Fifty years ago, in the summer of 1966 (that’s fifty years ago this summer) I was waiting in August for my Leaving Cert results and waiting in September to begin my studies for the priesthood in Maynooth College.
I found myself in a class of 84, in a college of about 500 young men between the ages of 18 and 25. Maynooth then was a kind of monastery, and, I remember, we were very critical of it at the time because we felt we weren’t going to be monks, and that if we were to live and work in parishes, that the training should be more in that direction.
Seminaries are not easy places because those in charge have the difficult responsibility of deciding who’s suitable for ordination and who isn’t.
In my class over 30 students left; some left because they decided that the priesthood wasn’t for them; others had to leave because the authorities decided that they weren’t suitable.
That’s the way seminaries work; just because some think they’re suitable for priesthood, it doesn’t mean that they are. We’re probably the worst judges of it ourselves.
It’s a huge decision for authorities to make – who’s suitable and who’s not suitable – and they’re often blamed for not getting it right.
Some of my classmates were unhappy that they weren’t ordained; and, years later, some were unhappy that they were.
So it’s complicated; it’s difficult; mistakes are made; but there has to be a system where someone makes the decision.
The papers and the television this past week have been full of criticism of Maynooth College from different quarters: some students who were asked to leave for various reasons are very disgruntled and very critical; some people writing in the papers are very critical, but what’s not said is that some of them too are former students who were asked to leave and have a vested interest in criticising Maynooth; and some people are unhappy with the way theology is taught in Maynooth and they’re unhappy because Maynooth wants to prepare priests for the modern world rather than preparing them for the world as it was in past centuries, before the Second Vatican Council.
I just want to say all that because it’s important to know where people are coming from; it’s important to know what agendas people have.
I have no idea if the sexual behaviour we read about is true. Some people are convinced that it is; others say that such allegations are just that – allegations, and investigations by the authorities and by Rome have found no evidence to support the criticism.
It’s true that some students for the priesthood are gay and indeed that has always been the case and gay or straight, in the real world, students in seminary can from time to time behave inappropriately.
However the accusation that Maynooth accepts a gay culture as being reconcilable with priesthood is completely rejected by the authorities there and doesn’t stand up to examination.
I know many people were disappointed to see Archbishop Diarmuid Martin add his voice to the criticisms of Maynooth and many are amazed at some of the things he’s said.
It has to be said too that many Catholics are uneasy, some are upset and more are frightened.
Archbishop Martin talks a lot about reforming the seminary system and I think this is something most people agree with because preparing particularly for parish work, students (many feel) would do better in spending more time in parishes rather than being cooped up in seminaries.
Whatever way you look at it, the Maynooth controversy has damaged the standing of the Catholic Church. What’s worse is that it’s yet another self-inflicted wound after all the failures and mistakes of the last 20-30 years and before.
It’s making it harder for young men to consider a vocation to the priesthood; it’s making their parents more doubtful about the wisdom of a choice for priesthood; it’s playing into the hands of those who want to push the Catholic Church to the margins of Irish society; and it’s very distressing yet again for priests who feel they may be doubted by their people.
I know many Catholics who have stayed loyal to the Church through very difficult times, are uneasy, upset and frightened by the casual way some speak about this, and not least the obvious delight in some sections of the media in reporting the more salacious features of this controversy.
It’s clear that huge damage has been done to the Catholic Church in Ireland, to bishops and priests, to Maynooth College and not least to the confidence of people in their church and in their faith.
May God be with us during these difficult days.