06 January 2010

What next for the priesthood? Three Irish priests interviewed by Irish Times

Fr Michael Kelly, St Agnes's, Crumlin, Dublin. Photo: Matt Kavanagh

Yesterday's Irish Times carried an article by Rosita Boland, What next for the priesthood? based on interviews with three Irish priests, one based in Dublin, one in County Cork and one in Galway City. The interviews were done in the wake of the Murphy Report on the abuse of children by priests in the Archdiocese of Dublin.

I've highlighted some parts of the article and added some [comments].

After the annus horribilis that was 2009, three priests at different stages of their vocational lives talk to ROSITA BOLAND about how their views of the church have changed and what they think the future will hold

Diocesan priest in Dublin, based in Crumlin, One year ordained

It was always at the back of my mind that I wanted to be a priest. I looked up to priests when I was a child. I was seven when I first started thinking about it.

In my late teenage years, I fell away from the church, and didn’t attend Mass that often. I dropped out of school after my Junior Cert [a state exam taken after three years in high school, followed by the Leaving Ceritifcate two or three years later], and started up a rock’n’roll band with my brother. We called it Whyne. We thought that was a cool name!

I volunteered at the Capuchin homeless centre in Blanchardstown, which developed my faith lifehelping people who were having a difficult time in their life. It made me start reading the Gospel on my own. I have a friendship with Jesus as well as knowing he is my Lord and Saviour.

After the band, I’d worked at Motorola and then at St Luke’s Hospital, where I was a ward orderly – helping people again. I decided I wanted to get to know Jesus. When it comes down to it, I became a priest because I believe that’s what God called me to do. Everyone in my family was quite shocked, especially my brother I’d been in the band with, but they were supportive. There were 16 of us who started in my year. Only seven were ordained.

I wasn’t even born when the abuse in the church went on, so I don’t feel guilty – but I do feel a collective sense of shame. The people named in the reports should resign. I’m angry. I’m upset. When trust has been broken the way it has, it’s very difficult to rebuild it. There has been so much hypocrisy in the church, and people can’t get past that.

It’s not easy. I’ve been called a child rapist on the street. It has affected my faith: I’ve been spending more time in prayer. It has made me question and look at the structure of the Catholic Church. There was so much deceit and cover-up. It’s time for big changes. In one way, it is a great challenge to be a priest now, because the church faces such challenges; I have to see it as an opportunity. [The word 'crisis' means something like that].

Those priests who abused children studied moral theology when they trained. I just don’t know how you can be a Christian and do the things they did.


Diocesan priest in Cork; chaplain at Cólaiste Choilm, Ballincollig, Co Cork Fifteen years ordained

I was 18 when I went into Maynooth [St Patrick's National Seminary and the only seminary in Ireland still open]. The world is a very different place now from when we were going to school; faith was accepted, a part of everyone’s life then. Back in the 1980s, the priesthood was an option that was just there as something to do after school. I thought: why not try it out? Looking back now, it was definitely way too young. In those days, people went straight from school to Maynooth. But you need a gap. [It was the norm for young men to go into seminaries after finishing secondary schooling, which was then five years in Ireland. There is now an optional extra year before the final year when the emphasis is more on working on subjects or topics you like rather than on the academics you will be taking in the Leaving Certificate. But not everyone who came to the seminary n my time after having worked for some years persevered].

I came into the priesthood as vocations were peaking. [Numbers in the seminaries had already dropped considerably by the 1980s. The peak was in the 1960s. But from Father McSweeney's perspective the 1980s were peak years because the many seminaries were all still open]. There were 72 with me in the class when I started; 27 of them finished. That was still a big number. There’s been nothing like those numbers since – they’ve tumbled.

In the school, the students are aware of the stories about the church, but it’s outside their world. The institutionalised church means nothing to them. They have abandoned the church formally, but in terms of their own inspiration, they’re in a great place, and are very open to all forms of spirituality. [This is what I find heart-breaking. I believe that in abandoning the Church they have also abandoned the Christian faith, though many are willing to make greater sacrifices for others, at least in the short term, than we were. This abandonment of the Church, as I see it, is not a direct consequence of the abuse that had been going on and that most were not aware of. But the scandal is helping accelerate this abandonment of the Church and of the Christian faith].

The stories about the church really started coming out in 1995, and they’ve been coming constantly since. Personally, I’ve found it very, very difficult. At times, I’ve felt very lonely, and very isolated. Isolated in the sense that there’s that thought that you’re tarnished with the same brush. People feel genuinely hurt and let down, and I share people’s horror and disgust. There are no words to describe the anger, horror, betrayal, everything . . . There are no words to describe the horror of this story. [One image that has been in my mind lately is a story I read just after the old Czechoslovakia became tow separate republics, the Czech Republic and Slovakia at midnight at the beginning of New Year's Day 1993. An airline pilot who had taken off from one part of a united country before midnight and landed in the other part, now a separate republic, after midnight, said on arrival that he felt like a man without a country. He felt lost. When I think of how Ireland has changed since I first left it in 1968 I see a different country, but to a large degree in continuity with what was there before. As a missionary I welcomed the influx of foreigners to Ireland since 2000. But the shame of what has been revealed has brought about something quite different and very hard to accept].

