Irish Hierarchy being remade in image of Pope Benedict

The most influential person shaping the Irish Catholic Church today is a middle-aged American cleric of Irish and German extraction. In November 2011, Pope Benedict appointed Archbishop Charles John Brown as his nuncio in Ireland.
Along with his role as the Holy See’s Ambassador to the Irish Republic, another of his main functions is to recommend to the Vatican those he deems worthy of being ordained bishops.
Since November 2012 seven new bishops have been appointed to Irish dioceses. Three more are expected shortly.
There are 26 dioceses in the country. Several episcopal retirements are due in the next few years. Should Dr Brown remain here as nuncio, he will soon have recommended for appointment the majority of the Irish hierarchy.
His appointment as nuncio was unusual in that he was not a member of the Vatican diplomatic corps.
Ordained for the archdiocese of New York in 1989, after a short stint in parish ministry, he was sent to study sacramental theology in Rome, with the expectation he would eventually become a professor in a New York seminary.
In Rome, however, he caught the attention of the Vatican mandarins. An English speaker was required for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and he was duly selected.
During the papacy of Pope John Paul II and under the leadership of Cardinal Ratzinger, this congregation attracted the ire of Catholic liberals for its efforts to curtail theological exploration and academic freedom. It removed the faculties from amongst others, Hans Kung and Charles Curran to teach in Catholic universities.
Dr. Brown became the trusted confidante of his boss, the future Pope Benedict. He has spoken of their relationship: “I know him. He knows me. I worked with him closely for ten years. I travelled with him. I worked hard for him. He trusts me, for better or for worse”.
In spring 2010 the Vatican summoned the Irish hierarchy to Rome to account for its abysmal dysfunction regarding the clerical sexual abuse of children, as revealed in the Ferns, Ryan and Murphy reports. Dr. Brown’s appointment as nuncio followed as part of Pope Benedict’s plan to restore the authority of the Irish Catholic Church.
Since arriving in Ireland in February 2012 he has maintained a strong public profile. Previous nuncios were usually elderly men, of Mediterranean background, who rarely ventured beyond the nunciature of the Navan Road.
He regularly attends liturgical functions throughout the country. He has paid several visits to Knock. On two occasions he has participated in the Croagh Patrick pilgrimage, though there is no sign so far that he has been influenced by the carefree anti-establishment spirit of Celtic Christianity.
Many of those who have met him testify to his charm. He is however, somewhat eclectic in his choice of clerical company. While he has been known to have convivial conversations with conservative clerics in remote rural presbyteries, so far he has refused to meet the Association of Catholic Priests. This organisation, set up in September 2010, now having a membership of over 1,000 priests is dedicated to the renewal of the Irish Church through the implementation of the insights of the Second Vatican Council.
Dr. Brown’s main influence, so far, on the Irish Church has been in the appointment of bishops. There is a pattern to be discerned in his approach to this task. He seems to have abandoned the widespread consultation with clergy on who they feel best equipped to be bishop.
None of the new bishops appointed has been a priest in the diocese they now lead. They are all middle-aged men who have never been known to question publically Vatican orthodoxies as prevailed during the papacies of John Paul and Benedict.
They have the reputation of being careful administrators but are largely without imaginative flair. It is as if the new Manchester United manager was to try to improve his squad by signing a clutch of Irish Airtricity League defenders.
“Spitting Image” used to portray John Major, when British Prime Minister, as swathed fully in grey. It is an apt image for the present Irish hierarchy. One searches in vain amongst them, for the social justice passion of the late Bishop Peter Birch, the pastoral empathy of Cardinal Tomas O’Fiaich, the folksy charm and communication skills of Archbishop Joe Cassidy and the outspoken honesty of Bishop Willie Walshe.
Last week the nuncio appointed Dublin priest, Fr Kevin Doran to the See of Elphin. He is the best known of the recent appointments. He was for some years the Director of Vocations where he proved a trenchant defender of compulsory celibacy. He led the team that organised the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin in 2012. Last October he resigned from the board of the Mater Hospital because it agreed to comply with the provisions of the ‘Protection of Life in Pregnancy’ legislation.
A careful intellectual, it is somewhat surprising that he used to write a column for “Alive”, an extremely right wing monthly Catholic free sheet. Alive’s handling of the depth, complexity and diversity of Catholicism is akin to the lack of sophistication with which ‘The Sun’ covers the European Union.
It is ironic that at a time when Pope Francis offers a refreshing pastoral vision of Catholicism that the Irish hierarchy is being remade in the image of Pope Benedict. Catholic liberals, well used to disappointment wonder, to paraphrase Patrick Kavanagh, ‘will it be thus forever?’
Kevin Hegarty, The Mayo News

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  1. Mary Vallely says:

