My response to the Tuam Babies scandal from three years ago

This is what I wrote in the Irish Times back in June 2014 after the Tuam babies scandal first broke. I was on sabbatical in the USA at the time. The pain, shame and sadness feel far worse now.

Even though I am currently in Indianapolis on sabbatical 4,000 miles from home, it’s impossible not to feel people’s shock at reports of what may be a mass grave of children and infants in the grounds of a home run by nuns in Tuam, Co Galway, up to the 1960s.
The story has reverberated around the world, including to Indiana. Hopefully, the investigations that are promised will proceed quickly, because the full truth needs to emerge, about this and other similar homes.
When a story like this breaks, it’s like deja vu all over again for the Irish church. One had hoped that after all the inquiries of recent years, the church’s dirty linen had been exposed, and it could begin the process of recovery.
Then another storm erupts, and it’s as if we’re plunged back to the beginning – except it’s worse now. The cumulative effect of all the scandals means that each new one has a more devastating impact than the one that went before.
Anger is the predominant emotion. People are angry at the church. They wonder how these things could have been allowed to happen; how such a culture could develop in the church and nobody said stop.
Church people are angry too. It’s easy to say that was then and this is now, that society was different 50 years ago, but one expects the church to operate to a higher moral standard, irrespective of time or place.
Church people are also angry that this story has been spun in a sensationalist way that presents the church in the worst possible light.
There is also the gleeful anger of those presented with another opportunity to crucify the church. They are genuinely outraged by the Tuam revelations, but they are thrilled that the church is on the defensive again. Comments on social media reveal the depth of their antipathy.
No one doubts that a growing anti-Catholic element exists in Irish society. But the church has provided its opponents with weapons of mass destruction. It has no one to blame but itself.
For church people like myself, there is also a tremendous feeling of shame.
It’s the shame of being an official representative of the institution caught up in yet another storm. The shame of seeing church leaders once more having to express regret; of outside agencies once again stepping in to uncover truths about the church’s past.
There is also self-pity. The home in Tuam closed before I was born. The scandals of the last two decades had nothing to do with me. The abuse and cover-up were not my fault. The culture of moral rectitude and dark secrets that facilitated such behaviour can’t be blamed on anything I did or said.
Self-pity is pointless. Still, I can’t avoid feeling a little self-pity right now.
Tempting though it is to put on my Liverpool jersey and walk away, I still stick with the church. I stick with it because when it comes to safeguarding children and the vulnerable, the church, like the rest of society, is different from 30 years ago.
Though some critics will never believe it, and no institution can ever be perfect, the church is a far safer environment now for the vulnerable than ever before.
I stick with it because it’s a humbler church. A humble church is an authentic church. You don’t need to read the letters of John Charles McQuaid to know there was too much fear, arrogance and control in the Irish church in the time of Tuam.
A poor church for the poor is what Pope Francis advocates. A church not interested in power or privilege, but that is out on the streets, in the margins, where its founder was to be found.
I stick with it because of so many in the church who show me the true meaning of Christianity. Clergy who are there for people in their despair, whose doors are open all hours. Religious who live in difficult housing estates, present to those in most need. Advocates, like Peter McVerry, who point to the importance of economic fairness. Groups like the St Vincent de Paul who demonstrate practical Christianity at its best.
I stick with it because of so many ordinary Catholics who have stuck with it despite all the times the church has let them down. Like those in parishes in Leixlip and Rathgar, where I have served.
They have been disappointed in the church enough times, but still they stay, because they do not confuse belief in God with faith in the church, and they know that every institution is made up of broken people, and they find nourishment and support in gathering as part of a believing community to worship and pray.
These are the people who keep me going when I begin to waver, as I have this past while.

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Ten wishes for the church in 2017

  1. That the church will examine any structures, laws or traditions which hinder rather than facilitate its mission to proclaim the Good News. Our world today needs to hear the Gospel message as urgently as at any time in the last 2,000 years. Nothing man-made should be allowed to stand in the way of this overriding task.
  2. That the number of dioceses will be cut from 26 to at least13. There is absolutely no need for 26 dioceses in a country of our size with our population. This won’t happen overnight, but cutting the number of dioceses would reduce administration (and the number of bishops), and make for a more efficient church.
  3. That organisers of the World Meeting of Families will make every effort to ensure that the experience of families of all kinds will be factored into the celebration.
  4. That the church will be experienced as truly the People of God. The church teaches that it is made up of all the baptized, but many ordinary Catholics do not experience this to be the case. They see it rather as an elite club for celibate male clerics only, and who want to preserve the medieval structures of the institution at all costs.
  5. That the church will recognize and use the gifts and talents of women to build up its life and ministry. Many women feel excluded from any real decision-making or leadership role in the church simply because they are women. Women must be given true ownership of the church of which they make up more than 50 percent, and be allowed real and meaningful involvement.
  6. That Catholics will have a real say in the choice of their leaders at local and diocesan level. Bishops should not be foisted on people and priests as a result of some secret Roman process, based on how suitably conservative they are. Lay people and clergy must have a say in the selection of their leaders. The selection process must be open and transparent, allowing an opportunity for the input of all.
  7. That the church at every level will identify with and not be afraid to speak out on behalf of the weak and vulnerable in society, as Pope Francis insists. The church must not only be prophetic; it must be seen to be prophetic. That prophetic voice is needed especially in these tough economic times.
  8. That the LGBT community, many of whom feel alienated from organised religion, will feel more welcome in the family of church.
  9. That the Gospel of Jesus Christ will be proclaimed and heard as Good News. Too often, in the church’s teaching and preaching, people do not hear God’s word as good news. They hear it as something that enslaves rather than liberates, as a series of forbidding rules and regulations (especially around sex) rather than as a message that is truly joyful and life-giving.
  10. That priests and religious who have left the ministry will be invited to return to it, if they so wish, thus enriching the church with the wealth of their gifts, talents and experiences.

