Providence paper reporting on my Sunday meeting

Censured priest finds support in W. Warwick 

Published: October 26, 2014 11:20 PM

The Providence Journal / Andrew Dickerman
Father Tony Flannery, an Irish priest censured by the Vatican, speaks at Emanuel Lutheran Church, in West Warwick, on Sunday.
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WEST WARWICK, R.I. — An Irish priest censured by the Vatican for supporting the ordination of women and challenging church teachings on homosexuality received a warm welcome when speaking at Emanuel Lutheran Church on Sunday afternoon.

About 75 people turned out to hear Father Tony Flannery, who is on an 18-city, three-week tour of the United States after being suspended from priestly ministry in 2012.

Thin, short and graying, the 67-year-old priest, while mild-mannered and prone to making occasional jokes, recounted the life-changing episode that began when the Vatican came after him. While he had expressed views critical of the church in articles for Reality magazine, he said he figured that since he was just a Redemptorist preacher from Galway, Ireland, “the Vatican couldn’t care less about me.”

“I never considered myself a radical,” he said.

But when he refused to sign and publish a statement agreeing that women will never be ordained and embracing church orthodoxy on such matters as contraception and homosexuality, Flannery found himself on the outside of the Catholic Church looking in.

“There was no way they were going to back down,” he said. “That was it. That was the breaking point.”

Flannery said he couldn’t sign it because “everybody would have known I didn’t believe a word of it” and “most important of all, could I look in the mirror for the rest of my life?”

Ironically, he said, the church’s censure has elevated his profile outside Ireland, providing him a larger platform to espouse his views.

Among the groups that sponsored his visit as part of the “Catholic Tipping Point Tour” were the Women’s Ordination Conference. Its executive director, Erin Saiz Hanna, a Barrington resident and graduate of St. Mary Academy-Bay View and Salve Regina University, escorted him to the West Warwick church.

During his off-the-cuff remarks, Flannery didn’t focus on specific issues such as women and homosexuals in the church as much as he did on how he’s troubled by the centralized power of the Vatican. The church is stuck in the 16th century, he said.

He said he rejects the notion that the priesthood originated with Jesus Christ at the Last Supper, and argues that the more centralized the church has become over the centuries, “the less able it is to listen to the people.”

He saw some promise in the ongoing Catholic synod, which included a gathering in Vatican City this month that initially indicated a softening of views on homosexuality, divorce and cohabitation. While a final doctrine did not go that far, Flannery said he was encouraged by reports of more open discussion, urging Vatican officials “to let the voices of the whole church be heard.”

“This is a very interesting time in the church,” he said, referring to the leadership under Pope Francis. “Just maybe there’s a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel.”

During a question-and-answer period, several members of the audience expressed frustration, however, at the lack of progress in making what they see as necessary reforms and wondered what they can do about it.

“I want to see change,” said Nick Roach, who instead of sitting still during sermons preaching views he dislikes, gets up and walks out.

“We need more people to stand up and walk out,” replied Flannery.

“The only power I have is to not give money,” said one woman, prompting Hanna to suggest that people leave a note stating that they have instead given money to Women’s Ordination Conference or another reform cause.

An author of several books, the latest called “A Question of Conscience,” Flannery made it clear that he still wants to be a Catholic and part of the church. People are working on his behalf to have him reinstated, but he has no indication that the effort will succeed or has even caught the attention of the pope.

“I still love the church deeply,” he said.

On Twitter:  @RichSalit

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