Priestly Ministry Today, An insider’s view: Kevin Hegarty
Last June, October seemed a distant prospect. I agreed quickly to a request from the A.C.P. leadership to speak at the Annual General Meeting. As the time approached I felt full of trepidation. For me, speaking to an audience of peers is daunting. Looking at his troops drawn up for the Peninsular War the Duke of Wellington exclaimed: “I don’t know what they will do for the enemy but, my God, they frighten me!”
In offering these random reflections I don’t pretend to any great expertise. I have not written any books. In the main I will tell my own story, if only because it is the one I know best.
Like most priests in Ireland I am merely a hod carrier for the Kingdom. We have no real input into leadership decisions. We in the ACP found that out once again when the hierarchy dismissed our concerns about the conservative theology and the exclusivist male tone of the new Roman Missal as first premature and then irrelevant. Ogden Nash in the Unknown Citizen wrote: “When they were for peace he was for peace; When they were for war he went.” That’s us.
Most of my working life has been spent as a school chaplain and priest in a parish – I resist the term ‘parish priest’ because for me it has some pejorative connotations. I have lived largely in the Mullet peninsula in Mayo, where in the words of the Saw Doctors’ song ‘the Atlantic kisses Ireland’. ‘Labouring in the vineyard’ some of my sentimental colleagues call it. I am often amused by the way in which priests use biblical clichés to obscure reality.
The Mullet peninsula is a place of stark beauty, even in winter when the wind and rain can have a Siberian asperity. But a vineyard? Only global warming of epic proportions will create a vineyard under Erris Head.
So my experience is rather limited. What I have to say has no validity beyond my experience. It is not a work of theological or sociological analysis. Nor do I have a grand plan that can cure our ills. I recall the old fable where the hippo falls hopelessly in love with the butterfly. He goes to the wise old owl who advises him he must become like the butterfly if he is to have any luck in love. He goes off happily but realises as he tramps along that he has no plan as to how to bring this about. So back he goes to the owl who dismisses him saying that he only outlines policy, he does not implement.
Elaborate plans can be beyond our ability to realize. What was it that Woody Allen said about God – something to the effect that no, he is not dead, but living quietly in Paris and working on a much less ambitious project.
Loving the sea air, as I do, a few days after our last meeting in Portlaoise I walked Cross Beach near my home. It was the 7th of June, the thirtieth anniversary of my ordination. Beside Cross Beach is Cross Abbey, a fragile, elegant, medieval ruin, tottering precariously on the edge of the Atlantic, a reminder that all things pass. It looks out on the wondrous island of Inis Gluaire where according to legend the bell for St. Brendan’s Mass freed the children of Lir from their feathered imprisonment. Conscious of the day that was in it my thought strayed to a poem of Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach, where I reflected on the following lines:
“The sea of faith was once too at the full and round earth’s share,
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d,
But now I only hear its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating to the breath of the night wind down the vast edges
Drear and naked shingles to the world”
The words struck a chord with me. Substitute Cross Beach for Dover Beach and Catholicism for faith. In my thirty years as a priest the sea of Catholicism has receded. I have heard its long, withdrawing roar.
As a priest I have worked in a crumbling church. In 1981 it seemed as if it might be different. Ordinations were still frequent enough not to inspire any great excitement beyond a photograph and a paragraph of purple prose in the local newspaper. Our bishop Dr. McDonnell ensured that the four of us to be ordained did not lose the run of ourselves. To put it mildly he was not noted for liturgical enthusiasm. He had made the economic use of words into an art form. He introduced the ceremony thus: “This is a great day for the diocese of Killala. Four young men are to be ordained to priesthood. Now let us call to mind our sins.”
In retrospect 1981 was a placid time for Irish Catholicism. The golden glow of the papal visit still enveloped the institution. Now we recognise it to have been the last Ard Fheis of traditional Irish Catholicism. It induced a sense of complacency mixed with hubris – a deadly combination, as many sports teams have reason to know. The Irish people, it seemed, would remain semper fidelis, always faithful, without the complications of fresh thinking and renewed structures.
So, what happened? The historian George Dangerfield once wrote of the strange death of liberal England. We have witness the slow and sometimes strange last agony of traditional Irish Catholicism. Basking in the reflected glow of papal adulation and believing that the words of that awful hymn – a title for which there is much competition – that ‘he has got the whole world in his hands’ also applied to them, Church leaders left out of their calculations the effects of social change. In the age of the sat nav they hung on to antiquarian maps.
