Another Beginning?

The thrust of this article is three-fold.

One is that ongoing change is now a permanent reality for the Catholic Church. A first step is to accept this reality.

Two, dealing with change means ‘living in the grey’, that’s accepting and embracing difficult questions that have no ready-made ‘black and white’ answers. It’s about dealing with ambivalence in a culture of modernity. An example is offered.

Three, in a very different dispensation church governance and pastoral practice require that a ‘respectful listening’ to the People of God be sewn into our perception of what the church does. A template is offered.



Change is a difficult sweet to suck on. Everyone seems to recognise its pervasive presence and experience its impact yet so many, in modern parlance, seem ‘not to get it’.

Nowhere is that more true than among Irish Catholics. While we give due deference to the concept, we hesitate to name the reality. That’s understandable, of course, for a church that prides itself on continuity and tradition, but unhelpful in terms of responding to it.

Change just is and life, as we have known it, is over. That’s a general principle but it applies specifically to the Catholic Church – if we can bear that reality. While most smile wistfully at the oft repeated words of the late Archbishop John Charles McQuaid on returning from the Second Vatican Council that ‘no change will worry the tranquillity of your Christian lives’, 50-plus years later many still imagine that change can be ‘managed’. All the evidence is that it can’t.

For the Irish Catholic Church, the tectonic plates really have shifted. While we are much given to listing some of the indicators of that change – decline in church attendance, ageing clergy, apathy to religion, a loss of institutional authority and such like – and can be proactive in attempting to respond to them as best we can, effectively we’re trying to build a scaffolding around a house that has already collapsed.

All the targeted parish programmes, all the parish councils in the world, all the experts sitting in offices with secretaries and computers, all the prayers in Christendom won’t put the old church back together again. It’s day is done. And the question is not whether the substance of this paragraph is depressingly ‘negative’ but whether it’s true. What is certain, Louise Fuller wrote recently, ‘is that Catholicism as we know it is now an anachronism’.

This is more than what might be described as ‘Ireland’s Catholic twilight’. We can actually see it for ourselves. We can measure it variously in the rolling back of Catholic influence in society, in the disappearance of religious artefacts, in media hostility to all things Catholic and in comments of politicians like Bríd Smith, TD who two years ago told the Dáil that ‘the Catholic Church should be put in the dustbin of history’.
We can see it in the casual implication on the television evening news that religious Sisters (after lifetimes of unpaid service to the poorest of the poor with minimal training, under resourcing by the state and working in situations of extreme emotional distress) may well be accused of murder in regard to the deaths of babies in Mother and Baby Homes if only those who know would come forward, – an example of a commentariat cheer-leading the popular tide of demonisation by judging the past through the lens of the present.
And we see it in Pope Benedict’s recent intervention that the ills of the Church can be explained by the unvarying mantra – ‘It was the Sixties that done it!’ –the embarrassing equivalent of a schoolboy’s excuse, ‘the dog ate my homework’, or the politician’s explanation of surplus funds ,‘I won it on the horses’.

But most of all we can see it in our churches as we survey a biblical remnant holding grimly to a mix of community custom, familial loyalty and an ever-diminishing dividend of social respectability. ‘I’m not sure why I’m here,’ a parishioner told me once, ‘but I turn up anyway’. It won’t last. When the heart is gone out of something, the mind invariably follows.

While we may garner some comfort from the continuing popularity of family rites of passage like First Communion and Confirmation and the ever-resilient Irish tradition of funeral attendance, no matter how we compute the positives (or the ‘green shoots’ as we sometimes optimistically describe them) it doesn’t look like even the bones of a workable future for our Church.

So is that it then? Not so much a gradual on-going diminishment as the last one out the door turning off the lights? Not really. For whatever the future holds for the Irish Catholic Church, the first essential requirement is a recognition and acceptance of where we are. And we’re not going anywhere if we don’t know where we are.

Sadly, the detritus of denial is strewn all around us. It’s evident in the effort of leaders to be ‘positive’ in writing straight with crooked lines, no matter how unconvincing, when the dogs in the street can see that what we need is a dollop of reality to give a tint of credibility to what we’re at. It’s evident in the Gadarene rush back to the nineteenth century in the puerile belief that a long-discarded version of church can be resurrected by priests dressing in traditional clerical garb and congregations worshipping in a language hardly anyone understands. It’s evident in the pretence that the problem we have as a church is not what we teach but the way we communicate it.

The difficult truth is that such examples are really ways of rejecting the reality of change and, by extension, rejecting the possibility of reshaping a different church.

This hasn’t happened overnight. The more judicious observers in the now distant past were aware of the probabilities, not least people like Walter McDonald and Peter Connolly of Maynooth who, in different generations, could sense how a narrow, oppressive version of Catholicism would fail to stand its ground in a different world. I’m old enough to remember Connolly hopping in the chair, bristling with ideas about how Ireland would soon discard its much-vaunted Catholic loyalty on the basis of not finding it ‘useful’ while his colleague in the department of English, John McMackin, rested languidly in the seventeenth century where Dryden reigned supreme and everything had a beginning, a middle and an end.

