‘Why Women felt compelled to speak out in Killaloe Diocese’

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On the weekend of 11th August this year The Bishop of Killaloe, Bishop Kieran O’Reilly, published a Pastoral Letter inviting men to consider coming forward to begin a process of discernment and formation for ordination to the Permanent Diaconate in the diocese. The letter sparked a response in the diocese that led to an ‘anti-diaconate campaign’ that spanned the entire diocese and ignited widespread media interest. The group of women involved in speaking to the media organised an Open Forum to give people an opportunity to voice their opinions about this issue.

On the weekend of 14th September, a month after the issue of his Pastoral Letter, Bishop Kieran issued another letter saying he would not now proceed with the introduction of the Permanent Diaconate. However, a forum had been planned by a group of women for the following Monday night and it was agreed that this would go ahead. What is interesting is that the Bishop actually wanted the debate to go ahead and the Diocesan office facilitated publication of the Forum through the weekly parish newsletters.

The Forum entitled The Diaconate! An Inclusive Church? was held on 15THSeptember at The Inn at Dromoland, just outside Ennis. It was well attended by just over 200 people – laity, religious and priests, from Killaloe and beyond. The forum comprised three short presentation, a questionnaire and an open forum. All contributions from the forum were recorded and the responses from the questionnaire were analysed using survey software.

The findings are as follows:

Open Forum – Written Questionnaire Responses – Statistics

109 Questionnaires were returned by those at the Forum (approximately 50% of attendees).

Key findings:

  • 8% of respondents favour the introduction of the Permanent Diaconate as envisaged for men only, with 92% opposing its introduction.
  • 99% of respondents felt that the Diocese should allow for further dialogue with those who oppose the introduction of a male only Permanent Diaconate with 1% opposing any dialogue.
  • 76% of respondents to the questionnaire were women, with 24% being from men.

A third of those who named their parish on their Questionnaire responses were from Ennis, with 33 parishes of the 58 being represented at the Forum.

So, why did the women in Killaloe speak out? Why did this issue affect us so deeply? After all, as some in our diocese were quick to point out, the Permanent Diaconate is already an established ministry in some dioceses and other dioceses are now in the process of training Permanent Deacons. In fact, eleven dioceses out of 26 have embraced the Permanent Diaconate and, according to some, without any opposition.

So what was the difference in Killaloe? Why did we feel compelled to speak out?

I will briefly answer this question in a short phrase;

It was the Wrong Plan,
in the Wrong Place
at the Wrong Time,

First of all, I will address my statement that it was the wrong place!!

To cast some light on the level of frustration, hurt and anger this invitation caused I need to place this within the context of a significant process that was initiated by Bishop Kieran in Killaloe Diocese in 2011. It was an initiative called ‘The Diocese of Killaloe Listening, Reflecting and Conversation Process.’

The process began in November 2011 with a gathering of laity, facilitated by Fr Gerry O’Hanlon, followed by a similar gathering of priests in December 2011.

The aims of these gatherings were to explore 2 questions;
What energises you? What drains you?

In relation to the question we are exploring this afternoon the common, relevant findings were:

  • Involvement of Laity in Leadership Roles gave hope for the future. This has to be real involvement
  • Expressed the need to support and enhance the participation of laity in all aspects of the Church.
  • The absence of women’s voices in the decision making level in a hierarchical Church and their exclusion from ministry – experienced as deeply frustrating (and the unwillingness to address this issue cannot be justified by any appeal to church tradition)
  • The hierarchical nature of Church and its apparent disconnect from what is happening at ground level was of deep concern. (leads to a sense of division)
  • Hierarchical Church is experienced as inflexible and unwilling to engage with difficult issues which people feel strongly about. This is unsatisfactory.

Between March 2012 and May 2012 a team facilitated conversation at Cluster level throughout the diocese. The aims of this consultation were to give a clear picture of the present reality of parish life on the ground and to establish how people envisaged the future shape of ministry/Church community.

The findings at Cluster level echoed those as envisaged at the initial meetings and this is significant because it gives us a sense that the one spirit is moving among the faithful. Some specific concerns and hopes expressed were;

  • People were discouraged from participation in Church because of a sense of disconnect between the hierarchical Church and their lives—
  • Actions /Inactions of Hierarchical Church impact strongly at local level and lead to people distancing themselves from Church—they lose hope and say “what’s the point?”
  • Fear of criticism and frustration that those who are most vocal about Church are excluded
  • Role of women : ‘women do not believe that they participate as equals in the Church,’ and all the talk about “we must value the unique contribution of women” does not mask the reality that women have unequal access to power in the institutional church.

