By Sarah Mac Donald - 05 July, 2017
Censured priest Fr Tony Flannery has said the visit of Pope Francis to Ireland next year is an opportunity for members of the Irish hierarchy to reach out to those who think differently and celebrate unity amid diversity in the Irish Church.
Writing in the Irish Independent, the Redemptorist appealed, “Let’s get to work together.”
Elsewhere in his column, he highlighted some of the feedback the Association of Catholic Priests has received through a series of meetings with priests around the country. The reports are published on the ACP website.
“They make for sad and disturbing reading,” Fr Flannery notes, and he adds, “To put it mildly, priesthood in Ireland is not in a good place.”
Priests are an ageing group who find themselves “with a greater burden of work and responsibility than when they were younger and more energetic. Now they are mostly in their seventies and in a much more stressful environment.”
According to the feedback, the climate of the times tends to be antagonistic to what they stand for.
“Many are tired and demoralised. Some would love to retire, but cannot do so without having their own accommodation, and some private income, which very few have. So they soldier on, often with little enthusiasm for the task,” Fr Flannery explains.
He stresses that one “particularly disturbing fact” to emerge is that at least eight priests have died by suicide in the past ten years.
The one bright light is that at local level priests still get great support and encouragement from many parishioners.
But issues like the mother and baby homes, the debate on what is euphemistically called the ‘baptism barrier’ and the upcoming referendum to ‘repeal the eighth’, with all the attendant media storm that accompanies these controversies, are a real heartbreak for many older priests hoping for a quiet life as they get on with their parish duties.
Another feature of the feedback from priests who attended the ACP meetings was the lack of leadership or support from their bishop.
“I have been on record many times lamenting this terrible lacuna in the Irish Catholic Church. With one or two exceptions, all I can see in our hierarchy is fear, anxiety and a desperate clinging to old ways. And this at a time when Pope Francis has by now clearly charted a new way, a new presentation of the Good News of the Gospel, based on openness, listening and courage,” Fr Flannery challenges.
The priest, who has been forbidden by the Vatican to say Mass publicly since 2012, highlights that in his experience the search for a spiritual dimension is still strong and active in many people, but the institutional churches “are too hidebound by ancient and rigid doctrinal formulas, expressed in traditional language, that make then unable or unwilling to communicate in a meaningful way with such people”.
The fact that our churches are becoming increasingly sidelined in the search does not mean that the search is not still going on, even, and maybe most often, among the younger generation.
Currently, Fr Flannery is working with a group of people who are exploring new ways, and new language, for addressing spiritual realities.
“We are doing this is the light of the enormous advances made in scientific understanding in the past sixty or seventy years, most especially in cosmology and quantum physics. We are exploring ways to talk about creation in the light of what we now know about the universe, and what that tells us about a Creator and our relationship with that Being.”
Describing it as “a fascinating study”, he suggests that it is about finding “new wine skins for the new wine”.
The first public presentation of the group’s ideas will take place in Cork on Sunday evening, 23 July and details will be available on Fr Flannery’s blog: tonyflannery.com.
He challenges the Irish bishops as to whether they really realise that there are many people in Ireland who are still deeply committed to the Christian faith, and who long for a vibrant, revitalised Church.
“We desperately need someone in a position of authority who would bring us all together, to listen and speak ‘openly and without fear’. Francis is coming here next year. It will be an opportunity for some members of the hierarchy to reach out to those who think differently, an opportunity for celebrating unity in the midst of diversity. Let’s get to work together.”