Six men who’ve inspired me

We honoured them last night, six men who have devoted lifetimes of service to the Irish Redemptorists. It is an annual ritual – whether we are gathered on retreat or on chapter, as we have been this week, we take one night out to remember and celebrate our jubilarians, those who have significant anniversaries this year. Two of those present were celebrating 60 years as Redemptorist priests; one was celebrating 50 years of priesthood, another 40 years of profession as a Redemptorist, while the two younger ones were marking 25 years since they made their first vows. In age they range from the mid-eighties to the late forties; a couple are frail now, dependant on walking sticks to get around but all six remain full of life and vigour.

After the celebratory Mass and dinner, brief speeches were made, little tributes to each of these men, who have served God in many parts of the world. The older among them joined the Redemptorists in the peak period for religious life and the church in Ireland. Churches and seminaries were full; new missions were opening up abroad almost every year. Times were good. The younger among them joined at a time when scandals were beginning to shame the church at home and abroad and religious life was no longer a popular choice for men or women to make. And yet they chose to join and to remain even in the face of scandal and disappointment and the questions about our future viability as a religious congregation in Ireland.

And during those years – 60 and 50 and 40 and 25 – these six have ministered with distinction. That is why, in a world full of celebrities and reality TV stars, they are amongst my top heroes. They have dedicated their lives completely to the service of others; they have sacrificed their ambitions and independence in order to be at the disposal of the poor of Africa and of the Philippines and of Brazil and Ireland; they have taught and preached and listened and washed feet. They have gone places they would not have normally chosen to go. They have been good and faithful servants. And I admire their selflessness and their love and witness. Confreres like these six men keep me going when I’m feeling low. They remind me of what religious life is all about. Their love of God helps me to deepen mine.

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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)

 

 

 

 

 

Non Redemptorist colleagues help us to find a way forward

New life has invigorated our assembly this morning as almost thirty non Redemptorist colleagues and coworkers join us for the day. These women and men of all ages have travelled from north, south, east and west to take part in our discussions about the current and future shape of the Redemptorists in Ireland.

Their presence is a welcome and necessary boost. While we Redemptorists are required to be here, they have volunteered to join us today. While we are card carrying members of the clerical church, they are ordinary Catholics who remain committed to their faith despite all the difficulties of recent years. While we do our best to soldier on with hope, they remain full of enthusiasm and commitment. They still believe in us and in the church, even when we might be doubting ourselves and our future in Europe.

The presence of so many women and men offers a glimpse of the church at its best – of people working together to build the kingdom of God without any distinctions of rank or gender, people united by a common baptism and a shared vision. It offers a glimpse of a non clerical, inclusive church, of ordinary, fragile people doing their best and wanting to do their best.

Half way though our chapter, we needed this injection of hope and zeal and energy. Their enthusiasm will help us to see a way forward for the next four years.

Old Redemptorists, still full of zeal

I studied them last night, my Redemptorist colleagues from all around Ireland. They had been gathering outside Newry for the beginning of our Provincial Chapter. Many of them had been attending chapters for fifty years, veterans now of this kind of thing.

I studied them with their grey hair, and hearing aids, and slightly bent backs, and occasional walking sticks, the weight of the years bearing obviously on so many. And I was moved and impressed, as I am every time I encounter them at an event such as this. Some of these old men did not have to be here, they could have been formally exempted from the chapter had they wished, but they chose to come anyhow. They wanted to be here. They wanted to do their bit. Their commitment to the Redemptorists and to the church compelled them to be here.

It has been the story of their lives. Many of them joined as young men in the 1950s, the so-called golden age of the Irish Church. Things were going so well during that decade that the Redemptorist provincial boasted that he was opening a new house every year. Now these same men witness the closing of these same houses. Expansion has become retrenchment. These men entered religious life when it was highly regulated and predictable, yet were able to adjust and adapt to the liberalizing changes in religious life that followed Vatican II. These men learned their preaching craft with a theology that emphasized the fear of God, and then were able to change to one that focused on the love of God. So many changes over little more than half a century, and yet their enthusiasm remains undimmed. They remain as committed and as eager as ever.

Their enthusiasm is wonderful to see. I know I need to bathe in it and take heart from it these days, because, as these men fade away, as they go to their eternal reward, there will be very few left behind to take up the challenge in a similar wholehearted way. They were a stalwart generation. We will need to look on their example and no our them by trying to follow it.

Irish Redemptorists look to next four years

Today Irish Redemptorists gather outside Newry, Co Down for a week-long event known as a Provincial Chapter. More than 60 members of the Province will take part in the gathering, which is held every four years. A Chapter is a legislative and deliberative body which elects members of the provincial government and decides on policy and priorities for the next four years. Anyone who is a professed member of the Irish Redemptorists is required to participate (the sick and old are exempt) while some lay colleagues also attend.

A Chapter is a good example of democracy at work within the church. Our national leadership are elected by a majority of the assembly; policy is decided by the assembly, and any major decisions (whether to close a house or start an initiative) are approved by the assembly. Leaders can only hold office for two consecutive four-year terms. Unlike bishops, they know it’s not a job for life and that they will return to being foot soldiers all too soon. This keeps their feet on the ground and aids accountability.