I do think people should resign. Absolutely. I would certainly say that. There has been too much holding on to power, too much hiding behind the institution of the church. There has been a lack of openness and honesty. They let so many people down and I feel angry about that.

If I saw what was ahead when I was starting out, no way would I have gone into the priesthood. Not a hope. [This statement is honest and sad. Yet 12 or 13 novices joined the Dominican Friars in Ireland this year and three Redemptorist priests were ordained around the time the Murphy Report was published]. That’s just being honest with you. There have been times when I felt: “Why bother? Why stay?” I would have been there. I would have thought of moving on..

Faith is obviously still important to me, that’s what keeps me here. But the church is in huge transition. It can never ever go back to where it’s been. It’s going to take years and years to rebuild openness and trust.

The reason I’m still in the priesthood is the young people, who give me great inspiration and hope. We need to tap into that. The liturgy and the way the church speak to people doesn’t connect with people – people have walked.[Although Fr McSweeney acknowledges that many have 'walked' and that the young have abandoned the Church, he finds hope in the goodness he sees in the latter].

In the future, we’ll be looking at smaller faith communities. The days of big numbers are long gone. People won’t come back to the church. [I have hope that migrants from places such as the Philippines, Poland, Kerala in India, Nigeria will continue to bring some new life to the Irish Church. But I have a fear that their children will be overwhelmed by the secularism and the unwillingness to make commitments that are so much part of the contemporary West. But why do people still go to the church for funerals? I heard an older woman being interviewed on Irish radio the other day who acknowledged that religion played no part whatever in her life now - but she wanted to be buried from the Catholic church because its ceremonies give her some comfort. She was brough up a Catholic and clearly showed no resentment whatever towards the Church. But religion means nothing to her now. Funerals are still occasions when priests can preach the Good News because people are open to it, I think. and it is noticeable that on occasions of funerals after tragedies, the Irish media very often quote the parish priest].


Augustinian parish priest, Galway city. Ordained 35 years

Idealism. That’s why I wanted to be a priest. [I still see that idealism in so many priests I know. One outstanding example is my Columban confrere, Fr Michael Sinnott, kidnapped for a month some time ago and coming back to the Philippines this month after a holiday in Ireland]. I wanted to do something useful with my life. I was born into a Catholic culture, and priesthood was the obvious channel in those days for finding expression for idealism. I went into training straight from school, when I was 18 – 95 per cent of people did that. At the time it was considered the most normal thing to do – you went into medicine; you became a priest. I had faith, but for that time it was normal. It was no different to the faith of fellas sitting beside me at school. [That was my experience too. I'm seven years older than Father Lyng].

It is almost impossible for me to comprehend that fellow priests were damaging small children. I was shocked to the core. [I never heard of such things until the 1980s. More recently, Padraig Harrington, Ireland's greatest golfer, who has been playing with Tiger Woods for many years, was dumbfounded when the other side of Tiger's life becake known recently. But some of what has come to light in the Murphy Report has led me to ask if some of the priests ever had any faith and if, indeed, they were validly ordained for lack of faith].

But if it didn’t shock people, that would be more shocking still. A priest who doesn’t feel tarnished, contaminated – to use all the diseased terms there are – is living in cloud cuckoo land. [Yet, at present, there seems to be a denial in Ireland of the claimes of groups such as One in Four that a quarter of children are abused. The SAVI Survey claims that abuse by priests/ministers/religious is 3.2 percent. In other words, there's little concern being expressed at present, it seems, for the other 97 percent. I recognise an additional element of betrayal by one who is, by ordination, 'configured to Christ'].

Older people feel very contaminated by what happened. My parishioners tell me their faith is safe, but that they are extremely hurt and confused. Confused is the word I hear most. They are extremely supportive of priests on the ground, but anger is articulated to me privately. There is huge confusion and disappointment. I have had parishioners asking me should they have demonstrations. I tell them: only the victims can call for rallies. It will be the victims who make that decision.

There is already a missing generation in the church. My parishioners are old. Whenever I do a wedding, I think: where are these young people on a Sunday morning? The young generation was gone already from the church, but all this will accelerate it further.

We’ll be dealing with this for the rest of my lifetime, and for generations after me. There is no quick fix.

The contracts of trust are gone. [This is one of the worst consequences. Not only were the children betrayed but, in a different way, so were so many others. The recent dismissal of an Irish judge of a character reference by a parish priest is indicative of this]. We’ll have to be a very different church. The church that encouraged secrecy and deceit – that will all have to be flushed out. The future church will be a very small.church, a very shrunken church. [Has Ireland already become like Quebec, Belgium, the Netherlands, France? Will it become like North Africa did not long after the death of St Augustine, a once flourishing Catholic Christian area that was overtaken by Islam? When I went home to Ireland from the Philippines for a visit in 2007 I decided for a number of reasons that I would wear my clericals most of the time, something I hadn't done for many years except when going to the church. Ironically, perhaps. one of the reasons was seeing so many Muslims in Ireland wearing garb that indicated their faith. I had some very positive experiences and no negative ones for wearing my clerical garb. But I'm asking myself, what will I do when I go home in July? Maybe its the question of a coward]..

Would I have joined the priesthood if I had known what lay ahead for the church in Ireland? That’s impossible to answer. I wouldn’t even attempt to answer. I did what I did. I believed at the time what I was doing was right.

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