The Irish Bishops Inch Forward
Brendan Hoban of the Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland talks about some of the changes occurring in the Irish Church.
Less than two years ago, in September 2013, representing the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP), I visited the diocese of Ferns (mainly the county of Wexford) to talk to the Council of Priests there. The ACP had requested a meeting with the Irish Bishops but this was refused and the bishops had suggested, by way of alternative, that individual Councils of Priests might extend individual invitations to us.
While we could have done without the further accumulation of thousands of extra miles driving around the country, we were happy to co-operate, on the basis that half a loaf, even when it’s doled out in minute portions, is better than no bread.
It took me four hours to drive to Wexford where I was welcomed by Bishop Denis Brennan and his Council. It was an interesting meeting. I presented the reasons for the founding of the ACP, the agenda agreed by our 1,000-plus priest-members, and our three suggestions for combatting the now mathematically certain disappearance of Catholic priests in Ireland: ordain married men; welcome back priests who had left the priesthood to marry; and ordain women deacons.
I ended my presentation by suggesting that while the ACP had been founded in less promising times three years earlier – during the winter pontificate of Benedict XVI – the election of Pope Francis earlier that year and his utterances in his first months in office were creating the possibility, even an expectation of real change. Indeed it could be said that if Jorge Bergoglio had been a PP in Ireland he could have been a founder member of the ACP!
Bishop Brennan asked me if I was suggesting that the ACP were now, because of Pope Francis, ‘becoming main-stream’. Most of the ten or so priests around the table laughed (as priests often do when their own bishop makes a joke) but I said, ‘Yes I was suggesting just that’, on the basis that, for example with vocations, there was simply no alternative but change. Every priest didn’t have to be a celibate but every Catholic had the right to Mass. And if the Church decided to change the church-made rule on celibacy, the Church could and would do that, if it had to.
In fairness to the Ferns gathering, Bishop Brennan’s was a predictable enough response because until Francis became pope, anyone, particularly any bishop who suggested that the celibacy rule should be looked at would have their knuckles rapped by Rome. No one was allowed to mention the elephant in the room.
A week, someone said, is a long time in politics. And two years, it appears now, can be a long time in the Catholic Church, which is supposed to think in centuries. But, less than two years on from my visit to Wexford, it is now beginning to appear as if a significant game-change in Catholic priesthood is now on.
It started with a meeting between Erwin Krautler, a bishop in the Brazilian rain-forest, and Francis. Krautler explained that with the small and declining number of priests in his diocese, he was unable to ensure that Catholics in his diocese would have Mass regularly. What would he do? Why not bring this to the Brazilian bishops’conference, Francis suggested, come up with a proposal and bring it to him?
In discussions with Catholics in different dioceses – listening exercises – meetings invariably conclude that Catholics would have no problem with married priests. This conclusion, of course, is often air-brushed out of the final document, as bishops invariably try to sing from the Vatican hymn-sheet. But not every bishop.
In a consultation with Catholics in Kilmore diocese (Cavan, and parts of Leitrim and Fermanagh) Bishop Leo O’Reilly promised his people a few months ago that he would bring their suggestion (about ordaining married men) to the Irish bishops. He has discussed it with some of his bishop-colleagues and it now seems that it will find its way on to a future agenda for a bishops’ meeting in Maynooth.
Last week, a retired bishop in England, Crispian Hollis, wrote to The Tablet, a highly reputable Catholic paper, supporting the case for ordaining married men in the Catholic Church and this week he was supported by two other retired bishops in England, Thomas McMahon and John Crowley.
Hollis has suggested that up to ten English bishops would support the move and Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor said that if he were a bishop in a diocese that needed priests he would ask Rome for permission to ordain ‘suitable married men’.
Cardinal Parolin, the pope’s right-hand man, said recently too that celibacy was ‘an ecclesiastical tradition’, and that modifications could be made in it to solve the problem of the shortage of priests.
So what does this all mean? Straws in the wind? Kites flying? Much more than that. In simple terms it’s what Archbishop Diarmuid Martin would call ‘a reality check’.
The bad news is that, despite all the huffing and puffing about vocations, the mathematical reality is that unless some drastic change happens and happens fast, priests and Mass will disappear effectively in Ireland in the next decade or so.
The good news is that such change has actually begun. Francis has created the freedom for cardinals and bishops to say what a few years ago was unsayable, to voice their opinions on what’s actually happening rather than to mutely pretend to Rome that what Rome wants to believe is happening. As in the predictable conspiracy to imagine that there are green shoots everywhere! As with the New Missal . . .
So maybe, just maybe, pace Bishop Denis Brennan of Ferns, the ACP might become ‘main-stream’ because Francis has decided to steal some of our clothes.
We live in interesting times.
Read the full text at ACP website: http://www.associationofcatholicpriests.ie/2015/07/brendan-hoban-on-changing-times-in-the-church/