The word is that Pope Francis wanted the vocations crisis in the Catholic Church (and specifically the issue of married priests) to be the topic of the next synod in Rome but the Vatican department involved voted against him. It’s all part of the civil war currently being waged between Francis pointing the Catholic Church in one direction and the Curia in the Vatican (the Church’s civil service) furiously waving everyone and anything in the other direction. As the prestigious Catholic weekly, the Tablet, asserts this week, the opposition to Francis is from ‘the enemy within’.
What Francis has going for him in the great trial of strength convulsing the Catholic Church is that he refuses to live in Never-Never Land. He’s not into denial. He knows that change, including dramatic change, is not just inevitable but necessary. And he’s good at maths. He can add, or rather subtract, and he knows what the bottom line is.
Priests are disappearing and if priests disappear Mass disappears and if Mass disappears the Church disappears. He knows too that repeating failed strategies over and over again is a complete waste of time. So, he says, if there’s a problem, let’s talk about it and see what we can do.
And when it comes to vocations, boy is there a problem. In Brazil, for example, there are 140 million Catholics, so they need at least 100,000 priests and at the last count, there were only 18,000. The result is that Catholics in Brazil are moving in droves to the evangelical churches or to the Pentecostals.
However the advantage Brazil bishops have is (i) they take Francis at his word and (ii) they can do the maths. So when Francis says ‘Let’s talk about it’, they say, ‘Okay, let’s do that’. And better still they’ve a workable solution to propose.
According to theologian Leonardo Boff, the Brazilian bishops are asking Francis to allow married priests to resume their priestly ministry, and the word is that Francis is happy to fulfil this request – as an experimental, preliminary phase, for the moment confined to Brazil.
You can see where this is going – the dreaded domino effect. First priests who are married, then married men who can be ordained, then a choice for a married or celibate clergy, then women deacons and eventually the unmentionable.
What about Ireland? Roughly speaking we’ve 3,000 or so priests with an average age of almost 70 but with few being ordained. So we’ve a huge problem and, in general terms, it means that priests in their 70s and 80s will be looking after multiple parishes until they (priests and parishes) collapse under the strain. And the window of opportunity is narrowing all the time.
So shouldn’t we be doing something about it, now? Couldn’t our bishops do what the Brazilian bishops are doing?
The problem is that, for some reason, Irish bishops are not good at maths. It takes them a long time to get their heads around something and then when they do the sums they seem to lose their nerve and back away from the obvious answer.
Like the vocations issue. We’ve known for at least 20 years that vocations in Ireland were melting away and during that time if you asked a bishop a question on priorities he was sure to mention vocations.
In the last few years the word from the bishops was that a new initiative on vocations was on the way. We were afraid that it might be all puff and no pudding, seen to be doing something rather than getting something done.
Last year, the proposals emerged: (i) praying for vocations (ii) increased canvassing of young men and (iii) a new vocations office in Maynooth. The obvious limitations were (i) we’ve been praying for vocations for years so maybe we’re asking God for the wrong things; (ii) we’ve been canvassing young men for years with ever-diminishing success; and (iii) opening an office for vocations in Maynooth seems little more than a PR ruse to suggest that something different is happening, and effectively this was confirmed by a bishop who dismissed the office as having merely a co-ordinating role. In all, it’s an exercise in futility, the equivalent of moving one deck-chair on the Titanic.
Pope Francis is ‘a pastoral pope’, by which I mean that his focus is on people and parish. So his perspective is different. He listens; he hears; and he attempts to join the necessary dots in order to sort things out. He’s a pope of the possible, whereas so much of the Church deals with the impossible, a theological version of the Seamus Moore hit, ‘Ya can’t park here, ya can’t park there’.
But strangely what’s emerging is not a vision of the possible but the disedifying spectacle of a disloyal opposition, led by four cardinals who recently ticked Francis off for attempting to minister to those in irregular marriage situations. Led by Cardinal Raymond Burke, they are insisting that Francis gives then Yes or No answers.
Life is strange. Once we used to be given little lectures on obedience, on the dangers of imagining that we knew better. Pride, we were told, goes before a fall. Who do you think you are? Who asked you for your opinion? Now the people who used to do the lecturing are the disobedient ones.
Remember Bishops Willie Walsh and Brendan Comiskey suggesting that it was possible for the Catholic Church to look at the celibacy regulation, as it was just a church-made rule? Remember how they were summoned to Rome to be ticked off, presumably by some of those now ticking off the Pope?
We live in strange times. Recently Cardinal Walter Kasper, a friend of Pope Francis, said that we could expect some big surprises shortly. Bring them on. We may need to hold on to our hats, birettas and mitres.
Fr Brendan Hoban
Association of Catholic Priests
9 January 2017