Fr Kevin Hegarty
We know that we have a jobs crisis in the Irish Republic. Recently our new government outlined a strategy to alleviate it, which has received a qualified welcome.
There is also a ‘jobs crisis’ in the Irish Catholic Church. It is of a different kind. Vocations to the priesthood have plummeted over the past three decades.
The consequences, with varying degrees of severity, are now evident. Take my own diocese of Killala. Three senior priests in their seventies are to retire this summer. Along with the customary gossip about who will fill the resultant vacancies there is speculation as to whether there are enough priests to maintain the current system. There may be sufficient to patch it up once again but my guess is that within 10 years half of the churches in the diocese will not have regular weekend worship.
Reality has a way of striking home in the end.
The vista for diocesan priests in Ireland is bleak. I heard one west of Ireland bishop tell a group of clerics last year the priests will become a kind of emergency service, akin to WestDoc. They will be centred in a few locations, serving several, often distant communities, helped by deacons and eucharistic ministers. The intimate connection between priest and people in a parish will be lost. There must be a better way.
Some years ago, Bishop William Morris of Toowoombra in Australia opened a necessary debate. Toowoombra is a vast diocese of 300,000 square miles. He had a small cohort of healthy priests to service its 68,000 Catholics.
He addressed the vocations crisis in a reflective pastoral letter in 2006. Noting that “we do face an uncertain future with regard to the number of acive priests in our diocese”, he wrote that “other options may well need to be considered. These include:
*Ordaining married, single or widowed men who are chosen and endorsed by their local parish community.
*Welcoming former priests, married or single, back to active ministry.
*Ordaining women, married or single.
*Recognising Anglican, Lutheran and Uniting Church orders.
His courteous letter, framed in a questioning rather than an imperative mode, attracted the wrath of a small number of conservative Catholics. Some of them spend their time searching for perceived unorthodoxies in the statements of bishops and priests and derive pleasure in reporting such deviances to the Vatican. Bishop Morris calls them the ‘Temple Police’. We have our share of them in Ireland too.
These Catholics usually find a sympathetic ear in the Vatican. So it proved in the case of Bishop Morris. The Curia ordered an Apostolic investigation of his diocese, a process described by one sceptical observer as sending the fox to interrogate the hens. The man who led the investigation, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denber, is reputed to be more conservative than Pope Benedict on the issues raised in the pastoral letter.
As a result of the inquiry, Bishop Morris was relieved of his duties earlier this month. In typical Vatican speak a bland statement was issued. It said that the Pope had “accepted the retirement of Most Rev William M Morris and has released him from the governance of the Diocese of Toowoombra’. The Vatican does not do sackings but if it did they would be the most coy ones in the world.
Rome has been disappointed in its expectation that its statement would be the end of the affair. There have been well-attended vigils of prayer outside Bishop Morris’s house. Eight of his priests have issued a statement stating that Bishop Morris has not been ‘trreated fairly or respectfully’. The Australian National Coucil of Priests has also weighed in on his side:
“We are appalled at the lack of transparency and due process that led to this decision. We are concerned about an element within the Church whose restorationist ideology wants to repress freedom of expression within the Catholic Church and who deny the legitimate magisterial authority of the local bishop within the Church.”
Bishop Morris has been gracious but forthright in his acceptance of the Vatican verdict. He claims that his pastoral was not a demand for change but a call for discussion. As he has not been given a copy of the report of the Apostolic investigation he has not had the opportunity of defending himself. He is disturbed by the ‘creeping authoritarianism’ in the Church.
This Australian controversy raises questions for the universal church. How can it preach justice when it denies it in its own institutional structures? What about the democratic right of free speech? As the ‘National Catholic Reporter’ trenchantly argued in an editorial what happened Bishop Morris “is the kind of trial and judgement one more often associates with Chile or Iran.”