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Only a proper understanding of the priesthood will renew the Irish Church

Ireland has seen two nasty extremes: fawning over and hatred of priests. The solution lies in rediscovering what the priesthood is about

By on Friday, 15 June 2012

Cardinal Ouellet, papal legate, leads a Eucharistic procession at the Congress (PA photo)

Cardinal Ouellet, papal legate, leads a Eucharistic procession at the Congress (PA photo)

There is such hunger at the Congress to speak to priests about healing. Fr Timothy Radcliffe is one leading light – he was scheduled to hold a workshop on the “spirituality of healing” to 280 people. But well over 560 showed up. He has since given the workshop twice in person – and throughout yesterday afternoon there were thousands assembled on the green to watch an enormous screen with a recording of his workshop. Fr Kevin Doran, the general secretary of the Congress, told me there was “great surprise” that each day the workshops were designed to cater for 4,000 people (the number that they hoped would attend). But so far – every day – there has been an average of well over 8,000 people seeking places in the workshops. Many of the workshops have hot discussions on the interrelation between making the Eucharist available to the public and the role of the priest. It’s not a burning issue for nothing. Restoring the true responsibility of the priest will cause the restoration of Irish Catholicism.

The groups of priests taking part in the Congress are the salt of the earth. They might be 38 or 80 but they are spending night and day circling the crowds – allowing pilgrims to share their faith difficulties and asking pilgrims if they have faith in their faith. Handsome, young and full of verve African priests are telling us about the “essential work” that the Catholic Church is doing in Africa, especially with Aids victims. Graham Greene would be inspired to write a novel about these priests. They give a new perspective to native Irish Catholics, who have been pessimistic for too long. The Congress is opening up Ireland’s eyes to the global good works of the Catholic Church.

The worried faithful may speak to a wide variety of priests about their concerns that the abuse crisis is choking the life out of their parish life because “things have gone dead” and “priests are hiding for fear of an abuse claim”. It is a two-way process, and good priests are being encouraged by thousands of faithful who congratulate them for giving their lives for the celebration of the Eucharist. Cardinal Brady is stopped repeatedly by pilgrims who want to explain to him why they think he took the brunt of the blame for the Norbertine Order’s utter failure to deal with “that monster” Smyth.

But will encouragement from a few well-meaning people be enough to inspire Ireland’s priests? Bishop Davies is showing that actions are as important as verbal encouragement. The kindly bishop has said that he is bringing the heart of St John Vianney to tour England to bring into focus the life of such a holy priest, so other priests may follow St John Vianney’s example.

Do Ireland’s priests need inspiration or do they need us – the laity – to change our attitude? I am in my 20s, but in my life I have witnessed the switch from sycophancy for priests to hatred of priests. When I started Catholic primary school, parish priests would cheerfully wander into our classrooms and tell us stories about why they became priests. It was the 90s, and teachers smiled toothily and gushed over the priests. As the abuse cases became public knowledge, slowly priests came less and less to visit the pupils in our school which was 60 metres from their church. When I was preparing to make my Confirmation, the parish priest would barely come to the door of the classroom. On the two occasions he did visit us, he looked apoplectic with anxiety. And before I started full-time journalism, for a few years in my early 20s I was teaching, and no priest ever darkened the door of my classroom.

It does seem here at the Congress that every Irish priest is apologising for the abuse crisis. While they may be lamenting the vile predilections of abuser priests and the cover-ups, is there not something inappropriate about innocent priests constantly saying sorry for heinous crimes that they personally did not commit? Is there not some sort of misallocation of blame going on? Why are so many excellent priests allowing themselves to be tarred with the same brush that is reserved for criminals?

It’s not just to do with the abuse crisis. The country is recession-ruined, and many are of the opinion that the Catholic Church is lining the pockets of ordinary priests or that priests are living comfortably while everyone else is broke. The attitude in Ireland is very much “make priests pay”. One could say that this is all justified anger, but which priests are paying? Off the top of my head, I can think of 40 priests who have been intimidated, sometimes to the point of ill health, by irate parishioners. Irish priests are going to England for respite. It’s ironic that in previous centuries Irish priests were persecuted during the penal laws when the Mass was driven underground, but some are now seeking refuge in England.

One case involves a gentle, timid priest that I have known for 10 years. He had been serving in an Irish country parish but the locals resented that he had a nice, smart house. Their attitude was that after all the scandals, no priest should have a decent house. It got to the stage where he was having heart trouble after one too many nasty encounters. Now having spent some time recuperating in England, he has not recovered from his health problems. He’s quite a young priest, but not in active ministry. This is a waste of youth. And it’s also abuse of priests.

Ireland has experienced two nasty extremes: toadying and fawning over priests and now the acceptable abuse of priests. The answer is in the middle. And it’s also in the rediscovery that the highest role of the priest is not to be a status symbol for an Irish family (“oh, that’s a good family, it produced a priest”) or as a ladder for social climbing (“the parish priest sat with me during morning tea, so I’m the more important person in the village”). But the priest is the person who goes into Persona Christi, standing in the place of Christ so he may offer the Eucharist. If the Congress can redefine the responsibility of the priest in the minds of the people – than there is hope that the Congress will be the game-changer for Irish Catholicism.

