Talking to the People on Church Reform. Reflecting on my experience.

When I was suspended from all priestly ministry two years ago I found myself with two options. Either I could settle down into a quiet life of retirement, or find some other forum in which I could communicate. While I was trying to decide about this Pope Francis was elected, and a new energy swept through the Church. A promise of some real reform began to open up.
So I decided that I would see if there was any way in which I could support and encourage the reform movement. Earlier this year I began a series of talks on Church Reform. I decided that I would not attempt to speak in church property, since it could cause complications, but instead go for neutral venues. I arranged the first few myself, in my own part of the country, and then from once the word spread, I waited for people in different areas to organise events and invite me to come.
At this point I have spoken in the following areas: Galway, Athenry, Ballinasloe, Castlebar, Sligo, East Clare, Limerick, Caherconlish, Listowel, Kinsale, Cork, Wexford, Kilkenny, Enniskerry, Dublin, Trinity College, and a second level school in north Galway. Further talks are arranged for Roscommon, Donegal and Belfast. I am also speaking to a group of students from the American university visiting Ireland in two weeks’ time. (Details in the Events page).
So it has been a busy couple of months for me. It has also been extremely interesting, and both encouraging and energising. I have kept the events low-key, with a small bit of local publicity in each case. Attendances have varied from a high of about two hundred to a low of forty or so. They mostly consisted of the middle and older age-group, with a small sprinkling of younger people, a majority of women, but a (for me) surprising number of men. In some places there was a significant involvement of local clergy, and in others none at all.
The people who attend consist largely of committed church people, but with a strong desire for change. In the discussion that follows my talks I have had a couple of instance of speakers calling on me to give up my heretical views, and doing damage to the Church. Interestingly, in each case the speaker was a man!
What have I learned?
• There is great sadness over the state of the Church, and most especially the fact that the faith is not being passed on to the next generation. People are questioning what went wrong, and how we might build a Church that is more welcoming and open to the young. They seem to appreciate the explanations I give from Church history for our current problems.
• There is an enormous level of frustration with the leadership of the Church in Ireland, and particularly that the exhilarating message of Pope Francis does not seem to be received by Church leaders here. Why are we not hearing our bishops speak about “a Church that is open to all, with all their problems”, and spelling out the implications of that for pastoral practice?
• People are now more hopeful than they have been for many years, due to the “Francis Effect”. But most are cautious, wondering if he really means what he is saying, and is he willing to bring about the necessary changes, and also recognising the extent of opposition to him, and the worry that, with the best will in the world, his efforts will be stymied.
• The question regularly comes up as to what people can begin to do at local level, how can this new-style approach involving decentralisation and collegiality begin to be implemented in their parishes. Are there better structures than the present system of advisory parish councils for allowing people’s voices to be heard?
• I think every gathering I have had has brought up the issue of women in the Church. The level of hurt experienced by some women over what they experience as exclusion from any meaningful role is very deep. This is clearly a problem that will not go away until it is faced squarely and openly.
• The realisation of the increasing shortage of priests is now well established, and people ask who will provide the Eucharist for the local community of believers. They express surprise that this issue, which is clearly facing us, is not being discussed by Church authorities. The question of inviting back priests who are married, and ordaining married men, comes up all the time. Increasingly people seem to think that the solutions are obvious, and wonder why changes aren’t happening.
Finally, there is no doubt that this is a ‘kairos’ moment, a time of great opportunity in our Church. There is a springtime of hope among the people I am meeting, a belief that the Holy Spirit is really active. But there is also a nervousness. The problem is that if it turns out to be a false dawn the sense of disappointment and disillusionment will be all the greater. We hope and we pray!