Category Archives: Ordination

2024: Irish Catholic Vocations Office Mired in Clericalism

 Front page of the Irish National Vocations Office website in January 2024

“Is God Calling You to be a Diocesan Priest? Come and See. Take the Risk for Christ.” This is what faces you when you click https://vocations.ie/ the website of Ireland’s Catholic “National Vocations Office”.

Asked by Ardal O’Hanlon on his RTE documentary what risk was involved in opting for the celibate priestly vocation today, the National Vocations Coordinator, Fr Willie Purcell, responded:

“Anyone who is presenting himself for priesthood nowadays is really being counter-cultural. It really is a radical decision. The risk really is giving yourself completely to Christ that others might come to know him through you.  There really is a lot of humility involved in it, of self-sacrifice involved in it, but most important of all a vocation is a selfless decision, to give yourself to Christ and then to give yourself to others.”

Yet again we are being asked here to ignore what the Gospel clearly tells us about Jesus, viz.:

  • That he was never a member of the priestly religious institution of his own time and place;
  • That his definitive role in ‘salvation’ was not sacramental or liturgical (i.e. symbolic) but the direct prophetic challenging of a religious system he saw as both exploitative and hypocritical, to the danger of his own life;
  • That it was therefore his integrity, not his celibacy, that constitutes the central sacrifice that he did indeed ask us to repeat in memory of him;
  • That the definitive Christian calling to ‘follow’ him was therefore NOT to males only to join an exclusively male religious institution but to the same self-giving and integrity in whatever social role we baptised Catholic Christians find ourselves – whatever our gender, age or occupation.

Why does the National Vocations Office see only the risk to clergy?

Why is it not obvious to the Irish National Vocations Office that any social role, in any society, can and does involve these challenges to integrity – and that risk can attach to any of these?

It isn’t only the lives and trials of outstanding Irish individuals such as Veronica Guerin, Maurice McCabe and Martin Ridge that demonstrate this. Public service, especially for women, has become notably more risky and challenging for anyone who approaches it with integrity in the age of the Internet. With Pope Francis now calling all of us, even teenagers, to ‘mission’ today – and with Irish Garda, nurses, firefighters and paramedics at risk on every callout in certain locales in Ireland  – why was this not obvious to whoever dreamt up the slogan ‘Take the risk for Christ’ – implying that the risk of Christian witness attaches solely to the male celibate sacramental calling?

Lessons of the Pandemic

Did not the Pandemic teach us that in an interdependent society the lives of all of us can depend upon those who risk turning up even to man the check-out in the local supermarket or the counter in a dispensary?

Isn’t even any Irish teenager who stands in school against sexual harassment or homophobic bullying – or online trolling of a friend – at risk, and is not this the risk that attaches to the common priesthood of the people of God, the risk that comes to all who affirm their Baptism?

Why does Fr Purcell imply that only the diocesan priest has the responsibility to bring the message of Christ to others, when the key message of synodality is that this responsibility comes to all of us with Baptism?

The Priests who spoke out

As for the specific risks that do indeed attach to the sacramental priesthood, how would Fr Purcell account for what happened to those Irish priests who did prophetically challenge the injustices of church policies in relation to women, the LGBT community and the mishandling by bishops of the issue of clerical sexual abuse of children in Ireland, back in 2012?

What a shame that Ardal O’Hanlon did not think to ask if that was indeed the ‘risk’ that the National Vocations Office has in mind!

Child Safeguarding and Risk

And if he had asked that question, would Fr Purcell have recalled  that we have never yet had an open conversation on the role and obligation of private conscience when faced with an abuse of authority in the church, as could happen, for example, to any of the child safeguarding personnel we now depend upon?

With synodality far from firmly embedded in our Catholic culture, and canon law still a mess, the risks for every servant of the church that are still posed by the church itself are far from merely notional or historic. Does Ireland’s National Vocations Office truly serve the church by apparently forgetting all of that?

Why in 2024 can we not instead have a properly balanced understanding  of ‘vocation’ that does not associate counter-cultural Christian self-sacrifice and ‘humility’ solely with the male celibate sacramental priestly role or imply that for all lay people the risk of Christian witness must be secondary?

Is it not to this clericalist talking-up of the sacramental role alone – and the consequent forgetting of the priestly and prophetic calling of all of us – that we must ascribe the incomprehension of so many young people about the Christian call to themselves?

