My 30 years as a priest have brought no little disappointment

When Archbishop Desmond Connell ordained me to the priesthood on October 2nd, 1988, it seemed a good time to be a priest in Ireland. Fresh-faced and enthusiastic, I had high hopes. I was delighted to become part of a team conducting parish missions, as Irish Redemptorists had done for more than a century.

I loved going from parish to parish, preaching to full churches, visiting homes and schools, meeting clergy. Though I was aware of the increasing impact of secularisation, and the sharp decline in vocations, I presumed church and priesthood would remain largely the same into the future.

I had no idea of the tumult that lay ahead.

When measured against the vast expanse of history, 30 years is an insignificant amount of time. But when measured in terms of the story of the Catholic Church in Ireland, the past 30 years have been hugely significant indeed.

In 1988 Catholics of all ages still attended church in large numbers and confession remained important. In 1988 the church’s moral authority still stood strong, and preaching retained punch. The Irish church remained clerical and confident, as it had been since before independence.

Hard though it is to believe, back then few knew the word “paedophile”. In all my seminary years I had never encountered that word, which is linked so solidly today with the Catholic Church.

Running torment

The abuse scandals are the great running torment of my priesthood, a scar every priest carries. I am distressed by what has happened, by the layers of abuse still being exposed, by the indifference and cover-up of those in authority. I feel sorry for myself that I have to carry the can for the sins of others. It’s not what I signed up for 30 years ago.

In 1988 I seldom wore a clerical collar. Today I never wear one. I feel embarrassed to be identified as representing a clerical caste that permitted abuse, and am angry at church authority and the abusers – for the incalculable damage done to victims and their families as well as to Catholics everywhere.

Starting out, I never dreamed I would fall foul of Rome. But in May 2011, I was shocked to discover I had been secretly investigated by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican.

They sought my removal as editor of Reality magazine because of its stance on women, sexuality and authority in the church. My future had been discussed at the highest levels for months without anyone telling me about it. Sentence was imposed before I knew I was on trial. I was horrified that this was how the church treated someone after a lifetime in its service.

Blocking equality

I remain disgusted at the injustice perpetrated on Catholic women, who are denied equal rights, and at a mandatory celibacy rule that diminishes many clerics. It says so much about Rome that while clergy who advocated women’s ordination were summarily silenced or sacked, bishops who engaged in or facilitated abuse were not.

Today, I bristle at the church’s hurtful language about the LGBTI community and am ashamed that a particular theology of the body has been used to make people feel unwelcome and excluded.

I dream of a restructured church that recognises the radical equality of all the baptised, that respects the sensus fidelium, repudiates the evil of clericalism, and replaces lace with grace, as Pope Francis tries to do.

A church that doesn’t insist it has all the answers to complicated moral and ethical questions but that engages with the world of science and biology so as to better respond to the signs of the times.

Though much has changed since 1988, not everything is bleak. What keeps me going is the wonderful witness of so many people who stick with the church despite all that has happened, the enthusiasm of so many lay co-workers and volunteers of every age and the selfless dedication of so many clergy and religious despite falling numbers and sapping morale.

It takes a brave person to be a card-carrying Catholic in Ireland today.

In 1988, I started priesthood with high hopes. Those 30 years have brought much fulfilment and satisfaction, yes, but also no little frustration and disappointment.

(Published in The Irish Times, October 2, 2018)

 

 

 

 

 

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The curious case of my ordination day appendix

On the morning of my ordination – October 2, 1988 – I woke up feeling the worse for wear. I had been out the night before, on what you could label a kind of clerical equivalent of a stag night, and I had a couple of drinks, so I concluded that what I had was a hangover. A good shower and a walk by the river would sort me out.
But they didn’t. I struggled back to the house barely able to keep my feet under me. Deep down I knew it wasn’t a hangover (nobody gets hungover on three beers!) and I began to wonder and worry. I was throwing up and sweating and trembling. I had no strength and had to get back into bed, though the ceremony was due to take place in a couple of hours and the bus full of excited family, relatives and friends was due to arrive soon.

They may have been excited but I wasn’t. I couldn’t understand what was wrong with me and why it had to happen on this of all days. My colleagues, increasingly worried, decided to get a doctor.

Three of us were being ordained that day. It was the culmination of nine long years of study and preparation, and the man who was going to do the ordaining was the recently appointed archbishop of Dublin, Dr Desmond Connell.

My family arrived at about the same time as the doctor, but it was decided not to tell them that I was ill in bed. The official story was that I was still getting ready and would be down to welcome them in a few minutes. But my family found it hard to believe. They knew that one thing I would never be is late.

Meanwhile, the doctor was unsure as to the reason for my illness. He recommended that I forget about the ordination, stating that I was not up to taking part in any kind of ceremony.

I pleaded with him and with my colleagues who were in charge to let me go ahead, that I could get through it. Reluctantly, they relented. I was given a pain-killing injection and the ceremony was postponed for an hour to give me a chance to recover.

All the while, my Redemptorist colleagues and the many others who had arrived for the big day were wondering what was really going on. Was I having last minute nerves? Was I going to back out? Still not having laid eyes on me, my family were beginning to ask the same questions.

