Giving a voice to our priests

Second Reading
Giving a voice to Irish priests

Fr Kevin Hegarty

In one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories there occurs the following exhange:
“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
“To the curious incident of the dog in the night time.”
“That was the curious incident” remarked Sherlock Homes.
In the recent crises enveloping Irish Catholicism the voice of priests has been largely silent. There have been individual media voices, of whom I am one. Currently, however, there is no organisation to give a more representative view.
This lacuna is about to be addressed. On Wednesday (tomorrow) a meeting is to take place in Portlaoise, to which all Irish priests have been invited, with a view to setting up an association of Irish Catholic priests.
The meeting has its genesis in an earlier gathering, last June in Athlone, of priests who met to consider the need for an organisation. They decided to set up a committee to prepare the Portlaoise meeting. The committee comprised Tony Flannery, Brendan Hoban and Seán McDonagh.
All are well-known priests: Tony Flannery, a Redemptorist, conducts Missions and novenas throughout the country and is an author and a columnist with ‘Reality’ magazine; Brendan Hoban, parish priest of Ballina, has published several books and is a columnist with the ‘Western People’; Seán McDonagh, a Columban Missionary, who worked for many years in the Phillippines, has emerged in the last two decades as the most passionate advocate in the Irish Catholic Church of the need to care for the environment.
They drew up a preliminary statement of aims for the proposed new association which attracted the signatures of 72 priests. I am happy to be among them.
According, to this statement the association, if established, will work towards providing a voice for Irish Catholic priests at a time when that voice needs to be expressed.
Inspired by the insights of the Second Vatican Council it will promote their full implementation, expecially regarding the primacy of individual conscience, active participation of all the baptised and the establishment of a church where all believers will be treated as equal.  
It will argue the case for a reform of the ‘governing system’ of the Church, basing it ‘on service rather than power’. It will encourage a culture of consultation and transparency in the appointment of church leaders. It will advocate ‘an equal place for women in all areas of Church life, including the governing system and the various forms of ministry.
It will also work towards ‘re-evaluation of Catholic sexual teaching’ in a way that recognises ‘the profound mystery of human sexuality and incorporates the insights of all members of the Church. It recognises that State and Church are seperate and to the State falls the task ’of enacting laws for all its citizens’. It favours ‘liturgical celebrations that use rituals and language that are easily understood, inclusive and accessible to all’. It will also have an ecumenical dimension promising to reopen relationships with other Christian denominations and other faiths.
The proposed association is not the first one to seek to represent Irish Catholic priests. In the early 1970’s a number of radical priests set up the ‘Association of Irish Priests’, an independent body. The bishops took fright at this initiative. Before the association found a firm footing they established an alternative organisation ‘The National Conference of Priests of Ireland’, under their control which after some early enthusiasm, petered out in 2006.
This conference had some notable achievements, particularly under the inspired leadership of Seamus Ryan, Harry Bohan and Enda McDonagh. Howerver, its status as a body under the control of the heirarchy, lessened its credibility. As all Irish priests were automatically members, the conference had the impossible task of representing widely divergent views. Irish Catholic clergy are not a monolithic  group. It contains conservatives, liberals and radicals. As the NCPI had to reflect this diversity, its statements were often anodyne and died the death of a thousand qualifications.
The proposed new association may avoid this predicament as in its preliminary statement it clearly advocates radical church reform. Those who do not subscribe to the programme are unlikely to join up.
I hope that the new association will be established and that it flourishes. I lhope also that it will expand its horizons. Why not be open, as a start, to offering membership to female religious, which would involve not only a  nerve change but also a change of perspective? Many religious sisters also feel excluded from dialogue in the Irish Catholic Church. In a letter to the Irish Times last week  Anne Lyons, a religious sister, wrote poignantly of her sense of exclusion from the institutional church. She concludes: ‘As long as the official church ignores women, it will continue to fly on one wing and to flap around in endless circles and its soul will wither’. Indeed.