In the wake of the Cloyne Report, the Irish media have reported several calls to postpone Ireland’s 2012 International Eucharistic Congress. This idea seems first to have been floated in a hard-hitting commentary by Fr Tony Flannery in the 22 July edition of the Irish Times, and later picked up by Fine Gael Senator Cáit Keane in the Seanad and the US-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.
But Flannery, in a post on the ACP website, says:
The Association of Catholic Priests has not called for a postponement of the Eucharistic Congress. That was a personal suggestion made by me in an article in the Irish Times.
It’s indeed likely that there is disagreement among those in the ACP about appropriate responses to the upcoming Eucharistic Congress. I have some sympathy with Flannery’s position, especially when he puts it this way:
The recent developments raise serious questions about the proposed Eucharistic Congress next June. Would it be possible for the Irish bishops to make a decision that, in view of all that has occurred, this is not a suitable time for such an event, and inform Rome of their decision? Along with showing clearly that they realise the seriousness of the situation we are in, and the need for repentance for the wrong that was done, it would also show a degree of independence from Rome among the hierarchy.
This would be of great help in working out a better future for all of us. It would signal that they no longer need to look over their shoulder at Rome before they made decisions. If they cannot do that, and if the congress is to go ahead, it is crucial that there be no trace of triumphalism about it.
This will involve a very different style of celebration than the one that appears to be in planning. We cannot have any event dominated by a phalanx of mitre-wearing bishops surrounded by large groups of clergy. A gathering like that, even with the best will in the world, is going to look and sound triumphalist in the present climate in Ireland.
Like Flannery, I long to see the leaders of the Irish church have what I would call a mature relationship with Rome. That’s a relationship where dialogue – marked by a frank and mutual exchange of views – could be expected.
Based on the actions of the pope and Irish bishops, it would seem that this sort of relationship does not exist. So it has been left to Taoiseach Enda Kenny to offer the most stringent and significant criticism in the wake of Cloyne. The Irish Times called it:
an unprecedented, historic attack on the Vatican in Dáil Éireann, accusing it of downplaying or “managing” the rape and torture of children “to uphold instead the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and ‘reputation’ ”. Ireland, he declared, was not Rome but “a republic of laws . . . where the delinquency and arrogance of a particular version, of a particular kind of ‘morality’, will no longer be tolerated or ignored”.
They cannot silence or remove a Taoiseach like they do theologians and bishops who speak out.
But what does it say about a church when priests feel that they will be silenced if they want to express what could be considered healthy dissent, a desire for debate, and more meaningful actions to help the church heal in the aftermath of the abuse scandals?
The Irish Times of Saturday 23 July ran a sobering feature (‘the fearful fathers’) about the types of priests (which it associated with the ACP) who it might be expected could challenge the prevailing culture in the Irish hierarchy. The story says the ACP has around 550 members. (To put that in context, Ireland has about 4,500 priests, with the numbers dwindling rapidly as vocations fall).
But where were those angry, articulate voices when the damage was being done, when Rome was directing this republic’s affairs and their brothers in Christ were violating the young and vulnerable? They were where they always were, says [Fr Brendan] Hoban [of Ballina, Co. Mayo], “trying to do 1,001 things and trying to do them the best they can.”
So does that explain their silence? There are two “difficulties”, Hoban says. The first is the mistaken belief that a diocese is run by the bishop and the priests together. “The fact is we are totally excluded from any say . . . Priests are effectively disenfranchised.”
So Rome doesn’t listen to the bishops, and the bishops don’t listen to the priests?
Flannery’s commentary confirms this view:
We of the Association of Catholic Priests are almost a year in existence, and have over 500 members, but our efforts at having any worthwhile discussion or dialogue with the Irish bishops has been frustrated. They meet us, but ignore the points we bring up; we write to them and get a reply four months later that is patronising in the extreme. All of this is happening at a time when the church is going through the worst crisis at least since the Reformation. Unless all the different groups within the church in this country can come together and face our difficulties honestly and openly we will make no headway.
I think Flannery’s suggestion to postpone the Eucharistic Congress is a desperate cry to be heard – akin to Jennifer Sleeman’s mass boycott. And like Sleeman’s initiative, I imagine it will be ignored or mocked by those who claim that they don’t want to ‘play politics’ with the Eucharist.
Unlike Flannery, though, I don’t support postponing the Eucharistic Congress. I would like to think it could be an opportunity for the Irish church to be renewed.
But I share Flannery’s concerns about it being triumphalistic, rather than an occasion for modelling a humble and thankful appreciation of what the Eucharist is meant to be and to represent.
I would also like to see the Eucharistic Congress become an occasion to discuss ecumenical concerns about sharing the body and blood of Christ, a point articulated last year by Methodist leader Gillian Kingston.
But can a church in crisis recognise these opportunities, let alone act on them?
(Image sourced on flickr, by Lawrence OP)