17 Sep 2015

Priests do not grow under cabbages in bishops’ gardens

Letter to the Irish Catholic this week asking some questions about vocations to the ministerial priesthood. The IC printed only some of the letter (as is their editorial policy) but the full letter is given below:

Dear Sir

In the Catholic church we have an on going discussion about the crisis in vocations in the ministerial priesthood in Ireland in terms of staffing numbers and the challenges it poses. It perplexes me to see reactions from around the country when parishes get upset when their bishop announces they no longer have a priest to send to minister. It seems to still be a shock despite the fact we have had this vocations crisis discussion for over 20 years. It upsets but it also challenges the hell out any parish as it forces the parish to go back to basics and re-examine what it means to be parish something which we have been experiencing in Limerick for many years.

But instead of always throwing the petition and letters of complaint at the bishop, how about looking at it the other way?

For each parish who now complains because they don't have a priest because "the bishop wont give them one", when was the last time that parish gave a seminarian to the diocese? Do we as Catholics think priests grow under cabbages that grow in the bishop's back garden? Where do we honestly think these men - whose ministry we all generally agree we respect and need at a grassroots level - where do we think they come from? They are always some other mothers son - but not our son, our brother, our nephew.
While the on going discussions about married clergy are needed, those that think that a married clergy is suddenly going to solve the vocations crisis all in one go are deluding themselves. It is as if the only problem with becoming a priest was the "pelvic issue"!! As a young man in his mid-30's I somehow doubt that there would be swarms of men my own age marching on Maynooth in the morning asking to be admitted to the seminary if Pope Francis were to decide that the role on celibacy would be relaxed for all clergy in the Latin rite.
We need to start having a serious discussion about what priesthood means for us in the Catholic Church and in Ireland so perhaps we could start a discussion in this paper answering some questions:
  • Do we really understand what exactly the church teaches about the ministerial priesthood? After VC2 we have the priesthood of all the baptised so why do we need priests?   
  • Why does the Latin church have the discipline of clerical celibacy? Can a serious theologian or one of our bishops perhaps come out and actually explain it to us? Set out what exactly the position is so we understand and please explain why we give dispensations to converts and not to our own men.
  • Has anyone bothered to actually ask what do our priests think about it all? Independent surveys as opposed to ones sponsored by special interest groups like Iona or ACP or ACI who always have their own slant on things.
  • Does a vocation to priesthood also imply a vocation to celibacy? What are the pros and cons of combining the two?
  • Can the formators at Maynooth gives us insight into how we are forming our current seminarians in this area at the moment? We have listened for years to the consequences of the formation or lack there of; so please tell us what have we learned and how are we fixing the problem, what have we changed?
  • If we relax the disciple what does it mean practically speaking for us in the pews; are as we Catholics in the pew going to delve into our pockets deeper to support Fr John, Mrs Fr John & family? What about pensions and inheritance rights? If Fr John is married and dies do parishes just kick the widow and children out of the local presbytery? Let's start having that discussion and thinking about what it would mean. There are a lot of people pushing for married clergy but I haven't heard anyone telling me what it means for my day to day material support to my church.
  • Also as someone who has worked in East Africa, what support will we give to churches in Africa, Asia and South America who are barely coping now, never mind when you add in such family issues.
  • If the discipline is relaxed, would any priests who have left the ministry because they got married and had a family, would they be interested in coming back into ministry - after all they are still priests; just barred from ministry by law. Has any one asked them?
Can we have this discussion, can we start and stop pretending that priests grow under cabbages in bishops' gardens.
Yours sincerely
Shane Ambrose

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