Like Seamus Heaney’s own faith, ‘the loss occurred off-stage’. Almost imperceptively a medley of experiences aligned which, over a few decades, gave the majority of Irish Catholics the freedom to choose. Part of that context was a failure to read ‘the signs of the times’ or to provide the impetus so that the Second Vatican Council might have a fair wind. All the while church life continued in its traditional groove: ignoring the spirit of the Council, patronising women, controlling men and appointing monsignors. It was a calamity waiting to happen but those who knew better couldn’t be told.

In 1979 the visit of Pope John Paul – drawing on his huge personality, the historic nature of a first papal visit, the centuries-long loyalty embedded in Irish Catholicism and the positivity of a compliant media – was a great tide that camouflaged the unease percolating under the surface. The severe and now questionably sainted John Paul ticked us off about divorce, contraception and other dangers to our faith as vast crowds of Catholics, Protestants, agnostics and atheists fell silent but weren’t listening.

In 2018, the visit of Pope Francis, drawing on his warm personality and the hope his election had elicited, drew smaller crowds, a less compliant media and a fixation on the great fault-line of Irish Catholicism, the child abuse scandals and our failure to deal with them. Despite a buoyant papal personality and our much-vaunted hospitality, what remains is a stunned sense of how so much has changed in so little time.

In the space of four decades, the two papal visits bookended the decline of Irish Catholicism; the first falsely promising the beginning of a new glorious age of Irish Catholicism; and the latter announcing the end of a version of Catholicism no longer acceptable to the vast majority of Irish Catholics.


What can we do?

It’s evident that we’re not going to be going anywhere if we don’t know where we are.Little wonder that Francis keeps banging on about clericalism. Its tentacles stretch into hearts and minds convincing priests that we’re a different ‘ontological’ species, that we’re important not just for what we do but for what we are, that wearing soutanes sustains identity, that personal ambition is a worthy option. Clericalism is a debilitating condition, leading to presumptions of status and expectations of preference and, even still, after all that has happened, the bizarre notion that all the kings’ horses and all the popes’ men will be able somehow to put it all back together again.

If we want to move towards a synodal Church, we can no longer afford to indulge those who cling to the wreckage of the past, as if holding on to Belloc’s nurse ‘for fear of finding something worse’. In the early 1950s when Irish bishops flexed their muscular authority at will, Seán Mac Réamoinn characterised J. G. McGarry’s subtle and unobtrusive policy as editor of the Furrow as ‘brostaigh go bog’ (hasten softly)– a version of Peter Hebbletwaite’s later comment about ‘giving a haircut to a drowsy lion’.

We can no longer afford that indulgence. While McGarry had to voyage around the menacing promontory that was Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, who was given to describing contributors to the Furrow as ‘heretics’, no such peril (and no such excuse) exists now that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith seems to have, under Francis’ watch, run out of apostates.

There’s a deeper loyalty demanded if the Catholic Church in Ireland is to survive beyond a nominal cosmetic presence on the periphery of Irish life. Indulging the sensitivities of incompetent leaders or the preciousness of delicate souls feeling the heat of the kitchen or cute theologians running with the hare and hunting with the hound are all now off the agenda.

The Irish Catholic Church has paid a high price for mollycoddling those who want to stick with Plan A because they never imagined they might want a Plan B, for those who remained silent even though they could see what was happening and for those whose contribution to the looming crisis was little more than holding up a damp finger to see what way the wind was blowing.

These are truly Titanic times for the Irish Catholic Church so shuffling with the deckchairs is an indulgence beyond reason. Make-believe, illusion and denial need to be named and shamed. In present circumstances not facing the truth is, a form of religious treason.

The focus now has to be on intellectual rigour; on a communicable theology that connects with the lived experience of people; on a robust commitment to a respectful re-imaging of our Church; on an honest acknowledgement that clergy in the interests of the gospel need to divest their control and authority; and on a consensus that a robust synodality is the obvious and only way forward.

What we don’t need are pious platitudes about saying our prayers or condemnations about the terrible times we live in or blaming Satan or secularism or whatever convenient excuse absolves us of personal responsibility for the unravelling of our Church. Or, worse still, some vague hope that, you’d never know, soon there might be a turn in in the road when things will revert to where they were, please God.

There was a time when Catholics were less questioning, less educated, less conformist and less critical. It’s different now, as we know. Now the priest in the pulpit is probably less educated, less in touch with life, less articulate and less intelligent than many in the pews. Catholics will no longer endure an insensible theology or a spirituality of fear. And what a priest has to say will be subject to the same remorseless criticism as anyone else and if it’s simplistic or pious or plain gibberish, it will be cursorily dismissed at the court of reason and common sense.



A difficult truth is that the easy answer is no longer a convincing riposte to a difficult question. In the seventh chapter of the Rule of St Benedict, though the title ‘De humilitate’ might at first suggest otherwise, Benedict’s concern is not humiliation but ‘to help free his monks from the need to seem more than they are’. That’s a quote from Erik Varden, a Benedictine abbot, who has his finger on the pulse.

On March 19, 2001, Varden was browsing in the bookshop of the Sorbonne and his eyes rested on a slim yellow booklet placed on prominent display. It bore the title, Notre besoin de consolation est impossible a rassasier  (‘Our need for comfort is insatiable’) and instinctively he knew he had to buy it. Now Abbot of Mount Saint Bernard Abbey in Leicestershire, Varden has carried the volume with him since, re-reading it at regular intervals.

