Fr Kevin Hegarty
Was St Brigid a bishop? Noel Kissane, in his recent book on the saint, addresses the question. In the pantheon of celtic saints she shares top billing with St Patrick and St Colmcille. In early accounts of her life she is reported to have attended bishops meetings and to have had a pastoral role similar to them. Some illustrators depict her holding what seems to be a bishop’s Crozier.
Eventually Kissane concludes that it was unlikely she was ordained to the episcopacy. One can almost hear the sigh of relief from those who oppose female ordination in the Catholic Church. He does, however, state the view of Pádraig Ó Riain, the modern authority on early Irish saints, that the rank of abbess which she held was equivalent or superior to that of a bishop.
Whether or not Brigid was a bishop, it is clear that she found a warmer welcome in the leadership of the Irish Church than Mary McAleese found recently in the Vatican. Our former president was invited to be a panel member at the ‘Voices of Faith’ conference due to be held on Thursday next in the Vatican.
The conference on women’s rights has taken place for the last four years on International Women’s Day. In accordance with protocol, the organisers submitted the list of speakers to the Vatican for approval.
Mrs McAleese was one of three speakers from whom approval was withheld. She, who as President of the Republic of Ireland was welcomed to the Vatican by the Pope was now deemed unworthy of a seat in a meeting hall there.
It is reported that Dublin-born Cardinal Kevin Farrell, head of the Vatican’s department of ‘Laity, Family and Life’, objected to her presence. He is the main organiser of the ‘World Meeting of Families’ to be held in Dublin next August. Those expecting a free and honest exchange of views at this event have been warned.
Mrs McAleese is a committed Catholic with liberal views. Two years ago she was a prominent supporter of the referendum to allow same sex marriage. Like many of us she is appalled by the Vatican’s description of homosexuality as disordered.
She is in favour of the ordination of women to the Catholic priesthood. In 1994 she joined Basic, an organisation that campaigns for female ordination and spoke at its inaugural conference.
It is not the first time that she has attracted the ire of senior Catholic clergymen. Shortly after becoming Irish President, she met Cardinal Law of Boston on a visit to the city. He was then a formidable figure whose arrogance and petulance rivalled that of Donald Trump. In front of government ministers he castigated her for her ‘attitude to women in the church’ and deemed her ‘a very poor Catholic President’.
In 1998 the then Archbishop of Dublin, Desmond Connell criticised her receiving the Eucharist at a Church of Ireland service in St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. I first got to know Mrs McAleese when I was editor of ‘Intercom’ in the 1990s. I invited her to write for the magazine. She wrote a series of columns that were well informed, passionate and thought-provoking on the evils of sectarianism, female ordination and the need for interdenominational education to help reconciliation in Northern Ireland. Many clerics dismissed here contributions as ‘angry’. Sometimes anger is necessary as Jesus found when he dumped the traders out of the temple.
This recent controversy highlights once again the density of patriarchy in the institutional Catholic Church. It is the last bastion of exclusive male domination in the western world.
Misogyny in the Vatican is draped in theological abstractions especially in regard to female ordination. Such patriarchy is as insidious and destructive as woodworm in furniture.