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What we WISH the Irish bishops had said to the ACP

One of the ACP’s members has written to the Leadership Team to suggest we could have a better understanding and acceptance of the bishops’ situation when they expressed an unwillingness to meet us. Because the author wishes his submission to stand or fall on its accuracy and intrinsic values, he expressed the desire to remain anonymous – at least for the present.  Of course we have his name. — ACP Leadership Team

The Irish Episcopal Conference, Columba Centre, Maynooth, Co. Kildare

 To the Association of Catholic Priests
We, the Catholic hierarchy thank you for your second invitation to meet you with a view to discussing the serious questions you bring up.
You will recall that we responded to your first invitation to discuss the new translations of the Eucharistic Prayers, when our two representatives met with yours.  They reported your concerns to us and although we could not change the already printed texts, we noted your observations and passed them on to Rome.  To say that we did nothing except pay for our meal together is not correct.
Although you are not an officially recognised body in the Church, we acknowledge that you are approximately 1,000 dedicated priests concerned about the welfare and growth of the Church in Ireland.  We also acknowledge that you have no desire to harm the Church and that unlike a similar group of priests in Austria you have not called for disobedience. The changes you speak about are not about essential church teaching; they concern structural change and matters of morality.
May we ask you to try to understand the totality of our experience at this time and the immense stress which so many issues bring. We acknowledge and share your concern about the breakdown of marriage and of family life, the severe shortage of priestly vocations, the lessening of people attending Sunday Mass, the near universal non-acceptance of church teaching on contraception and the obvious contradiction of inviting people in second marriages to a sacred meal but telling them that they may not eat. These are issues that weigh us down also.
We ask you to remember that we still carry the burden of child sex abuse and our failure to act comprehensively. Add to this the lack of clarity in how best to respond when a priest is first accused of abusing a child. We also carry the stress of how to respond to the First Holy Communion and Confirmation situations. Recently we bear the burden of how best to deal with Catholic education and of constantly responding to the current abortion debate.
Responding to these urgent matters in a united way when we bishops are clearly not united on many deeper matters is a great burden. Then, having lost credibility due to our failure to deal well with the sexual abuse of children adds still more stress to the ordinary governance of our dioceses.  It is very difficult – many of us think impossible – to govern, to pastor, to teach, to visit, to dialogue and to respond well to requests like yours especially when we already know that our meeting would have implications beyond our control.
The purpose of this letter so far is to ask and to enable your association to understand us and the great challenges which are ours, as we say regretfully that we cannot accept your invitation to meet.
There is an deeper and perhaps obvious reason why we cannot meet you. Before accepting episcopal consecration we were obliged to take an oath of obedience to the Pope. We solemnly promised to obey the ordinary and extraordinary magisterium in everything. Thus when we took our oath we accepted to be controlled in great detail in our thinking, in our teaching and in our actions.  In addition, our thoughts and communications must always be funnelled through the Roman Curia, a group which no doubt the Holy Father consults in most of his decisions.  Many attempts to reform this centralised power-group have failed.  In many ways they have taken the place of episcopal synods and of episcopal conferences as they are allowed to intervene powerfully between the Pope and bishops everywhere. Our latest message from Rome is a warning about trends it fears in Parish Councils.
We already know the matters about which you wish to dialogue.  We could listen openly to your sincere convictions about helping the Church in Ireland, but no matter what we think individually we are helpless to bring about any change in the matters you bring up.  We live in a Vatican vice which refuses to give us individually or as an episcopal conferences any power. It is well beyond the respect and normal obedience we owe to the See of Peter. You will say that we are too hesitant to question any directive coming from Rome, and even that we were chosen because we are not creative men.  However true that may be, we know that to push the issues you espouse would result in forced resignations as has happened three of our colleagues in Australia and others elsewhere.  A few resignations of those among us who agree with your suggestions would help nothing. The problem is much deeper; it is systemic or a ‘culture’ as one of our members said.
You may rightly think that some of us privately agree with your suggestions. And you may accuse us of lacking courage in our failure to press for necessary changes.  Yet we did publicly challenge as erroneous the Vatican ‘findings’ about the Irish College in Rome. Beyond correcting errors of fact we are – as we are often called – little more than ‘middle managers’ carefully monitored by the Papal Nuncio.
Many of the letters which arrive on our desks come from people you would consider conservative and they generally have a footnote saying that a copy has gone to the Nuncio who of course puts them into the diplomatic mail for Rome. Thus, the Curia gets mostly a one-sided picture of the Irish Church and this makes them happy.  Anything which ‘disturbs the simple faithful’ becomes curial anathema. These letters – many of which complain about what priests have said – quote official church teaching. In this again we are helpless.
Painfully for us, Dame Nuala O’Loan put our situation clearly in the Irish Catholic Nov. 15th of this year. When writing about the low level of communication in the Irish Church. she asks,  ‘Is it that the issues which might be raised are very controversial and that therefore the hierarchy are fearful of engaging in conversations on matters on which they can make no change such as married clergy and women priests, precisely because they can do nothing other than report back to Rome ?  Is it that our Church leaders were not formed to run a church in which there is dialogue, and because they do not know what to do, they do nothing ?
We ask your cooperation to further the success of the year of faith despite the lack of enthusiasm for it around the country.  Like other movements such as the Eucharistic Congress and the new Mass translations, it was thrust upon us by the Roman Curia without consultation. We ask you – and we mean it sincerely – to pray for us.


