09 June 2014, The Tablet

The rosy picture painted by the nuncio to Ireland is an illusion

by Fr Seán McDonagh, SSC

On the day that the papal nuncio to Ireland, Archbishop Charles Brown, told the US-based Catholic News Service that he saw “that Irish Catholicism had entered a new springtime,” representatives of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) were trying to convince a group of Irish bishops that the Irish Catholic Church was facing, among other things, a vocational crisis of enormous magnitude.

Archbishop Brown said that young Irish seminarians he met at St Patrick’s College, the national seminary in Maynooth, and in Rome, showed a “renewed enthusiasm for their faith”. That may well be true, but the numbers are miniscule.

Figures on the bishops’ own website show the age profile of Irish priests. Over 65 per cent of Irish priests are aged 55 or over. There are only two priests under the age of 40 in the Archdiocese of Dublin. A priest in Killala diocese, Fr Brendan Hoban, pointed out that there has been a priest and celebration of the Eucharist in his parish –Moygownagh – since the eighth century. But he believes he will be that last priest in that parish. At the moment there is a priest in every parish in Killala. Within 20 years there will be seven serving 22 parishes spread out over a wide area. The situation is much same in other dioceses.

The research points out that to maintain the status quo would mean ordaining 82 priests each year. The reality is that 20 students entered Maynooth in September 2013. It is likely that only 10 or 12 will be ordained in 2020.

The nuncio says that he was positive about the state of vocations in Ireland, but acknowledged that the number of priests would drop. He believes “parishes will have to share resources and combine and cluster, and that will be an opportunity for lay people to take on a larger role in the Church”. I wonder, has he ever sat down with priests and lay people to discuss the issues of clustering? It was one of the topics which the ACP team raised with the bishops last week. Clustering is placing further heavy burdens on older priests, which is endangering their health.

Furthermore, the sacramental theology underpinning the notion of clustering is appalling. Priests who have no pastoral connection with a particular communities will be going around from one congregation to another saying Mass. Just think what that will mean to the emotional and spiritual life of the priest.

The nuncio called for women to play a more visible role in the Church, but he doesn’t say what these roles might be. If he were to spent a half an hour in a class of 17-year-old girls, he would get an earful about what young Irish women think of the way they are treated by the Church. These girls and their older sisters are walking away from the Church and it will take action, not words, to convince them that the Church cherishes their gifts.

The ACP, which has more than 1,000 members, asked for a meeting with Archbishop Brown two years ago. He refused, and said that “it would be more appropriate if we meet with the Irish bishops”. Maybe if he had met with the ACP he would have a much more realistic understanding of the state of the Catholic Church in Ireland and the challenges it faces.

Fr Sean MacDonagh is a Columban missionary priest and a spokesman for the ACP

What do you think?


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User comments (14)

Comment by: AlanWhelan
Posted: 18/06/2014 14:53:11

In respect of debate on the possible valid ordination of women, I well remember Bishop Butler OSB speaking over forty years ago at a meeting of Westminster Diocesan Pastoral Council where he clearly stated that the Church could declare what is within God's providence but could not circumscribe what God can do. Made a lot of sense at the time and still does.

Comment by: Fr. Kieran
Posted: 17/06/2014 12:34:10

Hi Pippa,
There is debate regarding the infallibility of JP II statement concerning whether the Church could ordain women to the priesthood. However, what is not in question is the fact that both Benedict and Francis have reiterated the teaching of the Church concerning the ordination of women. Francis has stated that the 'door is closed'.

Comment by: Martin
Posted: 16/06/2014 17:29:27

Liz Maitland says :"My Catholic Priest says we can have a Modern Womens' Group in our church to discuss this."

I trust that this priest is going to explain Church doctrine on the subject and make it clear to you that women can never validly be ordained. If he does not, he is permitting and indeed even promoting error.

The subject is closed.

Comment by: pippabonner
Posted: 15/06/2014 21:55:08

John Paul IIs declaration was considered a definitive statement to a dubium. It was not infallible. Many of us believe the Holy Spirit is compelling us to speak about this. I love the original vision of the Church which is why I stay within it as a "critical friend." The Church can cope with that and I ask the bishops will listen to people like me when we speak about the shortage of priests and how that might be renewed.

