Ten Years out of Ministry: A Reflection.
The year was 1986. It was January, and there was snow on the ground. We Redemptorists were having our annual coming together for retreat. It was held in Cluain Mhuire, on the outskirts of Galway city. It had been the seminary where most of us had trained for the priesthood, but by then, with a new building in Dublin, and declining numbers, it was becoming redundant, and was sold not too long afterwards.
The retreat was conducted by an English Redemptorist, Denis McBride, a Scripture scholar. I loved his talks. He was a great communicator, and he brought many of the Gospel stories to life in a new way for us. That was the era in which various forms of group sharing had become popular, and most of us had some experience of participating in sessions of group dynamics. During the retreat five of us, all around the same age, between twelve and sixteen years ordained, met together to share experiences.
Recently a friend of mine was going through some old papers, and she found a letter I had written to her from that retreat when she was in the U.S. She showed it to me, and it made for fascinating reading, giving me an insight into how my life was going, and what I was thinking and feeling at that stage. Apparently the subject of this particular sharing group was ‘our fears’. When it came to my turn to speak, according to the account in the letter, what I said was ‘my fear is that I will reach a stage in life when I will look back on all my years in priesthood and religious life, and conclude that I had wasted my life’. The letter went on to say that after I had spoken one of the group ‘sat bolt upright in his chair’, but it didn’t say anything about what that might have meant, or if he spoke in response.
That was thirty six years ago, and I was in my late thirties. I am a little surprised to read that I was having such thoughts at that time in my life, but seemingly I was.
Now I am on the cusp of my 75th birthday, and this year, 2022, marks ten years since I was sanctioned – forbidden to minister publicly – by the joint action of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and my Redemptorist superiors. The case against me was that certain aspects of the things I had written in a regular magazine article were heretical. Looking back now the things that the CDF objected to in my writings could be summed up under three headings:
the origin and nature of ministry in the Church,
the equality of women,
and the Church’s teaching, or should I say obsession with sexuality.
When I read that letter from 1986 a week or two ago I was left with the question: have my fears been realised? Do I now consider that I have wasted my life? Thankfully the answer to that is no, at least I think it is – maybe I would be afraid to face the implications of saying yes. I do have a lot that was good to look back on, and maybe especially in the past ten years, because I believe that the past decade allowed me to develop a degree of freedom of thought and expression that I hadn’t got before. That has something to do with my current situation, but it is also a result of the election of Pope Francis.
Recently, I heard a Theologian being asked how he could be so outspoken without drawing sanctions on himself as had happened to me. His answer was that it was a matter of timing, that the climate is different under the present papacy. And of course he was correct in his answer. All the issues that I spoke and wrote about, and that the CDF objected to, around priesthood, women and Catholic sexual teaching, are now being discussed widely and freely right around the Church, with no fear of sanctions. They are figuring prominently in the German Synodal Path at present, with the most senior Church people in the country participating.
I read about, and observe, what is happening in the CDF, and I can see that Francis is trying to bring about real change. Three prelates who dealt with my case are now gone. William Levada is dead; Gerhart Meuller has been removed from his post, and has shown himself to be somewhat less than supportive of Francis; Giacomo Morandi is now also being moved and has been appointed as bishop of a diocese. As an aside, I would not like to be an LGBTQ person in said diocese, given his stated attitudes to that community.
I also read about my good friend, Jeannine Gramick, and how Francis has very publicly lined up in support of herself and her work with New Ways Ministry which advocates tirelessly for the rights of LGBTQ people within the church. Pope Francis has written her personal letters of encouragement and praise. Nobody deserves it more.
What do I want at this time of my life? There is something I would like to happen while my mind is still functioning (my eldest brother had dementia before he died), and while I have reasonably good health.
I would like the process by which my case was dealt with by the CDF to be reviewed, preferably by somebody independent, who has a knowledge of civil, along with canon, law. Is that too much to ask? I continue to carry a grievance that I wasn’t even given the most basic of human rights in my dealing with that body. (That grievance was compounded by the present head of the CDF, Luis Ladaria, when he claimed in reply to a question by Joshua McAlwee of the National Catholic Reporter, that they had tried to dialogue with me. They never did, never made any direct contact with me at all.)
I don’t think that my request for an independent review is too much to ask, from an institution that proclaims that it stands for truth, justice and love. If that review took place and was done openly, then I would happily sit down with any Church authority and discuss my views and opinions. Let them then pass judgment on me as they see fit, and as long as I was fairly heard and respected, I hope I could accept the verdict. If there is someone in a position of influence in the Church who might read this, and be able to pass on my request to the highest level in the institution, I would appreciate it. But I will not hold my breath. Nothing I have experienced in the past ten years would suggest that the members of the CDF have any real respect, or care for, the individual. For them it would seem that Canon Law is the only God. It would be very good to be proved wrong.