Catholic Church Internal Trials in the Diocese of Derry, Ireland, in 2019

A brief account of personal experience 1966-2019

Sean O’Conaill, 29th August, 2019

As a teacher in Catholic schools in Derry diocese in the wake of Vatican II, 1966-96 I never experienced pastoral structures of trust and welcome into any kind of co-responsible partnership with Catholic clergy in the care of and formation of Catholic young people – in what I understood to be the collaborative spirit of Vatican II (1962-65). Nor has that happened subsequently.

An effort on my part to establish that kind of relationship after retirement in 1996 – from 1998-2003 – in a process called Ministry and Change – ended with the Bishop of the Diocese, Dr Seamus Hegarty, undertaking to form a joint group of clergy and lay members of the Ministry and Change team, to discuss the possibility of implementing a model of collaborative ministry. As one of the three lay people who volunteered for that joint diocesan group I never subsequently heard any further word of this project – nor did the other two lay people who had volunteered.

Also in 2003, one of those two other lay people, Mr Johnny McCallion, had been told by the same bishop, Bishop Seamus Hegarty, that a one-day diocesan course organised by the Ministry and Change team, on that topic of Collaborative Ministry, in 2003, would be the last of its kind in the diocese. So it proved.

Mr McCallion subsequently volunteered for a course in Catechetics, run by a priest of the diocese – over, I believe two years. Having completed that course he then learned that the same bishop did not recognize that particular catechists’ course for the purposes of employment in the diocese. He never afterwards received an explanation of, or an apology for, this waste of his time.

Never subsequently did the clergy of the diocese provide regular opportunities for teachers, parents and others involved in the care of young people to share their experiences and insights – not even in the wake of the church scandals that had begun to erupt in 1994. So at this time, although diocesan clergy meet regularly in their own conference, there is still no regular conference of all of the responsible Catholic carers of young people, a conference that would permit the development of a shared vision among teachers, parents, clergy and youth ministers – of, for example, the issue of youth absence from worship or of youth evangelisation or of parental faith formation in the era of the Internet.

Furthermore, although Catholic students are readily available for programmes of rigorous research into their changing attitudes to Catholic faith in this period of rapid change, no news of the findings of any such research has ever been published, to my knowledge, although there was an allusion to this possibility in the report of the meeting of the Irish bishops’ conference of October 2017. My advocacy of such a step, beginning with a letter to Cardinal Sean Brady in 2005, has so far not yielded findings that could be the basis of a collaborative understanding by teaching professionals fourteen years later.

The coming of Pope Francis to the papacy in 2013 effected no obvious change in this inertial situation, to my knowledge, in this diocese of Derry. On my initiative a series of discussions took place in my own parish re ‘Evangelii Gaudium’ (2013) but this was exceptional, I believe. ‘Laudato Si’ (2015) and ‘Amoris Laetitia’ (2015) met with similar clerical indifference in Derry. A lecture by the papal adviser on Laudato Si, Fr Sean MacDonagh, in May 2016 in the City Hotel, Derry, was attended by only one Derry priest.

Meanwhile also there was virtually no activity in the diocese in relation to the catechetical renewal programme ‘Share the Good News’, publicly launched in 2011. Intended to be fully implemented by 2021, it is still invisible. And there has been no diocesan programme of adult faith formation – I believe – in over a decade.

‘God is Love’ – 2018,19

When in June 2018 the diocese announced a three year pastoral renewal programme, ‘God is Love’ – I was told by my own PP that most priests of the diocese believed that the programme could only operate in one or two parishes in the diocese, for lack of parish ‘resources’. On the following Monday, this PP told the parish’s pastoral council, of which I was then a member, in my presence, that he would not need a pastoral council, and that the existing members had in any case outstayed their canonically stipulated term of three years. (That was not true in my own case.)

The PP then repeated to that pastoral council meeting his conviction that the parish did not possess the resources for the implementation of the diocesan pastoral plan, even though he himself had managed to double the intake from a weekly parish draw since coming to the parish, while the first step of the pastoral plan would have been a survey of problems and resources. The pastoral council meeting broke up at that point.

Having left this meeting in some dismay, I immediately informed the bishop of the diocese, Dr Donal McKeown, of what I understood to be the PP’s view of the likely failure of the diocesan pastoral plan. He responded in terms of prayerful hope for a change in those circumstances.