    “Gandhi’s first rule of nonviolence is nonacceptance of anything that is demeaning. Check. The second rule is active nonviolent resistance to oppression. Check. One way of actively resisting is staging a virtual sit-in with nonresponsive church structures until they respond.”
    Taken from Christine Schenk’s article below.
    Now if there are 1000 priests in the ACP why can’t they get together and insist on a meeting with the Papal Nuncio?? DEMAND a meeting. You have a right NOT to be ignored, not to feel demeaned. That goes for all of us, lay and cleric. Make a fuss. 🙂

  2. Mary Wood says:

    I have discovered with interest and awe the procedure my C of E friends are undertaking. Their Bishop has announced he will retire this November and the diocesan website has this page
    Worth looking at, but briefly it details the stages in the procedure,
    a) a profile of the diocese to be compiled by elected reps of clergy and laity who are named
    b) parish councils (elected annually) asked to describe what they see as the needs of the diocese at this time
    c) individuals also invited to express their opinions and given a choice of commenting by email, snailmail or Facebook
    d) Appointment process described
    e) Probable timescale explained
    There’s a suggested prayer asking for guidance in this matter
    Contrast a Catholic bishop who may not be allowed to retire even if he is not at all well, or has reached 75. Surely the Vatican knows a bishop’s DOB ?
    The nuncio needs your prayers, but also your input.

  3. Eddie Finnegan says:

    The only word in Kevin Hegarty’s article I would demur from slightly is the noun “liberal”. Nothing whatever wrong with the adjective, but the repeated use of “liberal” as a badge or label of identity leaves out whole swathes of Irish parish priests and lay men and women who probably fully agree with him, and who know that they and the Irish Church are being ill served by Benedict’s Nuncio whose cynical textbook approach to picking bishops is to seek hirelings from afar who will not be too close to “their” priests or people.
    I see similar recent textbook shunting of strangers into dioceses they know nothing about in places like Eastern Nigeria and Sierra Leone: the thinking behind it is part political, part a wish to circumvent a local desire that “a son of the soil” is chosen as bishop. The result too often is resentment, low level rejection, or even outright refusal to accept the hapless appointee. The disastrous mess over the imposition of a bishop on the priests and people of Sierra Leone’s Northern Diocese of Makeni has been ongoing for the past thirty months with no solution in sight. Not the sort of stupid meddling and bullying from within and without that a New Church needs. But maybe it’s time for a brave token diocese in Ireland to take a leaf out of Makeni’s book and just say “NO! NO! NO!” for as long as it takes. The Nuncio at the heart of the Makeni mess was shipped off home to become Archbishop of Madras – once the bailiwick of the Fennelly brothers from Cashel in the mid-19th century. There must be loads of Brown-thinking dioceses in the States ready to welcome a smiling all-american charming son of the CDF soil as their new bishop.
    Sons-of-the-soil may not always be the solution. Yet it seems no accident that the four Irish bishops / archbishops Kevin Hegarty praises above were all thoroughly at home in their home or adopted dioceses. The fact that three if not four of them had spent years in teaching or lecturing outside their home turf did not make them strangers. And it seems to me no accident that the one Irish bishop who gladly meets with the local ACP ‘chapter’ in his diocese is Bishop Liam McDaid, most definitely a son of the Bundoran soil and a priest among his Clogher priests. As Michael Harding told us the other day, “I know that a day out in Bundoran is a great remedy for melancholy.” Shouldn’t all those grey bishops Fr Hegarty sees being appointed beyond and far outside their comfort zones be sent off to bracing, breezy Bundoran for a day out every month?

  4. Pádraig McCarthy says:

    Pope Francis said at the Regina Caeli last Sunday, 21 May, commenting on the day’s first reading from Acts 6 about the situation which resulted in appointment of deacons:
    “Today the reading of the Acts of the Apostles shows us that even in the early Church the first tensions emerge and the first dissensions. In life, there are conflicts, the problem is how to deal with it. … At that moment discontent creeps in , there are complaints, rumours of favouritism and unequal treatment. This also happens in our parishes!
    So, before this conflict, the Apostles take the situation in hand: summon an enlarged meeting of the disciples also, discuss the issue together. All of them. The problems are not solved it by pretending they do not exist! And it’s nice this blunt comparison between the pastors and the faithful.
    And so from that discontent, from the complaint, those rumours of favouritism and unequal treatment, we arrive at a solution. Confronting, discussing and praying, so you resolve conflicts in the Church. Confronting, discussing and praying. With the certainty that the gossip, envy, jealousy can never lead to harmony, harmony or peace.
    Also there was the Holy Spirit to crown this agreement and this makes us understand that when we let the Holy Spirit guide us, He brings harmony, unity and respect for different gifts and talents. Do you understand? No small talk, no envy, no jealousy! Get it?”
    Question: To whom does Pope Francis say, “Get it?”