In his recent book, The Shattering of Loneliness, he translated the first two paragraphs of the Swedish original as follows:

I lack faith and, for that reason, can never be a happy man; for a happy man should never need fear that his life is a pointless, aimless race towards certain death. I am heir to no suitable, fixed place on earth whence I might attract the attention of some god. Neither am I heir to the sceptic’s well-concealed rage or the atheist’s ardent innocence. 

I do not, therefore, dare to throw stones at one who believes in what I doubt, or at one who worships doubt as if it, too, were not encompassed by darkness. I should be hit by such a stone, for of one thing I am sure: that man’s need for comfort is insatiable.

I stalk comfort like a hunter stalks his prey. Wherever I glimpse it in the woods, I shoot. More often than not I hit nothing but air, though sometimes a kill plops down at my feet. Since I know that the constancy of comfort is no greater than the wind’s in the crown of a tree, I make haste to devour my victim.

The lines were written by Stig Dagerman, poet, novelist and critic, described by Varden as ‘a meteor in the twentieth century literary firmament’, a gifted writer who lived intensely, ‘his resolute nihilism’ keeping him ‘balancing on a precipice that reached out over a menacing world’.
At 31, he died by his own hand.

The context of Dagerman’s substantial writings was the 1940s – a decade of purposelessness and hopelessness during which he hovered between insight and despair, at once recognising the insatiability of comfort and the impossibility of achieving it, the loss of meaning and the pull of death, with no god to create a sustaining upward movement.

With the decline in a religious sense and the loss of the context and vocabulary of faith, Ireland in the twenty-first century is now facing into Dagerman’s experience of purposeless and hopelessness. With no god to raise heart and mind, or even to distract from the still sad music of  hopelessness and the looming spectre of death, society will be forced to confront the question – is this all there is?
Many like Dagerman, as in the quotation above, will long for a god who might have connected the lived reality of his life with a God who gave meaning and substance to the human journey. The hungry sheep will look up and not be fed unless there’s some credible breaking of the bread to mediate something of the comfort and the solace of God’s presence in the world.

But are we able for it? For who will there be to articulate Dagerman’s dilemma: the thirst for meaning combined with a conviction that faith in God seems impossibly remote in the lived reality of a life? Who will attest to the presence of a God who loves us beyond all reason and all imagining? For priests, we will have none. And the few we have may not be up to it.

For the public square in Ireland in terms of the existence of God seems a series of soap boxes competing for attention rather than searching for light – from the cynical atheist disparaging any kind of belief through the wavering agnostic to the dogmatic believer pushing a particular denominational adherence. Across the wide spectrum of belief and unbelief in Ireland there’s little respect much less reverence for the individual journey.

Dagerman’s testimony is but one facet of a wider culture that transcends the usual and predictable coordinates of agnosticism and atheism in their many colours and deserves a respectful hearing –  in Ireland as in Sweden. But whereas a certain Nordic breadth of vision respects the truth of things, in an Irish context the overwhelming presence and experience of religion diminishes the possibility of an honest debate.

Indeed, the debate that Dagerman sought to articulate isn’t possible in Ireland, not because we know the hunger isn’t there but because we lack the freedom to honestly respond to it. Freedom, yes, but even more the lack of intellectual rigour to allow the values we cherish to stand their ground in the public forum.

The jury is out on whether the Irish Catholic Church has a discernible future, apart from a ceremonial presence on the official side-lines of Irish life or a refuge for those ill at ease with the modern world. Because its presence as such, apart from being a convenient scape-goat for the ills of Irish society, has virtually disappeared in the media, in public debate, in modern Irish writing, in the lives of the young. Once we mattered too much in too many ways, now we’ve moved beyond antipathy into apathy.

The late John O’Donohoe used to lament how the avenues to the great Catholic heritage were effectively blocked off by those who had reduced Catholicism to anathemas, instead of being opened up to possibility and promise. Seamus Heaney touched this chord when he wrote that “Catholicism has given me the right to joy: People talk about the effects of a Catholic upbringing in sociological terms – repression, guilt, prudery.  What isn’t sufficiently acknowledged is the radiance of Catholicism. It gave everything in the world a meaning. It brought a tremendous sense of being, of the dimensions of reality, the shimmering edges of things. That never quite vanishes. The older I get, the more I remember the benediction of it all’.

I can almost hear the spirit of John McGahern applauding in the shadows for both lived with doubt and denial, but who is there now to articulate that religious vision?


A template for the future?

For some years the priests of Killala diocese  – 22 mainly rural parishes in north Mayo and west Sligo – wondered what might be done to arrest the decline of the church. A number of options were presented and discussed, including a diocesan synod and a listening process. Nothing of a compelling nature emerged and the eventual decision was to ask the people of the diocese what they thought should be done  ­– on the minimalist basis that the one thing we couldn’t do was to do nothing.

A steering committee comprised representatives of the four deaneries – in each two women, one lay man and a priest – as well as a priest co-ordinator and Bishop John Fleming.

