Friday, September 19, 2014

Listening to women...for a change

The Diocese of Killaloe, Ireland, is a very typical one and not in crisis...yet. It has around 100 priests to staff its 56 parishes but more than half of them are over 66 years old and vocations are declining. Given this panorama, Bishop Kieran O'Reilly (photo) decided pro-actively to introduce a permanent deacon program, a proposal he presented via a pastoral letter to his flock in August 2014. Permanent deacons are married, ordained, and, unlike lay people, they are allowed to read the gospel, give homilies, and perform weddings and baptisms. They may not celebrate the Eucharist or hear confessions. And...they must be male, according to current canon law.

Therein lies the flaw. Bishop O'Reilly's pastoral letter detailed the role he envisioned for the future deacons -- not only the sacramental activities but also charity and social justice ministry, sacramental preparation and religious education. Many of those functions are already being performed by lay people in Killaloe -- mainly lay women, to be specific -- women who would not be eligible to apply for the diaconate positions.

Those women swiftly and forcefully let their bishop know that his proposed permanent diaconate plan would not be welcome because they could not be included and they encouraged him to try to find a more equitable solution. As one of the lay women activists, Kathleen McDonald, who is involved with catechesis, retreat facilitation, as well as in parish and diocesan pastoral councils, told the Irish Examiner: "We were offended that the Church in Killaloe was not going ahead with any alternative to a diaconate that could involve women as women do most of the lay work on the ground around the diocese." "In 2014 is it appropriate that they bring in another male only ministry? What impression does it give of the Church?," McDonald asked.

Bishop O'Reilly expressed surprise at the negative reaction to his proposal but was sympathetic to the women's feelings. "I was a little bit surprised by the manner in which the discussion took a very negative approach and went very far away from what my intentions were and people second guessing me on a different level altogether which did really surprise me." He added that, as the diaconate is presently constituted, "I was not in a position to be able to offer it to those who have felt very hurt and who felt over the last couple of weeks that they are excluded. May I say from the very beginning that it was never my intention."

What happened next is almost unheard of in the Catholic Church. The bishop took the women's concerns to heart and put his proposal on hold. Last Sunday, he issued a statement to be read at all the masses: "In the light of the conversations held over the past weeks and in the interest of allowing the further implementation of the Pastoral Plan I will not now proceed with the introduction of the Permanent Diaconate at this time in the diocese....I believe that the level of engagement shown by the recent dialogue has brought to the surface a sign of the energy and commitment of many people in our church. I encourage this dialogue to continue as I believe it will bring great benefits to the Church in the Diocese and the mission entrusted to all of us by Jesus Christ."

The women welcomed their bishop's decision. Another activist, Martina Meskell, told Clare People the women are not radicals or feminists. "We do not want any negativity or divisiveness over this," she said, adding that they just wanted the pastoral plan implemented to include everyone irrespective of gender. "We really welcome Bishop Kieran's decision to put this on hold and acknowledge his commitment to dialogue."

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