  • Benedict Carter

    A proper understanding BY PRIESTS (and laity too) of what is a priest and what is the priesthood is what wills ave not only the Irish Church but the whole Church. The Pope understands this: half his talks, sermons and writings are directed at priests and are about the priesthood.

    Why is this necessary? Because since Vatican II virtually the entire Hierarchy has stopped talking about a SACRIFICIAL priesthood, replacing it with “Convenor”, “Moderator”, “President” and other straight-forwardly protestant labels which reflect a straight-forwardly protestant theology. 

    To c all an Anglican or Lutheran vicar a “priest” is a gross misnomer which seems to have become entirely prevalent by Catholics. Which just shows how Catholics have now almost entirely lost the catholic sense of the priesthood. But it’s not their fault. It’s the fault of the theological apostates and heretics amongst the Bishops and even some Cardinals of the last disastrous half century. 

    Let’s get this straight: a protestant minister claims no (and has no) Sacramental powers at all: he 8or shye, nowadays) is an officer appointed to a position of governance. What they properly do is preside and convene.

    A Catholic priest, on the other hand, by virtue of the powers given to him by the Holy Ghost through the Church at his ordination, stands (Sacramentally) actually in persona Christi and by his ACTIONS makes present God’s Grace in this world – most importantly in the Sacrament of Confession and in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, where Calvary is truly and really re-presented to God in an unbloody manner. 

    His PERSONAL ACTIONS.  A priest sacrifices and forgives sins. 

    He is not a “President”, a “Convenor”, a “Shop Steward” or any other such protestant or secular nonsense. Only when the priest recovers the sense of what he is – the most important man in the world – will the Church come back to health. 

  • Apostolic

    It would help if they would dispense with those billowing nightdresses(above) which pass for vestments these days – don’t they realise that these are so dated?  - a cross between some Druid outfit and an Embassy of Klingons from a 1960s episode of Star Trek. The cheap plastic and plywood scenery of the latter has a parallel in the cheap revised “interiors” which all too often “grace” our churches, and the silly folksy singing completes the effect. Please bring back dignified vestments, cincture, liturgy etc. As the Holy Father realises, the Church will be purified and renewed through its liturgy.

  • Lindi

    Your last paragraph describes ‘ clericalism ‘ and what the priesthood is beautifully.  As for innocent priests apologizing for those who abused children , I suppose that is what being a part of Christ’s Body is about. Perhaps the answer is to send foreign priests to Ireland as missionaries to renew the faith of Irish Catholics,

  • theroadmaster

    The priesthood is essentially a life of service and devotion to the flock that one receives, in the manner that Christ tended to the gathering crowds who sought His advice and healing touch during His ministry on earth.  We have heard the full gamut of opinions, concerning reforming the nature of priesthood, e.g. abolishing celibacy or ordaining women.  But an ordained priest essentially stands in the place of Christ and this reality must be the central spiritual reality that inspires him to serve his parishioners humbly in both a sacramental and sacrificial sense.

  • Francis

     Priests certainly deserve respect and gratitude for their service, when they act in service to the Gospel.   However, the idea that the priest stands in the place of Christ is actually a radical concept — especially given the implications.  First, we are all called to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world.  By singling out the celibate, male priest as standing in place of Christ, you must then explain how St. Peter and priests for the first centuries of the Church were any less serving in place of Christ.  You must also be suggesting that others, nuns, non-clerical missionaries, those engaged in charitable works full time — are also not standing in the place of Christ.  Which leads to the second point.  By elevating the priest exclusively to being “Christ” in the world today, you help create the clerical aristocracy and arrogance that created the sex abuse cover up.  (Notice I am referring to the cover up.  The abuse itself was due to the psychological horror of the victimizers but the cover up stems from this isolated elitism fostered by treating the celibate, male priest alone as Christ in the world.)  No one human being, or group of human beings, should be cast as “Christ in the world” .  Their service is highly commendable but we are all Christ in the world.  ANd at this point in history, an all male, celibate priesthood is a distraction from Christ in the world — it no longer conveys the lofty, admirable image that helped promote Jesus in the world but stands as a perversion.  How much more of a model of Christ in the world could there be than a priest who lives among us as one of us — married or celibate as he or she is called to be, sharing our troubles and tribulations yet modeling Christ in daily life.  Now that is how you preach the Gospel in 2012.  

  • Alan

    My son is in first class in a Catholic Ethos school (for those outside Ireland, this is the 3rd year in our primary system; the first two years are the ‘infant’ classes). The local parish priest (there are only three schools in the parish) has never visited their class. I can remember my own school years at that age and the local priests were regular visitors. 

    Although in a Catholic ethos school my son has been taught very little about the Catholic faith and the class have not been taught even how to say the ‘Our Father’ or the ‘Hail Mary’. This may perhaps change when he enters second class next year and they prepare for their First Communion. 

    In general, the teaching on the rudiments of the Catholic faith in schools in Ireland seems poor and has been for some time. 