Those who took part in the conversation saw a need for the following in relation to the sustaining of Church communities into the future;

  • Greater role for women
  • Married priests and women priests
  • Crucial role of Pastoral Leadership Groups in Parishes
  • Collaborative Model of Church
  • Partnership in Ministry as the Way Forward

‘Many are looking to new forms of priesthood, such as married priests and women priests. Ordination of permanent deacons and inviting priests from overseas to minister has much less support .’

‘Inclusion of the gifts and talents of women in meaningful ways is called for, as well as their involvement in ministry and leadership roles at all levels in the Church’

There was a call for:

  • Effective consultation process to include laity and priests about issues which affect them

Regarding Ministry the vision of the future Church that evolved was

  • A Model of Church based on Collaboration and Partnership
  • Preparing for a Future with Less Priests
  • Involvement of Lay People is Key
  • Central Role of Parish Pastoral Councils
  • Education for Active Involvement in Parish Ministries
  • Formation & Training for laity to take responsibility for Liturgical Ministries – Reception of Remains, Funeral Liturgy outside Mass and Prayers at Graveside, Liturgy of Word etc

At the same time a theological reflection group was convened to reflect on the feedback from the gathering of laity and priests.

An on-line survey was also used to establish views of the wider community – including a special survey for young people. Some 300 people completed this survey. The findings in respect of the topic being addressed today are:

Adult Online Surveys May 2013 – ON THE ROLE OF WOMEN
  • ‘The Church in Ireland has to be allowed to openly address and debate the issues of the role of women’…
  • ‘In recent years, the move towards a more conservative Church is problematic’
  • ‘Many of Christ’s teachings are not always reflected in the Church’s teachings which often reflect instead a patriarchal, authoritarian and institutional viewpoint.’

There was correlation with the findings from the Cluster Gatherings and with the initial meetings with Laity and Priests.

After the consultation process, the findings were collated and the Pastoral Plan, “Builders of Hope,” was published and launched in September 2013.

So what does our Plan ‘Builders of Hope’ promise: The plan comprises 10 Strands

Leadership for Renewal in the Local Church

“Parishes that explore opportunities to try new things and involve new people in novel ways are experienced as more vibrant and life giving” (Cluster Conversations, 2012)

“New wine fresh skins!” (Mk 2 2-22)

This is what people had expressed wish for and the Diocese promised to:

  • Enable local faith communities to realise they share the primary responsibility for the life and well-being of the Church in their area.
  • Engage with local Christian communities and Pastoral Councils in discerning how they can be resourced to proclaim the Gospel, to assemble and pray as a community, and to develop appropriate ministries for these tasks
  • Identify, invite and offer training to lay people with skills for active and service-oriented leadership in their communities

Partnership in Ministry in the Emerging Church

“There was widespread agreement among priests and lay people that a collaborative model of Church based on partnership between priests and people is the desired way forward” (Cluster Conversations 2012)

The diocese promised to:

  • Develop participative decision-making structures modelled on co-responsibility at all levels –
  • Parish, Cluster and Diocese –
  • Ensuring that the voices of women are represented at all these levels

Spirituality

The diocese promised to:

  • Create opportunities for engagement in, Praying with scripture, Christian Meditation, Weeks of guided prayer
  • Offer training to people in the different traditions of prayer and spiritulity
  • Enable lay people, religious and priests to lead and sustain group experiences in prayer, meditation and spirituality

Youth Ministry

  • Provide regular training for adults involved in youth ministry

Adult Faith Education

  • Formation programmes for those involved in pre-sacramental preparation of infants, school children and parents
  • Pastoral Ministry Programmes throughout Diocese
  • Educational opportunities for Diocesan Pastoral Councils, Cluster Groups and Parish Pastoral Councils in Spirituality, Theology, Human Development and Pastoral Leadership Skills

Justice Peace and the Integrity of Creation

  • Take definite steps at parish and diocesan levels to address the absence of women’s voices in planning and decision making at local, diocesan and global level in our Church

This is what the plan says :

In terms of Vision:

So in the light of God’s plan for us we will:

  • ‘Empower women and men to live their baptismal calling in the Church at local and diocesan levels
  • ‘Call forth the variety of gifts present in our communities and put them at the service of all’
  • ‘Lay ministers will visit the sick, bring communion to the housebound, receive funerals at the church and officiate at the graveside’
  • Facilitate the collaboration of laity, priests and religious in the Diocese so that the gifts of all
  • are freely and generously expressed

This is the Vision written in the plan.

