Sunday, October 6, 2019


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I had the impression over recent times from the Association of Catholic Priests' (ACP) website that they might be running out of steam, at least a little bit. Then, all of a sudden they pop up with this provocative conference with its star-studded cast.

While the issue of women's role and status in the Roman Catholic Church has been on the boil for decades, I have the impression that we are now nearing the point where the whole lid blows off the pressure cooker. So this conference was timely.

Gerry O'Connor & Roy Donovan

Gerry did MC, prior to his later interviewing Mary McAleese. He welcomed us all on behalf of the ACP. I really felt it is we who should be welcoming him, having seen him tweeting around 10am that he was leaving Limerick and heading for the Big Smoke.

It fell to Roy to give the formal address of welcome. And no better man.

He has been loudly and publicly supporting women's role in the church for a good few years now. He is among an increasing number of clerics calling for full participation of women in the ministry of the church and that includes ordination to the priesthood. People may remember John Paul II's edict that women would never be ordained and that the subject was permanetly off limits even for discussion.

John Paul II is now, inexplicably, a Saint and wandering around the Lord's many mansions. Let's hope that when he finds himself at one of Mary Magdalene's dinner parties she gives it to him full blast.

Anyway, that edict has effectively gone out the window and the subject is now up for grabs.

Sharon Tighe-Mooney

Sharon has delved into the appearance, non-appearance, and agency of women in the bible.

Her conclusion is that the role of women has been downplayed and misinterpreted and when you look at the whole thing from a woman's perspective a very different picture emerges from the one we were brought up on.

Sharon highlighted the condescension applied to women by envisaging a little role reversal and applying to men the phrases currently applied to women. Totally unacceptable.

I've got a copy of her recent book on women and the church and will report back when I've gone through it.

Mary McAleese

Mary has become a sort of public standard bearer for reformers. The betrayal of Vatican II figures high on her agenda, as it does for Sister Ben.

However Mary has the public profile as a former two-term President of Ireland. Before that she was an academic of high standing within the Catholic church. And going further back she came out of the cauldron that was the Ardoyne, an area she reminded us that had the highest rate of killings during the troubles.

Like myself, she's steeped in Catholic tradition and theology from an early age and is not put off by the pretentious rubbish spouted by many in high office within the church.

Given her prominence, she has also become a lightening conductor for opposition and even abuse as we'll see below.

Some may be aware that she was banned from speaking at a recent conference in Rome on women in the church.

While not sponsored by the Vatican the conference was to take place within its precincts. Mary's holy passport was revoked/refused by none other than Dubliner Cardinal Farrell.

He was at the time entrusted with organising the Pope's trip to Ireland for the World Meeting of Families, which I think Mary saw as a double slap in the face. The Cardinal is in charge of the Vatican department dealing with the family, goodness knows why.

Mary admitted to having been hurt by the ban and recounted her joy when subsequently a priest at a mass she was attending in the Vatican came halfway down the aisle to give her a big hug. (enaisled - private Joycean joke)

Anyway, the conference story had a more than happy ending. The organisers snubbed Cardinal Farrell and, quite late in the day, moved the conference to a neutral venue, out of the clutches of the Vatican, and Mary got to say her piece. Well done.

So let's move on to the man embracing woman crap

I made a huge discovery about myself at this conference. Glad I came.

I was an Acolyte and all these years I remained in deep ignorance of this fact. Fancy that.

This, I gather, is the current gender neutral term for altar boys and altar girls.

Mary reminded us that Vatican II opened the door to altar girls. I will do a separate post on this thorny subject sometime. But, for now, let's just carry on.

The position, apparently, was that despite this huge concession to the girls, a bishop could ban the practice in his diocese, and, failing that a PP could impose a ban at parish level.

Now the "concession" coincided with a change in what was, I gather, a widespread belief that the sanctuary was a sort of mini minor-seminary and that altar boys were seen as what we used to know as ábhar sagart or potential cannon fodder for, or a step towards, the priesthood.

I was not aware of this connection in my day, when being an altar boy in itself conferred a certain status and an opportunity to perform on stage, so to speak, and in public.

Anyway, post Vatican II, my understanding appeared to have become the official line. Altar boyship was an end in itself and no further assumptions were entertained.

And the altar girls? Well, there were some, and happily there still are. But in many parts of the country the ban was invoked, and the reason given? Well, they might get notions (ie that this was a step towards women's ordination). Schrödinger's Acolytes, hello!

Tina Beattie encountered the same sort of crap, as she recounted to WACI recently.

Mary picked up on a theme she had spoken on just two nights previously at the launch of Angela Hanleys (& Seán Fagan's) book What happened to Fr. Seán Fagan? in Glasnevin Cemetery.

This is the limits to inquiry and dissent imposed by the Magisterium (CDF?) on questioners, researchers and academics.

She envisaged the known universe of knowledge bordered by a wall. The researcher should be obliged to poke at the wall and see what lies beyond it. This could then be evaluated for truth, utility and so forth. This is how progress in all fields happens. If nobody challenged the limits of current knowledge and the conventional wisdom, where would we be now? Back in the cave waiting for the cock to crow to make the sun rise?

Anyway, she pointed out that the current edict from the CDF is that you must turn your back to the wall and then you can explore whatever you like.

I am tempted here to refer to three significant opportunities for progress in the past that were missed as backs were turned to the wall: the Reformation, the Modernists, and Vatican II.


The Q&A developed along predictable lines until one man, somewhere in the audience behind me, started into a rant which increased in volume and vehemence and culminated in babies being ripped out of women's wombs. Well, it didn't quite culminate there, it was followed by sporadic interruptions from the same quarter.

Shortly afterwards another, also male, member of the audience critised Mary McAleese's constant sharp words about the church and suggested she leave it for a more conducive spiritual home. This intervener was eventually reduced to shouting "hypocrite" over attempts by the chair to continue the Q&A in a civilised manner.

Clearly people are entitled to their views but not to indulge in personal abuse or shouting down others.

I accept it must be difficult for some to see more than a thousand years of theological certainty challenged in public by two mere lay women but, unfortunately, due to the spiritual cowardice of men over that period, that's where we find ourselves today.

There were various references to standing up for what is right from within the church rather than just leaving it. This was the path chosen by Mary and Tony Flannery and Angela Hanley, for example. It was not my path but I can understand it and empathise with those who take it.

This discussion brought one of my own heroes from the sixties to mind. As she also happened to be a woman I thought it would be nice to give her a mention at this event, which I did.

She was a Catholic doctor in Liverpool who set up a birth control clinic despite church opposition. She stood up to her critics to the point of facing down Archbishop (as the then was) Heenan at the altar rails in Westminster Cathedral. Her name was Anne Bieźanek.

Tony Flannery

I was glad to meet Tony Flannery at last. I have been following his story since I read in the Irish Catholic in 2012 that he had been silenced by the CDF. He gave the Seán Fagan line of compliance a try for a while but it didn't make a lot of sense for him in his case and he unsilenced himself.

I brought along my copy of his book for him to sign as I had missed its launch a good while back.

I know he is very active these days, including on the role of women in the church, and it would be good to have his silencing lifted. As he has said, this is now effectively in the hands of the Redemptorist order itself, if it ever finds the courage to pop its head above the parapet.

I also met Brendan Hoban, PP of Moygownagh, whose writings and activism via the ACP I have long admired. He knew my late cousin Columban priest, Brendan Fahey. We both shared the same positive view of Brendan, RIP.

I also met Roy Donovan who I have referred to above.

And I found out that a man I had earlier conversations with at meetings of We Are Church Ireland (WACI) was actually the co-founder with his wife of Concern Worldwide, John O'Loughlin-Kennedy. That was in 1968 at the time of the Biafran famine.

When I arrived, a little on the early side, I was the first and only member of the audience in this magnificent lecture theatre. No panic. But as it drew to about ten minutes to zero hour the audience remained sparse. There had been some worries about how few might turn up despite the event having been advertised on, for example, the ACP website and the WACI Facebook page.

It was not only a free, but also a non-booking, event so they had no idea how many to expect. In addition, I gather that Mary McAleese, while popular with many reformers, can be a divisive figure among some religious.

They needn't have worried. I'm sure many frantic prayers were being said at that point and they appear to have been answered as the multitudes swept through the doors at the last minute. A Real Presence.

This post is not intended to be a comprehensive report of the conference. It is just hitting it in spots that particularly resonated with me, and not even all of those or we'd be here all night.

The conference was recorded so if you are sufficiently interested you should soon be able to get this on CD from the ACP or, I think, Columba Press.

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