Irish bishops divided over married clergy?

Jan 13, 2017 | 13 comments

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin meets with Pope Francis in Rome in 2014

Both RTE and the Irish Catholic are reporting (13th January, 2017) that the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference (ICBC) has been unable to agree to bring proposals on ending the celibacy requirement for priestly ministry in Ireland to Pope Francis for their Ad Limina visit to Rome, beginning January 15th, 2017.

A proposal that Irish priests who have left ministry to marry be readmitted to ministry was brought by Bishop Leo O’Reilly of Kilmore diocese to his fellow Irish bishops in 2015.  According to the report in the Irish Catholic, the ICBC failed to reach consensus then on this proposal.

Nevertheless, according to Bishop O’Reilly, the issue may come up in discussions in Rome, as the proposal was included in the Kilmore diocesan pastoral plan that he had submitted to Rome in preparation for the Ad Limina visit.

That visit will last from January 15th to January 25th, and will probably have a packed agenda as Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Dublin for the World Meeting of Families (WMOF) in August 2018.

The looming Irish crisis of priestly manpower is part of a wider crisis of continuity facing the Irish Catholic Church – following decades of inadequate communication between clergy and people after 1968, climaxing with a series of scandals involving clergy in numerous dioceses from 1992.

It is to be hoped that Irish bishops will also discuss with the pope how to establish a more dynamic relationship with their people – to address a generational loss of interest in Catholic religious practice, the root of the crisis of priestly manpower. While the Irish church has been paralysed by clerical fear of dialogue for most of the period after Vatican II (1962-65), Ireland has become radically secularised in the same period – and the recovery of the Irish church will be delayed if maximum advantage is not taken of the window of opportunity for renewal that presents itself with this papacy.

Bishops won’t ask Pope to permit married priests – Irish Catholic

Click here for the RTE report.


  1. Martin Murray

    Hats off to Bishop Leo O’Reilly for doing what a bishop should do, i.e. listen to and represent his people.

    Good also to hear that the bishops of Ireland have brought themselves to even discuss the issue of allowing married priests to return to ministry and married men to train for the priesthood, along with the possible admission of women to the diaconate. Regrettable though that we have to hear about it through the general media.

    If the Catholic bishops of Ireland are even in the the slightest way in touch with their people they will know of the widespread openness and support for this move. But its an open question as to whether or not they want to hear the opinion of the Body of Christ. If they do, and they are not clear, why don’t they ask them through a nationwide, parish by parish, diocese by diocese survey? The outcome would be decisively in favour of married priests and women deacons.

    Maybe they can’t hear because we the laity are afraid to make our voice heard. Now is the time! Don’t leave it others. Don’t leave it until later. Let your local bishop know beyond all reasonable doubt that you and the people in your parish support such a move. Its not unreasonable. Pope Francis awaits our support for reform.

    Although he may well already have left for Rome, I’ve just penned my (very first) letter to my local bishop (no email address provided on diocesan website), stating my support for this change. It will be waiting for him on his return, and in good time for the Pope’s visit to Ireland in 2018.

    Why not join me in making this simple request for change know to your local bishop. It doesn’t have to be complicated or aggressive. Just a simple statement of your support for this move and of your conviction that as far as your spirit can prayerfully discern, God won’t mind.

    As this article says, “the recovery of the Irish church will be delayed if maximum advantage is not taken of the window of opportunity for renewal that presents itself with this papacy.”

  2. Pascal O'Dea

    Martin, Bishop Dennis Nulty Kildare and leighlin is in no doubt of our feelings here and we have requested a second meeting to follow up up an earlier meeting in 2015. Hopefully he will be emboldened in the spirit of Pope Francis and likewise his colleague bishops. With the iminent visit of Pope Francis, now is the time for people to voice their simple wish for change.

    • Martin Murray

      Good to hear Pascal. Together as individuals and organisations we can help our bishops over the line.

  3. Noel

    Thanks Martin and Pascal. The idea of writing to our bishops to urge them to give real consideration to the issue of married priest returning to ministry is a very good idea. Its interesting that most ordinary people seem to have been unaware of the bishops ad limina visit to Rome. I wonder why this important event, which occurs once in every 10 years, doesn’t receive more widespread publicity!! Making our views known to the bishops before they went to Rome would probably have been more effective. However, better late than never, how best could we encourage people to write the letters?

