By Sarah Mac Donald - 06 February, 2019
Bishops need courage not to keep looking over their shoulders to Rome and to confront – respectfully but robustly – those who want to lead us back to the nineteenth century.
The Irish Church needs bishops who are not afraid to speak their minds and name the truth as they see it, Fr Brendan Hoban of the Association of Catholic Priests has said.
In his weekly column for the Western People newspaper, the Co. Mayo-based parish priest outlined his wish list for the kind of bishops that he believes would assist the Irish Church in its journey towards renewal.
In Fr Hoban’s opinion, what is needed for episcopal leadership is “bishops who are secure enough in their own skin to be able to live with ambivalence and complexity; bishops who are comfortable with the culture of our times and who can speak about God and the absence of God in a rapidly changing world.”
The ACP spokesman said, “Tomorrow’s men” must have the imagination, the creativity and above all the courage not to keep looking over their shoulders to Rome and to confront – respectfully but robustly – “those who want to lead us back to the nineteenth century”.
Referring to recent articles in the Irish Times on the forthcoming retirement of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin and his auxiliaries, Bishop Raymond Field and Bishop Eamon Walsh, Fr Hoban noted that there was a suggestion that the departure of these three bishops was “an opportunity for the appointment of an entire cadre of new leadership and the energy that would bring at a time when a fresh start there and in the Catholic Church generally is so much needed”.
He added that the “same could be said of the west” with Achonry and Clonfert currently vacant and Tuam and Galway set to become vacant when Archbishop Michael Neary and Bishop Brendan Kelly retire in a few years.
At the moment several dioceses are vacant or will be vacant in a few years. These include not just Dublin but Cork & Ross, Galway, Tuam, Achonry, Kilmore and Ferns.
The fact that there are so many dioceses vacant, and with Pope Francis’ reforming policy, suggested that “a new and different form of leadership in the Irish Church is about to emerge”.
He added, “the hope would be that a new style of leadership in the West might evolve too”.
But Fr Hoban, who is a founder member of the ACP, which has over 1,000 priest members, cautioned against over optimism.
“I’m not too sure about that. Despite the new broom in Rome, there’s no compelling evidence that appointments under the last two papal nuncios are any different from what they were in the past, though we live in very different times.”
He suggested that those making the decisions are, effectively, replicating versions of themselves in the appointments they make.
“Candidates who were regarded as ‘safe men’ (as bishops were once positively designated) are still being appointed even though some of those regarded as ‘safe men’ have a disconcerting habit of dropping the ball at crucial intervals.”
He highlighted the plight of Bishop John Kirby of Clonfert who retired over five years ago.
“He’s now in his 80s and still waiting to be released from this now too common form of episcopal captivity. It seems unfair to the bishop involved, unwarranted in that we’re not talking rocket science here and even (it might be suggested) a form of elder abuse.”
He acknowledged that part of the problem seems to be that some priests regard an episcopal appointment as “a nightmare rather than an honour”.
“Indeed it’s generally accepted now that appointments have been turned down time and time again. Why else would a diocese like Clonfert (the smallest in Ireland) be waiting nearly six years for a bishop?”
Fr Hoban said another problem is that “being a bishop is an impossible task”.
“Like school principals caught between conflicting expectations of teachers, students and parents, bishops are always wrong. But because bishops, as card-carrying Christians, are precluded from telling awkward people to get lost, the long-term consequences of ‘being nice’ eventually can corrode the spirit.”
He warned that ambitious priests who spend their lives preparing themselves to be bishops are the kind of bishops that are not needed.
“But the dilemma is that those we need don’t want it, and those who want it shouldn’t get it.”