A full account of the International Church Network Meeting in Slovakia last June.

This is a really excellent account of the meeting, written by Australian David Timbs.

International Catholic Reform Network
Pezinok Slovakia, June 11-15, 2018

ICRN’s identity and purpose

We are Catholic priests- and reform-movements working together for and toward a pastoral church.

ICRN is an international network of priest and lay reform movements that organizes pastoral dialogue-retreats to model and prepare the church for the future, to enable its members and invited participants to communicate and dialogue with one another honestly, to tell stories, to heal wounds from the struggles of reform, to give courage to all engaged, and to share energy, enthusiasm, ideas; and in some cases, to act.

The church that we work for is one that has to be:

INCLUSIVE: a church that reaches out to the people on the peripheries of life and the peripheries of church to bring them into the center of community in Christ.

PARTICIPATORY: a church that empowers people to contribute all their charisms to their local faith-communities and the Church as a whole, respecting the dignity inherent in every human being and in all creation.

DIALOGICAL: a church that enables the people of God — the baptized and the inquiring, the hierarchs and the lowly, the thriving and the hurt — to enter sincere and authentic dialogue, to share their stories, to heal and to strengthen faith, hope and love, and to experience joy and peace together.

FAITHFUL: a church that gathers communities of believers to pray together, to listen to the word together, to celebrate Eucharist together, to be creative in their expressions of faith, and to act on it.

ICRN: a brief history

The formation of the International Catholic Reform Network (ICRN) began with a friendship and a meeting of minds between Helmut Schüller (Austrian Pfarrer Initiative) and Tony Flannery C.Ss.R (Association of Catholic Priests, Ireland) in 2013. Both had toured the US earlier that year to speak to large audiences about the critical challenges facing the Church in many parts of Europe, including Ireland (http://www.catholictippingpoint.org/2013). In the US Deborah Rose-Milavec and her colleagues at Future Church provided invaluable support. Soon after the US tours, Schüller, Flannery and Rose-Milavec contacted Fr Ian McGinnity of the Australian National Council of Priests along with Fr Dan Divis of the Association of US Catholic Priests. It soon became obvious that the very same catalogue of challenges these groups were talking about were facing Catholics across the world. Consequently, more reform minded priests, religious and laity from South Asia, Australia and Latin America were invited to be part of the growing conversation. The common focus of the participating bodies became the reform of the structures and governance of the local churches and their ongoing renewal according to the teaching and vision of the Second Vatican Council.

Since the initial meeting in Bregenz, Austria, in 2013, three more conferences have been held: at Limerick, Ireland (2015), in Chicago, USA (2016) and more recently at Pezinok, Slovakia (2018). Catholics for Renewal has been represented at all but the initial Bregenz meeting.
The current ICRN steering team members are:
Deborah Rose-Milavec, Future Church, USA
Helmut Schüller, Pfarrer Initiative, Austria
Ian McGinnity, National Council of Priests, Australia
Markus Heil, Pfarrei Initiative, Switzerland
Max Stetter, Pfarrer Initiative, Germany
Tony Flannery, Association of Catholic Priests, Ireland
Bob Bonnot, Association of US Catholic Priests, USA