Baptism the Primary Sacrament of the Priestly People of God

Finally, given the paramount importance of communicating the meaning of our common priesthood, why is the restoration of the primacy of Baptism still lagging totally in Ireland? Is that no concern of the National Vocations Office, or of the Irish Bishops Conference?

In its singular concern for the survival of the sacramental Catholic priesthood in Ireland the Irish National Vocations Office has presented us yet again with an understanding of the Christian vocation that is stridently and essentially clericalist.  This can only undermine the central message of synodality and delay the emergence of the co-responsible church we so badly need.

17th Jan 2024

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‘A Lost Tribe’ – a story that should not have ended this way

I had the most eerie feeling on first scanning the back-cover blurb of this novel.* Not only would the story’s narrative arc begin in Dublin in 1962 (with seminarians hopefully watching the opening of Vatican II in Rome on a just-arrived TV set): the author is now parish priest of Rathmines, Dublin.

My frisson had to do with the fact that not only was I confirmed (c.1954) in Fr King’s own parish Church of Mary Immaculate, Refuge of Sinners (by none other than the ‘High Command’ of the novel, Archbishop John Charles McQuaid) but that I might have mingled at UCD with some of the seminarians who inspired his fictional protagonists during those years of the Council.

Very much influenced by the Council, and by some of the clerical personalities who taught in, or visited, Earlsfort Terrace at that time, I was immediately agog to discover how the novel would treat of such encounters and then explore the intervening decades.  By what fervent early reformist convictions would his protagonists be gripped, and what would happen to them?  Something obviously had ‘gone wrong’ for that generation of budding Dublin priests – for the story to end in the ignominy of 2009 – but what exactly had that ‘something’ been?  What passionate arguments and dramatic defeats had transpired after 1965 – to compare, perhaps, with the bitter Parnell dispute in Joyce’s ‘Portrait of an Artist‘?  What would the novel have to say of clerical interchange with lay people, during and after the council – to test the boundaries of what was possible en route to implementing the baptismal principle of the equal dignity of all within the church, and the theological truth of the Holy Spirit who blows where God wills?

To ‘cut to the chase’, this novel hints that Vatican II was already doomed in Dublin by the time that generation of clerical students had been ordained.  None of the clerical characters of this novel develops a passionate vision of the potential of the ‘merely-baptised’ – enlivened by the Holy Spirit – to change not only the church but the secular culture of the time.  (One Charles J. Haughey was also an up-and-comer then, and sometimes visible in the environs of Kildare Street, St Stephen’s Green and Earlsfort Terrace.)  One character dismisses the thought of ever ministering to the inhabitants of a Dublin tenement, and there is not a single counterpointing reference to Catholic social teaching by any character at any stage in the story’s arc. Not even in those council years did one of these fictional  students make contact with a lay person of theological bent – and not once afterwards is there an episode of clergy-lay interchange or experiment on what might have transpired for Vatican II by way of hope.

The absence of any slight reference to Lumen Gentium 37 is also deeply poignant.  That article of that Vatican II document predicted for my generation the creation of church structures through which lay people would make their pastoral needs known to their pastors.  It was the complete absence of any such structures that doomed the Dublin archdiocese – and all of the country – to the total disgrace of the Murphy Report over four decades later.

Instead this story is about just three clerical types:  the sharp-eyed and sometimes toadying careerist bent on high academia or Rome; the diffident also-ran, too unsure of himself to rise above the role of dogsbody-to-the-bishop; the refugee-in-waiting for whom ‘change’ meant essentially a hoped-for and never-arriving end to mandatory priestly celibacy.  None of these was ever likely to challenge the High Command’s 1965 dismissal of the relevance of Vatican II for Ireland.

So, although careerism and Rome often get the blame for ‘what happened’ in Ireland after 1965, this novel strongly suggests another possible contributor:  that this 1960s generation of Dublin seminarians – despite what was also happening in Dublin and UCD at that time –  simply never caught – with any life-changing passion – what Vatican II envisioned for the transformation of the role of the ‘merely-baptised’ within the church.

