Sunday, June 6, 2010

Irish church is now badly in need of a wake-up call

Irish church is now badly in need of a wake-up call

Sat, Jun 05, 2010

The Catholic church will die, and deserve to die, unless it finds a way of really being “good news”

ABOUT 15 years ago, the Washington Post had a truly daft piece about Irish faces. It was triggered by a visit by Gerry Adams. And what kind of Irish face, according to the Post, did Gerry Adams have? “The face of a tough, smart priest, the youngest priest ever to be closest to the cardinal, who, in turn, is afraid of him and doesn’t know why.”

There was also a reference to Maureen O’Hara and “map of Ireland” faces. You get the picture. I thought about Irish faces, though, looking at the apostolic visitation team appointed by the Vatican.

For example, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York could be a parish priest from Cavan or Leitrim, the counties of his ancestors. Until he opens his mouth. Then you realise Vatican commentator John L Allen jnr, as usual, is right on the money.

“In some ways, observers say that Dolan could be seen as a throwback to the best of pre-Vatican II American Catholicism: rock solid in his orthodoxy, unapologetic about his loyalty to the papacy and to Rome, yet quintessentially American in his optimism, his practicality and lively sense of humour, with a clear priority on fostering good priests and good parishes.”

Only a few months ago, there were complaints here that Pope Benedict was not paying enough attention to Ireland and the sexual abuse crisis. The apostolic visitation team is so full of heavy hitters, we should be flattered at the level of attention. The pity is they are being sent because our church has made such a mess of dealing with the child abuse crisis. It would have been great if they had included some lay people of the stature of, say, Nuala O’Loan. Still, no one can deny they are a high-powered lot.

Archbishop Dolan was appointed to Milwaukee after his predecessor had given $450,000 of diocesan money in a pay-off to a gay partner. It was also at the height of the American sexual abuse scandals. He has been acknowledged as doing a good job in those impossible circumstances, especially in meeting regularly with survivors of clerical abuse.

He was speaking in Maynooth recently for the Catholic Year of the Priest. All of the practicality, humour and optimism that John L Allen speaks about was on display.

There hasn’t been too much of that about in the Irish church of late. You can catch a flavour of him on the Irish Catholic Bishops’ website ( He was speaking about what people expect to find in a priest.

“We’re not priests for what we can get, but for what we can give, and anyone who’s in it for power, authority, privilege or entitlement should not be. That’s clericalism, and it is a vice, a sin.”

He believes that people want something extraordinarily simple and demanding. They want a priest to be someone who can help them find God. He told a story of an exhausted aid worker in Haiti. He asked what he could do to help. He expected to be asked for practical things. She asked him to say Mass for them.

Quoting Stephen Rossetti, the priest psychologist, he wondered if all the emphasis on self-fulfilment and having needs met has taken a toll on the idea that priests should be self-sacrificing, be poured out for the needs of others?

He went on to say: “Thus, the priesthood is a call, not a career; a redefinition of self, not just a ministry; a way of life, not a job; a state of being, not a function; a permanent, lifelong commitment, not a temporary style of service; an identity, not a role.”

In an aside, he said the loss of a deep sense of “being” something rather than “doing” something is also a problem for married and single people, and indeed of all baptized Christians.

Given what the American church has faced, he should be crushed. Yet the most striking thing about his address in Maynooth was the deep sense of joy he has in being a priest. In a video interview, also on the bishops’ website, he explains: “If priests come across as whiney and crabby, who on earth wants to buy a ticket on the Titanic?”

Of course, cynics would say we are already aboard the Titanic, and the apostolic visit is merely an exercise in counting the deckchairs. Yet that cynicism takes no account of the vital role faith plays in people’s lives. A friend spoke to me about a desperately sad funeral she had attended recently, and how the sensitive words of a priest allowed people both to grieve and yet to feel they were not just facing an abyss of meaninglessness.

All around the country, similar scenarios play themselves out. At the recent funeral of Fr Martin Tierney, who was among many other things an Irish Catholic columnist, a story was told of how one night he got out of his hospital bed to comfort a family in distress, although seriously ill himself with cancer.

Of course there are bad priests, and mad priests, and sad priests. Because of their privileged position, they can do untold damage. But there are so many good priests, and sane priests, and contented priests. They don’t get much airtime. Even still, the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland will die, and deserve to die, unless it can find a way of really being “good news”. Battered by scandals and poor leadership, shamefully aware of the way it has failed the most vulnerable, the church still has to find a way to show that Christianity offers something profoundly human and healing.

Archbishop Martin emphasised that the role of the apostolic visitors is to “assist the Catholic Church in its renewal”. In other words, it’s not so much sending in receivers as keeping the organisation viable.

Fr Tierney described the Murphy report as the best thing for the Catholic Church since Matt Talbot, because finally, the truth was out. Archbishop Dolan also suggests that being broken is not the worst thing that can happen. It can be a chance to awaken. Let’s hope this apostolic visit helps the church to wake up.

© 2010 The Irish Times

No comments: