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Where are the Priest-Prophets?

Where are the Priest-Prophets?

by Fr. Owen O’Sullivan

from The Furrow 54 (2003) no1, pp. 37 - 42; republished here with the necessary permissions.

Owen O’Sullivan is an Irish Capuchin priest based in Belfast. His address is 81 Lagmore Grove, Stewartstown Road, Belfast BT17 OTD. E-mail owen.osullivan@btopenworld.com.

If asked what a priest does, or what he is for, most laypeople would answer, I think, ‘He says Mass, gives people the sacraments, and conducts funerals.’ Priesthood is identified in many minds with what is only one aspect of it - the cultic. The kingly and the prophetic aspects are not often seen, whether by laypeople or even by priests themselves, as part of the picture. In the Bible, the prophets were people who ‘forth-told’ the present rather than foretold the future. But the Church is seen by default as a ‘non-prophet’ organization.


People are looking for prophecy; they recognize and respect it when they find it. Here are a few examples from the contemporary world: Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright; Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian historian; T. S. Eliot, the American poet; Carlo Rubbia, the Italian director of the European Centre for Nuclear Research, and winner of the 1992 Nobel prize for physics; Nelson Mandela, the South African statesman and agent of reconciliation; Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition to dictatorship in Myanmar (Burma); Albert Einstein, German scientist and winner of the Nobel prize for physics. In Ireland, too, there are laypeople who have taken on a prophetic role and earned national respect. People like John Hume, Seamus Mallon and Tom Hyland of the East Timor campaign come to mind.

There are also in Ireland priests who have exercised a similar function, such as: Alec Reid and Denis Faul in the Northern Ireland peace process; Aidan Troy in the Holy Cross Girls School controversy in Ardoyne, Belfast; Bishop Willie Walsh regarding Travellers; the Franciscans in Merchants’ Quay, Dublin, regarding the drug problem; Peter McVerry in relation to the poor; the Vincentians in Dublin with refugees.

(It is worth mentioning in passing that while clergy often see the media as anti-Church, priests who are prophetic, such as those above, receive favourable attention in the media, and have helped rescue the priesthood from sinking even lower in public esteem.)

What is noticeable about those just listed is that they are prophetic more in action than in word. The term ‘prophet’ need not necessarily conjure up the image of a fiery orator, angrily, and perhaps arrogantly, denouncing the evils of others. The work of truth and of justice, which are at the heart of prophecy, can proceed quietly, even without words.

But overall the proportion of priest-prophets is small. By and large we do not come across as a prophetic body of men. Why have we been so passive in the face of.the mishandling of the sex abuse problem by bishops and religious superiors? Why are so few prophetic clerical voices - of any denomination - heard on sectarianism in Northern Ireland, despite its human cost of 3,500 killed, 30,000 injured and families and communities traumatized? Why are so few engaged in action against sectarianism? Why are so few involved, beyond token gestures, in ecumenism?

If people could say, ‘A priest will always speak the truth, no matter what it costs’, that would be great, but could it be said? Have we numbed ourselves into accepting the role of a safe pair of hands, or of toeing the party line, or of not ruffling feathers, or of not making risky career moves? Has fear so stultified our imagination that we no longer even see the truth for ourselves, much less have the courage to speak it to others?

People want priests to speak the truth, to drop the ecclesiastical political correctness, the PR stances, the compromises, the hiding behind structures whether bureaucratic or mental. People do not want apparatchiks; they want priests to be men of courage, who stand and say what they believe to be true.


There is much untruth in the Church. There is hypocrisy and humbug at all levels. There is pretended loyalty, outward profession of the official line accompanied by inner denial; there is the corrupting power of fear. Which is better: honest dissent or pretended assent? We need priests (and people) who are honest. Truth is the bedrock of credibility. Examples of those who tell the truth are Donal Dorr, in ‘Sexual Abuse and Spiritual Abuse’ (The Furrow, October 2000) and Carry Wills, in his Papal Sins: Structures of Deceit (London: DLT, 2000). Wills’s ‘papal’ sins are all our sins, those of intellectual dishonesty driven by fear.