Never in this novel does any of the characters encounter a lay person of the vision and Christian commitment of  the RTE personality Seán McRéamoinn – or even a clerical visionary of the calibre of a Joe Dunn, an Austin Flannery or a Fergal O’Connor.  All four of these men were meeting (re the Council) with some UCD students at that time, where the documentary producer Joe was also chaplain and Fergal a lecturer in philosophy and politics.  Austin, also Dublin-based, was a translator of the Council documents into English and a convenor of ‘Flannery’s Harriers’ – a discussion forum that included, for example, David Thornley, the TCD academic and Kevin O’Kelly of RTE.  None of King’s characters – some of whom travel to UCD in pursuit of degrees in Arts or Philosophy –  falls in with anyone who reminds this 1962-66 UCD alumnus of any of these men or of the deeply committed philosophy student Denys Turner, whom I also knew.  (Denys later became a leading academic in the UK.)

All of the most serious interchanges in this novel are therefore confined to proto- or actual clerics (with the exception of personal interchanges between the central ‘dogsbody’, Galvin, and his female romantic confidantes).  The overall pattern impressed upon the reader is of a hermetically closed clerical world that no one on the inside could or would seriously attempt to open to the wider Irish world, to let the merely-baptised in.   Moreover, neither Galvin nor any other character ever reveals any abiding theological questioning or conviction of his own in the seminary, or any moment of theological or spiritual epiphany thereafter.

The novel is therefore a tale that could have only one possible ending.  The careerists toe the Humanae Vitae line after 1968, themselves helping to end all prospect of ‘change from the top’.  The academics do the same in hope of a diocese – or else languish in seminaries and colleges.  The dogsbodies keep their noses to a pre-shaped grindstone and then go to seed or to dementia in rural parishes – or succumb to (or get the blame for) clerical child abuse (or the ‘cover up’).  The refugees take flight, sooner more often than later, and disappear without trace.  That fictional seminary of “St Paul’s” left no one in this novel with a fire-in-the belly that was sufficient to the challenge of staying put and fighting seriously for Vatican II.  That would certainly have been a losing fight, but no theological passion ever even surfaces in this story to precipitate a confrontation over Vatican II: we are always dismally distant from any prospect of an Irish Pentecost.

Perhaps, of course, William King has written – or has still to write – another novel, about a true Vatican II ‘rebel’ of that era – someone for whom a seed of Christian commitment and passion survived the deadening influence of the ‘clerical club’?  I was impressed enough by this novel to want to find that out.  This one was instead for me at different times amusing, moving, bitterly disappointing and deeply tragic in roughly equal parts.  I learned from it that I need to be more sympathetic (and prayerful) for what remains of that 60s ‘club – but I am left feeling that I was deeply naive in leaving Dublin in 1966 with the firm conviction that radical change would come inevitably in my own lifetime.   If this particular novel is historically representative and reliable, that Catholic clerical club in Dublin in 1962-65 was doomed from the start to remain an unhappy simulacrum of the ‘rat race’ it might instead have been ready to change for the better – until that shut-out external world ran out of any interest in maintaining it.  A true Christian communion of all of the baptised was never on any fervent clerical agenda in 1960s “St Paul’s”.

Sean O’Conaill, 3rd Nov., 2017

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Revitalising the Catholic Church in Ireland: II – Clericalism

Sean O’Conaill © Reality 2004

Jean Vanier1This article was written sixteen years before the revelation in 2020 that Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche movement, was also an abuser of the trust of some of the able-bodied women who looked to him for spiritual guidance. tells the story of a young woman whose radiant happiness caught the attention of a visitor to the L’Arche community that was her home. The visitor asked Vanier why she was always so joyful. He explained that upon her arrival she had been assured that God loved her for herself. She had believed this immediately, and had never lost that belief. Like most L’Arche residents, she was intellectually disadvantaged but was nevertheless capable of lifting the spirits of everyone she met.

I suspect that most Irish Catholics who have weathered the shocks of the past decade will have done so for similar reasons. Their church gave them from the start a sense of their own dignity as beloved children of God and it is into this sheltering reality they retreat when the disasters of life threaten to overwhelm them. That shelter is maintained above all by those who have given themselves completely to its service – especially our priests.

Because the circumstances call for constructive criticism, I need to affirm here first of all my own unrepayable debt to the Irish Catholic priesthood. They did far more than provide me with a basic education. At key moments of my life individual priests have helped me to rise to severe challenges to faith and self-belief, and helped me grow way beyond my expectations. A few instances of clerical severity and pomposity have been far outnumbered by instances of care and encouragement.