Some problems arose:
(i) was this a paper exercise where a box was being ticked  or did we really want to know what people thought? And, if we did, would we  actually hear it and implement it? Or would whatever report emerged gather dust on a shelf in the diocesan office?
(ii) would whatever process emerged have an open agenda? What if the people of the diocese wanted to discuss the ordination of women, the celibacy requirement for priesthood and the Church’s teaching on LGBT?

Eventually the issues were resolved with Bishop Fleming giving a commitment that
(i) whatever suggestions emerged that were within the diocese’s capacity to pursue would be incorporated into diocesan policy, and
(ii) whatever suggestions emerged that were not within the diocese’s capacity would be forwarded to the Irish Episcopal Conference and to the Apostolic Nuncio who would be asked to forward them to the relevant  authorities in Rome.

The question the committee was addressing was in effect whether the process would be real, respectful and transparent – three words that became the touchstone of the decisions that followed.

The process started with a six-month period of discussion, reflection and study from which emerged
(i) an analysis of priest numbers that indicated that within two decades (by 2037) the 22 parishes of the diocese would be served by 5 or 6 priests;
(ii) a spot survey of all Masses over three consecutive weekends indicated that Mass attendance over-all was at 29%;
(iii) a decision to survey the people of the parish with seven open-ended questions –

(1) Where in your everyday life do you experience love, truth, goodness, hope and joy?
(2) What is it that encourages you to participate in the life of your local church/parish?
(3) What is it you find difficult about participating in the life of your church/parish?
(4) As a Church, what are the biggest problems we face?
(5) What do we need to do now?
(6) What do we need to stop doing now?
(7) What topics would you like to see on the agenda of a diocesan assembly?

For the survey to reach the gold standard of being ‘real, respectful and transparent’ it was clear that it would have to be anonymous and confidential in order to elicit as truthful a picture as possible; that it should be open to everyone (apart from young children); and that its results should be compiled by a reputable independent agency.  Surveys, and the accompanying envelopes, in which they were to be individually sealed upon completion, were distributed widely in every parish through Parish Pastoral Councils or, where they did not exist, through other agencies.

The Institute for Action Research (Kerry) processed the findings and the committee devised 129 proposals in 16 categories which were circulated to over 300 delegates from around the diocese for consideration at a diocesan assembly. And in order to ensure that the voting was completely private, a firm was contracted to supply a system of electronic voting when on Assembly day the delegates were asked to prioritise six proposals to be implemented in. order of preference in each category.

The categories were eventually cut down to ten with 120 people volunteering to become members of ten Focus Groups: 1. Family/Pastoral Care:  2. Prayer:  3. Liturgy/Deacons:
4. Youth:  5. Management of parishes:  6. Lay participation:  7. Inclusion:  8. Women in the Church:  9. Education in the faith:  10. Vocations.

The ten Focus Groups are at present assessing how the six priorities in each category can be implemented with a planned implementation to begin in January 2020.

Two significant conclusions can be drawn from the Killala experience to date. One is that, while for the Catholic Church in Ireland on most indicators the graph is going in the wrong direction, there’s still a huge commitment on the part of a significant number of lay people to value and support the Church, not least among young parents who know the importance of a sense of God and want their children to value it too.

This was evident in the interest and enthusiasm at the Diocesan Assembly of the 300-plus delegates from the 22 parishes of the diocese as well as in the relative ease with which 120 volunteers were attracted towards participation in the ten Focus Groups. The important message is that there is a real hunger for a Church based on the synodality Pope Francis continuously underlines, if Catholics believe it’s being taken seriously.

The other message is that the key to attracting participation and commitment is to convince Catholics that the process respects the three-fold axis mentioned earlier – ‘real, respectful and transparent’. Key elements were that the survey was confidential (and seen to be so); that the results were independently computed (and known to be so); and that commitments were given in terms of an open agenda and a follow-through (and taken on trust).

An instance of that trustand the honesty that ensued was evident in the delegates response to some of the issues beyond the diocese’s capacityto implement but which they needed to register their opinions:

That priests be allowed to marry
Agree 85 %              Disagree  15 %

That priests who have married be returned to active ministry
Agree 81 %               Disagree  19 %

That women be ordained to the diaconate.
Agree 80 %               Disagree 20 %

That women be ordained to the priesthood
Agree 69 %               Disagree 31 %

That the Church’s teaching on homosexuality and those excluded from the Church be changed to reflect the inclusion of all people regardless of sexual orientation, marital status or family status.
Agree 86 %               Disagree 14 %


To make another beginning, three elements seem vital. One is that change is acknowledged and accepted as a permanent condition. Two, we need ‘to live in the grey’, to converse rather than to explain. Three, we need to commit to a listening process that is ‘real, respectful and transparent’.

God will look after the rest.


Brendan Hoban

Download PDF of Article




























Similar Posts


  1. Eddie Finnegan1 says:

    Thank you Brendan. Ever so briefly, may I applaud your honesty in the main part of your article and welcome the clarity of your description of the template from Killala in the latter part. It chimes so well with the questions raised by Tim Hazelwood in response to Bishop Crean’s recent email to his priests in Cloyne. Indeed the amusing typo in Tim’s article (‘Clone Diocese – the Future’) may well point the synodal way for bishops and dioceses who/which need a clear template from such as Killala. Nothing wrong with cloning if the original mould is good. And we know that the Killala template has had a protracted genesis – it didn’t spring fully-formed from Bishop Fleming’s head. May we hope that Armagh’s new Auxiliary – +Michael Router -, judging from some of his early indications, has the requisite networking software to plot the synodal route for the next twenty years or so?

