The following article was recently penned by Fr. Brendan Hoban. It’s a very honest reflection from a man who is almost 50 years ordained a priest.
Pope Francis keeps on beating the same drum, but is anyone listening? His Christmas message was that ‘the world has changed and so must the Church’.
If you wouldn’t mind, dear reader, could you please read those two short sentences again? Is there anything complicated about them? No. Is there anything that any Catholic, ordained or non-ordained, could possibly misunderstand?
No. They simply sum up what Francis has been saying since he was elected Pope. And saying again and again and again. So if Catholics see something that needs to change, what should we do?
A template emerged a few years ago from a chat Francis had with his friend, Bishop Erwin Kräutler, who worked most of his life in the Amazon basin.
Kräutler lamented the scarcity of priests in his area and the resulting fact that so few could attend Mass. Francis told him to work through the Brazilian bishops.
The result was the discussion at the Amazonian synod and the expectation that by March of this year, Francis will announce the ordination of married men for specific regional areas.
Here’s another question. At what stage will it become clear that Ireland qualifies as such a regional area and have the help of a married priesthood?
While opinions on the answer to that question may vary, one thing is clear, priests are disappearing in Ireland. We’re an endangered species. Just give it a decade or more.
Rather it’s on how the failure to address this issue by the leadership of our Church is impinging on the immediate victims (the present priests) caught in the slipstream of an on-going decision by the Irish bishops to continue to avoid ‘the elephant in the living room’.
While the presenting problem is the virtual disappearance of priests – and it follows as night the day, the virtual disappearance of Mass and the Catholic Church in Ireland – the immediate victims of the bishops’ abdication of responsibility are the present priests.
We’ve watched for decades as vocations to the priesthood have melted away. Now there are hardly any young priests, a few middle-aged, with most either elderly or old. (An indicator of the present age profile of Irish priests is that the new bishop of Clonfert, who’s edging towards his 50th birthday, is younger than all the Clonfert priests!)
The simple truth is that the present priests are left carrying the can for at best the prevarication of their bishops or at worst their conspicuous lack of leadership.
We remember a time when we had the wind on our backs: full churches, teeming vocations, and the respect of our people, the support and appreciation of society. We had our place in the sun, though, in retrospect, the jury is out on what that was worth.
Now, the present cultural context for the Catholic Church in Ireland is almost invariably hostile.
What we say is ignored as our authority has diminished if not disappeared entirely; brash and ambitious movers and shakers use us as a handy punch-bag confident that their knee-jerk dismissal has popular support; those who support us opt to do so in silence or in private; and, at best, we’re figures of fun, banished to the periphery of things, unless we’re needed by the media for quirky appearances dressed in Roman collars and black suits.
Now, as an ageing and progressively more fragile ‘lost tribe’, we’re swimming against the currents of Irish life.
It isn’t just that in the main, we’re elderly and old, with few coming after us prepared to put their shoulders to the wheel. As we get older, with the number of priests ever-decreasing, our workload is ever increasing.
The issues we’re expected to deal with are becoming more complex; the demands of parishioners getting more and more out of hand.
And we’re now at the stage where it’s obvious that the increased pressures and stresses of a priest’s life in Ireland today are leading to a breakdown in health.
If there was some hope, some light even at the end of a distant tunnel, it might make the present situation more tolerable in the short-term.
But all we can see is more of the same – fewer and fewer priests, older and older priests, ever-increasing workloads and progressively more and more ill-health.
We’re not being offered any hope. There’s no Plan B – just a vague, unconvincing sense that we all have to keep doing what we always did, keep saying what we always said, yet (against all the odds) keep expecting something different to happen, as if someday we’ll meet a bend in the road that will lead to some promised land.
We’re expected to give credence to vague and sometimes daft ideas about importing priests from abroad or amalgamating dioceses or other versions of the deck chairs being moved on the Titanic; nothing more significant than giving the impression that something is being done.
Priests are struggling to cope. Full stop. Over-work, difficult to get a break, health breaking down. Nothing to look forward to except late retirement and death.
The thread-mill, it seems, is expected to continue until the very last.
‘The world has changed and so must the Church’.
All the evidence would suggest that we’re at the beginning of the end, a fracturing of church life that wasn’t just predictable but avoidable. Yet the Irish bishops still seem to be sitting on their hands.
Are there not a few bishops who might do a Bishop Kräutler on it and have a chat with Pope Francis about the implications of his Christmas message – ‘the world has changed and so must the Church’?
What is it about that sentence that the Irish bishops don’t understand or refuse to accept, even though almost every Catholic in Ireland seems happy to acknowledge?