Above all, these men bore witness to the presence of God in the world this world that now increasingly finds God an inconvenience. Strikingly, many intelligent people who have tried hard to live without God are now looking for spirituality as though this can exist entirely without any religious faith. My own spirituality is grounded firmly upon the truths I was taught by priests: that there is indeed a personal God, a spiritual being with whom I can communicate through prayer and sacrament. I would not have believed this if I had not experienced the freely-given support and compassion of priests in my own deepest crises.

However, these same priests have conveyed to me an understanding of the equality of dignity conveyed by baptism, as well as the responsibility this imparts. This understanding, and this sense of personal responsibility, has been increasingly challenged over the past three decades by a church system that privileges clergy above laity, and leaves the latter with no clearly defined or dignified role as laity. That system sees lay people principally as needy clients of an expert professional elite, rather than as recipients of the same gifts of the Holy Spirit including, often, wisdom. Because the business of the priest is salvation (i.e. spiritual healing and enlightenment) the system tends to impose upon him an impossible demand – to appear to be never in need of healing or enlightenment himself.

It is this unequal expert-client relationship that lies at the root of the major problems we now face in Ireland – simply because it demands too much of clergy, and (more important) far too little of laity. It is essentially this problem of clericalism – the myth of the priest as a super-Catholic and super-Christian – that has exposed the church to the public humiliations of the period since 1992.

To begin with, there would not have been any major scandals in the Irish Church over the period 1992-2003 if clergy had not been expected to be (because the system represented them as) superior icons of Christ – especially in the area of sexual morality. It was this that made Bishop Casey’s exposure such a sensation in 1992 that he could not face the media consequences.

It was also the status of the priest as an unquestionable authority that gave a small minority of predatory priests unbounded access to children. Trained never to question the priest, parents simply could not allow themselves any reservations about handing over teenage children to impromptu clerical care – even overnight. And children who suffered the consequences could not then, for the very same reason, find any way of communicating what had happened. (“Me mother would have murdered me if I had said that about the priest!”)

In his autobiography Altar Boy, Andrew Madden, a victim of clerical abuse, writes of his early experience of church:

“The people stood up because the priest was so holy and important!”

That was why Andrew, even while he was being abused, was glad to be an altar boy:

“Neighbours, friends and others got to see me with the priest up close. I felt good.”

Clearly, for Andrew, priests were in every respect superior to lay people. He could not separate in his mind the importance of the priest’s role from the human person who filled that role. His abuser exploited this naivety mercilessly.

Furthermore, we now know that bishops could not have erred in secretly protecting and shuffling errant priests had they not felt compelled to avoid scandal at almost any cost. Occasional priestly moral failure is, we also now know, both an historical reality and a future inevitability. It is especially scandalous only because of the myth (and theological error) of clerical infallibility and triumph over sin. It will be scandalous in future only if that myth (and error) continues to be upheld.

It is time that our bishops emphasised that ordination does not make priests sinless or asexual – or intellectually infallible. Ireland would be a far healthier place today if this had been emphasised long before 1992, when it began to become obvious. Many pastoral letters have been written on far less important matters.

There are other reasons this myth needs to be abandoned forever at this time. Especially this: it is the fundamental reason for the alienation of so many Irish males from the church.

To put it as simply as possible, we males can’t stand being talked down to weekly by other males who often seem to claim not only an exclusive expertise in interpreting the gospels for our own times, but unlimited licence to use them against us. Now that the area of sexuality has become unsafe, we notice that some priests have moved on to other fields of complaint, for example materialism. As the excess consumption of material goods is driven above all by the desire for social status, the typical parish priest’s consciousness of his own social status – expressed eloquently in modes of accommodation and transport – tends to deprive his message of moral impact. We have all heard the lesson of the mote and the beam too often to be unable to apply it ourselves. Unconvinced and alienated by this kind of unthinking moralism, we males tend to opt out, leaving religion to the priest and the wife.

On the other hand, most lay people respond immediately to priestly humility, and recognise it for what it is – a sign of a deeper spirituality. Far from weakening the bond between clergy and laity, such an attitude is in itself the most important homily a priest can deliver at this time.

I began my teaching career in a school whose oldest teacher, an elderly nun, had a most unusual way of dealing with an unresponsive French class. She would read a short passage of French, pause uncertainly, and then knit her brows and mutter to herself:  “I wonder what that means!”  She did this so convincingly that she immediately deprived the class of any sense of inferiority, creating an atmosphere in which someone would venture a suggestion. It mightn’t be correct, but the barriers to collaboration – the basis of all successful teaching and learning – would then be down, and the class could proceed.