The following announcement subsequently appeared in the parish bulletin.

“Father J [the PP] would like to thank all members of the Pastoral Council for their faithful years of service, particularly in their effecting a smooth transition from Father Keaney’s time as Parish Priest to his own. In accordance with Canon Law a new Parish Pastoral Council will be formed in September.” (St John’s Parish Bulletin – July 1st 2018)

The following statement on the St John’s pastoral council subsequently appeared on the parish website, where it remained in late August 2019:

“Following the meeting of June 25, 2018, Pastoral Council stood down. In accordance with Canon law a new Parish Pastoral Council will be formed.”

Later in 2018, in Advent, I learned from the Derry diocesan office that St John’s Parish, Coleraine, had been represented at a diocesan meeting in Thornhill College on September 29th, 2018 – for the launch of the diocesan renewal plan, God is Love – and that at this all priests present had been urged to promote the plan in their own parishes on three successive Sundays in October.

When I learned that one Catholic couple known to me had been present at that Thornhill meeting – to represent this parish – I learned that, about to leave on a long trip to Australia, this husband and wife could not inform me of what had transpired at this September meeting in Thornhill until their return, early in 2019.

In the interim, I could not discover that the PP of St John’s had in fact promoted the diocesan pastoral plan on those three successive October 2018 Sundays, although one friend thought he remembered that on one weekend he had heard the PP tell the congregation that if they wished to know about the diocesan plan they could consult the diocesan website. He did not tell them – I believe – that they could not participate in the plan without authorisation from the parish.

In early 2019 I then learned from the wife of the couple with experience of the Sept 29th 2018 meeting in Thornhill something of what had transpired there (re proposed parish teams for preparing new parents for a baptism, I think). This had led her to say to the PP that a meeting would need to be held in the parish, to explain what the plan was about. I believe that her description of his reaction was: ‘he just laughed’.

This couple then asked me to contact the other couple from the parish who had been present at the Thornhill meeting on Sep 29th, to elicit any further information on what was to happen regarding ‘God is Love’ in the parish. I did that immediately in an email. I did not hear back then or subsequently from this couple, but the following evening I received a long and angry telephone lecture from the PP lasting according to my call monitoring software, over six minutes. So impassioned was it that it gave me cause for concern as to the PP’s self-control, so, rather than try to respond I put the phone down when a pause came, and drafted a letter detailing this experience to Bishop Donal McKeown.

I subsequently learned from acquaintances in different parts of the diocese that vigorous implementation of the diocesan pastoral plan ‘God is Love’ seems now more likely to be exceptional than typical of the diocese as a whole. As one of the avowed intentions of the plan was ‘to begin planning for those times when a priest might not be present in the way that they have been up to now’, the consequences of the failure of this programme for concerned families attending the three chapels in this parish are obviously most serious.

Noting the impact of such experiences on myself, friends and acquaintances – including lay youth ministers of long service in Derry – their struggles of faith and their fears for the future, I conclude that (leaving aside the kindly personal ministry of some individual priests and of Bishop Donal McKeown, for whose pastoring and respect I am indebted) the clerical culture and organisational structure in Derry diocese – maintaining still as it does a strict professional apartheid between clergy and others responsible for children and young people – is at present too unreliable and too hazardous to the spiritual health and faith of too many to be called functional or edifying.

Given the cultural importance of Catholicism in forming faith in this north-western corner of Ireland, the impending sharp fall in the number of serving priests, and the now-ongoing review of church buildings and Mass services in Derry diocese, this situation seems likely now also to make the near future so uncertain as to constitute a present danger to public health. In the light of all the dangers by which our young people are now threatened – and the continuing impossibility of discussing those collaboratively with all those most concerned, many tragedies may await.

This is why I have launched the campaign ‘Lumen Gentium 37’ in August 2019 as an urgent priority – and made a public record of this statement.

For an account of the ongoing ACI campaign for Lumen Gentium 37 click here.

Sean O’Conaill
Co Derry
N Ireland

BT51 3JE

[A printed copy of this report was submitted to Bishop Donal McKeown and four other senior priests of Derry diocese in the week beginning 1st September, 2019.]

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