I have upset some people with the title of my book, because I say the Irish Church “deserves to die”. Some bishops looked at it and said I’m a disgrace. But those who have read it say that my love for the Church and priesthood shines thorough. I have been in the Church my whole life – I refer to it as the abusive church that I know and love. I just don’t want to shirk the hard stuff.

The lack of vocations to the priesthood is a worrying thing that nudged me along to write. I love the busy parish but there are things in my face every day that I just feel unless we do something differently we are actually going to die.

When you go to the Church what do you want? Acceptance, love, belonging. If we do not provide those fruits then the question has to come: should we die? I can’t believe how well we have preached fear instead of love.

I became a Catholic priest late in life, at the age of 45, so some have said I’m the last person that should be commenting on all this. But, I see, in some ways I am best placed to comment because at 56 I haven’t been part of diocese for past 30 years – so I am not as immersed in it as others are.

Abuse from the top down

I’ve had firsthand experience of abuse within my childhood, from a priest, but I know that abuse is not confined to childhood. The Church continues to be abusive. It tends to batten down the hatches, or close ranks, and protect the institution rather than the individual.

The way the Church is set up perpetuates the abuse of power. It has a hierarchical structure, pyramidal from the top down. It can be very unaccountable – in parish people often operate out of the model ‘what does Father say’, which is dangerous for all of us. Priesthood can be isolating and lonely – I can see how easy it would be to become more and more selfish and to abuse power.

Before being a priest I belonged to the congregation of teaching brothers. I was living with a group of guys who had committed themselves to the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. Community is not easy at all but it does work, and if it is healthy people challenge each other. We had that glue, that cohesion, as we were living out of common vision. Diocesan priests do live out of vision too but can tend to be lone rangers – a one man show at times.

I can't believe how well we have preached fear instead of love

No longer relevant

There are many issues that I think have added to our downfall, such as a lack of integration of the feminine. The whole system is male dominated. Then there is the issue of celibacy – I’m saddened about conversations about celibacy that do not talk about the beauty, the gift of celibacy but simply focus on the restriction. Then there’s the commercialisation of first communions etc. It’s a whole mix of all these things together that has led us to a place that people even close to us have a residual respect but don’t view us as relevant any longer.

Reform as well as renewal

If we have any hope of being revived we need those in the Church to accept that we are in need of reform and be open to what that means. People tend to jump to renewal but unless we reform we will die. Yes, it’s more painful but it’s about facing up to the warts – the cancers – and unless we do that we will die. We need to think about how we treat gay people, women priests, clergy getting married etc.

I propose we set up a community that would be dedicated to exploring the reform and renewal of the Church. A praying and active community working within parish context, male and female, lay and clerical. One that would quickly be led by a woman and that would model something different in the Church.

Jesus told many parables, some of which involved the painful processes of pruning/withering due to lack of fruit (see John 15, Mark 11:12-14) or dying to the ground in order to be raised (see John 12:24). In each of these, I believe that both the dying and the rising is the work of the Lord.

It is the Holy Spirit who warms, enlivens and sustains. But that same Spirit can vanquish, burn up, dry out that which is not for the good of the kingdom of God. We are not spectators in this unfolding drama but in fact we are partakers, immersed in the sacred story, the story of our salvation. In this sense then we must embrace the dying in order to rejoice in the rising. That is what I hope the Church will do.

Dublin priest Fr Joe McDonald is the author of Why the Irish Church Deserves to Die.

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