It has been something of a truism of online social networking for a couple of decades past that about 1% of a social website’s registered members initiate ‘content’ regularly; 9% comment frequently or from time to time; while 90% just lurk and read, or never visit at all.
But ACP-online is not just a local residents’ social website, concerning itself with litter on the streets, or someone’s cat gone astray again, or which pub we’ll have our Christmas drinks in this year. It is (at least intended to be) the virtual extension of a ‘real life’ association whose objectives are clear but varied enough to have a wide appeal, whose core membership of 1,000+ share an island, a vocation, a gender, a lifestyle, a generation more or less, and a reform agenda to fix a Church that seems badly broken.
Both Association and Website, as Fr Pádraig McCarthy has, a little exasperatedly, reminded members once again, also exist to give “an opportunity for Irish priests to engage proactively with the crucial debates taking place in Irish society” [An Extreme of Inequality – 12th March]. In Cavan, three weeks earlier, Kilmore-ACP expressed concern “at the silence of the Church on the current recession and on the hardship that people are now forced to endure.” On this website, however, it is priests and lay people, rather than “the Church”, who are being silent when Pádraig McCarthy and a few others raise these issues. All in all, we might expect a much greater vibrancy and level of participation on a dedicated website for priests than that suggested by the 90% : 9% : 1% ratio for hyperlocal online secular media.
Still, even settling for that low interaction ratio, from a membership of 1,000+ we would expect to find a regular flow of original articles, columns, blogs and other substantial content from at least 10 priests, other than the Leadership Group. We would also expect to see responses to, or comments on those discussion topics from at least 90 priests, regularly or from time to time. So, after 30 months of existence, how does this forum, this “voice for priests at a time when that voice is largely silent” on issues of the Irish Church and Society, seem to be doing?
“Seem to be doing”, I say, as this is the most unscientific of surveys. I have taken a dipstick and dipped it into three short periods from the start of the year till the Conclave, to check the level of oil of participation and the unction of engine function over the past ten weeks.
- Jan 1 – 19: ‘Getting Over the Christmas’ (GOC) – a mixed postbag
- Jan 20 – Feb 10: ‘Tony Flannery’s Discussions with Rome’s Uncivil Service’ (TFD/CDF)
- Feb 12 – Mar 11: ‘Bye-Bye Benedict’ (BBB) – but not just about Benedict
Of course a properly comprehensive survey would have sampled priestly participation rates at various points from September 2010 till now, but life’s too short to go scavenging through the ACP website ‘sub specie aeternitatis’, so I didn’t.
- (GOC): Though slow to warm up after New Year’s, the 12 discussions included some meaty material, 6 of the articles from priests. Yet the same few authors keep recurring: Brendan Hoban, Seán McDonagh (x2), Donal Dorr reviewing Seán McDonagh. To none of these could anyone possibly object – except to ask, ‘where are the other 997?’ A second Swiss Abbot, Peter von Sury, on ‘how bishops should be selected’ elicited 3 comments, none from priests. Ironically, Brendan’s ‘The Church should listen to its priests’ received just two comments from one priest, his old Maynooth ‘immediate’ Joe O’Leary in Paris. But how can silent bishops listen to silent priests? The 12 discussions over three weeks produced 105 comments, 11 of them from 4 priests – two in Ireland, two abroad. If all 4 are ACP members, they thus represent a 0.4% response, or much less than one-twentieth of what we might expect from the core membership of a moderately vibrant website, or one-forty-fifth of the 90 we might expect from the Association’s predominantly Ireland-based priest membership.
- (TFD/CDF): Though discussion stemming from Tony’s press release of 20th January formed the backbone of these three weeks, there were a number of other topics also. While the initial discussion gave rise to the greatest number of responses (74 – almost all expressing solidarity), 14 other articles followed averaging 24 comments each. These 15 discussions with 404 comments over three weeks may be some sort of record for the website – though the 70+ discussions of the Liturgical Texts Debate are probably in an altogether different league. Of the 404 comments, 53 came from priests: 19 from priests in Ireland, 34 from priests abroad. As two priests made multiple comments, approximately 15 home-based priests (about 1.47% of membership) and 30 priests from outside commented. To express it slightly differently: while only one-sixth of the 90 home-based priests one might expect actually responded, still this was 7.5 times as many as commented on the more diffuse post-Christmas topics.
- (BBB): On Benedict’s resignation and the lead up to Francis (whom of course we had all predicted) another 15 discussions over three-and-a-half weeks –giving rise to 194 responses. Here 6 of the 15 articles were original contributions from Ireland-based Irish priests: Pádraig McCarthy and Alan Hilliard of Dublin; John Mannion of Clonfert and Mattie Long ‘from the edge’ of Tuam and Europe; Séamus Ahearne OSA and Gerry O’Hanlon SJ, both Dublin-based. Of those 194 comments or responses to 15 discussions on one Pope’s resignation (not quite an everyday occurrence) and preparation for another’s election (rare enough to be of some passing interest), 186 came from lay men and women. 8 respondents were priests, namely: Joe O’Leary (Paris/Cork outré mer), Chris McDonnell (UK), John Wotherspoon (Hong Kong), Seamus Ahearne OSA, Donal Dorr SPS-Kiltegan, Bobby Gilmore SSC-Columban, Wilfrid Harrington O.P.-Dominican, Pádraig McCarthy (Dublin). Which seems like 0.7% of core membership – all to some extent beyond reach of an Irish episcopal nod or frown. But where are all “the Maynooth men” from the parishes?
Over those 10+ weeks, 42 main Discussions elicited 703 Comments or Responses – some one-liners and others very lengthy indeed. Of the 42 Discussions, 26 were initiated by Priests, Priest Groups or ACP Leadership. 16 were posted by Lay members, or reposted from external sources (NCR etc).
Of the 703 Comments, 76 came from 59 Priests; 625 from Lay posters (including Religious Sisters and Brothers); 2 were unclear, whether Lay or Clerical. From a core membership of 1,000, then, 2.6% might seem to be “contributing Content” to the site – except that most of those 26 articles are from the Leadership or externally sourced. Again, it might seem that 5.9% of Ireland’s priests are “contributing Comment” to the site – except that most of those 59 priests are either from outside the island of Ireland, or (if based in Ireland) are somewhat beyond direct “episcopal jurisdiction”. In other words, they’re ‘Orders Men’ (Jesuit, Redemptorist, Augustinian, Dominican, Columban, Kiltegan, SMA, Passionist, Oblate . . .), or if Diocesan, they’re sufficiently ‘emeriti’ or unclerical to let any negative aspersions from bishop, vicar or diocesan colleagues in one ear and out the other. Alternatively, they may be Joe O’Leary, whether based in Tokyo, Germany, Paris, London or Cork. At times I see Joe as possessing multiple identities, though all of them very well integrated. If the O’Leary laptop or Homepage went missing, this website might go into receivership. For years he has blazed an online trail that, alas, few fellow Maynooth men have emulated.
(Continued on 26 and 27 March)
Eddie Finnegan firstname.lastname@example.org