idea that one of the women might co-preside with one of the priests at their joint Eucharist. (Editor’s note: McElwee is married to NCR Vatican correspondent Joshua J. McElwee.)
      “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,” Rose-Milavec said.
      Writing afterward on his blog, Flannery said, “It created enormous dilemmas for most of us … There was a great deal of hurt, sadness and tears, with many people clearly wrestling with their own conscience and coming face to face with their fears in a very open way.”
      In the end, the group decided not to celebrate the Eucharist together but to hold a joint prayer service instead.
      Another key issue on the table in Limerick was church governance and how to devolve authority away from the Vatican to local churches, enhancing the authority of bishops’ conferences and parishes.
      Fr. Helmut Schüller, founder of the Austrian Priests’ Initiative, told NCR that the church must become more decentralized because the “wisdom and experience of the faithful at the base of the church is not coming to the top.”
      Pointing to Francis’ willingness to foster a new culture of consultation and shared responsibility through his Council of Cardinals and the openness he sought to foster at last October’s synod on the family, Schüller said the church should be aiming to embed this new culture more deeply so that “the marginalizing of people ends” and communities at the base of the church have greater scope. “At the moment, the top of the church remains the top of the church,” he said.
      The Austrian priest, who spearheaded his association’s “Call to Disobedience,” acknowledged that some bishops may be intimidated by the vocal opposition to Pope Francis from some quarters, such as Cardinal Raymond Burke, an American who has been outspoken against some points raised before and at the synod, especially about admitting divorced and remarried Catholics to Communion.
      Asked if this conservative opposition could intimidate Francis into playing down his agenda, Schüller said: “It could happen, but those who try to do this must keep in mind that the vast majority of the Catholics all over the world will be very disappointed and frustrated. That would produce an atmosphere that the church cannot want to have.”
      He said he hopes support for Francis from other bishops would become stronger and clearer so that this “neoconservative group” would see that they are not strong enough to halt the process of reform.
      Fr. Brendan Hoban of the Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland said he believes there is a sea change happening in the church, and there are possibilities now that haven’t existed since the Second Vatican Council.
      “The reforms envisaged by the Vatican council are now on the agenda of the church again,” he said. “There are huge possibilities now in terms of the future. But priests, people and particularly bishops have to get behind Francis and move these reforms forward. We have lost half a century.”
      Delegates also called for the full participation of Catholics who are divorced and remarried, members of interfaith families, and LGBT and other marginalized people in the life of the church at the forthcoming Synod of Bishops on the family in October.
      “Most Catholics believe the synod process itself is quite flawed — it is making decisions about families without families being auditors or having a vote,” Rose-Milavec said.
      She said the reform movements want to see more women and Catholics from the constituencies that are going to be discussed invited to the synod.
      “How do you have a synod and talk about creating a more pastoral way of being church without people who have experienced being divorced and remarried or without people from the LGBT community or the communities of women who are impoverished?” she asked.
      At a public forum on the last day of the gathering, writer and former seminary rector Fr. Donald Cozzens said the reason renewal and reform is so important for the church is that there are so many people hurting who are at the same time “spiritually starving.” He said he believes the church needs to “speak a word of hope and light to our secular age.”
      The key to evangelization, Cozzens said, “is a healthier, moral and more pastoral church” in which all are called to be missionaries and reformers working for a more open, transparent and vital church, which is reaching out to “Catholics who are drifting, discouraged, confused, wounded, and angry.”
      Paul Collins of Catholics for Ministry in Australia said although Francis has brought the church “out of the cold into the sunlight,” the problem is the church has become far too “papocentric.”
      “We have lost the sense that we are the church,” he said. “The real task lies down at the local base level. Our emphasis has to shift more to the local. We must become a local [church] that looks outward and is involved in the world and cares about issues — and is not looking at its own naval.”
      [Sarah Mac Donald is a freelance writer based in Dublin.]

  4. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Sincere thanks to Sarah MacDonald: she has given us back Limerick’s lost three days, as well as a good idea why other participants (e.g. Schueller, Cozzens, Collins, Brendan Hoban) really accepted the invitation to Limerick. Next time, it would be good to see some proponents of reform from Africa and Latin America. Reform Movements, too, must go to (and come from) the peripheries – other oracles from other “future-or-even-present-churches” may have different messages to impart!

  5. Mary Vallely says:

    I agree that we may have become too “papocentric” ( a new word for me.) Regrettably we’re all caught up in the cult of celebrity when it shouldn’t matter who heads the Vatican as long as we actually try to follow who Francis is following! We have to learn to take responsibility as mature thinking adults and be more courageous in our going forward. I also agree with MM in another thread that what replaced that desired concelebration of Eucharistic sharing could actually be a more effective and lasting symbol which may yet yield a greater harvest than first thought. Continued courage to all who organised and participated in Limerick. I am greatly inspired by these reports. Bail ó Dhia ar an obair. 🙂

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