  2. Brendan Cafferty says:

    A wonderful article by Fr Brendan.So much in it to digest,it really covers so many aspects of the period that we of a certain age have lived through when the Catholic church went from being monarch of all it surveyed to the present position where it is hanging on by its fingertips.It must be compulsive reading for anyone with an eye for history and a concern for the future.This man is a treasure.

  3. Sean O’Conaill says:

    So why the endless hiatus on ACP support for Lumen Gentium 37 – by far the greatest threat to Irish Catholic clericalism?

    Those dogs in the street know this too, or do they?

  4. Pat Rogers says:

    This excerpt from lumen gentium paragraph 37 shows that it deals with fraternity dialogue and obedience.

    The laity have the right to receive in abundance from their spiritual shepherds the spiritual goods of the Church, especially the assistance of the word of God and of the sacraments. They should openly reveal to them their needs and desires with that freedom and confidence which is fitting for brothers (and sisters) in Christ. They are, by reason of the knowledge, competence or ability which they may enjoy, permitted and sometimes even obliged to express their opinion on those things which concern the good of the Church…
    When occasions arise, let this be done through the organs erected by the Church for this purpose. Let it always be done in truth, in courage and in prudence, with reverence and charity toward those who by reason of their sacred office represent the person of Christ…
    The laity should, as all Christians, promptly accept the decisions of their spiritual shepherds, since they are representatives of Christ as well as teachers and rulers in the Church. Let them follow the example of Christ, who by His obedience even unto death, opened to all (people) the blessed way of the liberty of the children of God. Nor should they omit to pray for those placed over them, for they keep watch as having to render an account of their souls, so that they may do this with joy and not with grief.

  5. Paddy Ferry says:

    A great piece, Brendan and thank you. I have taken the liberty of sharing it on the Facebook page of the Scottish laity Network.

    I highlighted, in particular, the two paragraphs;

    “What we don’t need are pious platitudes about saying our prayers or condemnations about the terrible times we live in or blaming Satan or secularism or whatever convenient excuse absolves us of personal responsibility for the unravelling of our Church. Or, worse still, some vague hope that, you’d never know, soon there might be a turn in in the road when things will revert to where they were, please God.

    There was a time when Catholics were less questioning, less educated, less conformist and less critical. It’s different now, as we know. Now the priest in the pulpit is probably less educated, less in touch with life, less articulate and less intelligent than many in the pews. Catholics will no longer endure an insensible theology or a spirituality of fear. And what a priest has to say will be subject to the same remorseless criticism as anyone else and if it’s simplistic or pious or plain gibberish, it will be cursorily dismissed at the court of reason and common sense.” Brilliant!!

    Believe me, those two paragraphs are not solely relevant to our church at home in Ireland. In many ways we are fortunate to have priests like yourself, Brendan, and others who are not afraid to raise their heads and speak out. For all Sean O’Conaill’s reservations about the ACP, it is still a beacon of hope.

  6. Paddy Ferry says:

    “The laity should, as all Christians, promptly accept the decisions of their spiritual shepherds, since they are representatives of Christ as well as teachers and rulers in the Church.”

    Pat, I am surprised those lines are part of Lumen Gentium. I don’t think they would now receive universal acceptance.

    Too much has happened. Too many of our so called spiritual shepherds have shown themselves to be less than trustworthy or righteous.

    The bullying, autocratic nature of the Wojtyla pontificate and, even more seriously, perhaps, the fact that he was undoubtedly the main instigator of the policy of cover up when the clerical sex abuse scandal broke.

    Ratzinger’s horrible descriptions –“intrinsically disordered” and having “more or less a strong tendency towards an intrinsic moral evil”,–insulting and denigrating boys and girls, men and women who are homosexuals. And, in the process, giving succour to homophobic bigots. We could write a thesis on this subject! Also, it sounds uncannily like a reiteration of Vehementer Nos.

    As Brendan so wisely and honestly stated above : “Indulging the sensitivities of incompetent leaders or the preciousness of delicate souls feeling the heat of the kitchen or cute theologians running with the hare and hunting with the hound are all now off the agenda”

  7. Mary Vallely says:

    Like everyone else, I applaud Brendan Hoban’s wise and courageous words. He has my undying respect and is a truly prophetic voice.

    Eddie@1, I took great comfort in some of the statements issued by our new auxiliary bishop, Michael Router, both as bishop elect and in his ordination address.
    If I may quote :-

    “the Church must never hanker for the certainties of the past but work towards creating a new expression of what it means to be Church in this time and this place.”

    The Church in Ireland had become “too comfortable in its position of temporal as well as spiritual authority.”

    He called on the Church and rightly so,

    ‘to challenge, head on, the economic inequality, the violence, the despair and the sense of alienation that exists in society.’

    ”Now is the time for us, people and clergy together, to listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit in order to shape a Church fit for purpose in the 21st  century, and to continue to bring ourselves and our communities into a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ who will take on all our burdens and our anxieties if we trust in him.”