The Irish Episcopal Conference

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  1. Mary O Vallely says:

    Firstly, thank you for the courtesy in replying and for that hint of self-awareness and honesty which is very encouraging. You are, of course, assured of our prayers. You have never been out of them, day and night. We do understand the heavy burden of office you carry and we recognise that we ALL have the concerns of the Church at heart. We all want to follow Christ and bring the Good News -the GREATEST of good news- to all people.
    Perhaps this letter of yours is a small step towards dialogue.
    Another step would be to meet with priests and lay people, both individually and in groups and to listen to their concerns. Isn’t that what a good parent/leader does?
    Nuala O’loan is right in thinking that you do not know what to do. You have been so used to being told what to think, how to think and never to question because the consequences could be that you would lose your position and that is too frightening a prospect for someone nearing the end of his earthly days.
    I would challenge you with the reminder of Christ’s words, “Do not be afraid.” You say you are “helpless” but in actual fact, you are guilty of cowardice. Isn’t that the truth? Fear holds you back and yes, we do understand how you can be afraid to face change but do not give up! This culture of blind obedience has to be challenged. To thine own conscience be true as old Polonius,JH Newman and Fr Ratzinger (1967) remind us. By doing nothing you are abrogating responsibility to the Gospel message.
    Start by listening, create opportunities for dialogue,not just a one-off but ongoing dialogue; keep the doors of your episcopal palaces and hearts open to all voices, not just those who would threaten you with reporting you to the Vatican. We are Christians, after all, and not living in a totalitarian state though at times it seems like it, sadly. Invite the ACP leadership to meet with you in an informal capacity to hear what their concerns are (and those of the 1000 priests and many more of the laity who support them). What have you to fear, really?
    Pray above all for unity as we all do, day and night and let us keep our hearts open to the voice of the Holy Spirit. Always. Pax vobiscum.

  2. You have done a good thing here I believe.
    You may not be able to meet ACP – but you have made a passionate and sincere attempt to explain why that is not possible at this time. You have reached out. Communicated. Where it all begins.
    “We live in a Vatican vice.”
    I read your letter and heard what you wish to have heard and understood. This is a tragic and heartfelt plea. But there is cause for hope too.
    If you sought understanding you’ve certainly helped me understand.
    And I feel a sincere compassion for you in your predicament. The ‘vice’ that strangles you.
    I will pray for you all because you have been sincere and you ask for prayer. I would ask your prayer also.
    That you be freed from the wicked grip of this ‘vice’.
    It’s one thing to prune a tree that it might bear greater fruit.
    It’s another to strangle the life out of it altogether.
    I hope that if this ‘vice’ does lose its grip one fine day, some how, you will then follow through – act.
    God bless

