A politician’s story reminds me of why I became a priest

A profile in yesterday’s New York Times reminded me why I chose a life in the church. It focused on Tim Kaine’s time as a lay missionary in Honduras in 1980, and how that experience has shaped his life and politics. Tim Kaine, in case you didn’t know, is the Democratic candidate for vice president of the United States, and is currently a senator for Virginia.

From an Irish Catholic background, Kaine attended a Jesuit-run high school. After graduating from college with a degree in law, he decided to do voluntary missionary work with the Jesuits in Honduras before deciding what to do with his life.

Central America was a dangerous place in the late 1970s and 80s. Violence and civil war in El Salvador and Nicaragua had spread into neighboring countries. In Honduras, the American backed right-wing dictatorship was at war with Marxists and anyone else who opposed it. Many priests and religious who were considered sympathetic to the insurgents were also targeted by the regime. In 1980, the year Kaine arrived in Central America, Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated in El Salvador and later that year three American nuns and a young American aid worker, Jean Donovan, were raped and murdered by El Salvadoran military. To be a foreigner in those countries at that time was to put your life at risk.

Kaine recalls some of the Jesuits he met there and their commitment to the poor. He talks too about the influence on him of liberation theology and how he got to meet Jon Sobrino, one of the fathers of liberation theology. He describes a church for and of the poor, a church that placed social justice at the heart of its message.

Of course, liberation theology fell out of favour during the reigns of John Paul II and Benedict, who regarded it with suspicion, and who appointed bishops that would drive it underfoot. But the life and example of people like Jean Donovan was why I wanted to become a priest.

Tim Kaine’s story reminds me of that difficult yet glorious time, and of all Christians who have served the poor and paid the price throughout the world. Thank God, Pope Francis has placed a new emphasis on the church’s social teaching, a teaching that challenges all Catholics, no matter who and where we are.

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We need equality for women in the church

Yesterday was Women’s Equality Day, a day set aside to celebrate the progress women have made in their struggle for equality and also to recognize the very many challenges women still face in achieving full equality with the males of the species.

It’s hard to believe that one hundred years ago, women in most western countries did not have the right to vote. Now the United States is on the verge of electing its first female president. It’s hard to believe that less than 50 years ago, Irish women had to leave the civil service once they started a family. And while more and more women are fighting their way up the corporate and political ladders in more and more countries, there is still an enormous amount of work to be done before there is anything like full equality with men. Hollywood leading ladies are still paid substantially less than their male counterparts. Female sports stars get less recognition and reward than the men. The same is true of so many other sectors, organizations, and industries.

It is most certainly true of the Catholic Church.

It took me years before I noticed the maleness of the leadership of the church. During my youth and seminary days, I was oblivious to it, as I’m sure most others were too. Altars and sanctuaries and seminaries and synods were men only because only men could be ordained, and only men had authority in the church. I didn’t question it; it was just the way things were. And then I began to not only notice it but to become embarrassingly aware of it, especially at big liturgical events where there were lots of clergy. Here were all these men in splendid vestments assembled in solemn procession or gathered around an altar and not a woman in sight. And I wondered how that made women in the congregation feel. Some women, of course, fail to notice it or have no problem with it, but for many others it is a source of great pain. Now I do not concelebrate at Mass at all, if I have the choice. I do not want to add to the maleness of the celebration. So I prefer to sit in the pews with the people of God.

Church leaders routinely speak about the equality of women, yet a few years ago they introduced a new English translation of the liturgy that is sexist in its language and gratuitously insulting to women. The sexist language could easily have been avoided but those in charge chose not to. It boggles the mind.

The church emphasizes the importance of the family, yet at the two sessions of the Synod on the Family, which concluded last year, there was just a few women, and none at all who had voting rights. It’s hard to imagine how you can have a real debate about family and family life in the 21st century if women aren’t part of the debate.

The real problem, of course, is that power in the church is bound up with holy orders, which is limited to males. At local level, the parish priest is the ultimate authority. He can ignore the wishes of the parish council if he wants, and there’s nothing they can do about it. The leadership of the church in every diocese and in every country is male. In the hierarchical institution that is the church, lay people are at the bottom of the ladder, and because women are women and cannot be ordained, every woman is at the bottom of the ladder. Unless power is separated from priesthood, or women are allowed to be ordained, the fact is women can never have full equality with men in the Catholic Church.

