A failure of imagination and courage

A failure of imagination and courage

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What’s particularly striking about priests’ changes this year is the number of foreign priests listed. Elphin has five listed: a Pole (Athlone); an Indian (Ballyleague); a Phillipino (Sligo); a Nigerian (Aughrim and Kilmore); and another Pole is taking sabbatical leave. The diocese of Tuam has listed three: an American (Castlebar); an Englishman (Knock) and an Indian (Tuam) with a Polish priest already in place in Achill. The Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin has indicated he’s in ‘ongoing conversation with the Diocese of Lasi in Romania for a couple of priests from there to spend a few years in our diocese’ while Kilmore has appointed two Nigerian priests.Screen Shot 2015-10-07 at 21.17.47

The direction is clear. Whereas for the last two decades priests from Irish missionary congregations, most of whom were retired, were pressed into service in Irish dioceses to mask the gradual decline in vocations to the diocesan priesthood, now with fewer former missionaries available priests from foreign lands are filling the gaps.
It’s a short-term strategy because (i) it’s clear that there’s no bottomless well of foreign priests and (ii) unless supported by home-grown priests, problems understanding the culture and traditions of the Irish Catholic Church can lead to difficulties.
Part of the difficulty with resolving the vocations crisis and the resultant fall-out of priest-less and Mass-less parishes is that realistic appraisals of the situation are studiously ignored.
One example was a recent article in a Catholic paper that suggested that a change in admissions policy would do the trick. This was the argument: (i) there are 14 times more Catholics in the USA than in Ireland; (ii) America has applied a policy of accepting candidates with an attitude of ‘dynamic, unapologetic orthodoxy’; (iii) apply the same policy in Ireland and, proportionately, Maynooth would have 180 seminarians instead of 55, and 43 entrants every year instead of 13.
The proposal has the merit of simplicity but it’s also rather simplistic. Apply the same formula to, say, Nigeria and Ireland should have 265 ordinations a year. The stark truth is that Ireland is not America or Nigeria. Candidates with a ‘dynamic, unapologetic orthodoxy’ (in one person’s opinion) can be regarded (in another person’s opinion) as ultra-conservative, reactionaries who will empty the churches of Ireland of their remaining worshippers.
In Ireland a rigid, ultra-traditional approach would be spectacularly out of sync with the vast majority of people in the pew. If that proposal was adopted the few last remaining priests in Ireland would be wearing soutanes, encouraging pious devotions and presenting an image of religion well past its sell-by date. The ensuing damage to religion would be horrendous. The Church isn’t a heritage society.
Another problem is that dumbing down the quality of candidate, in terms of aptitude, ability and formation is no solution. There’s significant evidence that the Irish Church is paying a high price for the policy of some bishops (who should know better) accepting unsuitable candidates for the priesthood, just to increase numbers.
For years a Catholic paper has campaigned against Maynooth’s refusal to accept unsuitable candidates for priesthood. In asking candidates who were rigid, fundamentalist and authoritarian to seek another life, Maynooth was open to the accusation that such candidates (as they sometimes claimed) were simply orthodox, especially when the perspective of rejected candidates was presented by the same paper in a positive light.
It can be persuasively argued not that Maynooth should accept a larger number of very traditional candidates but that it’s accepting too many.
Another example of unrealistic attitudes is the decision of the Irish bishops, as announced recently by Bishop Denis Brennan, to set up a National Vocations Office in Maynooth. At present it’s not clear what’s envisaged by such an office but the hope would be that it won’t be yet another office needing another national collection and issuing another tranche of expensive glossy brochures telling the few remaining priest foot-soldiers down the country what they should be doing to encourage vocations – as if enough guilt hasn’t been dumped on us already for not implementing solutions that have already been road-tested and failed disastrously.
The simple truth is that the problem with vocations to the priesthood is that young Irish men are no longer saying YES to a celibate vocation, their parents are encouraging them to say No and the vast majority of priests in parishes know that prioritising celibacy over the Eucharist is not just bad theology, it isn’t working. Wasn’t it Albert Einstein who said that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is not a sign of mental health issues.
Perhaps God, by not answering our long years of praying for vocations, may be suggesting that as a matter of urgency we need to do a bit of lateral thinking here – something more effective and real and less stop-gap than clustering parishes and importing priests from abroad.
What we need is a realistic plan to ensure that

(i) hundreds of parishes in Ireland are not left priestless

(ii) that the Eucharist remains at the centre of parish life and

(iii) that vision and hope continue to achieve some purchase in the Irish Catholic church.
The Association of Catholic Priests has suggested three approaches:

(i) ordain married men

(ii) invite back priests who left to get married and

(iii) ordain women deacons.
The first would stabilise parishes and take away the uncertainty that’s draining energy from priests and people. (We already have married clergy in the Catholic Church mainly those who came over from the Church of England so the law of celibacy as a mere Church law can be changed.) The second would logically follow from the first, as priests already educated and formed in priesthood could take up appointments immediately. The third would begin to respectfully provide women with equal status in the Church.
Taken together those three possible answers could provide not just a solution to the vocations crisis but bring a renewed energy and vision to the Church.
Question : why isn’t it happening? Answer: a failure of imagination and courage. The old problem of elephants in living-rooms and emperors without clothes.

Fr Brendan Hoban; Western People; 4 July 2016