  • A promise to ‘recognising the energy and leadership potential of every baptised person’

So, as you can see this was/is a plan with huge promise of commitment to Collaboration and Partnership and also commitment to address justice issues such as the exclusion of women in Church. So, we were extremely upset when the Bishop announced his plan to restore the Permanent Diaconate in Killaloe.

As one young person commented the Plan should now be renamed

“Builders of False Hope”

At the beginning of the Listening Process, Interestingly, one of the themes to emerge was the issue of ’Trust’ or ‘Lack of Trust’ in the Listening Process. The process itself was the focus of some scepticism and I was one of those sceptical people. One question asked was

‘Will what is said count?    Another,   ‘Will it be listened to?’

As one very wise person commented to me recently, ‘It is a very dangerous thing to ask people their views if you are not going to really listen to them.’

In Killaloe, this was indeed a very dangerous and damaging thing;

  • Do not invite conversation and promise listening and then ignore the views of the majority.
  • Do not make promises that bring great hope and then appear to turn away from them.

This is one of the reasons why we felt compelled to speak out. The Pastoral Plan said nothing about the Permanent Diaconate. It was the Wrong Place.

We were compelled to speak because it was also the Wrong Plan! It was the wrong Plan because we already had a plan!!

So what is the Permanent Deaconate and what do Permanent Deacons do?

Permanent Deacons were part of the early Church. it was a ministry of service; distributing alms to the poor. The deacon for many centuries worked in collaboration with Bishops, exercising a ministry of charity, assisting at the Eucharist and preaching the Gospel.

However the ministry of Permanent Deacons disappeared in the 4th Century and the work of deacons became absorbed into the ministry of priests and the Diaconate became a ministry for those preparing for priesthood.

The Permanent Diaconate was restored by the Second Vatican Council. It was restored in other countries some years ago but in Ireland the Bishops only applied for Vatican approval in October 2000. It was granted in 2001 and the approval of ‘The Permanent Diaconate National Directory of Norms for Ireland was approved by Rome in July 2005.

In March 2009 the Bishops appointed the National Training Authority to approve and monitor formation for Permanent Deacons.

The first ordinations to the Permanent Diaconate were for the Archdiocese of Dublin in June 2012.

There have been approx. 20 further ordinations since.

However, there is evidence that women in the early Church were Deacons also. There has been some debate as to whether theirs was an ordained ministry but recent findings suggest that in the 3rd Century women were indeed ordained in the same way as men. Indeed, all of this has to be considered in the context of an early church where many women led the Eucharistic gatherings.

So what do Permanent Deacons do?

The areas of ministry come under three headings of: Charity, Word and Altar

Charity

  • Facilitating the development of lay ministry
  • Visiting the sick
  • Visiting prisoners
  • Facilitation of peer ministry among young people

Word

  • Proclaiming the Gospel at the Liturgy
  • Participating in Programmes for Sacramental Preparation
  • Formation of readers
  • Facilitating the study of and prayer with the scriptures

Altar

  • Assisting the priest at the celebration of the Eucharist
  • Training of ministers of the Eucharist
  • Celebration of Baptism
  • Celebrating Marriages
  • Presiding at funerals and burials

 

As we reflect on these ministries I ask you to ponder the question;

who are the people already involved in these ministries at present in our parishes?

We have laity ministering in

  • Bereavement Groups
  • Sacramental Programmes
  • In Preparing of Ministers of the Word and Eucharistic Ministers
  • Youth Ministry
  • Children’s Liturgy of the Word (Pray and Play)
  • Lectio Divina Groups
  • Prayer Groups
  • Christian Meditation
  • Taking Eucharist to the sick and housebound
  • Baptismal Teams
  • Marriage Preparation.

So why restore the permanent Diaconate now when lay people are more involved in the communities than ever before? A visiting priest from England who was visiting the diocese during the height of our debate remarked that ‘The Diacaonate had clericalised good men’ and with the best will in the world, when men become deacons they become part of the government of the parishes, they take on positions where they are more likely to be heard than women who are not clerics.

So, for us it was the wrong plan, after the promise held within the Pastoral Plan.

I wish to point out here that we were not campaigning for the ordination of women to the Permanent Diaconate.

We were campaigning for the inclusion of all in ministry and calling for the Bishop not to implement another ordained male ministry; ours was a call for a willingness and commitment on the part of the Church to allow laity to live out fully the priesthood of our baptism in service and ministry in our faith communities. And there is provision for this in Canon Law; I will come to this shortly.