A Chapter is also an opportunity for confreres from around the country and some living abroad to spend time together, to renew friendships and to deepen bonds. It is a valuable exercise in fraternity.

Of course, Chapters are not always bloodless affairs. Not everyone agrees on the way forward. Not all have the same vision. There will be disagreements and the odd personality clash. A Chapter is a human event after all.

And a Chapter such as this will also be a graphic reminder of the perilous state of the Redemptorists in Ireland today, and of the challenges facing the church as a whole on this island. We will be reminded with our very own eyes of how old we are getting, of how frail we are as individuals and as a body, and of our steady fall in numbers. We will be reminded of the pressing, difficult decisions we will have to make if we are to maintain a tangible presence in Ireland in the years ahead, decisions about plant and personnel, about apostolic priorities and care of the old and sick.

We will be reminded, also, of our need to develop closer ties with other Redemptorist provinces and of the need for amalgamation. Whereas the Brexiteers are trying to pull Europe apart, the signs of the times are compelling the Redemptorists to forge closer bonds with neighbours throughout Europe and beyond.

I took part in my first Chapter in 1984. I was 22 years old, newly professed and full of enthusiasm. As a political buff, I loved the intrigue around the election of our leaders. The assembly looked bright and vigorous, full of men in their prime. It gave me a buzz.

Thirty five years later, there is no buzz. I have been around a long time now. I know our strengths and our weaknesses. I know the challenges and painful decisions that lie ahead. I know that the pool of potential leaders among us is shallow. We are a tired bunch, battered by the scandals and disappointments of the past quarter century. No one will need to tell us to curb our enthusiasm.

Still, we will endeavour to soldier along, doing our best, for four more years.

My friend, the new Cardinal

Yesterday a man I know was appointed to the most exclusive clerical club in the world. He was made a cardinal of the Catholic Church by Pope Francis. It was a surprise appointment. No one expected his name to be on the list, least of all the man himself.

I have known Joe Tobin, Archbishop of Indianapolis, for more than 25 years. He was a member the Redemptorist general government in Rome when I first met him. One of his responsibilities was for youth ministry, with which I also was involved.

I remember a large gathering in Durham in 1994 – a Redemptorist mini world youth day event – when he gave up his comfortable bed to sleep on the ground in a marquee full of young southern Europeans who were frightened of the frogs that had sought sanctuary there after a day of constant rain. I remember the many football/soccer games he refereed even after he was elected head of the Redemptorists. Though some of his on field decisions were questionable to say the least, it was hard even for the most hot headed player to mouth off at the man who was the head Redemptorist. I remember how he preferred jeans and sweats to the formal clerical attire of his office. I remember his wonderful storytelling ability, his extraordinary capacity to remember names, and how grounded in the ordinary he always appeared even as he attained high office.

Once finished his two-term spell as Redemptorist Superior General, Joe went on a study break to England. Then came his surprise appointment to the Vatican as secretary for religious. It was a challenging post at a challenging time. The newly ordained archbishop found himself thrust into the middle of the doctrinal investigation of US women religious by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, an investigation he strongly opposed. He lost that battle, being considered too sympathetic to the sisters, and was hustled far outside Vatican walls to be installed as Archbishop of Indianapolis in 2012.

Indianapolis is a vibrant, sports-mad city that is only about 10 percent Catholic, but the new archbishop quickly made his mark as an approachable, compassionate, eloquent pastor, who had, what Francis calls, the “smell of the sheep.”

He wasn’t typical of the US Catholic hierarchy which was full of John Paul II and Benedict XVI appointees, who tended to be politically and ecclesiastically right of centre culture warriors, constantly at loggerheads with the modern world rather than engaging with it. Joe Tobin is not a culture warrior, and nor does he favour lace over grace. He is one of the few bishops who goes to the Catholic Worker dinner held during the annual US Conference of Bishops meetings in November, rather than the formal grand banquet held in a plush hotel.

Last year he clashed with Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, now Donald Trump’s running mate, over the politically sensitive issue of resettling Syrian refugees. Pence had announced that Syrian refugees would not be welcome in his state, citing concerns about terrorism.

The Catholic Charities agency in Indianapolis had been working to resettle a Syrian family at the time of the announcement, and Pence asked that they put those plans on hold. After a meeting between the two men, Archbishop Tobin announced that the diocese would continue with its plans to resettle the family, and did so.

Archbishop Tobin is also on record as supporting the idea of women serving as deacons in the Catholic Church. Needless to say, this idea, broached by Francis himself, is controversial, so it’s wonderful to have another strong voice for greater equality for women from within the college of cardinals.

Two years ago, when I was planning my sabbatical after 23 years in Redemptorist Communications, I asked Joe if he could accommodate me in his diocese for a couple of months, where I could lend a hand in a parish while at the same time having plenty of opportunity to read, write and unwind. He could not have been more helpful. I met and ate with him several times during my six weeks in Indianapolis, a time cut short due to my developing back pain. I was grateful for his kindness and generosity. As a cardinal and still only in his mid 60s, Joe is a man I will happily trust with helping to choose the next pope, though I hope that won’t be anytime soon.

