Some reflections on my tour so far

As I write this I am three weeks into my U.S. speaking tour, and at the Call to Action conference in Memphis, which is the eleventh stop in my eighteen city schedule. It has been a hectic, but extraordinarily interesting few weeks. I am getting the chance to see much of this enormous country, and to talk to Church reform people everywhere I go.
As the same time any impressions I have formed of the American Church will inevitably be tentative, because it will take time and rest before I can fully integrate all that I am experiencing.

There are a great many Catholic Church reform groups in this country, ranging from Call to Action, which seems to be the longest in existence, to other middle of the road associations like FutureChurch, to various womens’ ordination movements, and others who have agendas around Catholic sexual teaching and differing stances on the abortion question. But my impression is that, in spite of the fact that they differ greatly in some of the positions they adopt, they still seem to be able to work together on what they have in common, and that they amount to a significant voice within the Church here. Of course Francis has given them all a lift, and there is a sense of renewed energy about them.
The ‘culture warrior’ bishops are a big presence here. I have spoken in a number of places where some of the more outspoken ones are in charge. They do seem to me to be a very negative presence. Their dogmatism, unwillingness to listen, hard-line doctrinaire stances, create an enormous rift between them and their people, and a great sense of discontent and unhappiness. This was very obvious at my gatherings in their diocese. The discussion after my talk was full of frustration and hurt, and questions as to how it was possible to make their voices heard during this year of the Synod, when this enormous ‘brick wall’ was in the way.
I have only spoken in one Catholic church, and that one because the pastor defied the archbishop. But I have stayed with a number of priests on the various stages of the tour, and attended Masses that they celebrated. Admittedly, the ones that welcomed me tended to be of the more open, progressive type, but their parish Masses were a pleasure to attend; great involvement of the people, many women up on the altar, and a leisurely pace. Many people, who have visited Ireland and loved the country, commented to me on the lifelessness and poor quality liturgy of the Irish Masses they attended.
The women religious are greatly admired and supported by the people I meet, and people comment on their courage and commitment, often comparing the men unfavourably with them. Individual sisters I have met, like Jeannine Grammick and Maureen Fielder, are wonderfully alive and impressive.
While vocations are on the decline, more men are entering seminaries than in Europe. The people I speak to are greatly concerned about the type of men who are becoming priests, telling me that many of them would be more at home in the Church of the early part of the last century, and that they are having great difficulty relating to their parishioners. Some of them, with a dogmatism of doctrine and a dismissal of womens involvement, are finding themselves marginalised in their ministry. Equally, the experiment of bringing in priests from the developing countries to fill the gaps is proving to be problematic. As a result parishes are being clustered and closed, and older priests find themselves with almost impossible burdens of work. All of this is leading to the development of what they call Intentional Eucharistic Communities. These are communities of committed people who come together to pray and celebrate Eucharist. Increasingly they seem to be doing that without the presence of an ordained priest. It is as if the people, since the Church authorities are failing to provide ministers, are taking possession of the Eucharist themselves. If this continues to grow it could drastically change the whole debate about who can be ordained.