Between Easter and Pentecost, International Church Reformers gathered for four days in Limerick without a strict agenda. The intention was to get to know each other, share ideas about Church reform, and explore ways of supporting each other in our work structurally and at the grassroots. We began our time together answering why we accepted this invitation, and then why we really accepted this invitation. The meeting was in many ways sponsored by the Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland and Fr. Tony Flannery, but facilitated by two invited leaders, who skillfully created space for sharing, “harvesting,” and organic organizing.
Why did you accept this invitation, really? In addition to the opportunity to work with colleagues of mine on more international level, for me, the really was in some part because of the more rare invitation to attend a meeting with so many male priests interested in reform. In some sense, this made me very unprepared for what was to come.
What was specifically on our very open agenda was a Mass together. A small group of us thought it would be important to suggest an invitation for co-presiders at our celebration. And so, on the third day, after nearly all of the group had “checked-in,” offered up their frustrations at “in-action,” their excitement for the richness of our conversations, their energy, I asked our group to consider an invitation.
I couched my intention to suggest co-presiders by first acknowledging the ministries and importance of all of our work, and how we fit together in a living system of change — each doing our part. I also thought it was important to name some of our passions as vocations, including priestly vocations. I suggested that as we consider action globally and locally, and perhaps we might consider this an opportunity to act, by having a conversation about the possibility of inviting a co-presider to celebrate our Mass.
Warned by Tony and a few others that this very careful question (which was discussed in a small group first, and agreed that I bring this to the larger group) would be more difficult than we might have thought… what came of this question was an intensity and a raw pain, a brokenness, that I am not sure I have ever witnessed in such a broad spectrum.
Once the invitation was (what I hoped was) gently in the center of the room, we went around the circle of nearly 40 of us, twice. Some of the threads and statements that stuck with me (others may have held on to other moments), vocalized by either one or many that I feel I can share:
- Fear of one’s bishop, the reality of excommunication;
- Is this about courage or consequences?
- What does this mean for our reform agendas if we are not willing or able to do this?
- The responsibilities of leadership, and reflecting one’s community and constituency;
- Pain, anger, sadness (is this a time to act?);
- Does putting a woman on the altar “skip” the hard parts? Must change come through official channels?
- Priests who love their work, who fear being reckless, but also fear being a coward;
- Anger that this issue has been brought up, changing the tone and focus of our meeting.
Tony Flannery wrote in his blog post:
I suppose I can say that the issue of women’s place in the Church surfaced… in a way that was far deeper than anything I have understood up to this. And it created enormous dilemmas for most of us sitting around. There was a great deal of hurt, sadness and tears, with many people clearly wrestling with their own conscience and coming face to face with their fears in a very open way. One of the consequences was that we were unable to celebrate Eucharist together, as we had planned, and instead had a prayer service. But that bald statement does little justice to the level of sharing that went on, and to the reasons why we felt we could not proceed.
I was crying for most of this conversation, like eye faucets had been turned on inside. Through tears I saw so much pain in the faces and processing of priests and reform leaders, disappointment and anger. For me, the anger came later – but in the moment it was grace and sadness that were most present. I want to respect the intimacy of the meeting and the legitimacy of all of the feelings shared, and acknowledge the tenderness that followed in comforting one another, in our shared and also very personal pain, sadness, anger, fear, and brokenness. As I was surrounded by embraces after our conversation, there were many little huddles of support. Kind words of, this is the conversation we needed to have, the Holy Spirit was speaking, helped relieve some of my own guilt that I personally had somehow deprived our new community of the Eucharist.
A very insightful prayer group formed after our conversation and prepared a prayer ritual for us, using bread and wine as symbols that we would not partake in together. One theme that ran through the entire conference was the power of a broken heart, Parker Palmer’s idea of “breaking open” of hearts. What became clear is the hearts of our church are broken, breaking, divided, and in pain. I pray when we break open, we open to hold the whole world. I believe, as Christians, this big, broken, open heart is how we know and find God.
I know there will be more reflections to come from this meeting, as many of us are still processing the experience. For now, to read more, see: Tony Flannery’s blog, the Irish Times, and press release from the conference. The press release offers a fuller picture of the exciting organizing, concrete work, and strategies that came from our time together in addition to this experience. More to come!