More than 70 Catholic priests and deacons gathered at a London church yesterday to pray, share concerns, and discuss the future of the Church.
The meeting at St John's Anglican Church, Waterloo, was called following a letter in the Tablet (2 June 2012) by seven priests, speaking of the 'universal call to holiness in Christ' for all the baptised made by the bishops at their November 2011 conference, and their desire to promote 'a culture of vocation' within the corporate identity of the Catholic Church, 'marked by a confident Catholic faith'. The authors called for a more active encouragement of lay people in the work of the Church, and expressed concern that the call for collegiality made by Vatican II has not been realised.
After an opening prayer, the assembly sang Veni Sancte Spiritus and there was a short period of silence.
Fr Joe Ryan, north London parish priest and chair of Westminster Justice and Peace said he was glad to be part of the process of "building up the body of Christ" by attending the meeting. Fr Paul Saunders from Southwark Diocese said he saw it was "part of our stewardship" to pass on and develop the teachings of Vatican II.
Fr Patrick McLaughlin who spent years in peace and reconciliation at Corrymeela in Northern Ireland quoted Antony Di Mello who spoke of the need to "combine loyalty and obedience with creativity and confrontation". At Corrymeela, he said, they had endeavoured to work collaboratively with people from different communities - "opening up spaces where people could be listened to with respect and gentleness". The result, he pointed out, was that Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness eventually came to work together.
In a brief presentation, theologian Mary Gray spoke of her overwhelming sense of priests with a deep love of the Church but with great concerns for the future, with an ageing priesthood, declining vocations and loss of young people. There had a been euphoria after Vatican II, she said, but this had been followed by a great sense of disappointment.
"We could not have expected the failure to implement the teachings of Vatican II and the backlash that has followed", she said. "People are confused. They see married former Anglican priests with families being ordained but Catholic seminarians cannot marry and there is no discussion about this."
Underlying all this, she said, was the fact that people are afraid to speak, or be seen as critical in any way, for fear of very serious censure.
She advised: "As St Ignatius said: 'go where the energy is good'. And that is - the monasteries, convents, and organisations like CAFOD". She also advised people to express their views. Quoting Catherine of Siena she said: 'I see that the world is destroyed through silence.'
Echoing these views retired priest Fr Gerry Burke counselled dialogue, but he said: "The call to disobedience by the Austrian priests is a serious mistake, which could have an undesirable outcome." It would be a great mistake to set up a forum which did not include everyone, he said.
Fr Anthony Maggs from Southwark pointed out that "so much has happened since Vatican II. I've been influenced by so many people. If we are to renew the Church we must also listen."
Discussion groups called for the Church's need to listen and act on what was said; the building of trust, and 'critical loyalty'. One group said it was 'all very well to talk about Vatican II' - but how many Catholics today really know what it said?'
In a message, Professor Tina Beattie suggested the establishment of a forum which included representatives from the bishops, priests and laypeople, 'in a spirit of respect and mutual trust' to begin an ongoing dialogue.
"Its not a question of anger" one priest said. "Its a question of where do we go from here to build up the Kingdom of God." He said he worked with 11 deaneries in which most priests were over 70 and three this week were having operations. "What will happen in five years' time?" he asked.
"A loving and respectful relationship needs to exist between laypeople, priests and bishops for the Church to witness God's love" a statement on the agenda concludes.
A future meeting will take place on 10 October, at Heythrop College.
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