Irish Priest: We Will No Longer Be the ‘Silent People of God’

The Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) in Ireland is holding an gathering this week in Dublin entitled “Towards an Assembly of the Irish Catholic Church” aimed at restoring the Spirit of Vatican II.

More than a thousand showed up for conference that took place in the weeks following the Vatican censure of several progressive Irish priests, in what appears to be a blatant attempt to deflect the spotlight away from the Vatican’s failure to protect and defend Irish Catholics against predatory priests within the hierarchy. The ACP hopes to move toward a national dialogue on the Irish Catholic Church. Other countries are looking at similar gatherings.

Fr. Desmond Wilson, a priest who has served in West Belfast since the mid-1960s, wrote this thoughtful letter to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith out of his experience of the Irish context. It sheds light on the American situation of the Vatican’s harassment of Catholic sisters:

Dear Friends in The  Congregation for the Doctrine of theFaith,

You may be aware that we  in Ireland have a special reverence for  our Saint Columbanus. He was one of our saints who disagreed with a Pope and said so. You may be more acquainted with Saint Catherine of Siena who did the same, although she had the disadvantage of having  to disagree with three possible popes at one time.

Some of us view with dismay then, but no great alarm, your decision to censor some of our fellow citizens and fellow members of the Catholic Church who have done nothing at all so serious.

We are puzzled – naturally and supernaturally –  by the fact that you and we preach the presence and inspiration of the Holy Spirit and then you tell us, so inspired, to stop talking –   as if we had nothing important to say. This is not a matter of doctrine, it is one of logic and we in Ireland are inclined to judge these things by logic as well as doctrine  and not too often  by emotion. We remember  the Gamaliel principle – you remember it too, when forced to make a decision, he told his colleagues, If this be of God it’s useless to oppose it,  if it be of human planning it will fade away in any case, so we should not take extraordinary measures for ordinary happenings.

You may be aware that in recent years we in Ireland lost to the priesthood some of our best intellects because priests were disciplined sometimes for trivialities, sometimes for making people aware that the churchis a seeking church not  a triumphant one. When  the issues involved were trivial – like that of shirts and collars or just discussing what we believe – we rightly feared that some important people in our church were trying to drag us with them on a road which might  well lead from mediocrity to obscurity. We Catholics in Ireland have a strong intellectual tradition, we founded the ancient equivalent of a university in Clonmacnois centuries before our colleagues in Britain founded Oxford and Cambridge, and we took our part in intellectual leadership in Europe even when the empire  centred in Rome was collapsing, indeed especially when it was. So you can see we have some experience in intellectual and spiritual leadership. It would be sad and quite unworthy if you were to insist at this time that  we be  reduced to tearing pages out of monthly religious magazines and asking permission not just to change laws but even to write about them.

As well as this we in Ireland are wary of anonymous messages to anonymous receivers , we believe  Our Lord was serious when He said  people sometimes worked in secret because their works were evil. That is disquieting anywhere but especially in the community of the People of God. And most especially to the priests  and others whom you have told to be quiet. I am presuming that this title, The People of God ,  still officially applies to us, although I understand that even at the time of the Second Vatican Council there was a desire among some of you to avoid  it. Most of us accept the title with pride and gratitude but find it impossible to accept that we have to be a Silent People of God any more than we would accept being a silenced people ofIreland.

So for reasons of logic, theology, scripture , history and reason we know it is damaging to us all to try to solve problems by silencing speakers rather than fostering  and freshening  ideas. You may possibly agree that this is so, but  in any case , censors tend to disappear into irrelevance while ideas tend to remain if they are interesting ones – all the more if they are good ones , which is highly likely given that those who have them rely on the Holy Spirit for their spiritual and intellectual vigour.

So I do ask you to join us in our decision not to be afraidof each other but  to talk to each other  with courtesy ,  remembering that  when you silence good people that is a shame for you – but  if we allow it to happen that is a shame for us.

Looking back on more than sixty years as a Catholic priest in Ireland I think I know the value of those who choose their own silence, but also the emptiness of those who enforce silence  on others.

With great hopes for blessing for you and for a church which enlightens the world,

Desmond Wilson,  Belfast

One comment

  1. Fr. Wilson I admire you for your courage to speak out for your people.May lots more do the same.
    I have no faith in the Church or any religion anymore, and many of my friends of whom some are ex-religious have taken the same road.
    The people we have met and become friends with since leaving, are the most wonderful, inspiring , courageous, generous and compassionate people one could ever find.


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