Since the late 1950’s Ireland had been going through a profound transformation. Sean Lemass as Taoiseach abandoned the tattered remnants of deValera’s arcadian vision. (Dev’s grandson seems bent on gathering them around him again!) Factories spread through the land. Lemass sought to broaden our horizons by applying for membership of the European Economic Community. With a stroke of his ministerial pen Donagh O’Malley changed Ireland. He open up the avenues of second and third level education to thousands what had been excluded. RTE was established, bringing to an end what Professor Tom Inglis called “the long 19th century of Irish Catholicism”. One of my earliest memories is of television aerials sprouting like mushrooms on a humid autumn day in my home town of Ballina. People talked with varying degrees of agitation about what they had seen and heard on the Late, Late Show. The insights of feminism began to enter the national consciousness. Pop music came to dominate the airwaves – for Bridie Gallagher read The Beatles – and proved as popular as the pious continental devotions imported during the reign of Cardinal Cullen in the 19th century. John Montague caught the flavour of a changing world in his poem ‘The Seige of Mullingar’ about an early 60’s fleadh cheoil:
At the Fleadh Cheoil in Mullingar
There were two sounds, the breaking of glass and the background pulse of music.
Young girls roamed the streets with eager faces, shoving for men. Bottles in hand, they rowed out a song, Puritan Ireland’s dead and gone,
A myth of O’Connor and O’Faolain.
Despite the promise of the Second Vatican Council to dialogue respectfully, imaginatively and generously with a changing world, the Church in Ireland failed to evolve a strategy that could learn from and contribute to the new consciousness.
The nature of the Church’s structures was a barrier to productive conversation. For the institution that had evolved over the previous two centuries – notwithstanding its considerable achievements – was authoritarian in structure, destructively clerical and obsessed with a narrow sexual morality. It is out of sync with the creative impulses of modernity. In its heyday it was impervious to dialogue. One might recall the forlorn efforts of Sean O’Faolain who passionately wanted a positive engagement between the Church and the artist. In a prophetic essay, published in 1947, in his book ‘The Irish’ he wrote: “In Ireland the Church holds her power by the old medieval bond of faith. She does not need political techniques as the Church in other more secularised countries does. In Ireland today priests and laity rest at ease. Only one group is held at arms length, the writers and intellectuals. (The writers know) that the intellectual struggle is upon Ireland’s doorstep. They want questions to be raised and answered. The Church relies on the weapon of rigid authority. It could do that as long as it was concerned with an Ireland protected and sheltered from the world. They see clearly that this isolation is now a dream. The tragedy of all this is, of course, that the priest and writer ought to be fighting side by side, if for nothing else than the rebuttal of the vulgarity that is pouring daily into the vacuum left in the popular mind by the dying out of the old traditional life. But there can be no such common ground as long as the priest follows the easy way of authority instead of discussion.”
O’Faolain was right. The intellectual challenge was on the Church’s doorstep. And the Church was not up to it. Used to the ‘easy way of authority’ it could not envisage the way of mutual dialogue. An authoritarian hierarchical structure is contemptuous of intellectual challenge and is fearful of leaps of the imagination. The consequences have flowed. You know the usual list. Church attendances have plummeted. Vocations to the priesthood and religious life have dropped so sharply that an ordination now excites almost as much awe as the sighting of the rare, red necked phalarope in Offaly in the summer of 2010. The continuation of vocation level at that which prevailed from the 1930’s to the 1960’s would have been unhealthy. It is, however, I suggest a sign of a Church in crisis that so few men and almost no women are prepared to offer it life time vocational service.
There is torpidity about the Catholic Church in Ireland today. Take the preparations for the forthcoming Eucharistic Congress. Whatever else can be said about the Dublin Congress of 1932, and much can be said, it was a festive fusion of triumphant Catholicism and Irish nationalism that engaged hearts and minds. Now earnest emissaries from the Congress office are travelling throughout the countryside valiantly trying to drum up some enthusiasm. I am reminded of the observation made of Willie Whitelaw, when he was making a tour of constituencies as deputy leader of the Tory Party that he was going around ‘stirring up apathy’. Or the exhortation of a now deceased Bishop of Meath, who in advance of the canonisation of Oliver Plunkett in 1975 asked the prosaic priests of his diocese “to horse up some piety” for the event.
The Church’s official theology of sexuality fails to resonate with the actual experience of human intimacy. Most Catholic couples ignore Humanae Vitae’s prohibition on contraception. I believe that Dr. Garrett Fitzgerald was right when he claimed that this encyclical was crucial in the undermining of the Church’s authority. People began to lose confidence in an institution whose teaching on this matter was so out of sync with their experience. It’s insistence on compulsory celibacy for clerics is of the same ilk. Its teaching on homosexuality has been heavily criticised, understandably, I suggest, for its insensitivity. And then there have been the scandals of the sexual abuse of children by priests and religious, followed by obfuscations, cover up, and carefully worded apologies. Howard Bleichner wrote in ‘A View from the Altar’: “By any measure the sexual abuse scandals have struck the Catholic Church in the U.S. with the force of a tsunami, dealing the Church the worst blow in living memory”. Equally so in Ireland. The Ferns, Ryan, Murphy and Cloyne reports, in their cumulative and compelling detail, highlight the acute level of dysfunction in the Church. I don’t sense that the majority of Catholic leaders in Ireland have actually got the extent of the breakdown in trust that these reports have engendered. The reports may not now dominate the daily headlines, but their effect has not gone away. I reckon that if Irish catholics had a democratic way of reflecting their feelings on the subject, Church leaders would suffer a defeat as cataclysmic as that administered to Fianna Fail in the recent general election. Church leadership now seems divided and rudderless. Not since the 19th century has there been such public disagreement among the bishops. Cardinal Cullen’s tridentine temple has come tumbling down. For those of us whose lives were shaped by the influence of free speech, democracy, accountability and respectful academic dialogue the Church has been a cold house for the last 30 years. For those of us who believed in the Vatican II style Church, and its prospects influenced my decision to study for the priesthood, there has been lots of disillusion.
