‘Apologia pro vita sua’ (or something like that).

We see the frenzied hijacking of the news on Enda. Will he? Won’t he. When will he go? Who will take over? Is it Simon (C) or Leo or Paschal or Richard or Frances or Simon (H).
And in Church life, we worry too. How long more can Francis go on? Will the revolution he has started, have any chance of continuing, if he drops out? That fear makes us very prayerful indeed.
But I was thinking. Des Connell has died. Eamonn Walsh spoke of his laser precision in language and how such precision sometimes became a landmine. Diarmuid Martin asked – ‘what is a bishop’ and went on to detail how the main focus of a bishop’s work is Christ centred and was for Des. This is true. But there is more. And it is dangerous.
Have we thought at all about what we do as Church, to people? We make extraordinary demands on our leaders. Being a bishop is being a leader. Des Connell came across as a very good and holy man who was snatched from his world in the metaphysics department of UCD and asked to move into a totally different world.
How can it be right ever to do that to a person? I am certain that some Nuncio came along to Des and used this form of words to him: ‘The Holy Father wants you to be…..’   This is close to ’being economical with the truth’ but the dutiful Des clearly bowed his head and accepted with great humility the burden of office. ‘If the Holy father wants me; that is God asking me.’
It is a very precious thought and a good one but highly explosive.   Who thought about the man? Who worried about the suitability of this person? Could this man face the burden of leadership of a Church in Dublin at that time? Was he flexible in his thinking; was he adaptable; was he good humoured; was he strong enough to cope; had he the personality to bend and laugh and mix and take the arrows and stones that could be thrown at him? Was he a team worker?
It isn’t ever enough to say – God will look after the person.  Does the job become so important that the brittleness of a person is neglected? If the job is the focus alone; it utterly disrespects humanity.
Dermot Ryan was lifted out of the Department of Eastern Languages and thrown into the leadership of the Diocese. He had a more robust personality and was more active in the Diocese which prepared him to cope. But can it be right to drag someone out of that detached environment into the heart of a Diocese?
Kevin McNamara was airlifted from Maynooth via Kerry (a sick man) into Dublin. Was it right?
Diarmuid Martin was taken from his Roman office to Dublin. His world was very different and yet he had to face the onslaught of a new and vicious world. It is true that an outsider was probably needed. But what about the man?
Can it be right that a Leo Cushley should be drafted in from Rome to Edinburgh? Again an outsider was probably needed but dumped into a Scottish diocese, trying to come to terms with life after Keith Patrick – from the very strange culture of Rome.
What about the man himself and of course, what about the Diocese?
What do we do to our men? What do we expect from them? I don’t know now what the ‘confidential’ documents look like which are circulated to chosen individuals in the process of assessing the suitability of possible candidates for bishop. But I have seen them in the past. And the criteria, I have read and answered are atrocious.
One of my own answers in the past has been: ‘This man is perfect for the job in accordance with the criteria but totally unsuitable for what is needed in today’s church and world.’ Would Charles Brown now publish the present criteria – we can then have a look at them and see how appropriate they are for the Ireland of today. I wonder too is Charles Brown capable of knowing what is now needed in Ireland?
I come back to the individual – can we ask this question:   Is this person capable of coping with the demands that will be put on him? Will he survive or break? Furthermore might we be bold enough to say –   A bishop should be given a job for eight years.
Diarmuid Martin said (Homily at Des Connell’s funeral) : ‘I am already an old man.’   If he is (and most of us are) – how dare we impose on him and the rest of us, the leadership of the church in these trying times? We have to be very careful and caring of our men (priests and bishops ) to let them retire at a normal and natural age rather than imposing on them the need to continue forever. We have to have a fundamental restructuring of Church life. We are staggering on, trying to continue doing the work we always did and much more – with a very ageing clergy. Many of us aren’t the best at working as a team. Some PPs are still appealing to Canon Law to assert the limits of the rights of Parish Pastoral Councils. I know some Bishops too appeal to Canon Law to assert their own rights at decision making and minimising the role of Priests’ Councils or other advisors.  The model has to be different. Some can’t change.
And I was thinking. We destroyed Des Connell. A good man. We asked too much. He wasn’t capable of handling the chaos that erupted around him. I am not sure many others could have done so either. But his thinking processes belonged to a different era. We threw him to the wolves. It was very wrong. How could we do that to a fellow human being in the name of the Church? We didn’t even rescue him as he aged.
I was thinking (prompted by ‘Shelling Peanuts’ in The Furrow) of Shusaku Endo. Many years ago, I used to wander into Endo’s work. Often I enjoyed the writings of Graham Greene and how the two writers were linked. Endo believed that Catholicism was impossible and unsuitable for the minds of the Japanese. (A foreign import) He felt that the orderly clarity of the faith (as then presented) simply didn’t fit the Japanese culture. He was constantly falling into the ‘swamp.’ He felt that the greys of life (Japanese outlook) couldn’t handle the certainties (black /white) of the Catholic Church. He struggled and wrote throughout his life, as a Japanese Catholic. He reminds me then of what we had dumped on Des Connell and too many others.
The greys of today; the flexibility needed; the incarnational aspect of Church is dangerous and foreign to the mind-set of the past.   Francis is juggling similar issues and cultures.   We need to look at our bishops, our priests, our congregations and see the ageing population. We then might realise that we are geriatrics meandering around in the Old Folks home which is the Church. Our way of thinking and behaviour is a language from outer space and we have to ensure that the elastics of our minds and imaginations, can stretch to a reconstruction of Religious faith.   We need some Grand Designs.
In doing this  we have to care for each other.   Whatever we ask of bishops, faith happens locally. The bishops do an outside job. The local church is all that most people know. If the church of Francis isn’t happening locally – we cannot keep on shouting at or blaming the bishops. How many are making any fist of pastoral areas or clustering or producing any other possible way forward for the Church of tomorrow? I repeat myself: only poets and artists can take us forward. The world of faith can only be imagined in that way.
My end point then is:   How can we care for our bishops (or even potential bishops)? What can we do, to protect them? How can we stop imposing impossible burdens on them? If as Church people – we don’t care; if we don’t watch out for our people – how can we be pastoral?
So let us look at what is now going on and see if we can help in making the system better. It would be good too if the Report on the Dioceses for the Ad Limina visit was made public. It could be a launching document for an island wide collective preparation for the future.
The poor bishops sometimes wear a mitre. I have heard of a few who smile at Denis – it is rather comical to see this tall man wear one.
It looks more like a Dunce’s cap than anything else. Possibly that is appropriate! (The hat I mean).   Foolhardy, courageous and people of great faith – this is what a Church leader has to be. We should be praying for our leaders but we had better watch out for each other.     That surely is Christ-centred.
Seamus Ahearne osa