  3. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    The idea that the Roman Curia would not be open to the changes the ACP are suggesting is nonsense. I don’t believe for one moment that they have neither the foresight nor the calculative ability to know that the Roman Catholic Church is in trouble. However, according to Canon Law and the obvious unwritten rules of the Vatican, this is a change so drastic that it has to be forced from within the religion but not within the hierarchy itself.
    That is and will always be the most sound strategy. Canon Law must abide by Natural Law, as all man-made decisions should and the Vatican should allow us to come together to vote.
    Democracy may include elected representative but can also be an individual vote. ACP, do nothing more than represent your parishioners and bring forth our message. We want a review and a democratic vote, per parish, per country – a poll of Christendom. We are calling for it, it is within the Canons to allow
    for it and our time has come to prove that the Roman Curia is not a totalitarian state. We can bring forth the changes that your collective consciences are calling for.

  4. I imagine you may not be able to post this here.
    As the situation stands, has been for so long, and will be for the foreseeable future – what can we do as individuals to bring the Kingdom of God to this world ?
    The man has said that there is agreement with many of the aims of ACP and the laity. But their hands are effectively tied. They can’t actually do or say anything to change things, or they are kicked out or silenced. That sounds more of a dictatorship than a church. Quite insane really.
    I agree with the gentleman above, Llyod, if I am understanding him correctly. The people must voice their concerns and ask they are heard according to the dictates laid out within Canon Law. I am taking his word for it that it’s all there. I haven’t got a clue about Canon Law. When I hear the words it brings to mind the story where Jesus speaks to the Pharisees about putting heavy loads – ‘laws,’ on people’s backs. Asking of the people things they would not ask of themselves, be expected to live. Vacuous and hypocritical more than practical basically.
    Anyway, it is as it is at present.
    Just say we had married and women priests tomorrow. Condoms were handed out like they were going out of fashion. Gay people were nolonger demonised and discriminated against. All of it.
    What do the sheeple do ?
    Will the sheeple become the People – of God, the Church ?
    Or will we continue to look to be led by priests ? I don’t mean to suggest we don’t need spiritual leaders. I am talking more about our need to be always governed – led.
    Only now there are married and women priests to lead too. And God forbid – maybe a gay woman married priest. Imagine. Can just see the sea of faces. First Responders at the ready. Of course I should mention an important change too. The priests already ready for breakdowns will be greatly relieved on many levels. As it should be. They are human beings – not donkeys made to have their backs broken.
    What changes might come, essentially, in each of us ?
    How will we grow spiritually. Or is some of this gonna be more of the same. We sit on our butts looking led, spoon fed, and the Kingdom of God we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer is never truly realised, in each of us and our wider society.
    What are we waiting to do, to become, if and when these changes arrive, that cannot be done, lived right now where we are ?
    Sure the married man can become a priest. A woman could become a priest too. A gay person is not demonised and can choose to marry if she/he wishes. And more condoms floating about in the sky than at a funfare. Etc.
    How do we each change though. Can we – should we – will we ? How will all of that change each of us. Outside of churchy politics and meetings and the rest. What can we each do in our day to day life that helps us grow spiritually – and to do our bit towards the realisation of God’s holy will, the Kingdom of that same Good God on earth.
    He did say, “It’s amongst you.”
    Though in a more powerful way, “It’s within you…. ”
    What are we waiting for ? I just wonder some times. Far off fields n’ all that.

  5. Laura Kuntz says:

    As an American following your journey, I’d like to share the following:
    – It helps to know what the American bishops might be up against.
    – Despite, this, after hurtfulness in our parish here in Minnesota, my family and I have started attending a wonderful Presbyterian church. Amazing how the Holy Spirit is present and moving even though, God forbid, there is a (talented) woman on the altar, (valued) same-sex parents in the pews, and contraception users and the divorced and remarried all around!
    – Do we miss our tradition? OF COURSE. There are things we love about it. We used to love being part of a tribe of do-gooders and “lovers.”
    – Are we going to fool with this nuttiness and hurtfulness? Of course not; life is short and we want a good church.
    – Are we doing anything to help our poor church? Yes, we help support a local start-up church led by two RCC women priests (brave and dedicated women), and contribute funding and time to the local Catholic Coalition for Church Reform.
    – Do our local priests understand the larger implications of the above? Only partially — it hasn’t reached crisis point, even though it is my understanding that the priests’ pension and medical plan are only 50% funded (a serious underfunding). The bishop tells the priests he has this under control.
    The Curia and others can remain isolated and blind. Bishops and priests can try to cure the problem through a move to fundamentalism. But people have choices, and they will go do what makes sense to them.
    God bless you in your work. You have found courage, not an easy find for any of us. You are doing the right work and it will bear fruit, though whether that will be through the institutional RCC or through another path is not known to us now.