So why was it the wrong time?

From our viewpoint, as women actively involved in ministry, the introduction of the Permanent Diaconate in Ireland appears to be a decision that will distance laity further – especially women – as it is another male only ordained ministry. As another layer in the hierarchical structure of the Church it is also going against the tide of thought and feeling that the Church is already top heavy with too many layers between the laity and the Pope. And the worrying thing is that this step has been initiated without really looking at what this is doing to women in particular. It is a question about the dignity of women in our Church.

So for us it is the wrong time!

The proposal caused hurt and anger in our diocese, especially to those who work week in and week out in their faith communities, already fulfilling all the tasks of a deacon with the exceptions of the sacramental ministries of Baptism and Marriage, of presiding at the funeral liturgy and of course preaching.

However, as regards presiding at Baptism, Marriage and Funerals these ministries are already being carried out by trained and commissioned lay workers in some countries where there is a dire shortage of priests. In the Diocese of Marquette 1994, they did indeed receive approval for laity to perform sacramental ministry. This approval is seen in their “Permissions & Delegations for Pastoral Co-ordinators” where they applied for permissions for laity to officiate at Baptisms. At that time they had no need to apply for permisisons for other sacramental ministries. In times of real need a diocese can apply for this provision, and with the vote of the Conference of Bishops and the approval of the Holy See, the Diocesan Bishop can delegate suitable persons to preside at Baptism, and assist at marriages outside of Mass and preside at the funeral liturgy outside of Mass.

The provision is there for laity, men and women, to minister in this way, where there is a real need. (Canon Law Book IV & On Certain Questions Regarding the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priest.)

In 2008 in one diocese in Northern France there was just one priest to serve twenty seven parishes; the laity ran the parishes themselves.

In 2001 the Nice diocese had to reduce its parishes from 265 to 47. An article by David Rice (a former Dominican priest) describes one of these parishes with five Churches as “vibrant, flourishing Church communities with laity ministering to the sick, parish visitation, officiating at funerals and, Communion Services imparting the faith to children and adults and ministering to youth. etc.”

Let us remember that Permanent Deacons are not priests and they will never become priests, so this is not a solution to the vocations crisis. It will not solve the shortage of vocations to priesthood.

So why initiate another male ministry that is excluding and alienating people from Church ministry?

We are constantly being told that ‘We are the Church’. This implies that we have ownership of our Church; but how can we feel that we ‘own’ or fully belong when we, as women in the Church are excluded from full ministry and important decision making. This is a contradictin of the radial message of Jesus that, “God has no favourites,” (Galatians 2). We are all equal in God’s eyes.

Vatican II has been cited in defence of the initiative. Yes, at the time of Vatican II this was a radical step. However, Vatican II was in 1962, some 52 years ago!

The world has changed since then. In today’s world, women can enter into any field of employment or vocation, with the exception of the Church. There is something fundamentally unjust about this and, sadly, it appears as an absurdity in a society that is increasingly secularised.

It takes away from our credibility as a church.

There is a quote in the Pastoral Letter issued in August: “Jesus said: I came that you may have life and have it to the full,” I believe that Jesus meant this for every person in every age. Jesus rejected no-one, he welcomed all whatever their condition or status.

Women were present in the upper room when the Holy Spirit descended that day of Pentecost. Is it possible that God limits the action of the Holy Spirit in those who are of a different gender? I cannot believe that and the argument that the Holy Spiritdoes speak through women.

Saint Pope John 23rd directed the Church to pay attention to ‘the signs of the times’. In fact, he said it was the duty of the Church. Vatican II has been given the name ‘Aggiornamento’, a bringing up to date! Sadly, he died before the end of the Council. One of the many things he said on his death bed was this often quoted phrase:

It is not that the gospel has changed, it is that we have begun to understand it better…

The moment has come to discern the signs of the times, to seize the opportunity and to look far ahead.” Pope John 23rd’s appeal for the Church to discern the signs of the times is a call for the Church in every age to do this. If we are to be an authentic Church then we must respond to this call.

This message was echoed in the well-known Vatican document “Gaudium et Spes” The Church in the Modern World.

As Saint Pope John 23rd directed this demands that we are constantly discerning the needs that we have as a Church, and indeed as a planet, and how we respond to those needs.

This practice of discernment and response is the practice of paying attention to the ‘signs of the times’ and the appropriate response will result in the’ inculturation’ of the Gospel, which is essential if the Church is to be relevant.

The male only Permanent Diaconate belongs to 1962,  it does not belong to 2014.