‘If change is to come, it will come from the margins ... it was the desert, not the temple, that gave us the prophets’ (Wendell Berry). That is a despairing comment on priests, the ministers of the temple. Can things really be that bad? Are we prophetic leaders of a faith-community or are we bureaucratic functionaries of an ecclesiastical corporation? Prophets of Christ Incarnate or bureaucrats of Christianity Incorporated? - to adapt the phrase of Aidan Matthews.

The prophet is one who is able to find meaning in a world of confusion which many find meaningless. A prophet is the one who tells - and does - the truth when all around are people who are telling, believing and doing what is not true.

A prophet is one who has vision, perceptiveness and awareness, who can see through lies, pretence and sham and we are surrounded by such in the Church and in the world. The prophet has imagination when others are dulled by routine or fixed patterns of thought. The prophet has honesty, especially intellectual honesty, to face difficult questions with an open (not an empty) mind, to be able to say, ‘I was wrong’ and make a fresh start, to be able to stand apart, if that is what the truth calls him to do. The prophet has the courage to look the truth in the face, recognize it for what it is and call it by name, acknowledging that all truth is God’s truth however it is mediated.


A basic question is this: are we priests of the Catholic Church speaking and doing the truth? Do we believe what we say?

The truth around birth control: has Humanae vitae been received by the Church? The available evidence suggests that this question must be faced. I believe that those who say otherwise are engaged in wishful thinking or are not being honest.

The truth about the ordination of women: official statements imply that the matter is closed. Are we excluding the possibility that the Holy Spirit might not have spoken the last word on the topic?

The truth about clerical celibacy: this question, and the previous one, touch the power-structures of the Church. The arguments for change on celibacy seem to have won the intellectual battle and are reinforced by the evidence on the ground. The insistence on maintaining the present law is imploding the present model of Church. Yet the issue is fudged, not faced. Why? Are we allowing the demands of the power-structures to have priority over those of the Gospel?

The truth about beatification: is it not true that the beatification of John XXIII and Pius IX was a political balancing act? Pio Nono was beatified so as to keep on board those who regarded Vatican II, Pope John’s council, as the fons et origo omnium malorum in the Church since Pius XII. They didn’t want to see John XXIII beatified, so Pius IX was beatified with him to keep them happy, even though some of his behaviour was unchristian. Did Pius IX really live a life of heroic virtue, a model of the Christian life for others to follow? Beatification says he did, and that is playing games of ecclesiastical politics with the truth.

The truth about the sex abuse scandals: have we heard the victims’ story? What does that story say to us about the relationships of power that exist(ed?) between priests and people? We no longer deny the fact of such scandals but we are still ignorant of their extent. Are we still in denial about the responsibility for them, and about their significance? How ironic that, while the Irish bishops met in Maynooth without the presence of the victims’ representatives, the first reading of the Mass of the fifth Sunday of Easter (28th April) should have been about the setting up by the apostles of a commission of seven people, all drawn from the victims’ community, to look into their particular grievance! Have we taken on board the lessons to be learned, or are we still in the mould of deny-delay-dissemble when we should have moved to admit-accept-adjust?

The truth about the population explosion: the world’s population is increasing at a rate of one and a half million a week, that is, by the population of Germany each year. If the world had followed Catholic teaching on family planning, it would be more, perhaps much more. Can humane living conditions be provided for such rapid growth? Can a planet of limited resources cope? Environmental writer Edward Abbey states, ‘Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.’ Pope Paul VI recognized the reality of the population explosion in his first encyclical, Ecclesiam suam (n. 15). The official voice of the Church today seems to respond with a call to ‘increase and multiply’.

The truth about Christian anti-Semitism: we effectively deny it by acknowledging that, yes, individual Catholics were guilty of it, but not the Church as such. Is the history of World War II being revised so as to exaggerate Catholic opposition to Hitler? Some in the Church cast it in the role of victim in that period, by, for example, canonizing Edith Stein, even though she was killed, not because she was Catholic by religion, but because she was Jewish by race.

