The following ACI Documents were presented to the Irish Bishops Conference in time for their October 2019 meeting at Maynooth. We have been assured that they have been added to the documentation to be considered by the conference in the task of renewal, via the synodal pathway announced in March 2021.
The Common Priesthood of the People of God
and the Renewal of the Church
In its appeal to Catholic families to support vocations to the ‘priestly and religious life’ the April 2019 pastoral letter from the diocese of Down and Connor ‘To follow Jesus closely’ included the following:
‘A vocation to priesthood … is a ‘particular gift’ which God provides for the good of the Church, to `help the people of God exercise faithfully and fully the common priesthood which it has received’ in baptism.’
This is mostly a quote from Pastores Dabo Vobis – an apostolic exhortation of Pope John Paul II, 1992. By that year Pope John Paul II had been loudly awakened (by the US church) to the reality that ordained men could abuse children sexually, but in this document yet again the role of the ordained priest is idealised as though what priests should do will necessarily be done. This manner of describing the ordained priestly role – as though ordination will in itself raise the ordained person to a plane beyond failure and sin – and as though wisdom can travel in only one direction in the church – from the ordained to the unordained and never vice versa — should be consigned to the past, if the disease of clericalism is to be eradicated from the church.
Two years after Pastores Dabo Vobis – in 1994 – Ireland woke to the reality of clerical child sexual abuse, with revelations of the abusive career of Brendan Smyth. It was only then that the Irish bishops’ prioritisation of the safety of Catholic children began, as was admitted by the bishops themselves in 2009, immediately following the Murphy Report:
We are deeply shocked by the scale and depravity of abuse as described in the Report. We are shamed by the extent to which child sexual abuse was covered up in the Archdiocese of Dublin and recognise that this indicates a culture that was widespread in the Church. The avoidance of scandal, the preservation of the reputations of individuals and of the Church, took precedence over the safety and welfare of children. This should never have happened and must never be allowed to happen again. We humbly ask for forgiveness.
(December 2009 Meeting of Irish Bishops).
Is it not clear that this was implicitly an admission that in the end it had been Irish Catholic parents who had taught Bishops their responsibilities in relation to Child Safeguarding, and to confess failures that still hold the church in shock?
After a quarter century it seems that the importance of this sequence has yet to be grasped by all Irish bishops. Bishop Noel Treanor’s pastoral letter of April 2019, To follow Jesus closely, emphasises instead the role of the ordained priest in helping the people of God to exercise the common priesthood of the people of God – without acknowledging that recent history has shown that:
- Unordained but baptised parents can discern their own Christian pastoral role – e.g. in relation to children – in specific circumstances – without assistance from their ordained pastors;
- Can in so doing, and in acting independently, help to educate Catholic bishops on the proper exercise of their own pastoral responsibilities;
- Can therefore perform a vital leadership role in the development of understanding of the common priesthood of all baptised people, and in the reform of the church;
- Have exercised a more decisive leadership of the Irish church in the safeguarding of children and of the sacred role of the family than those who, in Catholic ritual and solemn procession, wielded the pastoral symbol of care of the most vulnerable, the shepherd’s staff.
Jesus as Model for the Common Priesthood of the People of God
The association of ‘priesthood’ with the liturgy of the Eucharist and the ministry of the Word is longstanding and valid – but Jesus was also in 21st century verbiage an ‘activist’ – a ‘whistleblower’ and a challenger of an unjust religious status quo. He roundly called out all religious hypocrisy and especially all hierarchical practices that gave superior status to an elite and kept the poor remote from God’s mercy. It was in toppling the tables of those who sought to enrich themselves at the Temple entrance – at the expense of those who could purchase sacrificial offerings and to the misery of those who could not – that he provoked his own arrest and crucifixion. Without this challenge there could have been no Passion and therefore no meaningful world-changing Eucharist.
It follows that if there is no vital challenge from the people of God to the injustices endemic in the world outside our church buildings, and no vital expression of solidarity with all who suffer injustice – even within the church — the full meaning of the Eucharistic liturgy will be obscured, especially for the young.
We believe that it is indeed in the invisibility of the connection between the Mass and the challenges to justice, peace and hope posed by our enveloping 21st century society – and too often within the Church itself — that the incomprehension of younger generations lies – and their steady abandonment of Eucharistic practice.
It is clear, for example, that young people are oppressed by specific challenges to their own happiness – in a climate of media exploitation of the human desire for ‘success’, ‘glamour’ and ‘celebrity’. In every era there are mistaken brokers of honour and shame who exploit our human tendency to forget that in every moment, in God’s truth, no one is ever more, or less, important than anyone else. Meanwhile our young people are oppressed by Internet trolling and delusion – and learn that the future of the Earth environment is in deadly danger from human activity. Too often the relevance of the Gospel to these challenges receives no attention whatever from ordained Mass celebrants in Ireland today.
And while at Confirmation hands have been laid on young people as a sign of their empowerment to pray for the gifts of the Holy Spirit, they may never in their lives be invited by their ordained pastors to express whatever wisdom may have come to them from so doing – as a means of meeting together the special challenges to their own generation. How can this indifference not convey to young people – as well as to their parents – that the Holy Spirit is either off limits to them, or a complete fiction? How can it not be disrespectful to the sacrament itself – and to the same Holy Spirit?