The fact that Francis has chosen as cardinals pastoral men, moderate progressives, who know the smell of the sheep, is good news indeed. He wants men (wouldn’t it be great if there were women among them before long!) who share his vision for the church and the world. In choosing Joe Tobin, alongside others like Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich, Francis has chosen well.

It’s time women were allowed preach in the Catholic Church – and lay and married men too

Last Sunday I preached on love. It was the first time I have done Sunday preaching since I went under the knife (twice) last November. When you preach in our Limerick church on a weekend, you do so at all the Masses. So I performed four times.The response was positive. I love preaching. Actually, I love public speaking. I was no more than 10 or 11 years old when I began delivering passionate political addresses with a hairbrush as a microphone.

I will never forget the first time I got to use a real microphone. I was reading in church at Sunday Mass. I was about 14 years old, and I tried to imagine I was Lincoln, or Churchill, or JFK, but it’s hard to electrify a crowd when all you have to work with is a dull passage from the Old Testament. Still, the experience exhilarated me. I was buzzing afterwards. I knew that whatever career I would choose would have a public speaking element.

For a long time, I was determined to become a barrister. It would be exciting to stand before a jury like one of the TV lawyers and use my oratorical skills to brilliantly and forensically demolish my opponent’s argument.

I also dreamed of a career in politics. It wasn’t the humdrum constituency work I was interested in, or messy meetings in smoke-filled rooms, but the opportunity to make speeches, and argue points, and even, eventually, once I got to the top, to address the nation. I could recite large parts of JFK’s inaugural address and MLK’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. I could imagine delivering speeches like that, but, of course, it never came to be because I got derailed down the religion road.

I still often wonder ‘What if?’

At least being a clergyman offers the opportunity to speak in public, like I did on Sunday. And, occasionally, to debate in public also. I have taken part in a number of university debates against top quality opponents over the years and won them all on a show of hands. There are few bigger thrills than having a student audience declare you the victor.

Not all my preaching has been a success. I remember vividly the Christmas midnight Mass when I got it spectacularly wrong. The little church was packed, lots of young families were in attendance, and I spoke about how at Christmas many people can experience the absence of God rather than God’s presence. I used a story from Auschwitz to illustrate my point.

I knew half way through the homily that it wasn’t going down well, and after the Mass was over and I stood at the back to greet people as they left, several made sure to let me know what they thought of my performance.

“Disgraceful!” one man exclaimed. His wife tried to be more diplomatic. “It wasn’t that bad, Father, don’t listen to him,” she said. “No, he needs to hear the truth,” the husband retorted. “Someone needs to tell him.”

Another woman, two kids in tow, told me forcefully never to preach that sermon again. Others said the same thing.

I was distraught. I knew I had miscalculated badly. Christmas should be uplifting and cuddly and child-friendly. Mine was the opposite. I vowed never to make a mistake like that again. And I haven’t.

I think one of the great weaknesses of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland has been the quality of its preachers and preaching. Some preachers are always going to be better than others. They have an aptitude for it. They work at it. They enjoy it.

Some will never be brilliant but, with determination and effort, they can and do improve.

But a lot of clergy, it seems to me, do not try very hard. And maybe do not care a great deal any more. They are too tired or too busy to prepare adequately. They commit little or nothing to paper. They feel they have said it all before, or they have a few pet topics they keep returning to. The whole exercise is a chore for them as well as for the congregation. I sometimes wonder how so many people put up with it week after week.

And of course it is difficult for both priest and people when the priest has to face the same people every Sunday and the people have to face the same priest.

The preaching problem will become even more acute as the number of priests continues to fall. Importing clergy from overseas, who have no knowledge of our culture and for whom English is not their first language, will only exacerbate the problem.

Priests need more training. When the Redemptorists ran renewal courses for clergy and religious back in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, the preaching segment was the bit the participants disliked most. Each had to compose a homily and deliver it to camera as if in his own parish setting. And then the others were encouraged to critique his performance. He would naturally get defensive and his colleagues would always be reluctant to say something negative about his content or delivery.

Most of them found the whole ordeal excruciating, most made excuses about being in an unnatural environment that put them off their game. Many were in denial about how dreadful they actually were. I doubt that most took any lessons on board at all.

And yet priests need training and regular refresher days, because preaching is such a vital part of their ministry. Not all are going to be spellbinding orators or storytellers, but everyone can do better, if they try and if they prepare.

It is a shame and unjust that only priests and deacons are permitted to preach at the Eucharist. Women’s voices are never heard (unless occasionally one is invited to “say a few words” after communion). Married voices, unless the preacher is one of the few convert priests, are never heard either. So much wisdom is being lost. So much needs to change.

But change won’t come while we remain trapped in the current clerical model of church. Maybe the slow disappearance of priests in Ireland and the western world will bring about the change that is needed. Then good lay people will be required to preach and teach. For if they are not, the gospel will not be proclaimed and the church will become even more irrelevant.