Words delivered at the funeral of my Aunt Mary, Sr Peter, Cork (November 16, 2016)

The last time I saw Aunty Mary really fully alive was two and a half years ago when we gathered in the nursing home in Boherbue to mark an extraordinary achievement – her platinum jubilee of profession. Alongside two others, she was celebrating 70 years as a Sister of Mercy, 70 years as a member of a religious family that has done wonderful work for God since it was founded in 1831.

Aunty Mary was in her element that day. She may have been in her 92nd year, dependent on a walker to get around and on others to manage her getting up and laying down, but her mind was sharp, and there was that familiar twinkle in her eye and bubbly smile of enthusiasm and anticipation that I always associated with her. It was the last of many wonderful times we celebrated together.

Her memory began to fail soon after that milestone event, so that for the past two years she had been gradually losing touch with home and family and community and world. A frail little woman, still smiling, but without life in her, the twinkle in her eye now no more. To see her like that, little more than a shell, not knowing who we were, not able to initiate conversation, not asking about grandnephews and grandnieces, especially whomever she had deemed was her current pet, was distressing and we are relieved that she is now free at last, enjoying the just reward of a good and faithful servant of God.

Today we gather not so much to mourn as to celebrate, and there is much celebrating to do.

There was the length of life and of good health that God gave her. She lived to see incredible change in the world and in the church. She was born in Doon, Co. Limerick in 1921, just as Ireland was gaining its independence. She left home to join the Sisters of Mercy in faraway Macroom, Co. Cork as war raged across Europe and the Far East. She made her first vows in 1944, as D-Day was about to get underway in France, and vocations were plentiful and churches were full. She was witness to the dramatic changes in the church in the period after Vatican II, from an era of strict enclosure and uncomfortable religious garb to greater freedom and less restrictive dress. Though she was no fashionista and came late to the world of fashion, she liked a nice suit and a healthy splash of colour.

The changes in the church also made it possible for her to go home more often. And that, she did. She must have been one of the very few religious sisters in Ireland to still have her own bed in the house of her birth right into her nineties. And home she came, as often as she could, until just a few years ago. She was so fortunate to be able to do that, and we were fortunate that she could.

She was, of course, a teacher. But she wasn’t just a dedicated teacher, good at her job. She was an outstanding teacher, great at her job. Time and again, her primary school classes won prizes at local and national level, in essay writing and in other competitions. One prize was a replica copy of the Book of Kells. But Aunty Mary, or Sr Peter as generations of Macroom students would have called her, wasn’t obsessed with winning prizes. She was focused on educating children, encouraging them to realise their full potential, as in one example of two special needs pupils who floundered at school until they came under Aunty Mary’s tutelage. She changed their lives, and enabled them to flourish, to be the best they could be.

There was her strong work ethic and commitment. In 1988, upon reaching retirement age at home, she headed off to Africa for two years, to teach there. She could have taken it easy, put her feet up, or got involved in some local project, but she would have none of that. She wanted to do more, to teach a while longer, if she could, while she could, and so she went to Kenya. She wasn’t the least bit apprehensive about having to adjust to such a different culture at her age. Instead, it invigorated her.

And once back home in Macroom, she remained active – arranging readers for Mass, promoting Reality magazine, assisting the local parish and community in any way she could, until finally, into her 90s, worn out, she could do no more. No one can question Aunty Mary’s zeal.

There was her love of life. She spent almost a century on this earth and she embraced it with relish. She had what seemed like an almost childlike enthusiasm about her, an effervescence, that made it easy for people to engage with her and for her to accept and embrace whatever challenges came her way, whether they were the changes in the church and religious life or the changing circumstances of her own.

There was her love of family. Everything she did, outside of her commitments in the classroom and the convent, she did for us. I experienced that love personally in so many ways throughout my life. She took me on my first grown-up holiday, to Ballyferriter in Kerry, when I was all of 10 years old. We spent a week in a B&B over a pub, she and two other sisters and myself, alongside Americans and all kinds from far and wide. Her wonderful ability to make friends meant that a nice Dublin couple with two young daughters took the three nuns and myself along with them on their daily trips to the beach. I remember, too, that every day during that week she had me do some reading. Even while on holiday, she continued to teach.