It is for this reason that the myth of the all-knowing and sinless priest is a fundamental barrier to the development of the church, and especially to the development of lay competence and responsibility within it. People learn and develop most quickly for vocational reasons – to empower themselves to fill a responsible and clearly understood role. A church that trains its priests to be in control in all essential matters of faith is effectively training its laity to be dependent, incompetent, intellectually lazy and childish because only that passive and needy role will fully satisfy the priest’s expectation that he both can, and must, be dominant.

And so we get the exasperating myth of the priest as church superman – theologian, manager, accountant, philosopher, historian, catechist, liturgist, celebrant, confessor, ecclesiologist, evangelist, entertainer, canon lawyer, moral paragon, facilitator – and unfailing pulpit authority on everything under the sun, from Aromatherapy to Zoroaster.

The title ‘Father’ is hallowed by centuries of use, but to many lay people it now seems to define their own unchangeable status in the church – as children who must never dare to grow up – especially in understanding and expressing their faith. So we waver between deference and resentment – unable to distinguish deference from genuine respect. We will express our exasperation over this freely to one another – but hesitate to express a critical opinion directly to a priest.

As a teacher of history for thirty years I am firmly convinced that this problem arises out of an inability at the summit of the church to escape from an idealistic vision of the relationship between priest and people that developed after the Council of Trent (1545-63). In that vision an educated and disciplined clerical elite would train laity above all in obedience. The clerical-lay pyramid would mimic the social pyramid, dominated by an educated and aristocratic landowning elite. Bishops would be spiritual grandees, priests would share in their social and spiritual eminence, and lay people would defer to them as such – all the more necessary because of their lack of education.

It is out of this vision of church that clericalism emerges. A priest acquaintance once expressed it to me as follows: “We priests are the last of the landed gentry!” He meant that many priests had never accommodated themselves fully to the principle of social equality, and lived sheltered lives at the expense of underlings. The anticlericalism of many, many Irish lay people today arises out of this perception that many clergy – including some bishops – still expect the kind of deference that landed gentry expected from the peasant masses in the eighteenth century.

But Ireland’s progress in less than two centuries from the abject horrors of the Famine to the heady rewards of the Celtic Tiger has made this vision of church a critical liability in confronting secularism – the belief that religion is essentially a barrier to human development. Our media commentators have mostly fallen in line with this worldview although often educated in Catholic schools. They have done so because – fatally – they perceived that secularism gave them more dignity and intellectual respect than their own church, and because clergy could preserve the myth of their own superiority only through aloofness and secrecy. Nothing more was required to set the stage for the media disasters we have seen.

But secularism doesn’t understand that the competition it encourages leaves many people even more exposed to danger and exclusion. It doesn’t understand either that social inequality arises out of the competitive impulse itself – our unfailing desire to be greater than one another, despite all our talk about equality. It is this desire that is the chief target of the Gospels, and the source of all victimisation. It is also the source of the appalling lack of respect that Irish media people increasingly show for one another, and of the violence that threatens us all.

As Pope John Paul II himself said in 1980, the secular ideals of 1789 – liberty, equality and fraternity – are basically and originally Christian ideals. We Catholics will move our country towards them only by rediscovering together the spiritual wisdom and humility of the Gospels, priests and laypeople together. Without that, as voting figures and youth cynicism increasingly show, Irish democracy itself will fail.

And especially we need to learn what that young woman learned in L’Arche: that the consciousness of being loved by God can transform all of us from seekers of status to beacons of welcome and inspiration. Almost all we lay people need is the lay faith of Jean Vanier – the faith that led him to provide shelter for the ones that a Godless science would prefer us to abandon even before birth.

Deeply torn by the undeserved humiliation of most of our priests, we lay people await only a signal to grow into a new role – as collaborators in a wide variety of ministries. Some of these will care for all the victims of a shallow secularism, from the depressed to the aimlessly addicted. Collaborating easily with people of other faiths in building a society based upon mutual respect, we lay people will be Catholics, and proud of it – but not subordinates – because Jesus called us into brotherhood and sisterhood, not servility, resentment and passivity.

Most of our priests are now more than ready for this relationship too.

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