Listening to Claire Byrne - Declining Priest Numbers, Meat Loaf Memories and Asking Hard Questions
Updated: Jan 24
Today with Claire Byrne had a piece this morning, Friday 21st Jan, on the decline in numbers of priests in the Catholic Church in Ireland and the emergence of new roles, particularly permanent deacons. Evelyn O’Rourke spoke with Fr. Michael Collins – who spoke of the challenge for lay people to ‘play their own part in looking after parishes’. We then heard from two priests in south Dublin parish– one 86, the other 89, both continuing to serve. Finally, we heard from a newly ordained Permanent Deacon. Formally a student for priesthood he has gone on to train as Lay Deacon. He sees it as not just a plan B because as a married man, he can’t be a priest, but rather as a vocation in its own right, one which allows him to preach, and to perform weddings and parts of funerals.
I felt a wholly unexpected rush of gratitude when I hear Claire finish the segment , a comment that she can hear no reason whatsoever that women couldn’t be deacons. 'Go on you good thing, Claire'. Because of the devastating and depressing litany of abuses revealed in recent years, I have grown accustomed to any Church or faith related matter being a treated by most broadcasters with something between entirely understandable disdain, to a form of polite distancing. It was a real fillip to hear one of biggest national broadcasters indicate her clearly offended feminist sensibilities at the reservation of sacred ministry in the Catholic Church to men.
As soon as the item started my ears had prick up. 'Action stations, I need to tweet.' This was an opportunity to get a bit of profile. I’d be lying if I were to say I entirely hate this shameless self-promotion – there is a bit of an adrenalin rush in it- but it is certainly not what I imagined I’d be doing once I was ordained as an Interfaith Minister in 2022. And yet, as a Catholic woman who wants to minister, to work with others around faith and spirituality, this is what I find I have to do. I want to be able to do this ‘ministering’ work in a way that’s financially viable, and so that I don’t have to work in another paid job and in ‘ministering’ around the edges of my life as a working Mum. Given I want that, I need to take the opportunities as they arise to get my name out there. And more importantly than getting a few weddings or funerals, I want the chance to speak about a vision of a very different Church. A 're-wilded Church' beyond the buildings and structures, where people feel able and empowered to create their own meaningful spaces to connect themselves to each other, to themselves, and to God, however they understand that. I type a tweet, tag Claire Byrne’s Today show with it, post it, and cross my fingers that it might catch someone’s eye on her team, and that it might get read out. In a best case scenario lead to getting a women’s take on the subject, and lead to a conversation the emergence of many women into ministry outside the Catholic Church, and that ‘re-wilding’ of Church that is happening as a result. As a proud member of Women on Air, I’d be only delighted to speak to this topic more.
I realise, however, as I tune into section after break, that the death of Meat Loaf has generated many more texts suitable to fill the slots in-between interviews, than the death of vocations in the Irish Catholic Church!
All this in a week when Ashling Murphy was buried. Speaking at her funeral, Bishop Deenihan of Meath told mourners that Ashling’s murder has asked questions of “ourselves and of society”.
I look forward to The Irish Catholic Church asking itself honest questions about how it treats women. To feeling a need to respond to the question implicit in Claire Byrne’s closing comment – that the exclusion of women from Lay Diaconate is bizarre.
As a woman who feels called to some ministry, I feel belittled, frustrated and ignored. As a woman married to a former Catholic religious, who remains a priest, but is no longer ‘one of good standing’ because of his marriage to me, I feel deeply insulted.
I would love the Irish Catholic Church to look honestly look at how it stands over glaring structural injustice against women ( and married men), and ask if its attitudes to women and sex underpin the spectrum of abuse against women.
Abuse I am complicit with at times.
In the outpouring of horror and revulsion around Ashling’s murder there has been a lot of talk about a spectrum of behaviours, and how the challenge is for ‘good men’ to call others on their behaviours that are at the lower end of that spectrum – name calling, jeering etc. Not to just let such things go. In the days since her death, I have thought about the times I have let such more minor abuses go. One of my personal commitments to the memory of Ashling and all the many other women who have been violently killed, will be to walk out the next time a male performer abuses a woman. I didn’t the last time, just pre-pandemic when I was at a sell-out concert in Dublin. In a front row seat. After the break, the artist, who has huge back catalogue of songs, was fielding requests from the audience, One woman persisted in calling for a certain song, She was seated half way down the floor of the venue. The artist struck the opening chords to his next song. Most of the audience had taken the cue that the time for calling out requests was over, for now. However, as the song was not the one she wanted, the woman stood up and called again. The performer stopped playing, clearly really annoyed and shouted, ‘Sit down, you f**king G**bag’.
I was stunned. And in the moment mortified. The ticket had been a present for my friend from school. She had been unable to come at the last minute and so I’d offer to another friend, a neighbour in Dublin. We got on really well, but she had a much cooler and edgier taste in music, and this was certainly not where she would have chosen to buy tickets for herself. I squirmed from there until end of show, and couldn’t wait for it to be over. I will never attend that artist’s concert again, and will never buy another album. What had happened was absolutely not ok. But I’d gone with it. That incident has come back many times in last week. I want to take a stronger stand to call out what’s not OK. Calling women a F’’’ing G**bag from a stage to a packed venue is certainly not. As is discussing vocations ‘crisis’ while ignoring the very significant fact that you won’t simply don’t allow women to take on meaningful roles.
While I look forward to the Church asking itself hard questions, I can also say, that I will not wait to minister until it does. Like many other women, I have taken the opportunity to train to lead people and use the gifts I know I have. We are here to offer services to those the Church won’t engage with and will be here when it no longer has the ‘man’power to deliver the services to those to whom it currently does.