Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Apostolic Visitation Report: Some Reflections

The Apostolic Report (see below) is dominating the news here in Ireland.  There is a lot in the summary of the report, which was the text released yesterday, and if you read it carefully you will see there is a lot more in the report which seems very hopeful. 

The visitators have acknowledged that the bishops are now working very hard on child protection - indeed it is the number one priority in the Church in Ireland, even at times leading to other important ministries being given less time and attention than they deserve - but such things happen when you are trying to deal with a crisis.  The Catholic Church in Ireland now has the strictest and most transparent policies and practices in place than any other organisation here, including those which continue to attack the criticise the Church.  Indeed the State's own agencies fall well below the standard being adhered to by the Church.  However whenever you say that the critics come out in force and start on the offensive again.

Indeed I see the usual suspects are on the warpath in response to the report's recommendations with regard to the formation of priests.  They are attacking the decision to sort out the seminaries and the living arrangements for seminarians. They may be operating under the misconception that abusing priests were conservative, orthodox and Papist (the facts show otherwise) so they may think a tightening up on seminarians will make them more conservative, orthodox and papist, and this will lead to the nurturing of more abusers.  I do not think so. 

Having lived in two seminaries, I think a tightening up is necessary.  First of all I would not favour isolation from the world - and I don't think that's what the report is suggesting.  But I do think seminarians need space for prayer, reflection, privacy and for fraternity with their fellow seminarians.  When in Maynooth the seminary was so open you could come across lay students, male and female, anywhere in the seminary building - even in the seminarian toilets in our private quarters.   Seminarians need to learn to become "men apart from the world": living in the world, yes; working in it, yes; but men who have their sights set on the next and so able to resist the temptations of the world and meet its challenges.  Many priests become worldly because they have never stepped back from the world even for a short period of their lives so to become acquainted with the next world and develop a healthy distance from the world. 

I remember hearing an interview with some people who were discussing priestly celibacy.  They were all against it because it made the priest "different from the rest of us".   Priests should be allowed to marry and have sex so they will be like the rest of us, one man said.  And that is the problem with the modern world's perception of the priesthood: a priest is not understood as a man set apart for the service of God and his people.  This doesn't mean he is aloof and cannot relate to other people: it means that his relationship with people is different- it is not ordinary, it is extraordinary and even more loving and caring for that extraordinariness. 

While priests must be friends with the laity, and it is important that priests have lots of lay friends who will keep him grounded and love him (that should help undermine any temptations to clericalism) ultimately he is called to a greater vocation towards the faithful than friendship: fatherhood.    Men need a certain amount of space to prepare for that.   A priest cannot be like "the rest of us" because his vocation and mission is different than that of the "rest of us" - he is called to a greater love, a greater sacrifice: only then can he be truly a priest for "the rest of us". 

The formation of priests is very important, and we need to take it very seriously, particularly in this time of reform.  I pray that good formators will be put in place to help guide, form and love the men who are seeking to respond to God's call. I emphasise love because if a seminary and a formation process are devoid of love, then the seminary will become a breeding ground for vice, particularly anger and self-centredness.  When new formators are being chosen for our seminaries, then, not only must they be examined for orthodoxy, intelligence, personal holiness and ability, but also measured for their ability to truly love those in their care.

I see also that the diocesan structures in Ireland has also come up, or "configuration" as the report puts it.  A number of people have said that we need to reduce the number of dioceses, and I think so myself, so it is good that this is being taken seriously by the Holy See. 

I also note with gratitude that the visitators saw how much ground heterodoxy has gained among our clergy, religious and lay people.  This raised the ire of one of our journalists who was disgusted that the Holy See should think that dissent is not compatible with true reform.  Those who know the history of the Church know that dissent leads to decay and abandonment of Christ's teaching in favour of "mere human thinking".  True renewal consists in an "aggiornamento" firmly grounded in "ressourcement": back to the Gospel, the Fathers of the Church, the Saints - what Vatican II had advised.  And that is the advice the report has for our religious too - go back to the basics, back to the Gospel, to religious life, to the intentions and charism of your founders.  

All in all, there is a sign of hope in this report; coupled with the letter of the Holy Father to Ireland, we have two useful and inspiring documents to help us in the process of reform.  One important point which we need to take from the report: it is now time for the faithful to get to work, to assist this reform and help the renewal of the Church in Ireland.  It will require a dying to self for most of us, and we face challenges and opposition even from within - the secular media here will try and hamper our efforts at every juncture and they will have allies in the Church, be they bishops, priests, religious or laity.  But we also have fine and faithful bishops, priests, religious and laity, and we must work together in union, as the Body of Christ, to overcome the challenges that lie ahead.  

The green shoots of reform are already apparent.  The Spirit is moving among us - we see that in the growth of new movements here - the report advises us to make use of the new Ecclesial Movements in assisting this reform.  There are fine priests, consecrated people and laity in those movements who want to be of service to the Church in Ireland - we need to take them up on the offer.  The days when certain quarters of the Church and her governance can stand aloof from others should be exorcised.  Now we are all down on the ground, working and rebuilding together.  That is one good thing which can come out of the suffering of the last couple of decades - a more humble Church, yes, but a more fraternal and loving one.

That said, we must thank the visitators for their help and generosity in responding to the Holy Father's request, and for their work in service of the Church universal and the Church here in Ireland.  May their efforts in the vineyard be rewarded with a new springtime for faith in this land.

UPDATE:  Rory Fitzgerald has an interesting article in the Catholic Herald online, with regard to the report. He speaks about the new challenge the Church in Ireland has to face - a crisis of faith.

1 comment:

  1. If we had Bishops who were orthodox, holy, committed and fearless, it would give good, orthodox, committed priests and laity the courage and perseverance to fight against the attacks on faith, morality, family on all fronts, knowing your Bishops would support you and give apostolic leadership. We need such Bishops urgently. For decades, moment, Catholics in this country have been leaderless. Appoint orthodox, holy, courageous and up-for-the fight Bishops and priests - now! Forget about extraneous criteria such as politics, etc. - that has got us to where we are today, where the dissenters intimidate and prevail in the public square.