    “Despite the pioneering work of many Church personnel in the fields of education and health care, it did not adequately defend, in the way it should have done, the rights of the poor and vulnerable. The Irish Church’s mistakes and failures have caused deep hurt and pain to many people and we must remember and acknowledge that, while we celebrate here today, many people have turned their backs to us and walked away.”

    “It must be said that as a Church we rely heavily on the cooperation, support and help of women to achieve anything worthwhile. Their contribution needs further enhancement and development if we are to flourish in the future.”

    And quoting Pope Francis in his recent Exhortation Christus Vivit,
    “a Church that is overly fearful and tied to its structures can be invariably critical of efforts to defend the rights of women, and constantly point out the risks and the potential errors of those demands. Instead, a living Church can react by being attentive to the legitimate claims of those women who seek greater justice and equality”.

    Of course the proof of the pudding…

    We have to give him time and of course change does not come easily to any of us because it means letting go of securities.
    Could I appeal again to the many, many ordained reading this site to join in the conversation. I feel I probably comment too often but it is the prompting of the Spirit that forces me. I would much rather listen to voices who can offer more constructive suggestions of ways to move forward. Encouragers are needed too of course. ?

    There’s a lovely and indeed a very apt prayer on a daily Jesuit prayer site which I think every one of us needs to heed.

    “Heavenly Father, help me to see the potential in all people. Amen.”

    Think of the difference in mindsets if that were truly accepted and lived out!

  8. Eddie Finnegan1 says:

    Two things surprise me here:

    a. that Sean has so consistently categorised LG#37 as a sort of silver bullet and “greatest threat to Irish Catholic clericalism” upon whose use or non-use the ACP’s credibility stands or falls;

    b. that Paddy is surprised that one particular sentence (quoted or linked to three times above) should have appeared in 1964 in the Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution ‘De Ecclesia’, aka ‘Lumen Gentium’.

    Surely, 55 years later, we should see that, like the curate’s egg, the clutch of documents laid or layed before us by 2,300+ Council Fathers from every nation under Heaven, must be at best “good in parts”? That even some of the better parts should never have been properly digested is often, as Joe@4 suggests, the fault of the Council Fathers, their ‘periti’ and drafters – not just down to the revisionism of later popes and their handlers. That so many of the eggs never hatched successfully over the next half-century no doubt had much to do with those council fathers and their successors on their home turf.

    LG#37, perhaps as Pat@5 suggests, is no silver bullet for anything, but is consistent with the careful balancing act of much of the rest of the Document and, possibly, of all the rest of the Council’s documents. It was not for nothing that the Bishops, Cardinals, periti and Pope John XXIII gladly plumped in October 1962 for tackling the less contentious Liturgy Schema first, kicking the De Ecclesia can down the road, though it seems to have come back to grab their attention just when their energies were flagging before the close of the First Session in December. A multi-cultural committee setting out to design a horse should not be amazed if it ends up with a multi-humped camel.

  9. William Herlihy says:

    Brendan, I have been reading your articles for many years,our Church would not be in the sorry state we find it now, if Priests of your calibre had been in leadership positions.
    I do not have all the answers to our current hopeless state.
    Pope John Paul 11’s infamous template for the selection of Bishops has certainly contributed to it.
    The template consisted of amongst others,the following ;
    A strong Marion devotion, supporters of humanae vitae,etc etc.
    The incredible irony of this template is, leadership ability was not a requirement.
    Consequently, we now find ourselves,with a plethora of Bishops one, more conservative than the other,certainly there are few exceptions.
    In Business, incredible lack of ability in the person at the top, peculates down the ranks, our Church is now a classic example of that.
     Priests are scarce, but the few that are there, a lot of them are  hopelessly incompetent.I will give one example,l holiday in this area annually and I have been going to this Church for about four years.
    The Parish Priest gave a wonderful thought -provoking homily every Sunday,sadly he is now retired.
    A young Priest in his forty’s I would  think has been appointed.PP, what a difference, his modus operandi, is to read a prepared text.This is inexcusable,it should not be too difficult to prepare a few bullet points and put some meat around them, lasting four/five minutes.
    What a joy last Sunday, the retired priest was back doing relief duty and gave a short thought-provoking homily, his theme was based on Ulysses.
    To sum up, the clergy see us as the “Laity” and are reluctant to engage with us, off the Pulpit.
    Consequently, unless there is a sea change at the top ,we will continue to decline.

  10. Philip Taylor says:

    Excellent article.
    Many of the issues discussed, like clericalism, are problems for Protestants as well.

  11. Kate Prendergast says:

    Thank you for this Bulletin,

    I find the content very heartening and a source of Hope.
    I look forward to hearing how the wok progresses and will pray that the group has all the support, strength and Wisdom necessary for the project.