It seems to me that there are two kinds of Catholic Churches in Ireland – the parish community where I work and find fulfilment and the institutional Church from which I often feel alienated. As a priest in a parish I am part of the biggest number of clerics. We go about our work quietly in the way evoked by Seamus Heaney “drinking tea and praising homemade bread”. We rarely make the headlines beyond the community notices buried at the back of the local paper. At a time when the institutional Church is in crisis we have held on to some shreds of credulity for it. As Bishop Willie Walsh has written: “People distinguish between image and reality. The reality for them is the priest they see on Sunday, the priest who visited mother in hospital, the priest who cried with us when we lost our child, the priest who didn’t pass our door even though we were not married in church”. We are still welcomed participants in local events. We are the ones who share the joy of couples and families at baptisms, weddings, first communions and confirmations. We are often privy to people’s pain. At times of death we are the ones who, in the words of the poet, Thomas Kinsella, “seek to give spiritual discipline to shapeless sorrow”. Many of us are involved in local organisations that help build community. We are the ones who usually turn up to things, even if we sometimes doubt the value of our presence. We resemble the priest of whom the Norwegian poet Knut Odegard wrote:
“Uncle Knut was a priest. He was a practical man, but Latin was Greek to him. He died after his retirement, he stood and dug the site for his new house when his heart gave way.
He was more an electrician than a preacher. He began all his speeches by saying ‘I’m not one for long speeches’, and he was right about that.
He did not really have much to teach his parishioners; they had their own troubles with their births, with their love and death. And he did not have words for such things.
But he had learnt how to repair electric wires and he visited people in their homes. And mended short circuits and defective fuse boxes, he screwed lamps into place.
And wherever he had been, there was light”.
So I am happy to live in a community where I feel respected and valued. You make friends. You learn from them. They learn from you. In theological terms it is a kind of incarnational exchange. And as the number of priest decline I wonder how long it will last. I recently heard a bishop glibly indicate our future. Soon priests, he said, will be operating a kind of West Doc service, living in a central location, offering basic services to several parishes. The intimate connection between priest and his people will be lost; our sustaining force.
John Butler Yeats once wrote of a priest who told him that on his return from a period away a parishioner was glad to see him back as she said “While you were away there was a colour of loneliness in the air”. The colour of loneliness will soon envelop our parish communities. It is a desolate vista. There must be a better way.
Graham Greene has written of the door which opens in childhood and lets the future in. In the sphere of religion that door for me was the Second Vatican Council. It promised a Church which would engage positively with the human condition in the modern world. It would contribute to the dialogue out of the wisdom of its lengthy tradition, but also learn from contemporary insights. I long for a Church in this mould. We need a new Council of the Church if only to recall for us the insights of the last one. As Seamus Mallon described the Good Friday agreement as Sunningdale for slow learners, so might the new Council be.
As the theologian Edward Schillebeecx has written:
“I do not begrudge any believer the right to describe and live out his belief in accordance with the old models of experience, culture and ideas but this attitude isolates the Church form any future and divests itself of any real missionary power.”
Such a Church would open its doors to married priests and women priests. It would benefit from secular insights like, for example, on human intimacy and democracy. It would work at developing a healthy and an holistic theology of sexuality.
Unfortunately this is not happening. The glad, confident morning of the Second Vatican Council was a short one. In the aftermath hope was choked by the Vatican Curia. For over 30 years the Church has recoiled from reform and returned to the incense filled ghettoes in defence of its traditional hierarchical structure. Its procedures are archaic and cumbersome and precious, utterly out of sync with the ways of the democratic world. It is suspicious of lay involvement. Only those who are seen to conform to its narrow views are admitted to the temple. So bishops are chosen on the basis of being in favour of compulsory celibacy, adherence to clerical dress, docility to papal teaching and above all against contraception and the ordination of women. Loyalty is defined in old narrow terms. And it is so fearful of the feminine. Misogyny is dressed up in theological abstractions.
So there you have it. I started with Mathew Arnold. I will finish with him. He once wrote of wandering between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born. That is how it has been for me as a priest of the Catholic Church.
So I travel in hope, though I have not much hope. Given our fruitless pursuit of the Sam Maguire maybe that is the peculiar fate of the Mayo man. Cardinal Gibbons was a Mayo man who rose to be a liberal Cardinal in the 19th and early 20th century U.S.A. Of him it was written that he kept the door open to the future. Perhaps that should be the central imperative of the Association of Catholic Priests. Who knows where it might lead. As Leonard Cohen sings: “there is a crack in everything; that is how the light gets in.”