Fr Kevin Hegarty
Thankfully, last Sunday has passed. I dread the fourth Sunday of the Easter season. Let me explain.
That day is Vocations day in the Catholic Church. Priests are expected to preach - how I hate that verb anyway - on the need for unmarried men to study for the priesthood.
I once read of a French bishop in the early 19th century who, after he lost his faith, spent one Easter Sunday desperately trying to avoid saying Mass. I have never suffered such a deep crisis of belief but on Vocations day I understand his predicament.
On Vocations day one is supposed to assume that the Catholic priesthood is only for unmarried males. One is expected to extol compulsory celibacy by claiming that it leaves one free, without family interruption, to minister to the parish community. One is directed to justify the exclusion of women from the priesthood on the grounds of tradition and theology, as if tradition has to be set in stone and theology can not be subject to new insights.
I can’t buy into all of that. It seems to me that the exclusive male hierarchical governance of the Catholic Church is out of sync with the insights and impulses of modern society. Such a system is prone to corrosive dysfunction. Its inadequacy has been graphically highlighted by the woeful response to the sexual abuse of children by clergy and religious.
Also, I grew up in a democratic society where respect for freedom of speech was paramount. In my naive student days, in the decade after the Second Vatican Council, an inspirational event, I hoped that the church was ready to embrace the value of this crucial insight. Alas, in recent decades, as the Vatican resiled from the results of the council, the institutional Church has been a cold house for those of us committed to free speech, academic freedom and dialogue. It is a travesty that several liberal theologians have had their licences to teach in Catholic theological colleges withdrawn by Rome.
Some of you might say, get over it. The Church needs priests to continue its mission, so no more agonising. Some of you might even say to me, you joined the army, so march. Sorry, I did not see becoming a priest meant taking on military discipline. If I wanted to be a soldier I would have gone to the other Kildare institution, the Curragh, not Maynooth.
Priests are needed in the Catholic Community to minister to its needs, to share in its joy and pain, to celebrate the rituals of birth and marriage and to give what the poet Thomas Kinsella calls, “ecclesiastical discipline to the shapeless sorrow” of death.
The crisis in priestly numbers in Ireland, looming for some time, is about to happen. One benign effect of the crisis is that there will have to be greater lay governance of parishes.
Parish councils will no longer be toothless bodies, peopled by an acquiescent laity and garrulous and authoritarian priests.
This reform should have happened anyway, according to the Second Vatican Council. Churches, however, will close and there will be a severe decline in religious services.
I once heard a bishop glibly say that in the not too distant future priests will operate as an emergency ecclesiastical West Doc type service. Each priest will have to serve a vast territory encompassing several parishes.
I have to say that I find this vista disturbing. As a diocesan priest I live in a parish community, not a religious institution. Here one gets to know the people. They invite you to be part of the significant events of their lives. One makes friends that help to salve the loneliness of the celibate existence. This interchange enriches one’s life and hopefully enhances one’s celebration of the sacraments.
In theological terms it is an incarnational exchange. I fear that much of that will be lost in the projected future.
It seems to me that Church leaders will consider any solution to the vocations crisis except the obvious ones - opening the priesthood to married men and women, not just because of a decline in numbers of unmarried men but because of the rich and creative experience it would bring to ministry in the modern world.
I am reminded of the apocryphal story of the pious man whose life was endangered at sea. He prayed fervently to God for rescue.
A lifeboat and helicopter came to him but he turned them away as he expected a personal envoy from God. He drowned, when to heaven and remonstrated with God for failing to save him. “Well,” God replied, “I did send a lifeboat and helicopter!”
No chance of change in the Church, some of you might say. Maybe I prefer, however, to look at reality rather than whistle past the graveyard.