Pezinok, Slovakia, June 2018.
Peter Križan and Rastislav Kočan were the co-hosts and local organizers of the Bratislava/ Pezinok meeting. Their personal warm welcome and hospitality were augmented by many other members of the Slovakian reform group, Society for Open Christianity for the 21st Century ok21.sk. The near fifty participants from sixteen countries and four continents were accommodated in two hotels and a Pension in the center of Pezinok. All of the group sessions were held in the charming Vinársky Dom hotel that offered superb meeting facilities. The midday and evening meals were offered at the two residential hotels, at nearby restaurants and, on one memorable occasion, as part of a reception given by the city mayor at the Dom kultúry Pezinok (Cultural Centre/ Town Hall). ICRN participants were treated not only to the local food and brew, but also to an audio-visual presentation on Slovakian life during the forty-one years of the Soviet Era. We were given a privileged insight into the social, religious and political repression and dislocation that happened during that time.
With the exception of Fr Bob Bonnot (Chair of the AUSCP) who was not able to attend, all the members of the ICRN steering team were present at the Pezinok meeting. Representing Bob were two other founding members, Frs Gerry Bechard and David Cooper.
The first afternoon and the following morning sessions were set aside to give participants the opportunity to learn from people who were active in the Czechoslovakian Underground or ‘hidden Church’ during the years 1948 – 1989. Except for a small number of younger presenters, most were active in some way or another in the secret and dangerous operations of the Underground Church. Their personal and collective memories of the brutal persecution of those times, sometimes murderous, are vivid, fresh and, at times, very confronting. The Communist regime collapsed only 29 years ago, and one of the participants at the meeting who remembers it well is Fr Dušan Špiner. In October 1979 he was ordained a bishop in secret by Bishop Felix Maria Davídek. Špiner ministered clandestinely for ten years and caring for underground communities and also ordaining many priests and a small number of bishops. He also ordained seven women deacons. After the events of 1989, Špiner was informed by the newly restored hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Czechoslovakia that there was no further role for him as a bishop. During a personal conversation in Rome with Pope John Paul II, Špiner requested and was granted permission to resign the rights, privileges and title of bishop and to resume ministry as a parish priest in a Slovakian town. His requests were granted.

Unfortunately, after 1989, deep divisions began to surface among those involved in the Underground Church. The re-constituted hierarchy made it clear that the radical survivalist but authorized measures that were adopted in Czechoslovia from 1948 to 1989 were of no further use. Church order and ministry had to be returned to ‘normality’ as quickly as possible, and at any cost. Among the first casualties of the ‘normalizing’ were the many Catholic men and women who had been ordained for episcopal, priestly and diaconal ministry under the ‘Mexican Faculties’ granted to the Czechoslovakian bishops by Pius XII when the Communists came to power in 1948. Ancient history repeated itself post 1989, when more divisions occurred among members of the former Underground Church. This time it was over the ‘collaborators and traitors’ under the Communist regime and how they should be treated. The intense debate over this resembled the fierce divisions over the Lapsi (those who turned away from Faith practice) and the Traditories (betrayers) following the great persecutions of Emperors Decius, Valerian, and Domitian (mid 3rd to the early 4th centuries).
“We value the courageous acts of Bishop Davídek and others who recognized the pastoral need to bring the sacraments to communities of faith. We need to endure and be vigilant, so that we do not miss 21st Century’s Pentecost,” – Peter Križan, ok21 – Society for Open Christianity for the 21st Century.*
Long after the return to ‘normalcy in Czechoslovakian Church, tributes were paid to Bishop Davídek, Bishop Špiner and their co-workers in the Underground Church of Czechoslovakia. It was Bishop Davídek who ordained a married man to the episcopate and four female priests including Ludmilla Javorová who, with Bishop Špiner was recognized publicly at a ceremony that was featured in the April 2011 issue of Clerical Whispers.
In July 2012, some of the residual bitter memories of episcopal betrayal, collaboration with the Nazis during WW II, administrative corruption and post-Underground Church partisanship surfaced at all levels of Slovakian public life. What reopened the old wounds this time was the largely unexplained removal of Róbert Bezák CSsR, Archbishop of Trnava, Slovakia, by Pope Benedict XVI. A number of participants in Pezinok mentioned that the methods used in Bezák’s removal were strikingly similar to those employed in the ‘resignation’ of Bishop Bill Morris from his diocese of Toowoomba in Queensland. For an informative backgrounder, see, Colleen Koch, “What Is Really Behind The Firing Of Archbishop Bezak?” Enlightened Catholicism July 15, 2012. (http://enlightenedcatholicism-colkoch.blogspot.com/2012/07/what-is-really-behind-firing-of.html Accessed 12/07/2018).
I understand that the Slovakian conference organisers had invited Archbishop Bezák to address the conference, but he declined. He now lives and ministers out of the limelight in a Slovakian Redemptorist community, not a great distance from the birthplace of St Clement Hofbauer in Taßwitz (Tasovice, Czech Republic). Hofbauer was the first non-Italian Redemptorist, and spent most of his life preaching and ministering, mainly in Central Europe. He is now honoured as co-patron saint of Vienna.
Happy to be present at the conference were a Russian couple, Antonia “Tony” Dubinine and her husband. They are members of the tiny minority Latin Rite Catholic Church in Russia, and reminded everyone that the Underground Church there still exists and is not so distant from the former Czechoslovakia. They presented graphic tales of bitter on-going persecution of Catholics in many forms: moral, psychological, socio-economic and religious. They said that the community support and affirmation they experienced at Pezinok gave them renewed hope and confidence to press on into the future.

