The Papal Nuncio to Ireland has come under fire from a prominent group of Irish priests over his selection of a series of what they say are “like-minded” new bishops whom the priests claim are “inadequate” for the needs of the Irish Church today.
In a statement, the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP), which has a membership of over 1,000 Irish clerics, charged Archbishop Charles Brown with choosing “narrow-minded” bishops whom the reform-minded priests say are out of sync with the majority of the faithful.
Speaking to The Tablet, Fr Brendan Hoban, a spokesman for the ACP, warned that Irish priests, and not just ACP members, have lost confidence in the process of selecting bishops and specifically with the lack of consultation.
According to Fr Hoban, the Nuncio has “drawn from a very narrow mind-set, out of tune with the theology of the Second Vatican Council and the realities of Irish Catholic life today”.
ACP members believe that given the “critical circumstances” of the Irish Church at the moment, a reference to the catastrophic decline in vocations, declining Mass attendances and an increasingly secularised society, church leadership demands bishops with “very different gifts”.
“In sporting terms, if Manchester United need a centre-forward, why would they decide to keep signing corner-backs?”, the County Mayo-based parish priest, questioned.
At the ACP’s annual general meeting last year, a resolution was passed expressing the Association’s “grave disquiet” over the situation, as well as their criticism of the practice of selecting new bishops from outside dioceses in which they are to serve, which the ACP claims pays little regard to the traditions and heritage of a diocese.
It is a policy favoured by the American Church and those who favour it say it provides the man appointed with a fresh start.
Expanding further on this concern, Fr Hoban said ACP members were “very exercised” about the “obvious lack of a credible consultation process”.
“Traditionally priests have been sceptical about the consultation, seeing it as little more than a PR exercise but now with bishops consistently appointed to dioceses where priests have never heard of them before, whatever consultation that existed has once again been diluted.”
Archbishop Brown was appointed by Benedict XVI in November 2011 in the wake of the apostolic visitation to the Irish Church which was announced in March 2010. It followed the publication of the findings of the Murphy Report into the mishandling of allegations of clerical sexual abuse in the archdiocese of Dublin, as well as the Ryan Report into abuse in residential institutions run by religious.
The New York-born Nuncio, a former CDF official has, since his arrival in Ireland at the start of 2012, played a central role in the selection of ten bishops for the dioceses of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise, Cashel, Cloyne, Derry, Elphin, Kerry, Kildare, Killaloe, Limerick and Waterford.
The Archbishop is currently in the process of appointing six more bishops for Clonfert, Cork, Galway, Meath, Ossory and Raphoe. He will therefore have had a role in selecting new leaders for 60 per cent of the Irish church’s 26 dioceses.
According to Fr Hoban, whose parish is located in the diocese of Killala, “Even when Popes John Paul and Benedict were in office, the appointment of bishops allowed for the occasional bishop who represented a change from the general norm. We need a series of significant appointments in Ireland that have the visible stamp of Pope Francis on them. It has happened elsewhere but not here and we want to know why.”
The ACP also expressed frustration over the Nuncio’s refusal to meet their representatives. “An association representing over 1,000 Irish priests, many of whom have given huge service to the Catholic Church in Ireland for decades, should be one of the first ports of call of a nuncio,” Fr Hoban criticised. He added: “We can only conclude that he doesn’t want to hear what we have to say.”
He accused the Nuncio of only addressing and consulting “carefully chosen groups” that were unlikely to challenge his decisions.
According to the priests’ association, the election of Pope Francis “offers a huge opportunity” for the Church in Ireland. “If we miss yet another tide it could spell the death-knell of the Catholic Church in Ireland, apart from an official presence on the sidelines of Irish life,” the ACP has warned. The priests’ group said that while almost everyone can see the writing on the wall, “our Nuncio and our bishops seem to be oblivious of the implications of just doing what we always did as if there wasn’t a cliff-face ahead of us”.
In its statement, the ACP said it was reluctant to call for Archbishop Brown’s removal as Apostolic Nuncio, but indicated that as he was appointed as part of Rome’s disciplining of the Irish Church under Benedict, that attitude and those values are now clearly out of tune with a Church regaining confidence and credibility under the watch of Pope Francis.
Archbishop Brown was asked to respond to the ACP’s criticism but had not responded at the time of publishing. A spokesman for the Irish bishops also declined to comment.