Church reformers get no blessing from clergy who fear threat to Catholic teaching
“We’re not crazy radicals, rejecting the teaching or theology of the church. We’re at the very heart of it. We have no problem with dogma, with anything that’s in the creed. We are not against Rome. We know our theology and we know that the Bishop of Rome is our central figure. So the last thing we want to do is break off. We will have lost part of our Catholic heritage if we do that.
“What we have questions about are policies. We are making a very strict distinction between what is the teaching of the church and what other people are saying the teaching is . . . We didn’t say we were for women priests. We didn’t say, even theoretically, that we were for the abolition of celibacy. What we did say was that ministry had to be looked at. Our simple approach is: if you haven’t got a priest, you haven’t got a Mass; if you haven’t got a Mass, you haven’t got a church.
“In Ireland in 20 years’ time, there will be just a scatter of priests. That’s the problem. But this is represented . . . as [coming from] crazy, radical reformers. I mean, I’m sitting in the middle of the country, in my 39th year of ordination, having worked in seven parishes – what the hell is radical about that?”
When he put the idea of a parish council to his first parish priest in 1973, the parish priest was puzzled. Masses were full, there were plenty of ordinations – what would it achieve? But Fr Hoban firmly believes that if lay people had been at the heart of parish councils then, as Vatican 11 intended, that the policy of moving abusing priests around, for example, would not have been tolerated.
He has seen the comments suggesting that people like him should simply leave and join the Protestant Church. “I’m insulted by that. It’s like someone saying to me, if there is a problem in your family, you should get out of it and join another family. Why should I leave my family?”
The “truth of being a priest for nearly 40 years”, he says, “is two kinds of lives. On the one hand, there is the life working as a priest in a parish. Your priorities are to get to know people, to support them. And 99 per cent of priests would say they feel they’re doing what they wanted to do in terms of ministering to people, in good times and bad . . . On the other hand, as you work in parishes and you use your mind to look at issues, you realise the church is losing contact with the lived experience of people’s lives, that there is a huge disconnect between the lives we clerics live and the lives people live . . . You recognise how things have changed. And how the church has not only not adapted to the change, but refused to engage with it in any way.”
Further west, in a Mayo parish that ends at the Atlantic, Kevin Hegarty, co-pastor on the Mullet peninsula, is palpably distressed by suggestions he should leave the church. On Good Friday, after giving an interview to Pat Kenny about the silencing of Fr Tony Flannery, he was “particularly hurt” by a subsequent respected contributor “who said that people like me should get out if we don’t accept the rules”.
Is the Association of Catholic Priests representative? “It’s representative of over 900 priests . . . It’s giving a focus to those who want reform in the church. If a group of conservative priests want to form their own association, why not? There is space for dialogue, and dialogue is what I believe in.”
There are different forms of silencing people, he says. “Obviously there is the old-fashioned kind . . . but another kind is not to be listened to. And that’s what happened to me on the part of the official church.”
In the silent house, he picks up a volume of Philip Larkin poems and in a voice that thickens with emotion, recites Church Going.