Fr Kevin Hegarty
LAST week I gave a talk on the ‘Association of Catholic Priests’ to an assembly of the ‘Missionaries of the Sacred Heart’ held in Mount St Annes in Portarlington. Members of the congregation work in Pastoral Ministry in Ireland, England, USA, South Africa, Venezuela and Russia. The talk gave me the opportunity to reflect on the history of the ACP. Just over five years ago, the association did not exist. future historians will, I am convinced, see 2010 as a particularly harrowing year for Ireland.
The Government had lost its moral authority as it sought to cope with the most acute economic recession since the wall street crash of 1929. Equally, the moral authority of the Catholic Church had zoomed downwards. The series of official reports, starting with the diocese of Ferns and culminating with the Ryan and Murphy investigations, on the physical and sexual abuse of children by clerics had left Church leaders reeling. In the spring of that year Pope Benedict had summoned the Irish hierarchy to Rome to account for its stewardship. Many priests felt then the need of an organisation to provide a forum for discussion. Since the demise of the “National Conference of Priests” in 2007, no such forum existed. While the NCPI did have some achievements to it’s credit in its 30 year plus existence, in the view of many priests, it was hampered by being a creature of the hierarchy who established it. Bishops either ignored it or patronised it. In the 1980’s, Fr Seamus Ryan, who was then president of the NCPI, had a meeting with the then Papal Nuncio Alibrandi, on the need to consult priests about the appointment of bishops.
The Nuncio dismissed him saying he was a nobody leading a group of nobodies. Under the NCPI all Irish priests were automatically members. Here, there were shades of the great eagles song, ‘Hotel California’, where you can check out any time but never leave. Priests in Ireland are a diverse group. There are those who fervently wish for a restoration of the pious certainties of the past, those who cling tenaciously to the need for a Church that engages positively with modernity and those who just long for a quiet life. This diversity meant that NCPI statements died the death of a thousand qualifications as drafters sought to accommodate all views. In that context, it was a case of, as Seamus Heaney once wrote, ‘whatever you say, you say nothing’. In the summer 2010, soundings about the possibility of a new priests’ organisation, resulted in September in the formation of the ACP at a meeting in Portlaoise. Organisers had hoped that 100 might attend. In the event over 300 turned up. It was an index of the hunger for dialogue in an official Church that pays only lip service to it. Probably the greatest achievement of the ACP is that it has provided a safe place where priests can talk freely. Diocesan priests, in particular, can feel isolated. So the ACP has erected a sense of togetherness and solidarity.
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