DEAR Holy Father,
Please forgive this intrusion. I realize it may be the responsibility of others to do this, but I fear they may not do so because of diplomatic convention or protocol, real or imagined, whilst others are a little tired, indeed a few even seem disheartened. For my part, I am neither tired nor disheartened, in fact, I am energized and girded for battle. A friend of mine recently remarked that it is a tough time to be a priest and I found myself asserting that it is in fact a great time to be a priest, an exciting time. I write to you from a spiritual bunker. I also write to you with a real sense of urgency, as the clock is very much against us. Every week things get worse, with opportunities lost and still more cracks of disunity appearing. I am based here on a little island on the edge of Europe where the spiritual darkness is deepening apace.
Here in Ireland we were once known as the Isle of Saints and Scholars; affectionately, at times, referred to as the Green Isle.
However, we made world news recently when we glowed pink. A large majority of our brothers and sisters voted in favor of same-sex marriage. In so far as it was a victory over discrimination and an end to the appalling treatment of homosexual people, sometimes by the Church, it was a happy day indeed. The smiles, quiet tears and at times, joyful dancing, of the young, and not so young was infectious and one could not but look at them and love them, as I have no doubt the Lord does.
I am pastor here with the faith community of St Matthew’s in West Dublin. We are a long way from the Vatican and, in some ways, we would be seen as poor, but you know, Holy Father, in the ways that matter, we are as rich as they come. Here in St Matthew’s, I meet both saints and ‘living martyrs’on a daily basis. Here, the shadow of the cross is long. Social exclusion, poverty and the ravages of addiction have taken their toll. The people here are the best, and the young people are the best of the best. I wish you could feel their sense of social justice. I love their outrage. On a number of occasions, I have been moved to tears by this beautiful faith community, in their generosity of heart and often from their pocket as well. This is particularly evident in special collections for Syria or the tsunami, when, like the widow in the gospel, they give not of their surplus, but their core. So, as you well know, Holy Father, the Holy Spirit continues to dance, but now I must explain to you our problem and why I beg for your paternal intervention.
Holy Father, the Church in Ireland is dying. Yes, we could say it is tired, or it has lost the young, or we must find a new language, and all that is true, but the reality is that the Irish Church is gasping, heaving, in a crippling smog of secularism.
Now, some will rush to tell you about the signs of growth, and of course there are some, but the truth is, the writing is on the wall. It is only a matter of time. We are old and tired and still very clerical and, imagine this Holy Father, despite the fact that women are keeping us going, I am sorry to have to tell you, there isn’t even one diocese in the country run by a woman. Can you imagine that? Dear Pope Francis, I am sad, indeed, to tell you we have failed the people. Yes, it is true, in some ways we have failed, maybe betrayed, the older generations, but the real tragedy is we have failed the young. We have sought to hector them about how they should live rather than share the joy of our faith with them. Holy Father, I am conscious this may not get to you, as I know clericalism and careerism are both alive and well in the church, and so I will have to try a number of avenues in order to reach you. This is my first attempt. Some may draw your attention to the small number of vocations to the priesthood and religious life as signs of growth. I see the truth of this, and have huge respect for those who are responding to God’s call.
However, even here, I believe a second look is required. There seems to be the emergence of a restorationist model of church. There are those who harken back to the triumphant church of yesteryear. This is evident in the seminarians who would prefer to pray the breviary in Latin, not, I hasten to add, that there is anything wrong with this, in itself, but I have found that this longing for the past can all too often be accompanied by a lack of spiritual maturity. Worse still, this often manifests itself in a lack of compassion, which in turn wreaks havoc in pastoral ministry.
The ways in which we have failed people are too many to list here. Perhaps one topical area is worth a mention, though, that being the area of sexuality. We have made such a mess here that it is difficult to know where to begin. We are so disconnected from people in this regard that vast numbers of still-practicing Catholics simply turn off when we begin to speak in this regard. We still employ the language of imperative, meanwhile failing to speak with passion and conviction about the beauty of our sexuality, or, as you have so beautifully developed for us, the joy of the Gospel. There are many other areas that illustrate the Irish church is quietly convulsing. For example, for so many of our children First Holy Communion means last communion until Confirmation, and we will not see many of our confirmed young people until they come to get married, if at all. At our gravesides, many stand in silence, sometimes there is a barely more than a mumble, even in the once-familiar territory of the rosary.
Overall, there seems to be a paralysis. We tend to talk in the abstract about what we need to do. The truth is, Holy Father we here in the Irish church are slow to learn and slower again to change. This is why I am sending up the flare into the night sky. I am hoping you will see it. I am hoping from your window you will see this cry for help streak across the sky. I hope you will see the red of the Irish martyrs, the green of our heritage, the yellow and orange of God’s Holy Breath, and the pink of recent freedoms. Yes, Holy Father I hope you will see it and that you will realise we need you. We need your courage and your care, and we need to hear your challenge to live the joy of the Gospel. So what can you do to help?
As the Successor of Peter, I am hoping you might give us a little of your attention, if, for no other reason than that we have, in the past, evangelised all over the world. In truth, we have remained faithful ‘in spite of dungeon, fire and sword’. Holy Father all that is gone, all gone except for what very soon will be a faithful remnant. Whilst I do not believe the future of the Irish church is either clerical or male, we will need your help to tackle the problem of poor leadership. We will need you to prepare quite a number of P45s, many of these for diocesan clergy, a few for male religious, less again for female religious. On the question of the P45s, I am conscious of the need to look in the mirror. The truth is I am no great shakes myself and I am very conscious that I stand in front of the people of St Matthew’s as a limping, hobbling, sort of leaking bucket of a priest. So there may well be a P45 coming down the line for me, as well, but at least that too will constitute movement. Regrettably, I fear we will probably need more than a few of these P45s for the Episcopal Conference. Perhaps you could introduce six-year terms of office for bishops?
As well as looking at leadership, I am hoping you might help us divest ourselves of about half of our schools. The urgent need of reform of the clergy cannot be effected by you, but you could give bishops a two-year deadline to have such a programme in place. We have been talking for over 20 years now about how to address fidelity, or lack of, to the sacraments. We need a two-week Irish synod. This would be led by what is left of a committed, educated, passionate laity. For the first week, we clerics could keep quiet and listen, I mean deeply, with the heart. In the second week, there would be an opportunity for again, us clerics, to lie prostrate before the people and beg forgiveness of the gathered Church, and God, for our abuse, neglect and failure. We could make a solemn promise to make amends. This might be a good start. I believe the necessary components for recovery are not so mysterious. The ingredients are as old as the gospels themselves. We have an urgent need of conversion, silence, prayer, reform and then maybe, down the road, renewal might be possible. Of course that is largely the remit of the Holy Breath of God, the Holy Spirit.
Holy Father, I see you miss going for pizza and, as it happens I love pizza. I was wondering would it be possible that we could share a pizza, somewhere convenient to yourself, and I could elaborate a little on just how serious things are. I hope this can find its way onto your urgent to-do list, for there can be no doubt Ireland is in danger of losing her very soul.
I remain, your affectionate Brother in Christ here in St Matthew’s in Ballyfermot, Dublin,
Fr Joe McDonald
Fr Joe McDonald is currently serving in St Mathew’s in Ballyfermot in Dublin.