The Common Priesthood of the People of God and the Renewal of the Church

Nov 4, 2021 | 0 comments

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.
[Submitted to the Conference of Irish Catholic Bishops for its autumn meeting, beginning October 1st  2019]

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