Church reformers get no blessing from clergy who fear threat to Catholic teaching
The clerical community is divided over the issue of lay-dominated parish councils
THE YOUNG priest in black clerical garb is musing about his relationship with his people. “The title a priest has – Father – it’s not for nothing. ‘Father’ means something. It’s a significant title,” says Shane Crombie benignly. Being a “Father” is about “the people knowing that you’re there for them, like a father”, he says.
Many priests in Ireland today lack Fr Crombie’s sense of certainty. Most are too fearful – of not appearing humble, of resurrecting still suppurating wounds.
He was in his mother’s womb in 1979 when his grandfather stood on Chapel Hill, near Kilbeggan, Co Westmeath, and rang the church bell under Pope John Paul 11’s flight path to Clonmacnoise. Steeped in the devout faith of his grandparents, he has never experienced a moment’s doubt about his God or his vocation.
A confident speaker, with training in Maynooth and Rome plus a master’s degree in media and communications, Fr Crombie distances himself from themes closely associated with the Association of Catholic Priests, such as the call for national assemblies and dialogue on the looming dearth of priests, on compulsory celibacy and on the ordination of women. Priesthood and celibacy are indivisible for him.
“It comes back to the gospel and what the Lord has said – literally leaving all things for the sake of the people. If you don’t have a sense of the transcendent, then it’s absolutely ridiculous, then celibacy doesn’t make sense.”
Vocations will flourish again if men “put themselves in the way of Christ” and of accepting a vocation when called by God, he believes. “Then they will become priests – celibate priests.”
A question that preoccupies the Association of Catholic Priests – the second Vatican Council’s unfulfilled decision that every parish would have a lay-dominated council, linked to a diocesan council, feeding into a national assembly – seems to puzzle him. He has never heard of it.
But Tullamore already has a parish council, he replies; lay people even have the final say on who signs the cheques. “So when you talk about the ACP and Vatican 11, I would say, where are you living?
“I wouldn’t be a part of the ACP. The majority of younger guys my age wouldn’t either . . . I don’t have any attraction to it. I want to be part of the church, I don’t feel I need to be part of a brotherhood within the church. I’m part of one organisation and that’s enough for me.”
He knows how it sounds. “Young, radical conservative,” he jokes knowingly. “Which I’m not, by the way, as you can see.” In what way is he not conservative? “I know we [younger priests] have that reputation . . . I don’t think it’s true. I am Catholic. I wouldn’t regard myself as conservative or liberal.
“There is that idea among older priests definitely that the younger fellas that were born after Pope John Paul 11 came to Ireland have a hankering for a church of a different era, a kind of an older version of the church . . . But people of my age couldn’t be more Vatican 11. That’s all we’ve learned, it’s all we’ve lived, because that’s been our only experience of the church.
“Younger priests have the reputation of being more traditional in their style of dress and in their attitudes. But I think the most important thing is that a priest lives in the real world and that he does his work and his ministry in the real world.”
Would Fr Crombie support others who seek a voice at a higher, institutional level, such as the 1,000 lay Catholics and priests who recently turned up for the ACP-organised national assembly in the Regency Hotel?
“To what end? To change the teachings and dogmas of the church?”
And there’s the rub. Over in Moygownagh, a tiny rural parish near Ballina, Co Mayo, co-founder of the Association of Catholic Priests Brendan Hoban frequently gets hate mail and hate tweets accusing him of trying to do exactly that. Even at 64 and after a lifetime of speaking out, he keenly feels the sting.