It can take a while for a penny to drop but drop it will, eventually. What seems like years ago the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) drew attention to the catastrophic decline (almost disappearance) of vocations to the priesthood and its implications for the survival of the Catholic Church in Ireland. It was, we pointed out, just a matter of mathematics. Do the maths, see the problem.
The reaction from those who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, take on board the mathematical implications of what we were saying was to depict us as raving radicals or as ‘negative’ or apocalyptic doomsdayers – any excuse for not listening to us. But now that the penny has dropped, it seems that, yes, of course, we were right.
Three bishops have recently said about their dioceses what the ACP has been saying for years about the Irish Church – ‘Houston, we have a problem’.
Interestingly, the three bishops – Denis Nulty of Kildare, Ray Browne of Kerry and Francis Duffy of Clogher – are all in their 50s. In other words they’re going to be bishops for almost 20 years, which means that unlike other bishops with just a few years to go, they can’t find refuge in the famous lateral deflection – ‘It’ll do in my time’.
So it’s time for a direct distress call – ‘Rome, we have a problem’.
The difficulty now though is that while the penny is dropping, it can take a bit longer to join the dots. It’s one thing to say that we’ve a problem, a logical corollary is – what can we do about it?
Regularly now, in what used to be a listing of priests’ changes in June, we have a listing of parishes who no longer will have a resident priest but will be serviced by a priest in an adjoining parish. Unless something practical is done, that will keep happening until there’s only one priest left with a helicopter trying to cover funerals, weddings and baptisms over several parishes leaving most churches in a diocese without Mass, Sunday or weekday.
At present there’s only one diocesan priest under 40 in Dublin, Cashel and Killala dioceses. The average age of priests is pushing 70. Where will we be in ten years time? We need to do more than agree that we’ve a problem. We have to make decisions on what has to happen.
The ACP has suggested three short-term strategies: (i) ordain suitable married men; (ii) invite back priests who left to get married; and (iii) ordain women deacons. When the ACP was founded seven years ago such proposals didn’t receive much support, or as one well-wisher said to me, ‘Are ye out of your (expletive deleted) mind?’
It was a fair point. Benedict XVI was pope, bishops were in denial, priests were all over the shop (as the business was going down the tube) and Catholics in the pew, despairing of any change, were drifting away.
Now, of course, we’ve a pope in Rome who would be happy to discuss all three options, if bishops’ conferences would just ask him. The remaining Catholic in the pews, surveys suggest, would have no problem if a priest was married, women were deacons, etc. So what now?
What now is that the bishops can’t join the dots. They can’t even agree to discuss it with Pope Francis even though when they met him in Rome recently he said to them, ‘Ask me anything you want!’
What the bishops have decided to do about vocations is to set up an office in Maynooth. I suspect that they’re not really serious about that particular initiative. One admitted that it’s just co-ordinating what’s already happening (or not happening). But they have to be seen to be doing something.
It beggars belief that no one is trying to bell this particular cat. Years ago, in the winter-time of our Church, bishops like Willie Walsh, Christy Jones and Brendan Comisky were making waves but now a veil of absolute silence seems to have descended. Say nothing and it might all go away.
But it won’t go away, of course, because a train is coming down the tracks that will devastate the Catholic Church in Ireland unless some decisions are made. What’s needed is vision and leadership and an acceptance that putting heads under the bed clothes hoping that something will go away is a game children play but a bit more bravery is expected from adults – especially from those who have accepted the responsibility of leadership in the Church.
We know what’s going to happen, because it has to happen as there’s no other Plan B. Married men will be ordained; some of those who left the priesthood to marry will be invited back; women will be ordained as deacons and eventually as priests. And when all that happens people will be left wondering what all the excitement was about.
Thankfully, Pope Francis is in Rome, waving a red flag and encouraging very traditional bishops like our own to begin to talk seriously about re-imaging ministry and priesthood for a very different Ireland.
So we have, as we say, a window of opportunity, to get decisions made that everyone (or almost everyone) knows need to be made. Mark Patrick Hederman, the Benedictine priest and writer, has said that we have about five years to sort things out. So it’s over to Denis, Ray and Francis, our ‘younger’ bishops, who have at last named the problem to take the next step and propose some workable solutions. They know what they are, we know what they are, and everyone (including the dogs in the street) knows what they are.
The first step is to say, loudly and clearly, Rome, we’ve got a huge problem.
Fr Brendan Hoban; Association of Catholic Priests (ACP); 17 July 2017