The answers to the two questions on religion in the poll conducted among Irish farmers, and published in the Irish Examiner, are really interesting. 82% are in favour of priests being allowed to marry, and, even more surprisingly, 58% are in favour of women being ordained as priests, with 52% strongly in favour.
And to put this in context, of those polled 69% are regular Mass attenders, meaning that they attend Mass every weekend. This must to close to three times the national average. So, what we are dealing with here are the traditional believers and supporters of the Church. The fact that their views are so dramatically at variance with those of Church authorities should be a matter of great concern for our bishops.
I think of Bishop Crean of Cloyne, who this time last year banned me from speaking in the parish of Killeagh in his diocese, in case I would lead the people astray. Killeagh is quintessentially a rural, farming community. This poll has news for you, Bishop Crean. It would appear that the horse has already bolted; your people are thinking ‘heretical’ thoughts. And while you can silence me in your diocese, what can you now do to these people? Will you put on your mitre and go down to them and tell them not to be thinking those thoughts, but to believe and submit to what you tell them. I’m afraid in order to achieve that you would need to have got that mitre a couple of generations earlier. What you must do now is what Pope Francis keeps telling all bishops to do, listen to your people; and then take back to the Vatican what they are saying to you, and the changes they are calling for in our Church.
I am sitting here in my family home, four years after I was forbidden to minister as a priest for saying and writing the things that the large majority of Irish people, even of Church going people, now believe. I was censured by the Vatican, but with the unanimous support, through their silence, of the Irish bishops. But you cannot silence the people. And unless you listen to them the gap between you and the people you are supposed to be serving, which is already wide as we can see from this and other polls, will grow even wider, and our churches will get emptier and emptier.
Bishops, do you care at all for the future of our Church? Are you listening to Pope Francis? Why are you not bringing to Rome the views of the Irish Catholic people, as the pope suggested you should do? Do you not recognise that time is short if the faith is to survive in this country? Or are you just submitting in silence to the Papal Nuncio, whose response to this poll amounted to ‘these things were never done before, so we cannot do them now’? As if the Church has not changed in endless ways down through the centuries.
Wake up, all of you. Sit down with the people, and listen, don’t preach. Then act on what you are hearing. Lead you people into the promised land, a land where the Church will once again be a vibrant witness of Gospel values, and a home for all, where all are welcome.
Fr Tony Flannery CSsR; 21 September 2016