By Fintan Lambe
New Ross Standard (Ireland)
Wednesday February 10 2010
A priest who is taking time out from his ministry to 'consider his future' has called for a meaningful debate on the issue of married priests and women priests.
In a frank and open interview this week, Fr. Tommy Conroy said he was taking time out to decide on his future, mainly because of the pressure of the workload and the loneliness of clerical life.
He said his reason for speaking out was not to be critical of the Church, but rather to encourage debate on the future direction of the Church in Ireland.
A Craanford native, Fr. Tommy went straight from second-level education to studying for the priesthood at St. Peter's. He was ordained at the age of 25, and spent two years as a curate in Portarlington, Co. Laois, before being posted as chaplain to Gorey Community School. He remained there for 17 years, but, last September, was appointed to work in the parish of Gorey and Tara Hill. However, he kept up some of his duties at the school.
'The challenge of working in the three places was too much for me,' he said this week. 'I felt completely overburdened, and I felt I was running around a lot.'
'I'm taking time out, but I do hope to return to the Community School in September,' he explained.
News of his move from working at the school full-time last September caused the students to organise a petition to keep him there. His straight-talking demeanour, and his ability to relate very well to the students, had proven popular with both students and staff alike. 'I didn't waffle or preach to the students. I just said it as it is,' he said.
However, the transition to parish life presented its own challenges. The workload in a parish can be very demanding.
'For those that actually work, it's a mission impossible, and there's very little lay involvement to lessen the load,' he said. 'The Church has to face up to two things. I think they have to face up to a married priesthood, and I can't understand why the Church is not open to women priests as well.'
'I'd like a debate. I can't understand why it's not being debated and why people are not asked for their opinion,' he continued. 'I've always said these things, but it seems that it doesn't carry much support.'
Life as a priest can also be lonely. He said that he had a good circle of friends in the Community School, but when he moved out into the parish, things changed when he was seen out and about in social circles.
He added that rumours about him had started to go around the town. 'There were all sorts of rumours, but none of them are actually true,' he said. 'I do find it hard that you can't have friends without insinuations being made. If you're ever seen talking to a woman in public, it's automatically assumed something illicit is going on.'
'I had a good circle of friends for 17 years in the Community School, and there was never an issue, but the minute I stepped outside of it, it appeared to become a huge issue,' he added.
He said he would take a year out to consider his future. 'I suppose you could say I'm at a bit of a crossroads,' he admitted. 'The pressure of work has increased the sense of isolation and loneliness. You're just running all day and you're wondering what you're really achieving.'
He believes the Church too is at a major crossroads. 'Until they give the laity their proper role, things are going to get harder,' he contended. ' Basically they should play a role in decision making. They need to be challenged more to use their gifts. There are a lot of things they could be doing in the community. That's their role as baptised members of the Church.'
He said that the issues of allowing priests to marry, or women priests, are never discussed at bishops' meetings or deanery meetings. 'As priests get scarcer, are they going to run us into the ground until the last one is gone?' he asked.
He doesn't believe the sexual abuse scandals in the Church have made it harder for him to be a priest. 'I've always looked at the bigger picture. Obviously they disgust me, and the manner they have been handled disgusts me even more, but I've kept looking at the bigger picture. I've dealt with so much abuse that takes place in the community at many different levels over the years.'
He hopes his future will include working with young people. He spoke openly about his reasons for taking time out at a recent Mass, and received huge support from local parishioners.
'There's a huge amount of appreciation for whatever bit I've done over the years,' he said. 'But the challenge was too big for these shoulders.'
'I'm still a priest, and I have absolutely loved it. I put my heart into it and I have enjoyed myself immensely. 'I'm hoping for a measured debate now. At least let's start discussing the issues that affect priests or the ministry.
'We are born on our own, and we die on our own. It's beyond my understanding why priests have to have such a solitary life.' Just last year, one of the youngest priests in the Diocese of Ferns left to consider his future.
Fr J.J. Doyle, who was curate in Ballymitty, successfully applied for discernment, and left to take time out and consider his vocation and future within the Church.
His decision came around the same time that Fr Noel O'Brien said his final Mass in Templeudigan, before leaving the priesthood to get married in Florida.
Fr O'Brien said he was leaving the priesthood as he wanted companionship in life, having found the priesthood lonely.