I remember all the stories she typed out for me before I got a typewriter of my own, and all the books she bought for me when I was in the Philippines and couldn’t get them myself, and all the copies of Reality magazine she sold for me, many hundreds of them, with her ledger full of subscribers and her accounts carefully tallied to the last penny. I knew the reason she did it was out of love for me.

When my sisters got married, she did their wedding booklets. Whenever we had a major family celebration, she got the younger participants to practice the readings, just as she always encouraged them with their study. She might have lived in Macroom and elsewhere for periods during her long life, but the house in which she was born always remained home.

And, of course, there was her religious vocation, which was the foundation of all that she did and represented. She loved God and she loved being a Sister of Mercy. She was a wonderful advertisement for the religious life – a simple, happy, smiling woman, without airs or issues or graces, without arrogance or resentment or regret, without a doleful hankering after the good old days of the past but, rather, a hope-filled trust in God’s promise and plan for the future. A joy-filled woman always loyal to the vows she made nearly three quarters of a century ago; a faith-filled woman who lived in love of God through humble service of others.

She was indeed a good and faithful servant. And even though we gather today to commend Aunty Mary to God and to celebrate a live well lived, there is sorrow and sadness too. For her passing is reflective of a larger passing taking place in the church in Ireland and in the West. The convent where she spent most of her life is gone now, like so many others throughout the country; that extraordinary era when so many thousands of generous women like Aunty Mary entered the religious life is now just part of history; future generations of young Irish will not have the benefit of the selfless service and sacrifice of religious like Aunty Mary, nor will the Irish church.

But enough of that… she wouldn’t want us to be morose or nostalgic today. Instead, as we say goodbye to our beloved aunt and sister, we acknowledge her wonderful legacy, and that of all good religious such as she. We thank the Lord for the many blessings with which he blessed her and the strong faith which he gifted her, and we entrust her soft, gentle soul to the merciful embrace of the God she served so well.

There is room for liberals in the Catholic church

I have always considered myself to be a liberal. Instinctively, since as long as I was able to think for myself, I subscribed to what was known as the ‘liberal agenda.’ Though I was a committed Catholic, and came from a devout Catholic family, I had no time for theocracies. I believed in the separation of church and state. I believed that any church or religious institution that relied on the state to enforce its teachings was, by definition, a weak church or institution. I felt that an unhealthy codependency had developed between civil and religious authorities in the decades after Irish independence that would be detrimental to both of them in the long run.

The relationship between de Valera and Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, and the latter’s interventions in almost every aspect of Irish life, seemed to encapsulate all that was wrong with church and state in 20th century Ireland.

When the ban on artificial contraception was being discussed in the 1970s and 80s, I was with those who wanted reform. It was the same when it came to divorce. I might personally subscribe to what the church teaches about the sanctity of marriage, but I didn’t think it should be imposed on those who were not Catholic or who disagreed profoundly with the church’s position. Similarly, when it came to legalising homosexual acts and to the vote on marriage equality, I was on the side of the reformers. I even wrote an op-ed piece for the Irish Times in support of marriage equality.

And many years ago, when I had just emerged out of my teens, I voted against the 8th amendment to the constitution, not because I was in favour of abortion, but because I thought the proposed wording was weak and was going to lead to a whole pile of trouble.

Meanwhile, I had joined the seminary straight out of school and so found myself in the difficult position where some of the views I held were at odds with the official teaching of the church. When it came to internal church politics I also found myself on the liberal side – favouring the ordination of woman and the introduction of optional celibacy, as well as a more compassionate approach to those who were gay or divorced and remarried. I identified strongly with liberation theology and the preferential option for the poor. I was enthused more than anything by the idea of a church and a clergy that stood alongside the oppressed and were willing to lose all in solidarity with them. An open, welcoming, inclusive church.

But the odd thing is that not only did I find myself in conflict with the Vatican over the years, and run into trouble with the authorities for my views, I found that many so-called liberals had no time for church people like me either. I remember being taken aback one time when Fintan O’Toole referred to me in his column as a conservative. I certainly didn’t see myself as a conservative. Then I understood that in the eyes of many secularists, being a Catholic priest was synonymous with being a conservative. That if you were a card-carrying member of the clergy then, ipso facto, you had to be a conservative. And, therefore, an ogre and an obscurantist.

Given its arrogance and abuse of power in the past, I don’t blame people for being angry at the Irish Catholic church. But what I don’t like is the way in which everybody in the church is viewed through the same lens, how all clergy and religious are regarded as the enemy, and as opponents of all that is good.

Sure, the church as institution has much to answer for, but the church is not a monolith. There is diversity within and much goodness too. To deny that fact, or refuse to see it, as some liberals do, is to replace one form of arrogance and intolerance with another.

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.