Tony Flannery has done what few of us could. He sacrificed his career and his passion for his principles. It’s been anything but easy.
All four of the Galway Flannerys joined religious orders. The three priests and one nun were the children of an ambitious Irish mother who well understood that an affordable religious education was her best hope of saving them from poverty.
“So I was third on the conveyor belt,” says Flannery, now 67, who grew up to love his Catholic faith, his Church, and his work as a Redemptorist preacher traveling from Irish parish to Irish parish holding revivals to renew that faith. He would have celebrated 50 years in religious life this year, save for this: For years now, he has very publicly spoken out against the Church’s stands on the origins of the priesthood, ordaining women to it, contraception, and gays – some of the same issues cardinals debated and commented on publicly at the synod in Rome.
But Francis was not yet pope when Flannery’s Vatican superiors began their investigation.
When they insisted he sign a paper renouncing those views, he refused. When they told him to keep silent, he refused again.
So two years ago, the Vatican stripped Flannery of his ministry. Last year he said he was threatened with excommunication for heresy, a word that conjures up images of Joan of Arc burned at the stake. And on Monday, this ousted itinerant preacher told his story at a friend’s home in the West Roxbury neighborhood of Boston.
“I love preaching,” he said. “I still love the Church.”
But his censure has at least done this: turned Flannery into an even bigger celebrity in Ireland, where he’s already known for his writing and his nine books on faith and Catholicism. And now he’s in the midst of an 18-city, American preaching and listening tour sponsored by a coalition of reform and progressive Catholic groups including Call To Action, Catholics United, Catholics in Alliance, Future Church, and the National Coalition of American Nuns.
He’ll be speaking at just one Catholic Church. That’s in Minneapolis. Mostly he’ll speak at Protestant churches or in union halls and public buildings from Boston to Chicago to Seattle, telling his story again and listening to faithful but frustrated Catholics tell theirs.
Flannery said Monday he was ordained amidst Vatican II’s hopes for a more open Church willing to hear and respond to the laity. Then he lived through 40 years “of disappointment, when the main thing we heard from Church authorities was about law, what you could and couldn’t do, like the Pharisees in the New Testament,” he said, who were always fretting over minute details of Jewish law. “And not seeing how ridiculous the whole thing was, or how appalling it is to withhold the Eucharist instead of seeing it as nourishment for our weakness.”
Flannery has spoken and written, in words that often echo Francis, about the need for a more welcoming and merciful Church, one that treats women as equals and does not demonize sex. He is one of the founders of the Irish Association of Catholic Priests, an association of about 1,100 reform-minded priests who’ve also been willing, like Flannery, to speak to the media, challenge the Church, and bemoan, for example, the loneliness of celibacy.
“Oh,” Flannery said Monday, “when I see children, when I see grandchildren, I think, ‘it would have been nice ….’ ”
His association is totally independent from the Church and unlike anything in the United States, where dissenting priests mostly keep their complaints, quietly, to themselves.
Looking back, says Flannery, it was naïve not to expect some blowback. Still, he was a surprised that the mighty Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under Pope Benedict, even noticed him. “I’m the only priest in Ireland who’s out of ministry for heresy,” he said. Other priests are out of ministry, too, but because of Ireland’s decades-long priestly sex abuse scandal. One can’t help comparing the swift ferocity of the hierarchy’s actions against Flannery with its slowness to act against hundreds of child-abusing Irish priests. Meeting Tony Flannery, one can’t help but notice, too, the sad irony here: The Church sought to silence a priest whose ministry had attracted disillusioned souls back to that very same Church. You can understand why he did so well. Tony Flannery comes across as a kind, compassionate and thoughtful man — and a man still wistful for the priestly vocation he has lost.
Flannery thinks he may not have been censured under Francis, “but who knows.” He said many have written to Francis on his behalf. There is no word on any reconsideration of his case. Yet Flannery is a huge Francis fan. “I think he’s trying desperately hard to make change,” he said. “We’re praying he lives long enough to get some reforms through,” ones not easily jettisoned by his successor.
Among those reforms: a dramatic change of emphasis. The point of being a Catholic, says Flannery, is not citing from memory “The Catechism of the Catholic Church.” The point is “to follow the gospels. To follow Jesus, and the big thing about Jesus was the way he accepted and loved everybody.” Misfits, sinners, prostitutes, thieves, the sick, the outcast, the desperately poor. “That’s what drew people to him. That has to be the core of the Christian message. That’s what we’re hoping for.”