One significant hopeful move towards a greater say for women in the church is the decision by Pope Francis to set up a commission to took at women deacons. Another positive step is that 50 percent of its members are female. Nothing may come of this commission, but the very fact that it was set up in the first place is a most welcome development.

I do not know if I will be alive to celebrate the day when women in the church will have full equality with men, but I hope I do. It would be wonderful to see a sanctuary populated with women as well as men, and to hear their voices as equals and partners. It would truly bring new life to this trembling church of ours.

The way bishops are chosen is broken – we need to fix it

The current papal nuncio to Ireland has found himself in a uniquely privileged position. He got the job in 2011 at a moment of extraordinary crisis in the Irish church and, as luck or otherwise would have it, he has had the opportunity to put his mark on the shape and orientation of the Irish bishops’ conference for many years to come. Since his arrival, Archbishop Brown has appointed 10 bishops, and is in the process of appointing six more. That amounts to 16 dioceses out of a total of 26. That’s a whole lot of influence and power. 

But even with all this influence and power, when it comes to selecting bishops, the nuncio faces a number of problems.

One problem is that there is a shrinking pool of men from whom to choose. There are fewer available priests out there and fewer still who are under 60 years old.

A second problem is finding suitable candidates from among that under-60 age group. With a shrinking pool of priests and scare vocations, the number of clergy with the requisite education, pastoral skills and leadership ability has also gone down.

A third problem is the reluctance of clergy to become bishops. It’s impossible to prove because the process is so secretive, but anecdotal evidence suggests that a significant number of priests have said no to episcopal office in recent years. Who could blame them? They are all too aware of the challenges facing the church in Ireland today. They don’t feel qualified enough for the job, or would rather not have to spend years trying to staff parishes and find vocations and close churches and administer dioceses with ever dwindling resources.

But though all these problems exist, there still remains a pool of priests out there who would make fine bishops, if only chosen and encouraged.

Imagine, though, if bishops were chosen in a different way, if they were chosen along the lines adopted by the early church.

If that were to happen, each diocese would nominate its own bishop. The bishop would be chosen after wide consultation among priests and people in a manner that was open and transparent. The bishop would be elected at a synod attended by priests and people from throughout the diocese. The pope, who would be obliged to accept the candidate unless there was clear evidence of his incompetence and/or unorthodoxy, would then ratify the new bishop formally.

Imagine if each bishop came from within his own diocese. He would not be a ‘blow-in’ from another diocese or be from a religious order or congregation but would be one of the clergy of that diocese. From the local church, of the local church, called by his own people into leadership, he would know the smell of his sheep and their needs, and they would have knowledge of him. Only in exceptional circumstances, such as the danger of political interference in the selection process or major disunity in the diocese, would a non-native be appointed.

Imagine if each bishop remained in his diocese for the duration of his episcopal ministry. Chosen by the priests and people as their shepherd, it would be unthinkable that he would transfer elsewhere, or use his appointment as a stepping-stone for promotion to a larger or more significant diocese. In keeping with the understanding of the early church, his relationship with his diocese would be seen as being like a marriage relationship, and so to break that bond would be akin to divorcing the community he was ordained to serve.

When you compare how things were done in the past with how bishops are appointed today, it is clear that there have been significant changes from the practice and understanding of the early church.

The method of selecting bishops today is secretive. Some consultation is done but only with a select few whose recommendations do not have to be accepted. How the consultation is done and what questions are asked is never revealed. The local church gets very little say in the selection of its leader. The first engagement most people and priests of the diocese have with the process is when their new bishop is presented to them.

Nor is every bishop from the diocese he has been chosen to lead. In fact, all of the recently appointed bishops are from another diocese. When you are an ‘outsider,’ it inevitably takes time to settle in, to get to know priests and people, to understand the issues and challenges the diocese faces, as well as its history and heritage. It also weakens the sense of the shepherd as one of the local presbyterate who is called into leadership by his own flock.

And, of course, there is the long-established practice of transferring – or promoting – bishops. There is no guarantee that a bishop, once ordained, will remain always in the same diocese. Quite a bit of moving around takes place, which leads to the danger of careerism and undermines the image of bishop as being wedded to his diocese. There will always have to be some moving around, moving upwards, but it should be the exception.

