Saturday 23 July 2011


The debate raging in the Irish Church brings me little surprise.

It is my honest belief that the episcopate and the presbyterate in Ireland have been riding for a fall for perhaps half a century, perhaps longer.

I remember a funeral luncheon for an uncle of mine. It was on a Monday; the funeral had been exceptionally deferred from the traditional third day after death to enable me to attend and officiate. I was sat next to the parish priest—actually the Vicar General of the diocese, now deceased—and listened with scant sympathy as he grumbled about his extremely busy weekend. He lamented that that Sunday he had had to celebrate Mass twice, imagine!, and now with this lunch to attend, it might be another hour or two before he could get off to the golf course.

I quietly commented that I had had a relatively easy weekend, with only three Masses on the Sunday and five baptisms (admittedly done in one ceremony), plus the flight to Ireland.

The town is a big one (by Irish standards), with an enormous church (by any standards). In those days (no longer!) there were four priests, and the entire town could be squeezed into the church for four Masses, no more. And all four on Sunday morning. As far as I could work out, there was no pastoral work of any sort done which was not celebrating Mass. There were no youth clubs, no sacramental preparation other than that done in the schools, no care of people because that was the government's job…… you get the picture.

Money, now: that was collected regularly. Giving at Mass has never been good, so there were, and are, 'outside collections' of various types. When my father was young, the names and amounts contributed of all these collections was solemnly read out at Mass.

The only half decent cars in those days were driven by priests.

One place you would regularly see the clergy was at the GAA, the Gælic Athletic Association. The sports pages of the local papers would be covered with photographs of the Parish Priest presenting trophies to the various local sporting gods of the town.

It is little wonder that the same uncle that I buried that day had been disgusted when he heard I wanted to be a priest. He assumed that it was for money and status. He had thought that I was better than that. Though in the past we had been close, he wrote me out of his will, and, a widower having no children himself, he left everything to neighbours. This was some eighteen years ago.

Do not underestimate the anger of the Irish people right now. In the context, it is entirely understandable.

Now let us look at the bishops. Before the 60s, it was normal that episcopal appointments would be finally approved by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (or 'Holy Office'). Pope Paul Vi changed this to final approval by the Secretariate of State. This is because he wanted to pursue a policy of detente all round; ecumenism and Ostpolitik were the watchwords. So henceforward bishops would be diplomats; nice guys, people who could pour oil on troubled waters, men who would not rock the boat.

These are the men who would not pursue child abusers, for fear that a storm might arise. They are good men, nice men; they are just not what is needed now, if ever.

There has been criticism of the '500' priests. There is much I disagree with them about; however, I think that they are men of integrity who don't always actually understand what is going on.

They are right that the Vatican is not appointing the right men to be bishops in Ireland (with some exceptions). And they are right that serious surgery needs to happen if things are to be rectified. If the Vatican does not hear that the Irish people are seriously angry and need to see justice done, it will not recover the trust of what has been until recently one of the most Catholic nations on earth. Expressions of sorrow on the part of the bishops are not enough; these can be dismissed easily as crocodile tears.

Questions of the new translation of the Mass are entirely secondary right now. Ireland needs bishops of unimpeachable integrity and orthodoxy, and it needs them yesterday.

The Taoiseach's speech had a lot of this anger in it. The reference to the confessional speaks more about clerical unaccountability than demonstrating a real understanding of the issues. People need to grasp that before they get worried that Ireland will place police microphones in every confessional. 


Philly said...

Congratulations on an excellent insight into the problems in Ireland. Too many bloggers are obsessing on defending an unnecessary civil code provision, perhaps in order to avoid a little examination of conscience on what has really been wrong. I remember trying to get Irish Priests to say a Latin Mass. Several I spoke to were spending 6 days on the golf course (one said he meditated there!) - not making this up - and couldn't understand why Mass attendance was dropping.

Incidentally, who needs to defend the seal of confession when almost nobody goes to confession, Priests almost never hear (or go to?) confessions, and the 'reconciliation services' where you go to the top of the queue and say a sin, can be heard by everyone in the Church anyway?

Anonymous said...

Good posting and on the money.

Paul said...

I agree as well. The Irish clergy - bishops and abusers, and all those who knew and said & did nothing - owe all the other priests an apology.

I try to support the Vatican but I cannot justify their failure to put bishops on canonical trial and forcibly reduce them to the lay state.

This is harsh but so is the damage done; and if priests can be punishe dthus why not bishops?

Father John Boyle said...

Well said. And, Father, how was your experience of Irish Liturgy? Mine has been very sad indeed: rushed Masses, scant regard for liturgical norms, (e.g. lay preachers during the pilgrimage season at Knock, of all places...), poorly prepared sermons... The Church in Ireland can no longer presume to be part of the fabric of Irish society and the clergy a privileged class, and not a minute too soon. Sad that such corruption as the current scandal is what it has taken to shake things up.

Mater mari said...

When we married 49 years ago we gave serious consideration to moving to Ireland to bring up our children, partly because we are both converts and our families weren't entirely supportive of our Catholic ideals.
Having read this post (and not doubting its accuracy for a moment) I'm greatly relieved that we remained in England - warts and all - where we have been privileged to meet many outstanding priests.
Thank you Father!

GOR said...