    With all Best Wishes,

    Kate Prendergast

  12. Pádraig McCarthy says:

    JH Newman wrote: “In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” (An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Ch.1). Since we in this life are just at the early stages of life in that “higher world”, continuing change is necessary.
    It seems to me that the most important statement in Brendan’s article is: “Who will attest to the presence of a God who loves us beyond all reason and all imagining?” This is the mission, not just of priests but of every disciple. And we remember the Greek word for witness is “martyr.” This is what needs to inspire all the other necessary steps. We must be on fire so we can set the world on fire. The fires in the Amazon pale by comparison.
    Our reduced flock can still carry out the mission – but they and we need to be aware of that mission, and to be aware that Jesus is with us all days, to the end of time.
    A task not mentioned in the article is the challenge of Christian unity. It is by our love that the world will come to know Jesus. Our multiple divisions as Christians are a major obstacle. What would it be like if we Christians even just in Ireland could find the unity to which Jesus calls us, the unity which is a gift of the Spirit? Then we, all disciples of Jesus, will far more effectively attest to the presence of God, who is love beyond all reason and imagining.
    The ARCIC III document “Walking Together on the Way” of 2017 puts the emphasis not on where we agree or where we differ, but on how and what we can learn from one another.
    “Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for the second time in the history of the world, we will discover fire” (Teilhard de Chardin)

  13. Paddy Ferry says:

    I have now read Brendan’s honest and courageous piece for a second time. Second time around one thing did strike me. There is little mention of what is probably the main reason why “the house has already collapsed”, the abuse of power over many decades by the “church”.

    There was only a brief mention of it when Brendan spoke of Pope Francis’ visit:

    “a less compliant media and a fixation on the great fault-line of Irish Catholicism, the child abuse scandals and our failure to deal with them. ”

    Well, many children will have reason to thank God for that less compliant media.

    What more could we expect Brendan to say, you may be asking. Well, I have to say it grated when I read his comment on the Mother and Baby Homes scandal. His focus was not directed towards sympathy for the horrible plight of those unfortunate young women and their children, as it should have been. And, I have never been happy with the excuse that we cannot “judge the past through the lens of the present”. Surely people know the difference between right and wrong no matter what era they live in.

    Leo Varadkar, in his welcoming address to Francis at Dublin Castle last year presented an accurate resumé of what “has shamed us as a church and as a country”: “Magdalene Laundries, Mother and Baby Homes, Industrial Schools, Illegal Adoptions and Clerical Child Sexual Abuse.”

    I am not questioning Brendan’s integrity or motives for a second. And, I do think this is a very important article. Not only have I shared it with the Scottish laity Network but I will also use it as the Spiritual Reading at our weekly parish SVdeP conference meetings for the next few weeks.

    However, I think there is a certain mentality which is also present in other good men who contribute to this site which seems to fail to truly recognise the true extent of the horrors of the past. We need to adopt, I think, a more respectful acceptance of the heinous nature of sins of the institutional church and a genuine and humble sense of contrition.

    And, this brings me onto Vincent Nichols. I have always regarded him as one of the good guys. He always came across as a moderate and compassionate bishop. I cannot remember him ever saying anything that embarrassed us. Apparently, the right wingers were opposed to his appointment as Archbishop of Westminister but others, including the Tablet, supported his cause and he was appointed. He was the principal concelebrant at Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s requiem Mass in Newcastle last year. His homily was compassionate and balanced and he said nothing to upset those of us who were Keith’s friends.

    So, I was deeply disappointed and saddened when I read a recent piece in the Tablet, ” Don’ shot the messenger, your eminence” which I will share below. It concerns a BBC documentary on clerical sex of children in the Archdiocese of Birmingham and the actions of Vincent Nichols which included his making false and unfounded accusations against the journalists involved for which he still has not apologised.

    Paul Kenyon, the presenter of the program, Kenyon Confronts, was recently interviewed by Liz Dodds of the Tablet and this is part of what he said:

    “In my entire career as an investigative journalist, I have never experienced an onslaught of that kind of intense lying and deceit and manipulation.” He said: “I’ve investigated the Gadaffis. I’ve investigated corrupt regimes, revolutions and war zones”, but never experienced “such persistent and dogged liars as the Catholic Church on that occasion.”

    You do have to wonder, with that kind of mentality around, can there actually ever be another beginning.

    “Don’t shoot the messenger, your eminence”

    The gross evil of child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy would have gone unexposed had it not been for three principal agencies, all secular. In the lead were the media, both electronic and print. They were followed by the police and other statutory agencies; and then came the courts. By contrast, the Church’s own investigations have made comparatively little impact.

    This should have induced the Church to show profound gratitude and humility towards the media. Countless lives of innocent children would have been blighted by continuing sexual abuse by priests, had the media not listened to the stories of courageous survivors and exposed the perpetrators and those who tried to cover up their crimes. Pope Francis has acknowledged this debt to journalists, but elsewhere in the Church the response has been more grudging. It is also true that investigative journalists do sometimes go after their targets too hard, and have published stories that lack balance or have been later found to be false. The issue of paedophilia is highly emotional. Judgements are easily swayed by bias.
    The latest in the long line of such scandals has unfolded on the Pacific island of Guam. And it was an investigation by a US news agency – Associated Press – that has exposed a disgraceful culture of clerical abuse. Not long before that, a documentary made by Polish film-makers and shown on YouTube suggested that at least 300 priests had been guilty of child abuse, while the church authorities either ignored the complaints or moved paedophile priests from parish to parish. The classic case, made into the film Spotlight, was the investigation by the Boston Globe into child abuse in the Boston, Massachusetts, archdiocese, which led to the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law, who had fought tooth and nail to put the journalists off the scent and derail the inquiry.
    Against this background it is all the more troubling to find parallels with what happened in Birmingham archdiocese around 2003, when a BBC documentary team started to investigate a cluster of clerical abuse cases in the Midlands. During the time of Archbishop Maurice Couve de Murville, who retired in 1999, individual paedophile priests had already come to notice, but no one had looked to see if there was a pattern. The new archbishop, Vincent Nichols, seems to have taken the view that because he was effectively clearing up the mess left by his predecessor, and fully implementing the reforms to safeguarding procedures indicated by the 2001 Nolan report, such a BBC inquiry was unwelcome and unnecessary and therefore should be thwarted. He wrote to his priests telling them not to cooperate.