Reports of the ongoing working groups from Limerick 2015 to Pezinok 2018:
1) Fundamental Rights and Obligations in the Roman Catholic Church; the purpose of the Lex Ecclesiae Fundamentalis (“Fundamental Law of the Church”) working group is to develop a model charter for parishes and dioceses according to the principles spelt out at the 1971 World Synod of Bishops. The core of this Charter of Fundamental Rights and Obligations was preserved in the document “Justice in the World” that was the official statement issued at the end of the 1971 World Synod of Bishops. “Justice in the World” was affirmed and signed by Pope Paul VI at the end of the Synod. In a broader perspective, the statement embodies the core principles of the Lex Ecclesiae Fundamentalis commissioned by Pope Paul VI at the very end of the Second Vatican Council in 1965. Part III of the 1971 Synod document, “The Practice of Justice” is of particular interest to the ICRN working group.

Since the Chicago meeting in 2016 the numbers of working group members had dropped from about a dozen to four or five, with most of the research and development work done by just two people. However, the group reestablished itself in Pezinok and now consists of six members from five countries.

The draft preamble and Charter proposals had been written and distributed by David Timbs, and these were thoroughly discussed, critiqued at the meeting. Another version will be prepared and sent back to the other members of the working group for more editing and refinement. That process is presently underway. When consensus on a final draft of the Charter has been reached, it will be sent out to the rest of the Pezinok participants who may promote it in their own countries as they see fit. Eventually, the Charter might be printed in pamphlet form as a template Charter to be sent to parishes and dioceses throughout the world.

The work done on the Charter in Pezinok had a powerful added significance for the working group, as the members had been reminded by presenter Martin Palouš, former dissident during the Communist period, and later Deputy Foreign Minister of the Czech Republic and Ambassador of the Czech Republic to the United States, who spoke passionately about the political and moral importance of the famous Charter 77 written by the Czech popular leaders during the Communist era, which demanded the political, cultural and religious freedoms guaranteed by the State Constitution, but often denied by the Communist totalitarian regime. The Charter 77 showed up the striking gap between the high rhetoric of the 1975 Helsinki Accords and the dismal human rights situation in central Europe two years later. Another of the main demands in Charter 77 was aimed at religious leaders and institutions, some of which had abandoned the people and the defense of their human rights and freedoms. They chose, instead, to compromise their confessional principles by collaborating with the regime in the suppression of those rights.

2) Emerging models of parish, ministry/ community life. Deborah Rose-Milavec (Future Church, USA) reconvened her working group to continue to explore merging models of parishes in the light of the priest shortages and other issues such as the effects of constant large-scale demographic shifts that have resulted in the degradation of parish cohesion, along with the inevitable toll on the morale of the remaining parish core members. This has been compounded by the widespread and highly contentious policy of amalgamations. Future Church and members of the AUSCP have been working closely in preparing parishes, their people and parish leadership to exercise the kinds of ingenuity needed to adapt to current challenges. One of the most helpful resource persons is this work has been Rhode Island Canon Lawyer, Sr Kate Kuenstler PHJC. In recent years Kate has greatly assisted the ICRN parish model working group and Helmut Schüller’s Austrian colleagues and parishioners who are locked in a monumental struggle with the Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, and other Austrian bishops. A few years ago, Kate was successful in persuading the Apostolic Signatura to overturn the closure of over a dozen parishes in Cleveland, Ohio, as well as other places. Among these are many parishes in the Archdiocese of Vienna that are resisting the process of clustering or amalgamation. Helmut Schüller, himself under pressure from Cardinal Schönborn to take on three contiguous parishes, has requested Kate Kuenstler to provide canonical advice in support of the Pfarrer-Initiative’s resistance. Up to the present, Schüller and other members of the Pfarrer-Initiative have simply refused the Cardinal’s request to accept the Archdiocese’s ‘invitation’.