  5. Seamus Ahearne says:

    Ooch. Kevin that was strong. I hope The Mayo People can take it whatever about the rest of us. The discussion does need to happen.
    What does a Nuncio do? I’m not sure. I feel sorry for Charles Brown. He is a young and very able man. Surely there is something more useful that he could be doing? He must get wearied with all the Ceremonial and Diplomatic stuff that he has to deal with. I know the Nuncio has a role in coordinating information on a country and reflecting on the overall picture. He is also the conduit for handing on the news from the Local Church on possible candidates. The Nuncio can never get to know the real Church. He meets a Church on Show. I have exchanged letters with Charles on Hildegard of Bingen. We differed on our interpretations of her words. He possibly did more research than I did. I felt she had something to say to the Official Church and it wasn’t always complimentary. I also invited Charles (as a neighbour) to join us for Liturgy and a cup of tea. Our Liturgy is rather informal. There is no pomp and ceremony and the people here have much to say. Charles hasn’t taken up that invitation as yet.
    When I hear of an appointment of a Bishop – I always feel sympathy for the poor man involved. Leadership today is dangerous and very difficult. Moreover the qualities that seem to be suitable for someone to be appointed are not the qualities now necessary to lead the church of today. A Bishop’s job is very tough and very demanding and almost impossible. It is also very lonely. I often wonder too when someone is called by the Nuncio and told that Pope Francis wants him to be bishop…. Etc. Are people given the time to really think? And the truth of the situation is that poor Francis hasn’t a clue about what is going on. How could he? But the drama is there. I am pleased that some men simply say No.
    It is statistically impossible and highly unlikely that the Local Church now consistently produces a Terna that names outsiders as suitable candidates. That can’t be always right. It simply couldn’t happen. So where are those names coming from? Now it is true and it has to be true that some candidates are obvious and are on the National stage and show promise of what is required in the Irish Church. (At least this is possible). It is also very true that there is a scarcity of potential candidates of the calibre needed. Many people are excellent priests but wouldn’t have the temperament to take on such a public role. Moreover we have lost most of our middle management and we are all getting too old! There are very few suitable youngsters!
    In conclusion: If Charles Brown or whoever has a real say in who leads the Irish ~Church into the future; Charles and Co need to get out there into the dirt and muck of real incarnational church. They need to ‘smell of sheep.’ They won’t find that in the Dressing up Ceremonies or on the Official Occasions.
    Kevin – your issues are important and it is essential that the Charles Browns of this world, meet priests such as those in the ACP whose Mission Statement in based on the Church of Vatican 2 and whose pastoral views seem rather close to Pope Francis. We don’t need Bishops from the John Paul 2 or Benedict’s era. That model is defective and needs to be discarded– we hope. Seamus Ahearne osa

  6. Con Devree says:

    Having spent four days this week canvassing for a candidate for Europe, I would feel totally incompetent to canvass for anyone as bishop. One of the striking aspects is how little people know about candidates. Some of the more common questions were “Is he local?” “What’s he going to do?“ “What will he do for me?”
    I wonder what the questions would be in a campaign relating to a bishop. This article reveals the tenor of the discourse that would prevail. The “discussion” could not avoid being negative and uncharitable. Imagine the rival web sites, the censorship, and the invasive influence of the secular press, which undoubtedly some faction would resort to.
    The system we have is the best. As St Paul says:
    And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (Rom 10,16)

  7. Wilfrid Harrington, O.P. says:

    I find myself in total agreement with Kevin Hegarty and Seamus Ahearne. More power to them. At my age,I, simply, applaud.

  8. Gene Carr says:

    There was nothing “carefree” about so-called ‘Celtic Christianity as the records of the Penetentials show. Balance and moderation usually emanated from Rome not from local Churches.

  9. Brendan Cafferty says:

    We dont hear from Kevin Hegarty here very often, but boy when he shoots he does so in his own inimitable style gifted wordsmith that he is.I am intrigued that bishops are now selected from outside the dioceses they are appointed to- and sometimes it does not make sense. For example a Roscommon priest was sent to Kerry as Bishop,while a Dub was sent down to Elphin. Does this mean that no priest is worthy of serving as bishop in his own diocese now ? The ACP seems to be more in touch with the grass roots than the powers that be are, yet the Nuncio refuses to meet them. I recall reading that the late Nuncio Alibrandi once said to a respected priest, Mgr Ryan at a meeting on behalf of a then priests body that ” he was a nobody representing nobody”. So nothing new here,and that priests body led by Mgr Ryan was hardly a radical or subversive type ! Alibrandi also boasted that he had a hand in selecting practically all Irish bishops at one stage !
    If the initial goodwill and new era supposed to be ushered in by the arrival of Pope Francis is to have any meaning,then it will have to filter down to local level otherwise it is business as usual.

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