    Nevertheless individual priests were approached by BBC journalists, and enough material was collected to fill an edition of the investigative series, Kenyon Confronts. The high point was the discovery of an ex-Birmingham priest – James Robinson, later extradited to the UK and found guilty of grave offences against children – living in self-imposed exile in Los Angeles, where he had been supported by regular payments out of archdiocesan funds.

    Before the documentary was broadcast, Archbishop Nichols gave a press conference in which he alleged BBC journalists had been guilty of grossly unprofessional conduct, and later issued a press release to the same effect; after the broadcast he formally complained to the BBC. Archbishop Nichols’ detailed allegations were all successfully rebutted. Archbishop Nichols appealed against this finding, and his appeal was rejected by the BBC Governors after a further hearing. He has since declined to acknowledge that his complaints were unfounded, or to apologise to the journalists he had attacked, and whose careers were put at risk. In December last year, he told the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) that he now regretted the terms of his press release, and should have welcomed both the programme’s unearthing of Robinson, and the fact that the programme gave a voice to victims. The inquiry, in its report, said his press release seemed to show him to be more interested in protecting the Church’s reputation than in the protection of children.

    It would have been gracious of Archbishop Nichols – now Cardinal Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster – to accept the findings of the BBC inquiry into his complaints, and to apologise to the journalists who worked on the programme. This is not quite the whole matter, however. Two issues remain. First, is the state of affairs in Birmingham archdiocese now satisfactory? It cannot be ignored that two successive heads of child protection services in the Catholic Church in England and Wales, Eileen Shearer and Adrian Child, said to IICSA through their counsel: “In the Archdiocese of Birmingham, there were systemic and personal failures. There was a lack of leadership from the archbishop and failures by the Safeguarding Commission and the safeguarding coordinator to perform their duties. These failures were deliberate. They were persistent. They were prolonged. And they were serious. And they have continued over a number of years.”
    It would not be inappropriate for the Holy See to express its alarm that Cardinal Nichols allowed such a situation to develop. Birmingham archdiocese seemed to regard itself as “a law unto itself” where child protection was concerned. It resented the BBC’s inquiries and rebuffed the efforts of the Catholic Church’s own national safeguarding team. What was going on?

    The deeper issue is the underlying assumption that the Catholic Church in general, and each diocese in particular, is a self-sufficient entity totally capable of looking after itself – in ecclesiology, a societas perfecta or “perfect society”. This ideology still shapes the structures of the Church and haunts the Catholic imagination, though it was replaced by the “People of God” theology of Vatican II. It lies at the root of the culture of clericalism, which for decades helped to shape the sense of immunity felt by child-abusing priests and the mistaken loyalty towards them of their colleagues and superiors. Clearly the Archdiocese of Birmingham was, and maybe still is, a far from perfect society. And Westminster? The People of God have a right to know

  14. Joe O'Leary says:

    Paddy, did you read the dissenting judgement in the Pell appeal case?

  15. Paddy Ferry says:

    No, Joe, I haven’t.

  16. Paul Galvin says:

    I have witnessed the inexorable decline in Catholic Church observance in Ireland for many decades and have tried to understand why this is so for a very long time. Clearly it is multi-faceted. Greater minds than mine have attempted to address the issue none more than the Rev. Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop of Dublin. A good guy with an intellectual rigour second to none.
    Shortly after he was appointed to the post he delivered the ‘Michael Littleton Lecture’ at the RTE studios in 2004 titled “The Christian in the Public Square”. In July 2017 in Wurzburg, Germany he gave a lecture titled “The Challenge for the Chirch in the 21st Century”. Both thought provoking, incisive accounts , of the state of play of the church and also offering solutions of sorts. However when now read in juxtaposition makes for sad reading.
    (These lectures are available on the internet.)

Join the Discussion

Keep the following in mind when writing a comment

  • Your comment must include your full name, and email. (email will not be published). You may be contacted by email, and it is possible you might be requested to supply your postal address to verify your identity.
  • Be respectful. Do not attack the writer. Take on the idea, not the messenger. Comments containing vulgarities, personalised insults, slanders or accusations shall be deleted.
  • Keep to the point. Deliberate digressions don't aid the discussion.
  • Including multiple links or coding in your comment will increase the chances of it being automati cally marked as spam.
  • Posts that are merely links to other sites or lengthy quotes may not be published.
  • Brevity. Like homilies keep you comments as short as possible; continued repetitions of a point over various threads will not be published.
  • The decision to publish or not publish a comment is made by the site editor. It will not be possible to reply individually to those whose comments are not published.