3) Priest shortages throughout the world and sensible, workable solutions. Max Stetter of Pfarrer Initiative Germany, and a priest of the Archdiocese of Augsburg, Germany, has for the last couple of years, been leading a working group exploring realistic, achievable solutions to the world-wide shortage of priests. Max’s first hand experience includes many years in Uganda as a member of a missionary outreach team, sent there by his Archbishop. His ICRN colleagues have been studying Third World models of priestly ministry proposed by Bishops Fritz Lobinger and Erwin Kräutler for their own dioceses in southern Africa and Brazil’s Amazon region respectively. Now that Pope Francis has expressed his readiness to lend support for solutions proposed by national episcopal conferences, the working group is urging the members of ICRN to combine their efforts to promote the urgency and the viability of the Lobinger/Kräutler married ‘viri probati’ models of priesthood.

All four national associations of priests, the ACP (Ireland), AUSCP (USA), NCP (Australia) and Pfarrer Initiative (Austria/Germany) have expressed their official support for the ‘viri probati’ married priest solution. The change, though perhaps radical for many people, does not entail a shift in doctrine, but only some amendments to Canon Law. The example of what was done in the Czechoslovakian Underground Church is evidence of what can and did happen when situations of acute and lasting pastoral need arise. Among the pastoral decisions made under the ‘Mexican Faculties’ granted by Pope Pius XII was to ordain married men and a small number of women to the priesthood and also women to the diaconate. Bishop Davídek is known to have ordained at least one man to the episcopate. This decision was made on that basis that Salus animarum lex suprema in Ecclesia – the salvation of souls, which must always be the supreme law in the Church (Canon 1752). Linked to the general discussion on this matter, it is useful to read, Christine Schenk, “We have no shortage of vocations. What we have is a shortage of vision” NCR Nov 20, 2014 (https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/simply-spirit/we-have-no-shortage-vocations-what-we-have-shortage-vision Accessed 24/06/2018). The article features Gerry Bechard, Tony Flannery, Deborah Rose-Milavec and (Sr) Christine Schenk, all of whom are members of the ICRN coalition.

4) LGBT Ministries. US Loretto Sister Jeannine Gramick, co-founder of New Ways Ministry and convenor of the ICRN working group, continues to work with her colleagues on developing policies and strategies in support of Catholic LGBT(QI) ministries around the world. The group continues to focus its advocacy on attempting to convince Catholic Church leaders of the need to bring about a Christ-like shift in accepting the equal dignity of human beings with diverse sexual orientations. The group is working with the Vatican to eliminate this statement in paragraph 2358 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The numbr of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not neglibible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial”.

During discussions on the forthcoming World Meeting of Families (WMF) in Dublin, Brendan Butler of We are Church, Ireland reported on the stonewalling tactics of the organizers which his group encountered when the requested a stall (with a €2,500 fee) at the Congress Center. The request has been subject to an almost endless series of ‘administrative delays’, even though group was among the first to apply in February. The organizers have now effectively black-balled and excluded WAC Ireland from this global event by declaring that it “does“not meet our stated criteria.” Butler also informed the ICRN participants that the official WMF brochure had been censorsed as had Bishop McEvoy’s promotional YouTube address, in which he acknowledges and affirms Ireland’s constitutional amendment on ‘marriage equality’ and the need for all persons to treat every other human being with a Christ-like attitude. The Pezinok ICRN meeting expressed its solidarity with We are Church, Ireland and its initiatives by voting unanimously on a joint statement. The communique supports the inclusion and involvement of LGBT people, including SSM couples, at the 2018 WMF in Dublin, Ireland.

Suggested discussion points on current issues of common interest and concern raised at Pezinok and on future collaboration on projects with realisable outcomes:
• Decline in active church engagement and its wider implications for life, ministry and the future.

• Priest shortages: amalgamation or clustering of parishes; widespread dissatisfaction with imported priests as ‘sacramental dispensers’, language and cultural problems in Europe, USA, Australia. More and more priests contemplating ‘disobedience’ after the Pfarrer Initiative (now weakening by some members bowing to pressure). “No” (“loyal non-cooperation”) might have the effect of forcing the bishops to take charge of the situation locally, as the Czechoslovakian Underground bishops arrived at their equivalent of the St Mary MacKillop practical solution: ‘Never see a need without doing something about it.’