  6. Austen Corcoran says:

    I find this website very depressing.
    Contributions are generally anti Pope, anti Authority and, in my humble view, unorthodox. This post is snide and cynical and unworthy of a Priests’ Association whose members willingly professed loyaly to the Church and bishops on their ordination.
    Particularly nasty is the way in which the writer sidelines those who disagree with the ACP as sneaks and squealers. Don’t rat on the boys! A childish injunction when dealing with the governance of the Church!
    The previous post without disclaimer and apparently with your implicit approval (Jesuit priest silenced…) undermines the whole basis of Christianity.
    There are great websites where one can get spiritual sustenance and encouragement.
    Sadly that of the ACP is not one of them and I wonder what is the motivation of its Leadership.

  7. Martin Murray says:

    Thank you for this article which very cleverly highlights so much that is wrong in our church’s system of government. It understands but doesn’t excuse or condone. I think the article could be usefully employed as the focus for some very worthwhile discussion in our parishes, or for group conversation in our homes if our parishes don’t facilitate discussion.
    One issue it highlights for me is the need to ditch the outdated and paralyzing clerical oath of obedience to the pope. Our church is first and foremost a family bonded together in a relationship of love and commitment to Jesus Christ. It should stand or fall on this. Families don’t need oaths, unless they are of the gangster variety.
    The article also refers to the latest message from Rome being a warning about trends it fears in Parish Councils. Could someone expand on this?

  8. Mary O Vallely says:

    Chris(8), thank you for this. As someone who is slowly digging her way out of ignorance I was amazed to read about the Catacomb Pact. How it did my heart good to read that 40 conciliar bishops at the time of Vatican II made a pact to renounce wealth, pomposity, titles, property, and live as ordinary people. They persuaded 500 others to sign up to this too. Bettazzi was one of them and what a spirit still! His optimism is in stark contrast to Hans Kung’s recent comments.
    Maybe I could remind the present day bishops of Yves Congar’s words in 1963.
    “We are still far from drawing the consequences of the rediscovery of the fact that the entire Church is one single people of God and that the faithful compose it along with the clergy. Implicitly, unwillingly and even unconsciously we have the idea that the Church is composed of the clergy, and that the faithful are merely the beneficiaries or clientele. This horrible conception is inscribed in so many structures and customs that it appears to be set in stone, unable to change. It is a betrayal of the truth. There is still much to be done to de-clericalise our conception of the Church.”(“Pour une Eglise servante et pauvre”)
    This,sadly, is my gut feeling, that this conception of an upper and lower caste system still holds sway with too many bishops. It needs to be constantly challenged. Where are the new men of the Catacombs today? We owe it to those brave 40 +500 to continue the work of de-clericalising the Church and making each person feel equally valued. We are each valued equally by God. Why cannot we feel that we are equally valued by those who purport to serve him?
    Isn’t freedom of speech a basic human right? How can anyone forbid us to discuss certain topics? I ask you, bishops,to read again the promises made by the Catacomb Pact bishops and I pray that the Holy Spirit will guide you into agreeing with them, at least in your heart. A good place to start.

  9. Matthew O'Hora says:

    In my view the Irish bishops – most of them not all of them – are afraid to act in any matter brought before them. I was reading an interview in an English Newspaper where Bishop Mark Davies was interviewed who said that before he was made Bishop he met Pope Benedict during his visit to England and The Holy Father said that to be a good Bishop you need to have courage. In my opinion that is something that the Irish Bishops as a whole lack hugely. If they are not willing to speak out when they need to then no wonder they are been closely monitored by Rome!
    I have huge praise for the English Bishops because they are not afraid to speak out and make themselves heard when they need to.

