One of Ireland's most prominent 'silenced' priests has announced he will defy Church authorities when he turns 70 later this month by celebrating a public Mass in his local community center.
Fr. Tony Flannery, the outspoken founder of the Association of Catholic Priests, was banned from public ministry nearly five years ago by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) for his liberal views on women priests, homosexuality and contraception.
Since the start of his censureship the respected Redemptorist, from Athenry, Co. Galway, has spoken of his heartache at being forced by Church leaders to turn down a number invitations to lead Mass in public places - including an occasion last March when he reluctantly declined an offer to conduct a service to dozens of cancer sufferers.
He has since accepted there is little chance of the Vatican leaders ever relaxing their ban on him, meaning a return to the priesthood is highly unlikely.
However, the defiant cleric, who turns 70 on January 18, has vowed to end his "five years in the wildnerness" by celebrating Mass four days after his milestone birthday in his local community center.
In a statement on his website, he said: "I am now in my fifth year when I am forbidden by Church authorities to minister publicly. I have decided to honor my age, and my lifetime, by ignoring the Church censures and celebrating a public Mass.
"Since I would not be allowed to do so either in a Catholic church or other Catholic-controlled building, I have chosen, with the kind permission of the committee, to celebrate it in the local community hall in the village where I now live."
Outlining the reasons for his decision to celebrate Mass publicly, Fr. Flannery insisted his motivation wasn't solely on the grounds of defying Church leaders, nor would it be the start of an unofficial ministry.
He explained: "For the last five years I have been in something of a 'limbo' state, neither fully in or fully out of the priesthood. I have known from an early stage that there was no possibility of a resolution of the dispute between myself and the Vatican. So this public Mass will be for me a way of acknowledging the forty years of my life, and the work I did as a priest - a way of acknowledging who I am.
"Since my dispute with the Vatican went public I have received enormous support from people all over the country, and indeed internationally. Eucharist is essentially a thanksgiving and in this Mass I am giving thanks for the goodwill of many people. Since the beginning of my difference with the CDF, I have consistently held to one fundamental point. I don't have any problem with the Church exercising authority. Every institution needs an authority structure. But authority must be exercised in a way that is just, and that respects the dignity of the person.
"In my experience, and in the experience of many others whom I have come to know in these past years, Church authority is exercised in a way that is unjust and abusive. For that reason I hope that my action will highlight once again the urgent need for change in the way the Vatican deals with people who express opinions that are considered to be at odds with official Church teaching."
Fr. Flannery's Mass will take place in Killimordaly Community Center, near Athenry at 2:30pm on Sunday, January 22 and will be followed by refreshments at a local pub.
He added: "In celebrating this public Mass I am also saying something else that I regard as important. The Mass, the Eucharist, is not in the ownership of the CDF, or indeed of the Vatican. It belongs to the believing communities. That was where it began in the early Church, and where it finds its true meaning. My hope is, in this time of great change and upheaval in Church and society, that the believing communities begin, by whatever means possible, to regain ownership of the Eucharist."