Ah! - memories, Father. When I was growing up in Ireland our parish (in a town of about 3000 people) had five curates plus the PP. Most of the curates were in their 50s, there being few opportunities to get a parish, as PPs didn't retire but died in office. Even then - some 60 years ago - there were mutterings among the people about the lifestyle of the priests. One was prominent in the local GAA club, another took his turn as president of the local Golf Club. At the time golf was still a sport only for the well-to-do, as the ordinary Joe could not afford it - until Pitch-and-Putt came along and anyone could play golf of a sort.

The curates all drove late-model cars. It didn't go unnoticed when one, after a social function, wrapped his around a tree and was seen in a brand new model days later. "Only a priest could afford that", my cousin remarked sourly. Home visitation was still done in those days and each curate was assigned an area of the parish - but few of them actually did regular home visits, apart from sick calls. A new curate would start out religiously but in time that would fall off also. The PP didn't do home visits at all - except for dinners in the houses of the more wealthy or professional parishioners. That didn't go unnoticed by the ordinary people either. And yes, the Christmas and Easter collections were read out by name and street from the pulpit - in place of a sermon - over two successive Sundays.

Many native sons of the parish were priests - in religious orders or on the missions. I can't recall a single one who was diocesan - unsurprising, as few families could afford the tuition at the diocesan college which was also the Minor Seminary of the day. When home on holidays they would regularly be pressed into saying Sunday Masses - especially the last one at noon, so that the curate assigned to it could make it to Dublin for the football or hurling match on that day. That was also noted by the parishioners.

Abuse was unheard of back then. The real problem was "the drink". A priest could very easily become an alcoholic in those days. Upon visiting a home he would be pressed to have "a drop of the crathur" - because it was assumed that was the correct way to entertain father and sure everyone knew priests were partial to a drop. It took a strong will to refuse and say: "Just a cup of tea, thank you".

Later, when I served in parishes in England (or 'on the English mission' - as it was referred to back then) and witnessed firsthand the meager subsistence of priests in England, I would look at the Irish clergy and think: "You don't know how good you have it." Mass offerings were so plentiful (funerals were judged by the number of Mass Cards received...) that many could not be satisfied in the parish and were sent to poorer parishes or to the missions.

So the seeds of the decline in the Irish Church go back a ways. Apathy, taking things for granted, disdain for Rome and reveling in the position of respect and authority enjoyed by the clergy, have taken their toll. In a sense it is a wonder Mass attendance held up as long as it did... Granted, not all priests were like that back then, but enough were that it was noticeable and commented upon - albeit in a low voice. The Holy Father has spoken about the Church becoming smaller, but more committed. The Church in Ireland has become smaller and there are signs of greater commitment in many parishes and especially among the younger clergy. All is not lost, but much has been lost. It will not be recovered overnight.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your very good article. But I disagree with your comment that, "Questions of the new translation of the Mass are entirely secondary right now."

The celebration of the Mass is never a "secondary" issue. The pastoral problems that you describe are all connected with the problems of the sacred liturgy. "Lex orandi, lex credendi." Bad liturgy, bad theology, and bad pastoral practice all go together.

The initiative to produce a more accurate and beautiful translation of the Mass did NOT originate with the same priests and bishops who are responsible for the malaise you witness in the Church in Ireland.

You are right in saying,"Ireland needs bishops of unimpeachable integrity and orthodoxy, and it needs them yesterday."

shane said...

It's become very fashionable to decry the supposedly 'unique' defects in Irish Catholicism. Very rarely does this rise above caricature or exhibit the rigour and critical analysis such a complex subject demands. With that in mind, I'm quite reluctant to add my voice to an already excessively loud choir but... IMHO the single most destructive feature of Irish Catholicism 50 years ago was an exaggerated veneration for the papacy. Irish bishops seen no need for a Council and rarely spoke at it. (In contrast to Vatican I when over 1/3 of the bishops were Irish or of Irish descent and the formula on papal infallibility was written by the Cardinal Archbishop of Dublin, Paul Cullen). Had Irish bishops been more conscious of their episcopal dignity they might have been able to resist the disastrous changes in the 60s and early 70s. The Irish bishops were profoundly unaffected by the ressourcement and liturgical movements and were in a unique position to call a halt to the nonsense (not least because Irish bishops dominated all the [thriving and wealthy] English speaking churches at that time). But they still implemented its decrees, even whilst privately entertaining great reservations, out of a sense of obedience. But it's easy to criticise in retrospect. Had Cardinal Browne lived longer it's likely he would have joined Abp. Lefebvre.

annmarie said...

That is the most helpful analysis I have read, and it also explains my question as to why there is such apathy in the parish here (an English suburban parish where most people are professionals).

I think of a priest as "another Christ" which immediately puts me in mind of the passage in St Paul's letter to the Philippians which begins: "Have this mind in you which was also in Christ Jesus ...." It was the reading at my father's funeral and as he was a lay Protestant and therefore believed in the "priesthood of all believers", my dad would have said it applied just as much to the layman as the priest.

That aside, for me this is the ideal of what a priest should be (Ok, he is a human being and most likely going to fall short of it, but if you don't have ideals what do you have to aim for in life?). I cannot imagine anything further removed from abuse than this ideal so how any priest could have imagined for a moment that his privileged position allowed him that licence I fail to see.

I have no great theological knowledge, only what I learned from my parents and what I learned in order to be received into the Church, so my conclusions (which I trust are not iffy theology - if they are, please let me know) are nothing remarkable, just very ordinary.

I can only conclude that there must have been something seriously and fundamentally wrong with priestly formation. Just how did the Church which produced such martyrs as Oliver Plunkett get to such a pass?