Finally, my parents were allowed up to my room, and they helped me to get ready.

I was ordained in a chair with a basin underneath in case I needed to throw up. I never prostrated myself or knelt for the laying on of hands. The archbishop and the concelebrants came down to me, not me up to them. And I made it through to the end. I was successfully ordained, and as a result now ontologically different, even if the circumstances were unusual!

Family photographs taken, in which I looked as miserable as I felt, I went back to bed while the celebratory dinner was taking place. But I got up to make an end of dinner speech. I had spent days working on it, and no matter how ill I was, I was determined to deliver it. I love speechifying!

Then it was home to County Limerick on the bus with my family. But I felt increasingly weak and miserable. It was supposed to be a wonderful happy day – and of course it was – but I wasn’t feeling it. I just wanted to get into bed.

And that’s what I did as soon as I got home, but within the hour I was out of bed again, being rushed by my father into hospital in Limerick. Our family doctor had called in to look at me after we got home and straight away announced that I had appendicitis and needed it dealt with without delay.

“So, what do you do?” the young nursed asked me as I was being wheeled to theatre.

“I’m a priest,” I said, scarcely believing those words myself.

“Gosh, you look very young to be a priest. How long are you ordained?”

“A few hours,” I answered.

“Oh my God,” she exclaimed, or whatever was the equivalent of OMG back in 1988.

It was an extraordinary coincidence.

The next day, appendix successfully extracted and First Mass postponed, I was inundated with visits from family and friends.

“Just as well you had an appendix,” my sister said. “Otherwise, they’d all be saying you were trying to back out.”

But I have often wondered about that extraordinary coincidence, especially since I developed back pain on the very weekend 26 years later that I was due to begin my sabbatical. Another absolutely extraordinary coincidence.

Was my body trying to tell me something on the morning of October 2, 1988? Was it telling me to think again about what I was going to do? Could nerves trigger an appendix? Or was it just one of those one in a million coincidences that simply cannot be explained?

Yes, yes, yes to women deacons

 
Some wonderful news came out of the Vatican on Thursday. During a meeting with some 900 leaders of the world’s congregations of Catholic women religious, Pope Francis announced he will create a commission to study the possibility of allowing women to serve as deacons in the Catholic Church.
Many church historians have being saying for decades that there is abundant evidence that women served as deacons in the early centuries of the church. The apostle Paul mentions one such woman, Phoebe, in his letter to the Romans.
The permanent diocanate was retored to the church after Vatican II and there are now over 40,000 male permanent deacons ministering in parishes and dioceses throughout the world. Permanent deacons cannot say Mass, anoint or hear confession, but they are able to baptize, preside at marriages and funerals, proclaim the Gospel and preach during various liturgies.
Women deacons would be able to do these very same things.
How wonderful would that be! Imagine a woman in vestments proclaiming the Gospel and preaching in St Peter’s in Rome! The image of a church transformed that would send out.
What kinds of things could women deacons preach on? In the words of Fr James Martin, S.J.: “Everything of course, like male deacons! But imagine them preaching on the following: The Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, Mary Magdalene, Mary and Martha, the Woman at the Well, the Syrophoenician woman, the appearance of the Risen Christ to Mary Magdalene, and on and on. Women deacons could preach on anything, like male deacons, but how I long to hear them preach on Jesus and on women in the New Testament.”
One of the most offputting aspects of major church liturgies is the rows of robed male clerics with not a single woman in sight. I don’t know how women put up with it. It’s why I choose not to concelebrate at Mass, if I don’t have to.
Of course, it is early days and all the pope has done is announce his intention to form a commission to study the possibility of women deacons. The commission may amount to nothing in the end, or propose no change in the status quo.
But it’s good to dream.
When one considers the question of women and the Catholic Church today, some things are obvious. First, women not only make up a significant majority of those who attend Mass and the sacraments week in week out, they play the primary role in handing on the faith. Without women the Catholic Church would be moribund or close to it.
Second, women have traditionally done much of the church’s dirty work. Think of religious education (nuns and catechists); church and parish administration (secretaries); upkeep and decoration of churches (altar societies and Martha Ministers), care of priests (housekeepers and helpers). If these women downed tools tomorrow the church would scarcely be able to function.
Three, women continue to have a tremendous love for the church. They show this not just by continuing to occupy the pews every Sunday and doing most of the church’s dirty work, but also by the number who serve on parish pastoral councils, teach religion in schools, become extraordinary ministers of the Word and Eucharist, do voluntary work and take courses in theology.
Indeed, the commitment and enthusiasm of so many women is extraordinary given that they are second-class members of their own church. The Catholic Church is the last great western institution that systematically discriminates against women. 
It is no longer good enough to pay lip service to the dignity and vocation of women in the church, as church leaders have tended to do. Real and equal involvement in the church is not a privilege women must earn but a right that belongs to them by virtue of their creation in the image of God and their cooperation into Christ through baptism. Ordaining women to the diaconate would be a wonderful step in the right direction.