One can debate how lucky or unlucky the Irish church has been in the bishops chosen to lead it. But what is clear is that the system of selection needs urgent reform. Given the many pressing problems that confront the church today and in order to reclaim the understanding of bishop as one who is called by his local ecclesial community to be its leader and shepherd, it’s time to change how bishops are chosen and return to our ancient, more transparent, practice.

 

The church must root out the cancer of clericalism

There is less lace on display in the Vatican these days and a greater emphasis on simplicity and service, but old attitudes die hard, and the cancer of clericalism is still very much alive throughout the Catholic Church.

Most clerics I know are not consciously part of this culture. They may be clerics but they are not clerical. They are uncomfortable with being placed on pedestals, do their best to listen to what lay people have to say, and are not into power games. They want only to serve God and God’s people.

But that clericalism is deeply rooted in our church cannot be denied. Clericalism has nothing to do with wearing the Roman collar or with conforming to a dress code, though that is part of it. Rather, it is a state of mind, a mentality that is strictly hierarchical and authoritarian. It is to belong to, and to see oneself as belonging to, an exclusive club – male, hierarchical, and celibate – that is closed and secretive, part of a system of privilege, deference and power.

It is a culture that is far removed from the New Testament model of how the disciples related to each other and to the Lord.

In the clerical culture, the instinct is to protect the interests and reputation of the club at all costs, even at times at the cost of Justice and truth. This has been a major factor in the failure of church leaders down the decades to address the scandal of clerical sexual abuse. The reputation of the institution came before the needs of victims. Men who saw themselves as faithful to the church – indeed, precisely because they saw themselves as being loyal to the church – made decisions that further harmed people who had already been harmed by the church.

The culture of clericalism is damaging in many other ways, too.

Clericalism attests to the notion of the laity as the People of God. But this is merely lip service. The lay point of view isn’t taken seriously. Members of the clerical caste, those on the upper rungs of the hierarchical ladder, are the ones who have a monopoly on wisdom and of access to the Holy Spirit.

Clericalism is big into status and privilege. It loves titles and rank and lace and pedestals. Woe betide the unfortunate who does not afford the clericalist his proper title, or give him the humble respect which he thinks is his right.

Clericalism thrives on power and is sustained by it. It is a strong believer in accountability – but only upwards, not downwards. Decisions and decision-making happen at the top. Lay people and ordinary clergy do not have to be consulted – and seldom are.

Clericalism has no time for dialogue and debate. It regards those who talk about renewal in the church as dangerous, and as having a liberal agenda. (Many of them would put Pope Francis within this ‘liberal’ bracket too). But it doesn’t regard those with a conservative vision of the church as having any agenda. They are merely orthodox.

Clericalism talks about service, but it loves ambition, and encourages careerism. To get ahead in the clerical world means being careful to say the right things, to cultivate the right friendships, and to toe the party line on issues of sexual morality and the role of women.

Clericalism adores secrecy and needs it. How appointments are made, how clergy are transferred, how complaints are dealt with, the reasons why decisions are arrived at, are seldom explained. They don’t have to be. Power and control are better exercised in a culture of secrecy.

Clerical is a cancer at the heart of the church. Thank God, it is something Pope Francis is conscious of and wants to drive out. But he faces a daunting, and probably losing, battle. Francis has only a few years left. The Curia will bide their time.

Edward Daly reminded us of the church at its best, just when we needed it most 

I didn’t know him at all, but I feel as if I did. Tributes to the late Bishop Edward Daly of Derry have come from far and wide, from Catholic and non Catholic, believer and non believer. His death was a lead item on news bulletins in Ireland and the U.K., with commentators speaking of him with warmth and affection.

Of course, those of a certain age remembered him as the priest who waved the blood-stained handkerchief on Bloody Sunday, but he was more than that. He was a model, a reminder, of what a good priest, a good bishop, is like. It was an important reminder at the end of another difficult week for the Irish Catholic Church.

In fact, that was one of the contrasts that hit me most clearly these past few days: the same radio shows and newspapers and social media that feasted on the Maynooth crisis and the dysfunction in the church, leaving people to wonder if there is any such creature as a good or normal priest, then reported on the life and ministry of one good priest, reminding people that such creatures do exist after all.

And Edward Daly was one such priest.

He was unpretentious, without airs or graces, happy to be called ‘Eddie’ rather than ‘Bishop’ or ‘My Lord.’