And if those young people find that Confirmation brings with it no acknowledged vital role for themselves in the church, how then can they be expected to see the vital importance of the call to the ordained and other dedicated Catholic ministries? The future of humankind calls all to personal sacrifice, and the feast of Pentecost tells us that all can be empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Homilists who can see this clearly – and speak passionately of the indispensable mission of the common and royal priesthood of all of the baptised – will be able to communicate the relevance of the Mass to the growing crisis of the world.
Is the Gospel being preached if homilists do not passionately teach that everyone everywhere in the world is equally entitled to feel at home and valued – and that in the Gospel of simplicity and wisdom lies the only hopeful future? In such a world we would truly be loving one another as Jesus loves us – and that world would be what Jesus proclaimed: the Kingdom of God. Unless this can passionately be stated in our Catholic liturgies – and incarnated in our ecclesial relationships – the relevance of the Gospel to the sufferings of those outside, as well as inside, the church must be obscure if not entirely hidden.
The heroism of Jesus surely lay in his direct challenge to religious and social injustice, even more than in his initiation of a sacred ritual. If this is forgotten how can the latent heroism of every young person in every walk of life be harnessed to the cause of the Kingdom of God, and how can a culture of clericalism be avoided – a culture that gave, and may still give, a dangerously unbalanced power to ordained but sometimes immature men?
We believe that:
- it is in upholding, in word and action, both inside and outside the church, the sacred dignity of every human person that the common priesthood of the People of God is activated;
- this calls all of God’s people to active resistance to every slight, insult, injustice or indignity visited on any other person – inside as well as outside the church, and on any electronic medium or device;
- it is only through Eucharist and prayer that this attitude and ministry can be firmly maintained, against every challenge to it from those who seek a supremacy or monopoly of any kind – of wealth, race or colour or supposed moral or official superiority;
- it is to meet all challenges to this way of thinking and acting that the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the Advocate for the Defence, are on offer to all who ask – from the time of Confirmation onward;
- it is in these sacrifices – those things we give up or endure for the sake of those who suffer unjustly – that we, the unordained yet priestly people of God, prove our understanding of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
- this is God’s call to heroism to all of us, from Jesus, founder of the Church, in whatever role or space we occupy.
- It is for these many journeys of risk, discovery and adventure – the personal sacrifices we are all called to — that the Eucharist is food.
- In this call to sacrifice, courage and simplicity an environmentally sustainable lifestyle will also be found.
- Jesus never called anyone to a secondary role in his church: it is only through the actions and witness of the priestly people in the world that the meaning of the Eucharist can be conveyed to that world.
- Without this understanding of the heroic call of the Gospel to all, the Mass liturgy and homily will also necessarily lack inspirational meaning for the congregation – and especially for the young.
- It is the too frequent absence of this understanding in the Mass homily that leads so many of the young, in the years immediately following Confirmation, to find the Mass ‘boring’ and ‘irrelevant to our lives’.
- In a renewed relationship of complementarity and mutual respect between the ordained and unordained – founded on these understandings – will lie the recovery of the ordained ministry and the Church.
A suggested strategy for the recovery of the Irish and Western Catholic Church
In the interests of:
- mobilising all Catholic lay people to an activation of their own Christian priesthood to meet the challenges of their own environments;
- alerting all Catholic young people at Confirmation to the relevance of their own priesthood to their own immediate life concerns and questions, and to all walks of life;
- asserting our own adult conviction that no prayer to the Holy Spirit is unavailing;
- enabling even the youngest to raise their own voices honestly in service of the truth;
- restoring lost trust between ordained pastors and people;
- restoring the prestige of the ordained priestly ministry and the Eucharist as agents of social betterment;
- enabling homilists to preach more effectively on the role of all Christians living in the world;
The Irish Bishops’ Conference could:
- Acknowledge the indispensable role of the priesthood of all of the people of God – especially of those who are not ordained – in responding to all challenges facing the Irish church, including those that can arise from any failings of the ordained ministry and the episcopate;
- Acknowledge the lamentable absence of instances of conscientious protest by ordained clergy – especially bishops – against the neglect of child safeguarding and the culture of secrecy in the church – in the era prior to 1994;
- Proclaim the essential role of the unordained priestly people of God in re-establishing the church’s integrity as a wellspring of justice in the world;
- Declare an end to the era in which deference rather than honesty and courage was expected by ordained priests and bishops, from the unordained priestly people of God – as called for clearly by the Ryan report of 2009 and by the sacred cause of child safeguarding today;
- Acknowledge that priestly ordination does not in itself sanctify the ordinand, or place the ordinand upon a plane beyond moral error or just questioning by the priestly people;
- Abandon all practices and attitudes that imply that lay people including the young, need to be submissive to clergy to be considered loyal members of the church, or that paternalism – the treating of the unordained as though they can never grow to responsible adulthood or full understanding of the Gospel call to themselves — is ever an appropriate way of relating to the People of God;
- Lament the absence of regular structured opportunities for the unordained priestly people to communicate their pastoral needs, their wisdom and, if need be, their constructive and charitable criticism, to the ordained priesthood, including their bishops;
- Implement in Ireland what was clearly foreshadowed by article 37 of Lumen Gentium (1964) – diocesan and parish church structures for regular, respectful and open dialogue between the ordained and unordained priesthood;
- Acknowledge the importance of the common priesthood of all of the people in actuating the principles of Catholic Social Teaching in Irish society, to challenge its many and growing injustices.