Saint Pope John 23rd used two most beautiful phrases when he initiated Vatican II; he said it was ‘time to open the windows of the Church and let the fresh air of the Spirit blow through.’

He also said: “We are not museum keepers but gardeners to help things grow.”

Pope Francis has already acknowledged the need for dialogue around the role of women in the Church. He said: “Women are asking deep questions that must be addressed.” “The woman is essential for the Church. We must therefore investigate further the role of women in the church”.

However this is more than just a women’s issue, this is an issue that affects men and women, priests and bishops and all who make up this community we call Church. The fact that there was an effort to introduce the Permanent Diaconate shows the contradiction that lies at the heart of the Catholic church in Ireland. The Pastoral Plan was, hopefully, one voice influencing the Bishop but the Conference of Bishops was another influential voice and this is the voice that is most likely to win out. There is no connection between diocesan pastoral plans and Episcopal conferences plans. One is “bottom up” and the other is “top down”. It is this contradiction that must be addressed and we have to constantly seek ways to break down this divide.

Bishop Kieran, in his recent letter, expressed a wish that this dialogue continues.

He said that he ‘ believed that the level of engagement shown by the recent dialogue has brought to the surface a sign of the energy and commitment of many people in our church. I encourage this dialogue to continue as I believe it will bring great benefits to the Church in the Diocese and the mission entrusted to all of us by Jesus Christ.

We have been fortunate in Killaloe that Bishop Kieran is encouraging dialogue. This is welcome and even more encouraging is that Pope Francis is also at this time encouraging Bishops at the Synod to ‘speak out without fear’. An echo of his writing in The Joy of the Gospel

“There also exists a constant tension between ideas and realities. Realities simply are, whereas ideas are worked out. There has to be continuous dialogue between the two.” He also wrote:

‘Conflict cannot be ignored or concealed… the best way to deal with conflict is the willingness to face it head on, to resolve it and to make it a link in the chain of a new process.’

The implementation of the Pastoral Plan over the coming years remains a priority for the diocese.

This is a hugely important time for us. The Permanent Diaconate is on hold for the present and we are really thankful for this but it appears to be the most immediate plan that the Irish Bishops have in response to the present shortage of ordained priests. It has become the ‘go to’ option to solve the vocations problem. We feel there needs to be greater imagination exercised around the question of vocation and ministry in our Church today. The old ways are just not working any longer!

This is a most opportune time to enter into real and meaningful dialogue to explore and work for alternatives that are fully inclusive and that embrace all who want to serve. This is a time full of hope. It is a tiny opening of the windows. It is a time to begin to live a new model of church, e.g. small believing communities, and it is only when we begin to “do” the new model that change will come about because legislation always follows practice.

Our hope is to find a way together to develop ministry that is inclusive of men and women, without resorting to another male ordained ministry. It is a fact in other parts of the world. Why not here?

Our vision is of small communities of faith, discerning the needs of the community and ministering to each other in joyful witness of the Gospel.

This is why we felt compelled to speak. We love our Church. We want a Church that is authentic and inclusive, a Church where all are welcome.

This then is the story of Why women in Killaloe Diocese felt so compelled to speak out. We spoke because we felt so strongly that this was the wrong plan in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And perhaps even more significantly, in the words of Mary McAleese, we felt we had to shout because when we spoke quietly, we were not listened to.

So what now?

There are welcoming signs that seeds of hope are being sown all around us.

We have named our group ‘Seeds of Hope’

We have collated the findings from the forum and questionnaire and have produced a report.

We are meeting with Bishop Kieran in the coming week to share with him the report and our vision.

We intend to share report with other groups, The Bishops Conference, and Pope Francis.

We hope to see the same commitment of time, energy and resources towards the training of laity that had been intended for the training of Permanent Deacons.

We are to continue to work for inclusiveness in our Church and promote this through forums that will hopefully nourish, inspire and encourage us.

Our story in Killaloe is testament to the power that women and indeed all laity have, if only we can summon the courage to use it. It has received attention form media both here and abroad, even in the reform movement in America.

We have had messages of support and goodwill from many people. It seems that we were saying what so many were thinking and feeling.

So, we will continue to talk, to work and to pray that the Church will open fully its windows and give the Holy Spirit full reign to blow away the cobwebs in the museum it has become. We have no desire to be keepers of a museum. We want to be gardeners helping the Church grow into a Church for ‘our times’ for ‘all’ people.

Our hope is that our story will encourage others to also speak out for a just and inclusive Church that is relevant for this place and this time.

 

Kathleen McDonell on ACP website, 15 October 2014