Comment by: Sean
Posted: 13/06/2014 07:51:14

The nuncio is right to highlight what is positive and encouraging. The ACP, on the other hand, seem to be going out of their way to discourage the rest of us by their incessant attacks on the bishops and their undermining of Catholic teaching on key points of doctrine. John Paul II has declared that women cannot be ordained priests. I take this to be an infallible declaration and it cannot help anyone for the ACP and others to keep demanding it. Voices on the ACP website are also advocating homosexuality and even abortion. The young men entering the priesthood and the young women entering religious life today are thirsting for the pure doctrine of the Catholic Church. Yes, they are very conservative when compared with Fr MacDonagh's (and my) generation. Why enter a religious order which resembles a comfortable bourgeois liberal club?

Comment by: Liz Maitland CWO
Posted: 11/06/2014 19:53:34

I feel we should stop debating and just get on with it. I have had a calling to ordination since I was 19 years old. We have Catholic Women Priests in USA and we have one in Scotland. Let us start preparing Catholic Women for ordination in the UK now. My Catholic Priest says we can have a Modern Womens' Group in our church to discuss this. The Rosmini Centre in Leicestershire is having a debate about 'Women Priests' on Saturday 14 June, 10.00am-2pm. Let's hope it is less of a debate and more of a plan for action in Jesus' name. God does above and beyond what we ask for and imagine because of His power that is at work within us. So let His power work within us as I have found first His Kingdom and all my deepest heart's desires are being added to me. Amen.

Comment by: Mary Wood
Posted: 11/06/2014 08:00:30

One of my favourite Catholic blogs (non-European) had a typo recently that gave rise to some reflection: it referred to the “paper nuncio.” Pity poor Archbishop Brown, for he has to read from the paper. It’s his job to be positive, to encourage the remaining sheep and promise them green pastures ahead. As for future priests, the numbers are “up” (slightly, from a cataclysmically low base) but “just feel the quality.”

People may or may not read and report Fr Sean, but if the Nuncio were to deviate from the prescribed text and outline the true state of affairs, his words would be bruited abroad by the media and could mightily discourage some of the faithful.

A further responsibility of the nuncio is to provide a pacifier for the women who get ideas above their calling as handmaids. Let them be “more visible.” Does he recall that in November 2013 the Church of Ireland consecrated the first woman Bishop for these islands? Bishop Pat Storey is the Ordinary for the Anglican diocese of Meath and Kildare. At her consecration service someone who knew her well said

"You have given yourself wholeheartedly to Him and His Church, serving His people as a deacon and priest - teaching the scriptures and pastoring with that disarming directness, which is your hallmark - a directness, which speaks the truth in love, with a ready laugh and delightful sense of humour."

Fr Sean has spoken the direct truth in love with concern – if only the paper nuncio had the freedom to do the same

Comment by: Bob Hayes
Posted: 10/06/2014 21:17:38

The Irish Church has a long way to go in order to recover. For decades it had intimate entanglements with the Irish State at every level. While the State wilfully abandoned 'cherishing all the children of the nation', the Church was co-opted as educator and welfare provider - in return enjoying unprecedented preferment and deference within the new Irish Establishment. With a hearty measure of Celtic spirituality, folklore traditions and a new-found national pride a veneer of respectability covered what were self-evidently dangerous liaisons between Church and State.

While huge numbers of Irish priests and laity undoubtedly endeavoured to live holy lives, there were others who eagerly embraced the power and trappings of the 'parallel state' that could and did emerge in parishes and communities across the land. Inevitably these relations spread the poison of statecraft into parts of the Church, and worship of God and love of neighbour were pushed to the margins.

The ACP's attempt to once again align the Church with the agenda of the (now quasi-secular) State is not the answer to the challenges facing the Church. It would be a tragedy to replicate the mistakes of the past. Similarly, tinkering with structures - as suggested by various agenda-driven lobby groups - will not restore faith.

The People of God - lay and clerical - will renew the Irish Church through prayer, contrition, reparation, amendment, prayer and more prayer.

