1. We found the meeting to be generally an affirmative experience that did not discourage ACI’s own proposal to forward the reforms of Vatican II via some kind of national process or assembly. We argued that this is needed to wake up the wider church, including the many people now alienated from it, to a changing relationship between clergy and people. We suggested a programme of parish-level dialogue events leading to diocesan synods and/or a National Assembly. The Archbishop had no problem with a national assembly but did not believe it was yet time for such a national event. He did not rule it out for the future. The Archbishop strongly believes that, before organising an event at national level, much work still needs to be achieved at the local parish and diocesan level in terms of putting in place the ‘infrastructure’ to support such an event.
2. The archbishop listened attentively to members of the ACI team who recounted personal experiences of childhood sexual abuse. These members commended the archbishop for his strong reminder to the October synod on the family in Rome that clerical sexual abuse of children had done lasting damage and must not be forgotten. They also appealed for all bishops to remain vigilant in safeguarding the vulnerable, and to continue to exercise compassion for all who had suffered. They believed the church’s way of addressing abuse should reflect best practice by a family that had fully healed the wounds caused by such abuse by one family member of another.
3. We were impressed by the time given to us by the archbishop, and by the presence of two lay people from the Armagh diocesan renewal team. These gave us the impression that a process of renewal is already ongoing in Armagh that involves lay people who are encouraged to collaborate and to speak for themselves. We were given copies of a brochure on the diocesan renewal programme.
4. We gathered also that these three Armagh representatives understood that the Armagh process for outreach to those ‘on the margins’ was still at an early testing stage – especially in regard to urban dwellers – and that they were sure they had more to learn, including from the synodal process ongoing in Limerick.
5. The archbishop listened attentively to our serious misgivings in relation to parish pastoral councils as an adequate vehicle for change, based on some personal experiences of participation in those. We argued the need for reform of those aspects of canon law that, in our view, over-empower the priest in regard to parish pastoral councils, at the expense of the alienation of many Catholics who would never consider membership of a PPC for that reason.
6. Earlier the archbishop had listened to our appeal on behalf of priests who had been censured in 2012, in the wake of the Vatican visitation of the Irish church – and our strong criticism of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for its role in this. His response suggested to us that he thought the latter body would usually be engaged only when serious theological themes with academic and pastoral consequences were at issue, not the more popular media articles that had brought trouble for some priests in Ireland. However, those priests were not under the jurisdiction of bishops but of their religious orders. His understanding was also that, in the current 24/7 media culture, the so called ‘silencing’ of anyone isn’t possible nowadays. We strongly argued that the shortcomings of the CDF in regard to just process in such instances are another alienating force for many, and a disincentive to open dialogue between clergy and people.
7. Archbishop Martin also said that Irish bishops had engaged in correspondence with the Association of Catholic Priests and also via diocesan priests’ councils. He himself had attended such a meeting in Armagh, and met freely with priests who were members of the ACP in the normal course of his duties as a bishop . He gave us to understand that the Irish Conference of Catholic Bishops did not ordinarily meet as a body with any other church organisation, so that in his view it would be anomalous for it to meet as such with the ACP. He did not convey to us any lack of concern for the situation of the censured priests.
8. In relation to church members in close relationships that do not conform to the model traditionally required for Eucharistic reception, we understand Archbishop Martin’s position to be that a distinction should be made between the absence of an invitation to the Eucharist in such situations on the one hand, and a policy of exclusion or lack of welcome on the other. Also that he thought that other opportunities for inclusion as discussed at the recent Synod of the Family in Rome and set out in paragraph 84 in the final Synod Report should be availed of. He believes the church must continue to uphold and promote the scripturally-based heterosexual relationship leading to the sacrament of marriage as it stands – without excluding from pastoral outreach or welcome those families and individuals that do not conform to that. He had listened carefully to our appeal for the church to recognise more visibly the variety of models of family that obtain among those marginalised currently.
9. The Archbishop was also expecting that the likely visit by Pope Francis to the World Meeting of Families in Dublin in 2018 would concentrate the minds of all of us in Ireland – lay people, religious, priests and bishops- to carry forward in Ireland the work of the synods on the family (as yet to be completed by Pope Francis’ response).
10. Finally, we discussed the need for a standard model for a liturgy involving Readings and Communion Distribution in the absence of a priest. The archbishop said such a resource document would be released in December 2015 by the National Centre for Liturgy, Maynooth, to fulfil this need.
11. On reflection we were greatly encouraged overall by the archbishop’s confidence in the vital role of lay people in building a new spirit of adventure and mission in the Irish church, aimed at making it a refuge and nurturing home for all who are currently vulnerable in an increasingly individualistic society. For this a climate of mutual confidence and frank dialogue is needed between clergy and people, and we felt that our meeting with the archbishop had been a good example of that.
Sean O’Conaill, on behalf also of:
Patricia Fitzsimons, Ben Flood, Anthony Neville, John Kelly