  10. Eddie Finnegan says:

    @Matthew O’Hora: “I have huge praise for the English Bishops because they are not afraid to speak out and make themselves heard when they need to.”
    Well knock me down with a feather! – how in my nearly four decades in this other green and pleasant land can I have missed out on all this courageous speaking out by bishops of England & Wales ?
    But if Bishop Mark Davies is Matthew’s pin-up boy simply because he fancies wearing metre-high mitres at traditional Latin Masses, or because he uses his Christmas Midnight homily to compare Cameron & the Coalition to both Hitler and Stalin on the Gay Marriage issue, maybe Matthew’s idea of courageous outspokenness doesn’t correspond with mine. Doubtless, Cameron & Clegg will be flattered, though I can’t recall either Uncle Adolf’s or Uncle Joe’s manifestoes on Gay Pride or Gay Marriage – but maybe I was absent that day.

  11. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    There is nothing depressing about this website. It’s firmly planted in a reality that most of us will never know unfortunately; one that most readers can barely read let alone live. The world is wrought with inequality and deviations from the Natural Law; the Pope’s new list of the seven social sins come close to defining them all. Human rights must always be at the forefront of society, or we are all doomed. The ACP understands this and have brought their own list to the table. We, as citizens of the earth, are required to do the same. It has been, and always will be, my duty to stand alongside them, as what they are trying to accomplish is the most important of human activities to partake in. But there is so much more that we can do…

  12. Stephen Edward says:

    I wish that the bishops had said: ‘You are a pressure group for extreme ‘reform’ within the Church. It is both sad and surprising that you form such a significant (if diminishing) minority of Irish priests but it is also notable that your leaders act and speak (and use an organisational title) as though you form a substantial majority. Should the Church carry out the reforms that you seem to favour, it would become another Christian sect without any clear authority other than current secular and/or congregational opinion. We find it difficult to understand why you do not avail yourselves of the opportunity to join one or other of the denominations which already promote your vision of a Church since you seem to reject the Primacy of Peter’s successor. We shall be asking all priests to confirm the promises made at ordination and will take appropriate action in those cases where any priest declines’.

  13. Joe O'Leary says:

    “‘You are a pressure group for extreme ‘reform’ within the Church.”
    A dying patient needs extreme interventions perhaps.
    “It is both sad and surprising that you form such a significant (if diminishing) minority of Irish priests”
    Diminishing? Do you mean there were more such critical priestly voices in the past? I think the phenomenon of so many priests speaking out for reform is new and surprising.
    “your leaders act and speak (and use an organisational title) as though you form a substantial majority.”
    Were previous priest organizations more representative? In any case the title “Association of Catholic Priests” carries no such claim. Right wing Catholic groups are the usually the ones who project a false image of representativity in their titles.
    “Should the Church carry out the reforms that you seem to favour, it would become another Christian sect without any clear authority other than current secular and/or congregational opinion.”
    The bishops are too sensible to say anything as fatuously sectarian.
    “they would be We find it difficult to understand why you do not avail yourselves of the opportunity to join one or other of the denominations which already promote your vision of a Church since you seem to reject the Primacy of Peter’s successor.”
    More of the church-emptying rhetoric of diehard conservatives, a rhetoric that has been all too effective. And what a nasty red herring is the Papal Primacy; the diehards are always ready to apply the most farfetched accusations of Heresy.
    “We shall be asking all priests to confirm the promises made at ordination and will take appropriate action in those cases where any priest declines’.”
    Obedience interpreted here in the sense of dropdead conformism and silence even as pastoral disaster looms. This is the attitude that has killed Irish Catholicism. No creativity, no imagination, no vision, no flexibility, no memory of the Gospel, just barren entrenchment.