It is interesting to note the courageous and risky nature of Schüller’s work in preparing his parishioners for drastic contractions in the availability of conventional priestly ministry: the primary focus on Baptism, the presence of Christ in the assembly of the faithful, in the Word and in the day to day active evangelization by the community and individuals. He ponders the prospect of perhaps getting to the stage where the community celebrates Eucharist without any formally ordained minister, and wisely wonders where this might lead. There iwas also a common sense of anticipation at the Pezinok meeting that parish and diocesan pastoral councils may be mandated sometime in the very near future (note recent International Theological Commission document on ‘Synodality’). Participants voiced their dissatisfaction with the unsatisfactory levels of accountability and transparency in church governance. Education about rights and obligations: counter passivity and compliant about the acceptance of authority without accountability and transparency on the part of the bishops.

• Clericalism: its nature, manifestations and ongoing presence in ecclesiastical life. David Cooper (Milwaukee, retired) of AUSCP flagged the new Rite of Ordination which fuels sacerdotal clericalism, as it reflects Pope John Paul II’s ecclesiology whereby the identity of the laity is defined not by equality by reason of baptism into the new humanity of Christ, but by their part sharing in the priesthood of the ordained. The liturgy of Holy Thursday, since the reforms of John Paul II, is a clear example of this. The focus on the Eucharist is now blurred by constant reference in word and action to the institution of the priesthood (the no priest, no sacraments, no Church logic). There was common concern about the culture of elitism among the John Paul II/Benedict XVI young priests: their love of externals: vestments, expensive personal lifestyle tastes, little inclination to be involved in the messiness of pastoral care, mediocre academic records, very little sign of a serious commitment to ongoing education (including serious reading), and a disdain for appraisals of professional standards and competencies. The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the General Instruction on the Roman Missal are often the favoured reading of these priests, while many of them are devoted to the Latin Mass culture, antiquarianism and restorationism. Many still think of Benedict XVI as their pope. A recent submission by the AUSCP to the US Catholic Bishops’ Conference recommends thorough, systemic reform of the Ratio Fundamentalis (The essential elements of the programme of priestly formation in the Latin Rite). The US Ratio Nationalis (used in Australia up to 2007 due to the lack of an equivalent contextualized Australian document) resonates strongly with the recommendations of the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and policy statements of reform groups particularly in Europe, Australia and North America.

• Reform of Seminaries: Ratio Fundamentalis: culture, curriculum, underlying theology, pastoral preparation for ministry. The Royal Commission, NCP. AUSCP and groups such as Catholics for Renewal have recently expressed support for reform in seminaries. Debates in Ireland. CCSA will be unmasked in Asia and South Asia in a few years time, forcing a systemic reform of seminary formation there as well.

• Bishops not listening to their people, selective consultation; episcopal paralysis and failure in their duty to exercise the ministry entrusted to them at ordination.

• There was widespread acknowledgment of the importance of the Australian Royal Commission recommendations for structural and cultural reform in the Catholic Church in all countries represented at the ICRN meeting.

• Esteem for the quality and relevance of Catholics for Renewal’s advocacy work and for the richness and easy accessibility of the website.
ICRN statements, June 2018:
• Press Release of the “International Catholic Reform Network” https://icrn.info/
• Statement in support of the inclusion of SSM couples at the World Meeting of Families in Dublin, August 2018.

Some concluding remarks:

