Being an altarboy was the nearest we got to showbusiness in South Mayo in the 1970s — The rota for an altar boy in those days would be one week doing Last Mass, one week doing Second Mass, and the third week doing First Mass which would also mean you were on duty for the daily morning and evening masses for the week ahead. The week when you were on fulltime was great as it felt like a night’s run in the Gaiety.
However, that was nothing to the work involved when the mission would come to town. For nearly two weeks there would be services all through the day and evening, which necessitated getting off school, even if it meant having to listen to the same driven message three times a day, our surplices singed and damned from all the hell and damnation. The mission priests were usually chosen as part of a good cop bad cop variety, with two fairly rigid dodderies lashing the place with fear of eternal immolation and then a younger one who would lighten the mood with his refreshing talk, his sense of optimism, whose priestly joie de vivre was a welcome respite from his sterner compatriots.
In the early seventies for us, that person was Fr Tony Flannery. His sessions were the most popular, not only because he had a much-respected sister in our town but because he treated the congregation like adults, speaking to them with an acknowledgment that these were not yokels to be lectured, but people who had an increasing capacity to take control of their own Christian lives. As one of the four select people who were actually facing the congregation, we altarboys could see the difference in the expressions when he spoke. His pastoral teachings rose out to everyone. Everyone brought home something with them.
The missions at the time were seen as an NCT for the soul and everyone left imbued with confidence that we were all on the right path, until we strayed off it again of course. At the time Fr Flannery was seen as the way forward, the sign of this new free-speaking Church. It was a time when he probably felt most comfortable in his role as a priest, because before long, power returned to the centre and any deviation from accepted practice resulted in sanctions being brought to bear.
However, fast forward almost 40 years and it is strange and sad to see him portrayed as an outsider, hounded by mysterious groupings that seem straight from the pages of a Dan Browne novel. Restricted from speaking directly from the pulpits, having to instead rely on spindoctors and press conferences just to get his point across. This was the only way this man could tell the world of the pressures being placed on him to misrepresent his own position in order to have a future inside what you would expect to be a compassionate Church.
So how has this come about?
It would be simplistic and predictable to suggest that if one does not believe in the structures and restrictions of a faith, that one should opt for a belief that provides such affirmation, so I will not suggest that here. However, from reading Fr Flannery’s articles over the years, it could seem that he does not believe that the hierarchical structure of the Church is as permanent as we are led to believe. There are many who feel that to reject this seems to be rejecting the whole premise on which the priesthood is based, that indeed the faith is built and that if this is the stance he takes, it is one for which there is little room in this Church. There are others who feel that weak leadership in the Church in Ireland has not brought this to a head before and that this inaction has resulted in the issue being sent Rome’s way. And Rome’s way will always be seen as heavyhanded.
Pressure has been brought to bear too on the Redemptorists and there are murmurings that some pastors, albeit ambitious ones, who disagree with Fr Flannery and who would be uncomfortable in promoting the huge Novenas led by the Redemptorists, unless they move quickly and decisively to confirm that the Catholic faith will be preached in its integrity by their preachers.
Fr Tony has received welcome support from his fellow priests but he is also aware of the great opposition there is to him and what he believes in. By speaking out as he did this week, he has however won the battle for the hearts and minds of the people because he is a decent man who has done no wrong. Now more than ever, the type of preaching in which Fr Flannery excelled in 1975 is needed by a broad congregation hungry for spirituality. However it works out for the next while, one hopes that he finds some solace from the immense pressure that hangs over him and that an accommodation can be found to allow him to preach, which will show the tolerance and confidence of a modern Church. We wish him the best.