    • Martin Murray

      Noel, You ask “I wonder why this important event, which occurs once in every 10 years, doesn’t receive more widespread publicity!!”

      There is no doubt to me that the institution want to keep it a totally clerical affair. Rather than see it as an opportunity, I’m sure the bishops want to slip into Rome and out again with the least fuss possible. They probably dread it as much as teachers dread a school inspection. Archbishop Eamonn Martin’s comments prior to the Rome visit give the impression that the strategy for the the visit was to impress the Vatican and avoid any real analysis, before getting back to business as usual. From a clerical bubble he may see a lot of new lay activity happening, but where it exists it is largely energy being expended/wasted on maintaining a status quo that no longer serves us well. There is a lack of imagination and dare I say it, a lack of leadership – if we define leadership as the ability to see the need for change and to have the courage to implement it. Life without change is an impossibility. And that applies to the life of the church.

      The lack of joint clerical/lay structures at every level of the church means that these visits and the accompanying reports will remain an exclusive clerical affair. Co-responsibility? Don’t think so. Sean is right when he says “Co-responsibility without (at the very least) frank dialogue is merely a dishonest slogan”. Its far too early to be using terms like that. But that’s where the church needs to get to.

  4. soconaill

    Let’s suppose we somehow ended the Irish priestly manpower crisis in Ireland, and had Masses everywhere on the hour, every hour. If all these new priests are to be as non-communicative, monological, theologically inchoate and demoralised as most of the present generation, who could care?

    Not all of that demoralisation is down to overwork – there seems also to be a severe lack of confidence in relating Christian belief to a secularising society that talks about every important issue. And that’s because for decades we have talked together – priests and people – about almost nothing of critical importance.

    That almost complete denial of vibrant dialogue by bishops – the fearful avoidance of all the pent-up questions of half-a-century, as well as the current secularist challenge – trickled down to virtually all clergy. Withering completely the enthusiasm for reform and re-education begun by Vatican II it is the root cause of the priest shortage and of young Ireland’s walk-away from faith.

    All of our bishops in Rome need to declare that the era of Christendom and monologue is over, and that the current crisis of continuity in Ireland must now be addressed – dialogically – by all of us.

    My hope is that Bishop Leahy’s experiment of a synod in Limerick will be recommended by the Pope to all Irish bishops – and that they will come back to Ireland determined – at long last – to hear what their people have to say. All remaining barriers to frank, open communication must go, and bishops must level with us on the full scale of the crisis we face.

    ‘Co-responsibility’ without frank dialogue is merely a dishonest slogan. Putting up a calendar on the ICBC website that did not feature this Ad Limina visit long ago is just about the last straw for me. (‘No – don’t tell them we are going – they might try to advise us!’)

    • Pascal O'Dea

      Sean, you have accurately and clearly sumarised the problem, lets hope the Bishops wake up and respond to our requests for honest dialogue.

  5. Des

    Our bishops are supposed to have an Ad Limina visit to the Pope to report on the state of the Church in their diocese every five years. The Irish bishops, for whatever reason, have not done so since 2006, so one would imagine it is a most important occasion in the diocesan calendar and that it would be a topic on their lips over the past few weeks. We might even have been asked to pray for the success of the visit but have not had the opportunity to do so. .
    That said, here is an interesting aspect of the visit and I quote from the ICBC website.
    “What might be contained in a diocesan report prepared for the Ad Limina visit?
    Prior to the Ad Limina visit, each diocesan bishop submits a report on his diocese to the Holy See. The report from each diocese describes the actual situation of the Church in that diocese (overview of the present situation, facts and figures) for which the diocesan bishop is responsible, its challenges, its relations with non-Catholic and non-Christian religious communities, with civil society and with the public authorities. It is forwarded to the Holy See in advance in order that it can be studied, synthesised and a summary presented to the Pope. This allows the Holy Father to acquaint himself with the situation of each diocese prior to meeting with the bishops. “.
    Now, wouldn’t it be very interesting to have sight of each bishop’s report and see how their view of the situation in their diocese matches reality? I believe both the ACP and the ACI should put in formal requests for copies of each report.

