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.