St Patrick pray for Ireland.

Comment by: AlanWhelan
Posted: 10/06/2014 17:07:51

Just to add a small point to what I have written already, last hear when attending a twenty week course for members of Kerry Parish Pastoral,Councils I learned that parish councils are suspended when there is no parish priest. It occurred to me that the most important time to have a Parish Pastoral Council is when there is no parish priest!

In my time in charge of a joint RC/CE London secondary school, the headteacher was invited to join the CE Parish Council in interviewing prospective rectors. At about the same time in my London RC parish the Priest Team Leader of ten years was replaced by a non-team leader PP. It took the parish, including two curates, some time to realize the change in title was very significant.

Comment by: Pat Brown Catholic Women's Ordination
Posted: 10/06/2014 14:24:24

The Roman Catholic Institution is misogynist - that's what CWO is challenging. The terrible things that have happened in Ireland (and elsewhere) have denied people the spiritual richness that the faith can bring. Thank God for brave priests like Fr Seán McDonagh and Fr Tony Flannery who speak out and inspire us.

I don't know whether the damage done in Ireland can ever be repaired but the only hope is an inclusive church: inclusive of women, married people, gay people and all the groups the Institution currently denies the sacraments of ordination and marriage.

Comment by: M. Ring
Posted: 10/06/2014 14:01:31

I see my own good parish priest in the UK - a really good, caring, kind man - overburdened with the weight of trying to minister to too many people, too much of the time.

I see a Church which thinks the answer is to stretch him and his colleagues out even further, so that as Fr Sean says, ordained men will supposedly be rushing around dispensing 'sacraments' to the biddable but unknown laity. When instead, as Fr Sean points out, that hierarchy and that Church should simply spend a week in a classroom of 17-year olds. And then another week. And a few more.

Does the Church not see how it is wilfully, blindly, persistently throwing away the gifts of its people? When Jesus shared his life and teachings with us, he made a point of bestowing importance on women and children. He did not even 'ordain' anyone. He gave Peter the keys of the kingdom, but the patriarchal, clerical hierarchy that came to dominate the Catholic Church is a very far cry from Jesus's teachings and example.

The Church desperately needs to come out from its bunker, dissolve its clericalism and misogyny, and to realise that we are all the people of God. It's not too late. I pray it's not too late.

Comment by: AlanWhelan
Posted: 10/06/2014 13:27:13

Fr MacDonagh raises some very interesting points. I too fear that there is very little obvious determination on the part of Irish Church leaders to face reality. Here in Kerry the local paper reported last week that the Bishop of Kerry visited Tarbert parish and at Sunday Mass announced that the parish is to be without a resident priest. This decision follows a similar decision elsewhere in the diocese two or three years ago. The news did not even merit a mention on the diocesan website's church news section.

Parishioners feel neglected and voiceless. In any other church, matters such as this would merit discussion and action by parishioners. Here we seem to just accept the situation. It strikes me that the springtime witnessed by the nuncio was somewhere other than Kerry.

Comment by: Pippa Bonner Catholic Women's Ordination
Posted: 09/06/2014 19:37:47

Fr Sean McDonagh paints the real picture. There is a shortage of new priests in Ireland and the UK too. Is the Holy Spirit sending a new message? Do we need to discern ordained ministry in a renewed Church? There are many lay people keen to offer their gifts and learn, with properly funded adult education. The Pope wants the involvement of lay people.
Some of us women have lived with a persistent calling to ordained ministry in a renewed Church but are not allowed to test out that vocation. Indeed since 1994 we are not supposed to discuss it.
The Pope has talked of collegiality. Bishops please listen to your lay people and priests. Many of us want to take up the Pope's call Team ministries of lay people and priests working together may be the solution.

Comment by: Jim Robertson
Posted: 09/06/2014 15:29:00

Anyone with a brain in Ireland should be running away from the Catholic church. It cares about nobody but itself.
It has sacrificed it's children for power.and money.
It's arrogance demands a good swift kick in the ass.
17 year old Catholic girls should be picketing the church instead of buying it's bunk. And according to statistics that's what they are, in effect, doing. Sleepers awake!

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