He was not ambitious, and had no desire for high office. He was shocked to be appointed bishop at just 40 years old.

He was an ecumenist, and knew the importance of extending the hand of friendship and solidarity across the religious divide.

He was a peacemaker, not afraid to stand up to the men of violence from whatever side.

He was a man of the people, who knew the smell of the sheep, and knew many of them by name.

He was a simple pastor, who for the last 20 years of his life, ministered to the dying and the bereaved. It must have been very consoling for them, whether or not they were people of faith, to have a bishop by their bedside at their end.

He gave witness to the faith, witness to what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. His life and example offer a good template for all bishops and pastors.

Another difficult week for the Irish Catholic Church 

I watched them streaming into Mass this morning, the regulars – old, young and in-between – and I marveled at their faith and commitment. After another awful week for the church in Ireland, with allegations of all sorts of strange goings-on in Maynooth, still they came. After a week of lurid headlines and wild speculation about life in the national seminary, still these faithful people came out to Mass. If I were a layman in Ireland today, I’m not sure I would.

It’s been another embarrassing week for priests in Ireland and for the church we serve. I couldn’t help wondering how many people in the pews today are looking up at the altar and asking silent questions about the celebrant. Is he gay or straight? Has he ever been up to anything? Is he on one of those dating apps they are talking about?

And even if they are not asking those questions about their own curate or parish priest, who they know and are comfortable around, they will be wondering about priests in general, that ragged body of men out there who struggle on despite the storms that periodically swell around them. How many of them are gay or straight or perverted in some way? What do they do behind closed doors?

And that’s the tragedy of this past week. The stories about the national seminary don’t just affect those connected to or associated with Maynooth, they affect everyone who wears a collar. They impact on all clergy. All feel upset and embarrassed by association.

The glee with which some people on social media have commented about the Maynooth affair is also extraordinary to behold. They delight in any negative story to do with the church. They glory in it. They don’t distinguish between one priest and another or between one part of the church and another. As far as they are concerned all are one and the same. It’s understandable that people react against the church’s past dominance, and delight in its death rattle, but when they rejoice in the church’s misery, they rejoice in my misery too.

I don’t know what’s going on in Maynooth. I have been there less than ten times in my life, but I am certain that the vast majority of those in Maynooth are good men doing their best. Obviously, some type of review or reform will take place, but it’s difficult to act based on anonymous letters or in response to the agitation of the Catholic right. 

This story will pass in a few days and life will go on, but the fundamental issues around mandatory celibacy and church teaching on sexuality remain to be addressed, as do questions about how priests should be trained and even the nature of priesthood itself. 

Meanwhile, ordinary priests will continue to administer the sacraments and to do their best, even as their morale sinks lower and wearing the clerical collar leaves them open to suspicion or ridicule.

My worst nightmare

Every priest and religious in active ministry today share one common nightmare – that he will receive a phone call from his bishop/congregational leader informing him that an allegation of sexual abuse has been made against him.

To be falsely accused of any crime is bad enough but nothing, except perhaps murder, compares with being accused of the sexual abuse of a child or vulnerable person. In most cases, you are instantly and very publicly removed from office, and even when there is no official explanation for your removal, local people will soon start to put two and two together. There is the shock, the incredulity, the shame (even though you are innocent), the helplessness, the vulnerability. Your world comes crashing down. You are made to feel guilty even before you have a chance to defend yourself.

Even when your family and friends believe and support you, you feel totally alone. You are stuck in a nightmare and you don’t know when or if you’ll ever get out of it.

You hope for the total support of your bishop/superior, but his first instinct will be to protect the interests of the church. As it has always been. In the old shameful days of the past, protecting the interests of the church meant ignoring the cries of those who were abused. It was an unforgivable act that destroyed countless lives, and for which the church continues to pay a heavy price. Now it means letting clergy hang out to dry, even when the allegation is anonymous and clearly spurious.

Because of the church’s past sins, allegations of abuse must always be treated with the utmost seriousness. The victim(s) must always come first. And the vast majority of allegations of abuse are one hundred percent genuine.

But if the allegation is anonymous, or if it is clearly false, the accused priest needs to feel supported by the church. That does not always happen, as Fr Tim Hazelwood describes in The Tablet newspaper (see his story on the Association of Catholic Priests’ website). What happened to him is every innocent priest’s worse nightmare. It is mine too.