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.

“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.

“I sign the book/donate an Irish sixpence/Reflect the place was not worth stopping for./Yet stop I did: in fact I often do . . . It pleases me to stand in silence here.”

The 43-year-old priest in charge of Navan parish, Declan Hurley, describes himself as having “a foot in both camps”, somewhere between Fr Crombie and the Association of Catholic Priests. Ordained in 1993, he later studied and worked in Paris, and read Chapter 3 from the book of Job at Samuel Beckett’s grave in Montparnasse to mark the writer’s centenary. He admits, almost sheepishly, that he is scheduled to speak twice at the Eucharistic Congress, on the theme of Job and questions about suffering and healing – first in French and later in English.

“There is a neo-conservative kickback in priests and laity. The generation that are driving the ACP can sometimes be seen as the generation that presided over the collapse . . . That’s not true.”

Likewise, he believes that the reaction to the child abuse scandals has now gone “too far . . . The initial reaction is always exaggerated. It takes a while for things to find a reasonable level. And we are the fall guys . . . I would refuse to apologise because I did nothing wrong . . . The only thing I regret is that the whole focus has remained on the church only and that child abuse is not seen as a problem in society at large.”

He makes no attempt to gloss over the challenges. “In latter times, I would have had questions about my choice. The whole celibacy thing hits at some stage. But in the same way as a married man finds a new reason to make a commitment to his wife, it’s the same for me . . . I would be more conscious now of my limitations, that I’m not Superman. As you get older, you throw off the saviour-of-all-mankind mantle and become a bit more mature and realistic about it.”

He will not engage in discussion about the silencing of priests. “It doesn’t come close to anything I have to deal with on a daily basis. It remains something I only read about in the paper. I still have to get into school for the confirmation children, I still have to talk to the family about the funeral tomorrow.”

In Sligo, Niall Ahern, parish priest of Strandhill, is also scheduled to give a talk at the congress – on disability and active participation – and is so determined to return to a positive church narrative that he refuses to comment on anything that might be construed as negative. “I believe there is a wonderful future for the Catholic Church,” he says. His hope lies in what are called ecclesial communities such as Sant’Egidio and Focolare, groups of young professional lay-people, such as the Legion of Mary, that have blossomed across Europe and operate within parishes.

These groups are also mentioned hopefully by Fr Hurley, although he is clear they have a long way to go in Ireland. “The church on the continent went through the crises of the world wars, then 1968 [revolutions and the counter-culture] completely finished it. And their ’68 was our ’94 [Brendan Smyth]. These things take almost take a generation to emerge . . . You see little shoots emerging, of people who are learning to live their faith in an independent way.

“You see some of these new movements beginning to take root,” adds Fr Hurley. “The real renewal will come when lay people begin to take responsibility for their faith.”