  14. Thank you for the above comments, especially those of Mary Vallely.
    I hear the God of Mother Bear in you and I appreciate your bold honesty.
    For some reason, maybe because it’s the Feast Day of Mary, Mother of God, I don’t know, I’m going to cut the bishops some slack, even though, I crave “searing honesty and prophetic action”. I think, perhaps, there is room, for both the “prophet” and the “prophet” speaking out, as well as, the very diplomatic approach that many bishops believe they need to take with Rome. Christ can use both stances in circumstances where “change” must happen. Christ can take things “on” straight on, or He can work through the spirit, in a less obvious way to bring about change.
    Remember David, defeated his foes, by coming in, from behind. I know I find in my life with Christ, there are times, when, Christ rebukes, straight-on, and there are times, when the Lord, let’s me know, take my hands off, and He’ll deal with someone from the spirit. I pray quite often the psalm which says: “Contend Oh Lord With Those Who Would Contend With Me”, “Fight Against Those Who Would Fight Against Me”. Naturally, I have to have the understanding that my own heart wouldn’t condemn me, as St. Paul says. “If God Is For Us, Who Can Be Against”. Yes, I think, the letter from the bishops above is honest and hopefully, when the bishops know for certain, that they must be more forthright with Rome, let us hope that they have the courage to walk in the truth.
    We know from the letters of John, that what pleases God: “Is for His Children To Be Walking In The Truth”. We also know from the Old Testament: Walk Humbly, Love Tenderly, and Do Justice! I’m sure most of us, do an examine of conscience, everyday, and so, the bishops, the priests, the people, if we are doing our examine of conscience in the face of Christ, then, let us pray, that Christ, and the Holy Spirit enlightens our minds, our hearts, and therefore our actions. This leads us right into the next topic of the “Church Needs Mystics”. How about that?
    This being, January 1, Happy New Year, one and all.

  15. Eddie Finnegan says:

    “Yes, I think, the letter from the bishops above is honest and hopefully, when the bishops know for certain, that they must be more forthright with Rome, let us hope that they have the courage to walk in the truth.” (15)
    For my part, Darlene, I’m still hopeful that the ACP member (“anonymous – at least for the present” – perhaps for fear of the Pharisees) who wrote that honest letter will now, in the spirit of the Year of Faith, throw off his cloak of anonymity and mitre of invisibility to reveal himself as one of our four archbishops, or one of the serving diocesan bishops not yet retired. That would be a fantastic Happy & Prosperous New Year of Faith to all of us.
    Fraternally. As you can see, I was on the Jameson again last night.

  16. This is the attitude that has killed Irish Catholicism. No creativity, no vision, no flexibility, no memory of the Gospel, just barren entrenchment”. Just the final few words from an excellent post submitted by Joe O Leary at @14 above.
    Our Church is dying. Remember the analysis given by Fr Hoban when he stated that his Diocese will have around 5 priests in 20 years time. And that will be replicated right across the country. Or Fr Paddy Byrne, who is still the youngest Priest in his Diocese 12 years after his ordination. Our seminaries are almost empty, and thousand have walked away from our Church. Recently I was talking to a Priest who is in the autumn of his days, and who has spent decades in the mission fields of Africa. With tears in his eyes he stated that he was not worried that the Church might censure him for his membership of the ACP, but he was worried about future generations who may never know the gift of faith.
    I would hope Stephen that you and others would share your wisdom, and advise us on how we can save our Church. I would humbly beg you not to include that all will be well if we give total obedience to Rome in all faith matters. We have done that for centuries and look at the mess we are in.

  17. Saving the Church? Two things, I would address in regards to this notion of saving the church. We must ask, who and what is the Church? No doubt, the institutional church is and will continue to incurr changes which might well be described as “dying”, however, as the Old Testament says: God reserves the right to build up and tear down, and Jesus reiterates this theme, when He curses the fig tree. Sometimes, new life, can only come when pre-existing structures fall away. The other issue, is that Church is essentially, ourselves, who are in the Father, in the Son, and in the Holy Spirit. The Church is fundamentally a creation of God, and we know Christ promised to be with us always. There are going to be and are significant changes to the structure of the Church, but yes, there is and will always be ways to renew the Church.
    One specific way, is to, promote Small Christian Community in a parish or parish cluster. These are intentional small communities of people who come together to share the Word of God, share their faith, and share their life journey. This can happen in a church or in someone’s kitchen. Small Christian Community allows for a “grassroots” revival of the Church.

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