Irish Examiner Monday 16 Aug 2021:
The Catholic Church doesn’t have a great record in consulting people. It is a pyramidal structure, completely controlled by male clergy. Nobody else has any say in decision-making, least of all women, writes Tony Flannery.
I was quite surprised, indeed taken aback, when some bishops announced they were going to ignore medical and governmental directives, and advise their priests to begin to celebrate the sacraments of first communion and confirmation.
The fact that among the early ones out of the traps were Bishops Doran of Elphin, Cullinan of Waterford and Deenihan of Meath made it a little less surprising. They would typically be the ones on the more conservative end of the hierarchy, and, especially in the cases of Elphin and Waterford, having a tendency to go it alone.
I believed from the beginning it was a big mistake. To ignore official advice, and to begin celebrating events that potentially could put peoples’ health at risk, and could give cover to more extreme elements in our society, didn’t seem like a sensible thing for bishops to do.
The situation changed significantly when Dermot Farrell, Archbishop of Dublin, entered the fray in support of the others. His tone was quite confrontational, seeming to want to provoke direct conflict with the Government.
But he contradicted himself, having told his priests they could begin to celebrate the sacraments in their parishes, and then changing his mind and telling them to wait until September or October, basically agreeing with medical and Government advice.
So, what exactly was his intervention about, what was the precise issue? There was, I think, a clue in the language he used. He referred to what he called ‘the Merrion bash’.
That was the sort of language that would be normal for an opposition politician, or for some media commentators, but didn’t seem to me to be appropriate for someone in his position.
He complained about not being consulted, that the Church was not being treated with the respect it deserved.
In my view that was a very unwise line to take. After all, he is a senior figure in an institution that has dominated, and to a large extent controlled, Irish life for most of the last century.
Also, that same institution doesn’t have a great record in consulting people. It is a pyramidal structure, completely controlled by male clergy. Nobody else has any say in decision-making, least of all women.
The bishops who were rushing the celebration of first communion and confirmation did not express any reservation about the present way of celebrating these sacraments, which leaves a lot to be desired.
Many of the parents of today’s candidates for these two sacraments are not committed to the Catholic faith, or to attendance at church. The celebration of the occasion is often followed by a major social event, and the collection of substantial amounts of money by the young person.
I would be glad to see them abolished, and replaced by a preparation done in the family, with support from the parish. It would necessitate at least some commitment to the faith on the part of parents.
This is especially true of the sacrament of confirmation. That sacrament is meant to be the occasion on which a person, having reached the stage in life when they can make personal decisions, would commit themselves to living the Christian life.
How could anyone say that what happens in our churches at a confirmation ceremony with a class of 11 and 12 year olds bears any semblance of this prerequisite? It doesn’t. Major changes are called for.
People who present for the sacrament would need to be older, would need to fully understand what it meant, and its implications for them in their own lives, and would freely choose to receive the sacrament.
The biggest disappointment with the attitude of these bishops in this present dispute is that it is a missed opportunity.
The pandemic created some space, in that the usual form of celebrating the sacraments could not happen. Now was the perfect time to start a consultation and begin to design a whole new way of approaching these sacraments.
I know any suggestion of taking the preparation out of the schools, and having smaller events with greater emphasis on their spiritual meaning, would meet with opposition, from some parents and from the commercial world. But some other means needs to be found for families to have these celebrations, rather than misusing, even abusing, important religious occasions.
Having said all this, it is worth noting that a few bishops showed a real sense of responsibility and two in particular, Francis Duffy in Ardagh and Denis Nulty in Kildare, spoke with great compassion and common sense. It was also an interesting development to see Irish bishops publicly disagreeing with each other. It would be good to see more of that.
- Tony Flannery is a member of the Redemptorist congregation and of the Association of Catholic Priests. He has recently published a book, From the Outside: Rethinking Church Doctrine. (Red Stripe Press)