Saturday, June 12, 2010

'Holy Father, what shall we do?'

'Holy Father, what shall we do?'

By David Willey
BBC News, Rome

As the Roman Catholic Church suffers one of its worst crises in modern times, more than 10,000 priests from around the world have travelled to Rome to celebrate the end of the International Year of the Priest.

Priests from more than 90 countries attended a rally in Rome on 10 June
It has been a bad year for the priesthood.

Hardly a week has gone by in recent months without some new scandal involving a paedophile Catholic priest - or even the odd bishop - emerging somewhere in the world.

The Vatican has done what it can to limit the damage to the image and the credibility of an organisation that demands unlimited trust on the part of believers. Some of them are now asking themselves whether they should in future entrust their children of tender age to Catholic institutions run by priests.

Catholic priests are the Pope's foot soldiers.

Normally at the Vatican I am dealing with red-girdled monsignori who hold high office in the Church hierarchy and who are usually keenly conscious of the power structure in which they operate.

The rallies and vigils were intended as a morale booster for an ageing profession which has to work within societies increasingly indifferent or even hostile to organised religion

But as I watched the thousands of humble parish priests who have arrived in Rome this week to attend the Pope's rally - the men ultimately responsible for filling the pews and preaching the moral imperatives of Church membership - I wondered to what extent they also must be worried about this unexpected turn of events during the first five years of Benedict's papacy.

Electronic rosaries

Some have been doing what any tourist or pilgrim does when they arrive in Rome - a bit of shopping.

The Church is becoming technologically more savvy... I would not have been surprised to see some priests Twittering

I saw some of them crossing St Peter's Square clutching plastic bags bearing the logo of the ecclesiastical tailors who supply the most chic buttoned cassocks or colourful mass vestments - what passes for clerical fashion here. Some have been purchasing as gifts the latest fad, electronic rosaries.

In the morning they have been filling the huge basilicas of St John Lateran and St Paul's Outside The Walls, listening to meditations conducted by eminent cardinals about the difficult role of the priest in a rapidly secularising world, particularly here in Europe.

Latin is no longer the lingua franca of the Church because of the decline in Latin studies in schools, so the Italian, German and English speakers were grouped in one packed basilica and the French, Spanish and Portuguese speakers were in the other, with video links set up between the two.

The Church is becoming technologically more savvy and now has a full-time monsignore in its social communications department dealing with new media.

I would not have been surprised to see some priests Twittering.


Also in St Peter's Square this week, I saw a small group of Catholic women campaigning to be ordained as priests, despite the firm refusal of the Vatican even to begin discussions on a subject which has been officially declared taboo by two Popes.

Clad in lavender robes, the women carried banners proclaiming their cause and distributed leaflets denouncing to bemused pilgrims "the scandalous aberration that can be caused by a super-valued male priesthood with forced celibacy".

So many victims have had their lives and personalities destroyed by predator priests

Joelle Casteix

That was until the watchful Italian police patrolling the square asked them for their passports and politely requested them to leave Vatican territory.

Nearby another small group of angry Catholics were also holding a press briefing.

They were from the main American clerical-abuse victims group, the Survival Network for those Abused by Priests, or Snap for short.

Joelle Casteix, a victim of abuse - not by a priest but by a lay teacher in her Catholic school in California - carried a picture of how she looked as a cute 16-year-old when she became pregnant and had an abortion.

She told me she had successfully sued and obtained $1m (£680,000) in compensation in a class suit against Church authorities.

"Today I can speak about it, but so many victims have had their lives and personalities destroyed by predator priests," she said.

Snap victims were yet again doomed to disappointment. Pope Benedict failed to respond to their request for him to order his former Vatican department to turn over to international law enforcement all the criminal evidence they have amassed about predator priests in recent decades.

This week's Rome rallies and vigils were intended as a morale booster for an ageing profession which has to work within societies that are becoming increasingly indifferent or even hostile to organised religion.

In still overwhelmingly Catholic Malta last month, I watched Pope Benedict as he listened to a 28-year-old local seminarian express his fears as he entered a consecrated life.

He said he felt modern society had no use for his vows: "Tell us, Holy Father, what shall we do?" he asked.

The International Year of the Priest was the Pope's attempt to answer him.