Dear Archbishop Brown, Papal Nuncio to Ireland
I recently watched with interest your interview with Gay Byrne on RTE and I feel the need to write to you to express my thoughts on our church and where we are going and not going. As this is my first letter to you, I wish to welcome you to Ireland and hope that your mission here will be fruitful to all the People of God.
I am now aged seventy-seven. I am a traditional Irish Catholic who still practises my faith and goes to Sunday mass. I am to put it more accurately, a traditional Catholic who now scratches his head as a matter of course. I am greatly saddened at a number of things:
The drop off in the attendance at church by so many ordinary good people.
We still have a fair number of middle aged people who attend, but very very few young people. Like the poor, we still have the old. That drop off is not the only aspect of this. It also reflects an attitude of not having any interest in religion or of any belief in a caring God.
It saddens me when I hear of older women talk about how angry they feel at how the historical clergy treated their mothers; stories like in confession of the stricture that they should conform to demands for ‘’marriage relations’’ (that contains a bagful) despite having a houseful of small children, and despite being worn out and despite the husband being full of drink and sex. This is a frequent story among older women. Despite that, those women still practise their faith, but I sense a real anger in them against the old regime. It has led them to reject much of what the old church stood for. It also means that they take a lot of what the present church says with a good grain of salt.
It saddens me when I think back on the arrogance and dogmatic attitude of the older clergy. I spent a few years in Britain in the sixties and while there I came in contact with some really good priests. I felt they had much more humanity and care and pragmatism and real respect towards the faithful.
On coming back to Ireland I was aghast at the arrogance and hubris of some of the parish clergy. I thought to myself ‘Is this turkey for real?’ May I say that I also knew some really good priests as well. I said I am a traditional Irish Catholic, and that means that I have a great regard for the thousands of priests and nuns who have been truly Christian and good in their work and lives and show care and respect for the people both at home and on the missions. There are some truly good people among us.
I was saddened to hear that you had not met and talked to the named priests who have been ‘silenced’ or otherwise barred from freely expressing their views on matters of faith and morals. You do not have to agree with them, but I expect you to keep channels open and hear them out. Are they not members of your flock also? As Gay Byrne said so well ‘’These are good guys’’ and may I say we sure as hell need ‘’good guys’’ to-day. These are priests who have a real connection with the people. So what if they think a little outside the box? Fact is, there are an awful lot of us outside the box. At least they care. We need to be worried about those who do not care.
I was intrigued to hear of your reply to the question of women priests. If I understood you correctly, it ran like this: The church is the bride of Christ. A bride can only be administered to by a bridegroom. By definition a bridegroom cannot be a woman. Ergo.
I told you I often scratch my head. Well this is one of the occasions when I do!
I am familiar with the culture and history of the Middle East from where three of the world’s great religions originate. In bible study we are told to see the language and imagery and thinking in the context of the cultural milieu from which it sprung. Well I have to say that the cultural attitude to women in that place has ingrained itself in the thinking of those three religions.
Western civilisation has softened much of that thinking, but it still pervades the attitudes strong in the official institutional church.
I understand one reason against women priests is that it is against the traditions of both the Jewish and Catholic doctrines. Sure, all that means is that we can’t do it because it has never been done before.
I also understand that we can’t do it because Jesus never ordained women. There were lots of things He did not do which we now do. Fact is, He never said they could not nor should not. At that time, it would not be culturally acceptable and that is a good reason for moving slowly. Well two thousand years is a good delay.
I believe the real reason is attitudinal and culturally locked-in to male thinking. It has little if any real theology behind it.
Some of the finest people I have worked with have been women. In particular, I can think of some who would make truly good leaders and ministers of our faith. They were competent and good and caring people who could connect and make a real difference to the Christian lives of our people.
As to the abuses within the church, while most people were shocked and outraged, for some it was just a last straw and a validation for an alienation they already felt. The self-serving legalistic reaction of the institutional church greatly compounded the hurt caused by the few. The people were surely entitled to trust in those who spoke for God. It has caused huge harm to the faith of the people and to the regard they felt for the church.
I still have warm regard and concern for our Christian people, in Irish, Pobal Dé. I use that term rather than Church. I am not a great admirer of the institutional Catholic church. I believe the institution has become more important than the Christian message, the Word of God. The institution has become more important than the individual person and so many times its interests have been placed before the good of the person. Without the person we have nothing. The message is the thing. The institution, while necessary, is to support and spread the message. Carts and horses and all that.
I am saddened too that the voice of the church is now so weakened and carries so little weight or influence. I am troubled that when real moral dilemmas are put before the people and the hierarchy speaks, that the people are unmoved by the voice of the church. There is a terrible hole, a lack of credibility. I greatly admire people like Archbishop Diarmuid Martin but I feel that so often he appears to be fighting an uphill battle. He is a good and decent man whom the people trust. We need leaders who can make contact with the people, who are real, pragmatic and caring and not afraid to say what is right.
Not all the alienation is the fault of the church. There is a sea change in our culture because of the media in all its forms. The growth in education has enormous peripheral effects on social thinking. That is how our world is going. I do not stand and shout blame or even try a Canute on any of it.
To be original may I say ‘We are where we are’ and where we are going I am not sure or even hopeful, but for our people, Pobal Dé, we need priests who can connect, who are for real, who understand when change is called for, and who might understand the consequences if we simply stand on the strand.
Dear Papal Nuncio, please do not be offended by any of what I have said.
Just please read it and think on it. At seventy-seven I feel entitled to lecture even Papal Nuncios!
With every good wish to you for your stay in Ireland.
Breaffy , Castlebar, Co Mayo
Dear Archbishop Brown, Papal Nuncio to Ireland