THE banter of the two men strolling into the conference hall spoke volumes.
One or both could have been priests, which might explain the chuckle when one said to the other: “We might end up in the leisure centre.” Images of Fr Ted in the lingerie department sprang to mind. The other man quipped: “Is there a trauma centre down here?”
The Catholic Church as figure of fun and crucible of pain: The crowd gathered at the Regency Hotel in Dublin yesterday did not want to entertain either view of the institution they hold so dear. An estimated 1,000 people convened in the conference centre as part of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) organised event entitled Towards an Assembly of the Irish Catholic Church. The theme, one way or the other, was stressed by every speaker — the need for change.
The books on show to the side of the room included the title Can I Stay in the Catholic Church? — a pertinent question for many in attendance — and A Little Bit of Healing by Brian D’Arcy, the priest censured by the Vatican over his views and unable to attend yesterday.
He sent his best wishes and, in a message read to the crowd on his behalf, thanked those who had supported him “in his recent difficulties”.
The message added to the unmistakable air of frustration with the perceived iron grip of the Vatican in the face of calls for a debate on issues such as the ordination of women and the Church’s views on homosexuality and divorce.
In the opening prayer, Brendan Butler stressed the need to “speak the truth to power and organise to resist”. He even quoted Pope Benedict, when he was known as Ratzinger back in 1967, about “one’s conscience, which must be obeyed above all else”.
Mr Butler said: “We all agree with these views and hopefully they are still his.” This generated a laugh but the first four speakers were not bashful in speaking out at what they saw as Rome’s propensity for control.
Joe Mulvanney, a former priest now married and living in Dublin, told the crowd he had “many questions about the governance and institutional structures of the Church” and asked whether they were irreformable. He referred to the idea of papal infallibility as “a disease” and called for unity.
The next speaker, Emer Dolphin, explained how her husband and children do not attend Mass and even though she worked as a parish secretary she said: “I don’t know sometimes why I am hanging in there.”
Rome had been too slow to react to the first report on child sex abuse, she said, and it was been “wave after wave after wave of bad stuff happening”. To applause, she asked where were the women in the Vatican.
“Why are we allowing men to make the rules for 50% of the Catholics in the world?” she said.
Later, Phil Dunne, a woman who had been deeply engaged with the Church in her parish, said she had walked away on being diagnosed with cancer to effectively save her own life.
Speaking about the stress that elements of the Church had caused her, she said: “I saw it [leaving] as a part of the process to save my life.
“This time of crisis I could no longer bear the ever-present question: am I colluding in my own oppression?” She said as a woman she felt like a “second-class member” of a Church that had “shielded paedophiles and paedophile enablers” with its “pathology secrecy”.
The bishops and the Pope’s representative in Ireland, the papal nuncio, had been invited to yesterday’s event but were not present. Just last month the ACP expressed its concern that one of its founding members, Fr Tony Flannery, was being “silenced”. When the microphone was passed among the crowd, many of those who spoke sounded frustrated and angry with the Church hierarchy for stifling debate on issues Catholics wanted discussed.
One woman decried Pope Benedict’s “henchmen” while another, who said she was the mother of a survivor of child abuse, said: “We are not getting the truth from Rome, right from the top.”
NOT everyone sang from the same hymn sheet: One man questioned whether the introduction of women priests would add to an already “effeminate” and “girly” Church, a view that sparked giggles and some hissing, while another man said the ACP was causing “real disunity” in the Church in Ireland.
Ironically, those two speakers were relatively young men, notable for being in a crowd that was predominantly older, a sea of grey and bald heads.
Nonetheless, the very fact that the event attracted so many people — and that it is likely to spark further debate — is notable at a time when Fr D’Arcy and Fr Flannery have effectively been gagged by the Vatican. It would be interesting to know what the papal nuncio’s real opinion is of the views expressed by priests and followers yesterday, and the ACP for facilitating it.
When the third speaker at yesterday’s morning session, Garry Keogh, began to address the crowd on “my feelings about the Church today”, a whole pile of plates could be heard hitting the floor in the nearby kitchens. Everyone laughed at the comic timing. It wasn’t quite a thunderclap from heaven, but someone, somewhere in the Vatican may just have heard it too.
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