  6. Siobhan Boylan

    When Jesus met the apostles he said to them “Come”, they left their boats, their father and followed Jesus and made them fishers of men/souls. This is why priests shouldn’t marry because their priority is to follow Jesus and have no worldly possession but to tend to Jesus flock and ensure souls reach Heaven. We are all asked to put Jesus first because he is the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega. He held us first and by his Mercy, grace and love, he will hold us in his arms again when we die. Jesus love is for his Church, his mystical body as Our Lady is Mother of the Church. When you truly love Jesus and a true follower, there is no room for anything else. And because Jesus loves us so much, all voids are filled with his love. The greatest sign of love for Jesus is to give up his life for his friend/flock as he did for us. Our rewards are not for this world but for the eternal one with Jesus.

    • soconaill

      And yet, Siobhan, decades after the apostles had left their boats to follow Jesus, we find St Paul writing as follows:

      “Have we not every right to eat and drink? And every right to be accompanied by a Christian wife, like the other apostles, like the brothers of the Lord, and like Cephas?” (I Cor 9: 4,5)

      Knowing that Cephas was Peter, how are we compelled to believe that he thought that in the call to follow Jesus he had been denied the company of his wife for the rest of his life?

      And knowing that it wasn’t until the Second Lateran Council, held in 1139, that the celibacy rule was imposed, how can we hold to the belief that Jesus’s original call to ‘follow’ was a call to lifelong celibacy as well, or was believed to be such, by the church of Peter and Paul?

  7. Pascal O'Dea

    Any interpretation? on this press release.
    Pope Francis has told Irish bishops their role should be one of a “goalkeeper”, ready to take shots from any direction.
    The pope made this observation during a two-hour audience with the bishops, who have been in Rome all week on an “Ad Limina” (to the threshold) visit to the Pope and the Holy See.

    [For reasons of copyright, the rest of this comment – the full text of the Irish Times report – can’t be carried here. The full report can be found by clicking the link above.]

    • soconaill

      That analogy of ‘goalkeeper’ is intriguing, Pascal. Is Pope Francis saying:
      ‘No more own goals, please!’ or
      ‘Don’t be ducking any of the questions that people might want to throw at you today!’
      or both?

      In light of what Pope Francis asks later in that report – ‘How do you begin a dialogue with young people?’ – I am inclined to say that this needs to be a priority for the bishops when they return, especially in light of the October 2018 Synod upcoming, on ‘Youth, Faith and Vocations’.

      To my knowledge our young people have never been asked in a properly confidential manner what they think about faith, and what the challenges to faith are for them in their teenage years.

      And this is in spite of the fact that they sit behind desks in our schools most days of the year – but often aren’t turning up now in chapel.

      This suggests to me a fear on the part of our bishops of hearing exactly how young people – and their elders too for that matter – really think.

      However you can describe such an attitude it certainly isn’t compatible with leadership. Those bishops who, like Bishop O’Reilly, have begun the task of truly listening, will feel encouraged by the pope’s words, I’m sure.

      As for those who haven’t, they surely need to stop dragging their heels!

  8. Alfa

    Dear all,

    I could write pages on my experience with trying to help the Catholic Church manage a change management process at Parish level.

    I should say that I failed completely.

    The changes I proposed were to develop a parish vision and a plan on how to implement that vision.

    The pastoral council is made up largely with members of the parish prayer groups, that it most elderly ladies.

    The priest was not interested at all in engaging with anyone on any topic and most especially if it involved spending money.

    The difficulty was that the members of the pastoral council would never question or interrogate any topic and would always end a comment with ” What ever Father thinks is fine with me”, so where do you go from there.

    There is/was no parish engagement, no youth ministry, no communications strategy, no education no parish development etc.

    So what do I do?

    As a married man, I felt that the Permanent Diaconate may be an option but, it feels that the Diocese isn’t really that interested.

    I am highly skilled and experience in what I do. I hold a senior post in my job and a number of company directorships.

    I am willing to give time to this and help develop the parish into something that is relevant in the Ireland of today.

    I have spoken to many in other parishes and it seems that my story isn’t unique.

    I feel that the church in Ireland needs to have serious look at its model of administration and develop one that has the message of Jesus Christ at its centre, that will fully engage with the laity and where priests will support the laity.

    I am in no way giving up. The Holy Spirit And Our Lady will support me and help as they have done so many times in the past.


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