  • theroadmaster

    I deliberately used the words “service” and “devotion” to typify the necessary qualities that ordained priests should allow to mature within themselves to give a Christian credibility to their witness and ministry.  In effect, this would act as an anecdote to the sort of insidious clericalism and elitism that the priesthood or any other religious office can turn into, if it’s sacramental and sacrificial aspects are not attended to.  I agree with you, that as Vatican 11 emphasizes, that all members of the Body of Christ are called to use their gifts bestowed on them by Christ, in furtherance of His Kingdom on earth.  But the priestly ministry does have it’s own intrinsic pedigree, as epitomized by Christ, who is the unparalleled High-Priest, who brought the Judaic sacerdotal 
    order of Melchizedek to it’s full fruition and emulated it.   The first generation of the apostles inherited this priestly mantle and passed it down through the succeeding generations in the Apostolic Churches i.e Catholic and Orthodox.  This is not to fetishize the priesthood, but rather to establish the theological basis for it.  As Christ was male, the criteria for entrance to the priesthood in the Catholic and Apostolic Churches, is restricted to men.   The Savior was not effected by fashion or fads and the Church cannot change the implications of restricting the choice of his closest disciples to men.

  • Parasum

    “Ireland has seen two nasty extremes: fawning over and hatred of priests”## What has happened, is hateful. It is diabolical, satanic, it reeks of the pit, and promotes the Kingdom of Satan. A publication of the SCDF in 1972 is very clear that the devil is a genuine force for evil, so it would be pointless and senseless to say that the devil, active to do evil, was not active in this: it has his prints all over it. The impenitence of the bishops is almost the worst feature of this entire horror. Are they even capable of repentance ? Ireland needs conversion to Christ, not slavery to the will of Rome.

  • Parasum

    An attractive exterior is worthless and hateful without interior holiness. The Bible has a lot to say on this very theme. An appearance of religion without the Spirit Who alone keeps it from being a lie is worse than atheism.

  • Apostolic

    It almost goes without saying that inner holiness is fundamental/essential, but ugliness in the Liturgy and priestly vestments can indeed be an impediment to faith, for we are sensory creatures and embodied souls. Most of us do not float sightless into Mass.

  • Apostolic

    Conversion to Christ and what you tellingly term “slavery to the will of Rome” are virtually synonymous for Catholics to whom the Rock of Peter is essential.

  • Parasum

    “Conversion to Christ and what you tellingly term “slavery to the will of Rome” are virtually synonymous for Catholics to whom the Rock of Peter is essential.”

    ## That is a very serious confusion. Christ =/////////////….= the Pope, or Rome. This confusion is not even required by Catholic dogma: whereas:

    1) some kind of recognition of the Petrine function in the Church, and

    2) its being in some sense instituted by Christ

    3) as a permanent feature of the Church’s life

    4) pertaining to the being (*esse*), and not just the well-being (*bene esse*), of the Church

    is required by CD. Details like the Petrine primacy, and its various elaborations, are logically dependent on these four points, or on their substance (since there may be better ways of articulating them).

    But to confuse conversion to Christ, with what is sometimes one of its effects in Christian practice, is bad theology, and worse Christianity. And to confuse the recognition, in the practice of the Christian life, with acceptance of the four points (that, is as to their substance), is depressing. What is worse, is to confuse slavery to the will of Rome, with slavery to Christ.  Rome has done some things that are utterly unrighteous – how different from the Righteous Christ can that be ? To confuse the sinful Popes or the sinful Papacy or the  sinful Vatican or the sinful Church with Christ, Whom even the demons confessed to be “the Holy One of God”, is madness. It drags down the All-Holy God to the wretched level of sinful man; it debases God, by remaking Him so that He is no better than the Church. The Church is created, & is not its Creator – to confuse the creature with the One Who is its Lord & Creator, is the definition of idolatry. And idolatry is not a good foundation for a good understanding of the Church. For the sake of the Church, it *must be* non-identical with Christ  – related to Him, loved by Him, an object of His unceasing solicitude & faithfulness, but finite, created, in need of Him & His Spirit, nothing without Him, and ruled by Him rather than by a perverted notion based on itself of what is pleasing to Him.

    This confusion is lamentable, & not unsurprising. Not surprisingly, the Church does not say it is in every way identical with Christ – it is buffoonery as well as an error to identify them. There is a very close relation, which has its source in the Grace of God – but *no* identity. A moment’s thought as to Who & of what moral character Christ is, and His Father, & His Spirit, would avoid such an error. The Bible reveals what Christ is like – & what His Father, & His Spirit are like. And what is required of Christians. To confuse  God with His gifts to men is not one of those requirements. But idolatry of the Church makes a good & precious gift  into a curse, into poison. Idolatry is only wrong, and a damnable sin against God – it is also extremely bad for the idolater. And since there is a root  of idolatry in all of us, as long we are not totally converted to Christ, idolatry is a life-long danger for us. So we do not need more of it – we desperately need less of it, none of it.

  • Parasum

    No disagreement there – but the other point is not exactly over-emphasised.