The truth in the Church’s internal processes: for example, is it true to say, as a Church document does, that, ‘The laity plays an integral part in decision-making in the Catholic Church’? I believe that statement is untrue. Did the people who made it believe it to be true? If they know the Church as it is, it is hard to imagine that they did, so why did they make it? And what of our obsessive secrecy and exclusion of women?

The truth about the Church’s doctrine being unchanging: consider, for example, the following teaching on slavery: ‘Servitude itself, considered in itself and absolutely, is by no means repugnant to the natural and divine law, and there can be present very many just titles for servitude, as can be seen by consulting the approved theologians and intcrpreters of the canons ...’ (from Instruction no. 1293 of the Holy Office, (the predecessor to the CDF), in reply to questions from the Vicar Apostolic among the Galla (of Ethiopia), on 20 June 1866).

The truth about condoms: AIDS killed 90,000 people in Zambia in 1999, almost all in the 15-49 age group; one-fifth of the adult population there is HIV-positive. In Zimbabwe, 600 people die each week from AIDS. In South Africa, about 4 million people are infected, about 20% of the population. In Botswana it is 35%, Zimbabwe and Swaziland 25%, Lesotho 23%, Namibia 20%, while Malawi, Mozambique and Kenya vary from 10 to 16%. In Africa as a whole, on average, 5,500 funerals take place each day as a result of AIDS.

The best way of preventing this problem is by chastity before marriage and fidelity in it. Condoms do not provide what is called ‘safe sex’. At best they make it safer, or, in the context of an AIDS pandemic such as Southern Africa’s, less dangerous. Condoms could also make sex more dangerous, if they have the effect of giving a user the impression that, as long as he uses a condom, he has no danger to fear and can happily be promiscuous. But, weighing up the balance of argument in a situation such as the above where sex is freely sought and freely given, the use of condoms is at least the lesser of two evils. It may be, in some cases, the more responsible thing to do. But if one partner in a marriage is HIV positive and the other is not, then I believe it would be morally wrong of the couple not to use a condom. Are we losing the good for the sake of the better?

The official position is that the use of condoms is always immoral. I wonder what later generations will think of that when they read of the 5,500 people dying every day of AIDS in Africa alone. That’s the equivalent of eighteen fully-laden jumbo jets crashing daily with no survivors. It is almost the equivalent of two 11 Septembers daily. I think those generations will wonder, not only about our sense of responsibility, or our humanity, but even our sanity. They will wonder, too, about the silence of those who disagreed with official teaching but said nothing.


Truthfulness is the bedrock of credibility. Our credibility today is low. Is that because we are untruthful? Prophets speak the truth whether or not people want to hear it. At their best they do so, not with pride, not with posturing or with an agenda of self-aggrandisement, but with humility, honesty and courage. And they do it more in action than in words.

We are aware of the continued sharp decline in vocations to the priesthood. Is this in part because the priest is seen as a passive figure without a clearly-defined personal character, a Church bureaucrat who goes through the motions without necessarily believing them? Where priests are prophetic figures that is not the case. If priests are seen as party loyalists more than real individuals, any call they make to the public is not likely to meet with a hearing.

Jesus was closer to the prophet than to any other Hebrew religious figure. He said, ‘The truth will make you free’ (John 8:32).


It seems to me that, in the Church, we have subordinated truth to power-games.

We have politicized it.
We have put the institution above the message it exists to serve.
We have put the structures above the gospel.
We have allowed power-structures to become self-serving rather than gospel- or people-serving.
We believe in Churchianity more than in Christianity.

The Church has preempted the role of the Holy Spirit. Although we say officially that the Church is a means to an end, what we do in practice shows that we have made it (or at least the present model) an end in itself. We have succumbed to the temptation that Jesus rejected in the desert, the temptation to play the game of power and control instead of proclaiming the truth. The result is demoralization and a loss of trust and credibility. People no longer respect the Church or listen to it. Few wish to become priests. Are we teaching and doing things which, not only others do not believe, but we do not believe either? People listen to those who speak the truth. Have priests the courage to do that?

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