1. Clarification and refinement of renewal issue: after three previous meetings of ICRN, the coalition is now maturing rapidly. Trust and confidence are high. Common ground on issues of collective concern have been identified and prioritised. The members have finally reached consensus that the time is right to focus collective attention, energies and strategies on achieving a number of objectives that have the best chances of producing successful outcomes. The previous meetings in Limerick and Chicago, while consolidating some very promising collaborative working groups, were limited in their success, as a result of strong differences over reform issues among interest groups that caused a degree of division and alienation. Fortunately, these negative factors have not stifled optimism or diminished the bonds of friendship.
Since the Pezinok conference, I am now convinced that the renewal of motivation and the sharping of focus among the ICRN members was triggered by listening to the stories of the Underground Church and the enormous challenges that faced its members during the forty years of Communist State repression and persecution. These stories, told by many who had been part of a clandestine Church, and who, in many cases, suffered intensely as a result of their participation, provided a sobering and humbling reference point for all at the Pezinok meeting. The witness of the people of the Underground Church helped participants to evaluate their concerns in a new perspective and to examine more thoroughly their agendas. One example was the way the women’s ordination issue was discussed at Pezinok. While advocacy for this cause continues to be overwhelmingly supported, it is now seen as a goal that has very little chance of being successful, unless a series of prior steps are taken, a strategy hotly contested at previous ICRN meetings.
There is a strong consensus now forge a collective advocacy for the appointment of lay women and lay men to the highest positions of governance in the Catholic Church. A reasonable and achievable step towards the realisation of this goal will require an amendment to, or excision of, Canon 129.1 that currently excludes lay persons from exercising jurisdiction over clerics. One of the points of least resistance to Church reform is Canon Law, with its attendant protocols and procedures.
Garry Wills writes that the history of this canonical exclusion can, in part, be traced to Constantine’s relinquishment of all temporal authority to the fraudulently anachronistic Pope Silvester. Constantine deferred to the Pope because “…. where the supremacy of priests and the head of the Christian religion has been established by the heavenly emperor, it is not right that an earthy emperor should have jurisdiction”. Likewise, the equally fraudulent 8th century Constitutum Constantini cited in Garry Wills’ book, The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis (New York: Penguin Radom House, 2015) 93.

2. An appropriate time for international advocacy: the consensus of the Pezinok meeting is that all representative groups should use their international network to publicise and act on the following issues of common interest and concern:
• the urgent systemic reform of Church culture, organizational and governance structures, including the appointment of laity to the highest levels of ecclesial leadership, including heads of Vatican dicasteries. Related to this is the pressing need to acknowledge the equality of women, and to recognize that the Church remains incomplete at its very center, and is inauthentic in its witness to the Gospel, as long as women are excluded from leadership at every level of church governance;
• the need for universally mandated diocesan and parish pastoral councils and other related consultative bodies;
• an end of forced amalgamations of parishes and the importation of foreign priests;
• a clear commitment by bishops and laity to purge the Church of the disease of clericalism and its toxic culture.
By the end of the Pezinok meeting, there was no clear decision on the date and venue of the next ICRN gathering. Australia was mentioned as a possible location for the next meeting in about eighteen months time but, from the response of many, it would appear that the tyranny of distance has probably finished off that suggestion. The choice could be Asia, but that is remote given that there are few active reform groups, lay and/or clerical in the Asian, and South East and South Asian regions. India is an exception, but the reform communities there would struggle to find the resources to host an ICRN meeting. My guess is that the next meeting will be held somewhere in Europe or the UK, where A Call to Action has a strong base, or even Ireland. For decades that country has been experiencing the systemic institutional problems that closely resemble those that have been exposed in the governance of the Catholic Church in Australia.
ICRN provides an invaluable global context to church renewal, while reinforcing our predominantly national perspective. I recommend that Catholics for Renewal participate in future ICRN conferences. Consolidation of our collaboration and networking with global partners is not only timely, but is of the utmost importance for us and, by association, for our ACCCR colleagues. Active membership in ICRN provides Catholics for Renewal with an unparalleled opportunity to be both informed and influenced by like-minded reform groups, while similarly influencing them in return. As a result of the dialogue with our international connections over the last few years, key issues of primary importance for all have been identified, and have lead to action from all national groups, especially in the areas of reform of ecclesiastical culture, gender balance in governance structures, especially at parish and diocesan levels, and accountability at all levels.
Many people at Pezinok, especially from the the larger European and US groups, made it clear, that in their view, Catholics for Renewal has become a model for reform groups with its pastoral and organisational vision, the reasonableness and coherence of its submissions, editorials, articles, and its proven effectiveness in action.
*A collection of the first hand stories of Conference presenters who spoke about their lives and experiences in the Czechoslovakian Underground/Hidden Church is being re-editied into a clearer and more accurate English translation. Catholcs for Renewal will publish this collection on its website just as soon as the work becomes available.
David Timbs, August 2, 2018.