Back to the cloister – Brendan Hoban
Back to the cloister
You may remember that last year a number of Cardinals and Archbishops visited Ireland to investigate the Irish Catholic Church. They were asked to report to the Pope on what reforms were needed in the Irish Church in the wake of the child abuse scandals and how they were handled.
The word now is that their first report – on Irish seminaries – has beenreceived, though it has not been published officially. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York investigated Irish seminaries and from developments in Maynooth it would seem that his wish is that a distinctive community be created whereby seminarians can be differentiated from other students on the Maynooth university campus.
Already, it seems, the Maynooth authorities have taken steps in implementing this approach. Doors have been installed to partition the seminarians’ quarters from the rest of the campus; a separate entrance has been constructed at the rear of the seminary building; and there are proposals to build a separate dining hall. Back to the cloister?
Sometimes with the best will in the world experts can get things exactly wrong. And I fear that this is what has happened. It doesn¹t bode well for the other awaited reports. On the face of it closing down the shutters to cocoon student-priests seems not just like a failed strategy but a rejection of reason and common sense.
It seems more like sorting out the Irish Catholic Church along the new (old) lines rather than having anything to do with the reasons for the investigation in the first place. Who believes that creating a hothouse atmosphere along the pre-Vatican Two seminary lines will contribute to the protection of children? If history is to teach us anything, surely it’s quite the opposite. Keeping out the tide is a failed strategy. Better to teach people how to swim.
Exactly the opposite happened when I was in Maynooth over forty years ago. Then the approach, inspired by the wisdom of the Second Vatican Council, was to open up the windows and let the air blow through the dusty corridors. When I entered Maynooth in 1966, the seminary hadn¹t changed in a century and a half. It was, effectively, a kind of voluntary prison-camp. You couldn’t get out of the place unless you needed treatment for a medical complaint and even then you almost had to apply for a visa.
We all dressed in Roman collars and soutanes, all of our waking time. (We even wore soutanes over our football togs as we made our way to a match). There were no televisions; you couldn¹t have a bottle of Mi-Wadi in your room and the Western People (like other local papers) was banned. It was a weird existence, that effort to keep the world at bay and God only knows the effect it had on us – or the damage it did to us. We were being trained as monks – with a formation and spirituality to go with it – even though everyone knew that we¹d never see the inside of a monastery for the rest of our working lives.
Eventually reason prevailed and much of the old seminary structure was dismantled as seminarians were encouraged to take responsibility for their lives, to make adult choices, to understand the world in which we would seek to minister, to realise that pre-packaged answers (no matter how convincing they sounded in the hothouse atmosphere of the seminary) would butter very little toast after we were ordained.
Now, it seems, we¹re going back to the old wisdom – that seminaries need to be different. Student-priests will be taught how to say Mass in Latin. Holy Communion will be received on the tongue. Soutanes are back with a vengence and once ordained (or you become a black monsignor) you can wear a cummerbund (that’s a belly-band to the rest of us) over your soutane and under your surplice. There are unprintable comments for such patent nonsense.
You know it¹s becoming hard to blame a priest-friend of mine who surveys the restoration policies emanating from Rome and who wearily concludes that there’s a fate worse than retirement or even death and that’s coping with the new wisdom in our Church that isn’t so much out of touch as completely out to lunch. Craggy island rules. God help us all.
Some years ago when the Patten Commission in the North sought to reform the problematic RUC in order to usher in a new policing dispensation, Maurice Hayes, a shrewd observer, argued forcibly against training policemen and women in a hothouse atmosphere, away from the general community in which they would work. The worst thing, he argued, would be to create a separate educational institution, especially a separate residential educational institution, because such a strategy for the key formative years would lead to a detachment from the community.
This, in so far as we can judge, is exactly what’s going to happen (is already happening) in our seminaries. In my time we were encouraged to integrate with the general student body – few in numbers though they were then. We were encouraged to participate in inter-university debates. We were told to listen to the questions our contemporaries had, to suss out ‘the signs of the times¹, to measure our wisdom against the wisdom of the world so that we might minister effectively to the needs of our people. Now there’s an almost Gadarene rush back to the safety of the cloister as if in some way this will serve the needs of our Church in the future. We know that part of the problem with the Church’s failure to deal with the abuse scandals was that debilitating institutionally protective mind-set that the seminary did so much to form. We know that if we want to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ – which is what the Church is for – we need to immerse ourselves more and integrate more in the culture in which we minister. We know that we need open-minded and astute priests who will respect and be comfortable with the complexities of life today. And we know that priests trained as hothouse flowers and who parrot a received wisdom will be ineffective agents of the Good News in today¹s world. It isn’t as if we didn’t know all that. So how come, time and again, a small cadre of well-meaning but injudicious churchmen try to convince us about the wisdom of putting the tooth-paste back into the tube? Or does nothing matter anymore, apart from dismantling the vision of the Second Vatican Council and the memory of Blessed John XXIII?