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  1. John Gillen says:

    Seamus, as he so often does, speaks with a prophetic voice. Yes, we need to take care of our leaders and to protect them. Surely, the first step in taking such care is to ensure that those selected for leadership have the necessary skills, talents, aptitudes etc. to meet the demands of the role they are being asked to undertake. Putting unsuitable candidates into leadership roles is unfair to both them and to those whom they are expected to lead.Too often, when asked to take on certain roles by superiors, one assumes this to be “God’s will”, without taking the time and trouble to undertake a process of discernment. One fear I have for the future is that many of the younger, able-bodied priests of today are of a restorationist mentality and would undo much of what Francis is seeking to to do.

  2. Mary Vallely says:

    Seamus writes with great tenderness and loving charity and I suppose as a fellow priest he understands the priestly mindset more than most. I have great sympathy for anyone trapped in a role for which he is EMINENTly unsuited but I do feel angry about the continuance of this outdated, unfair and at times inhuman model of governance and wish to God that more of the non- ordained stopped being enablers of the system!! ( and yes, mea culpa)

  3. Joe O'Leary says:

    The trouble was that Orthodoxy seemed the dominant criterion, and being favorably viewed by Cardinal Ratzinger.
    Des Connell was savagely treated, quite unjustly as far as I can see.
    Interesting to hear Endo Shusaku mentioned. At the moment I am collecting a batch of responses to Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” for the Japan Mission Journal — I would be interested in any responses from members of ACP.

  4. This article hits close to the true problem of the institutional church. The system is based on a belief in absolutes, which I believe comes from its Platonic heritage.
    The notion that men can be bullied into leadership positions [and I know that is how it is often accomplished, as mentioned in the article] and that ordination will alter their nature ontologically in order to make them suitable to successfully fulfill the role, is nothing but wishful thinking, and one of the worst consequences of what we know as “clericalism”.
    Perhaps the appointment of bishops for terms would help, as would the notion of having the local community elect there leaders, provided this could be accomplished without the kind of self-romiting propaganda that corrupts the process of general elections to civic offices.

  5. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    I can’t believe this is reality:
    Have what’s “yours” and I’ve got what’s “mine”
    Perception’s hallucinations lack in credibility
    But they make you think second best is “being behind”
    But don’t, and don’t give in to mimetic desire
    A foundation in the concept of greed
    Think how much more we’d aspire
    If we only got what we would need
    Hold on heaven, we’ve got more than our share
    And it comes at a precious cost
    Think about showing ways you care
    And the race will be one and not lost

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