The Church in Ireland

Vatican II: Roman Catholic Church still deeply divided 50 years after historic reforms

Published on Saturday October 06, 2012

SANDRO CONTENTA/TORONTO STARRev. Seamus Ryan, 75, had Pope Benedict (in portrait) as an academic mentor in the 1960s. He was later invited to the Pope's exclusive annual gathering.
Sandro Contenta
Feature Writer 
DUBLIN, IRELAND—Rev. Seamus Ryan, a gentle Catholic priest on the verge of retirement, lives in a cluttered home next to St. Matthew’s Parish, where he ministers to a precipitously decreasing flock from the working-class neighbourhood of Ballyfermot.
On a September day that threatened rain, he sat with a cup of tea in a comfortable armchair, relaxing after having married a young couple. Baptisms, marriages and funerals still keep priests busy in Ireland. But Ryan takes little solace from a church reduced to what some call a “hatch, match and dispatch” service.
“People have lost contact with the church,” he says. “At the wedding today, they were no longer familiar with the responses. They’ve lost the language, even. There’s just a silence.”
It was all very different when Ryan became a priest in the early 1960s. The pews were packed. The Irish Catholic Church was arbiter of all things spiritual and most things temporal. It ran schools, towered over governments and dictated sexual mores with the menace of fire and brimstone and the whack of classroom rulers. At the most venerated sporting event in the land, the All-Ireland Gaelic football final, a bishop would toss out the game-opening ceremonial ball after team captains kissed his ring.
At 75, Ryan isn’t nostalgic for the church that was. He misses the church that could have been.
Five decades ago, Pope John XXIII challenged Roman Catholics to “throw open the windows of the church.” On Oct. 11, 1962, he inaugurated the Second Vatican Council, an extraordinary gathering of some 2,600 theologians, priests, bishops and cardinals. Its historic reforms redefined the church and its role in modern life.
They energized clerics and laity, unleashed an army of militants for social justice and helped make Roman Catholicism a global religion of more than 1 billion members.
“It was an extraordinary experience,” says British Columbia Bishop Remi De Roo, 88, who participated in Vatican II as a voting council father. “It was a great invitation to get out there and get our hands dirty and really get into the fray of history and work for transformation.”
The seeds of renewal, however, also developed into sources of deep discord. Fifty years later, the council’s reforms are the cause of a bitter clash between the Vatican and its conservative supporters on one side, and a growing rebellion from reform-minded priests and parishioners on the other.
“The major crisis in the church right now is we’re not talking to one another,” says theologian Margaret Lavin of Toronto’s Regis College. “We’re screaming and shouting at each other and naming and blaming one another.”
“It’s quite shameful and sinful that we have got ourselves into this,” she adds. “Why is my fellow believer calling me names because I have a specific interpretation of Vatican II?
“What credibility do we have if we can’t talk amongst ourselves?”
This summer, Oxford professor Diarmaid MacCulloch, a leading historian of Christianity, described the church on the verge of schism “over the Vatican’s failure to listen to European Catholics” about Vatican II. Few repeat that warning, and rebels insist they want to work within the church.
“I’m insulted when people call me a dissident,” says Rev. Brendan Hoban, a founder of the Irish reform group, the Association of Catholic Priests. “I’ve been at the heart of the church for 40 years.”
Still, many warn of a Roman Catholic Church reduced to a sect, or worse.
“The church has to listen to its people,” Hoban says. “The stakes are huge. This is about the implosion of a church. This is about something disappearing.”
In many ways, the church is being torn by a classic power struggle. Reformers say Vatican II calls for a more decentralized and democratic church; the Vatican has instead centralized control while cracking down on doctrinal opposition for the past 30 years.
A church in tune with modernity was a central theme of Vatican II, and reformers believe a more grassroots institution is the way to achieve that. In the process, doctrines preventing women from being ordained, priests from being married, contraceptives from being used and divorced Catholics from receiving communion must at least be reviewed, if not changed.
The backdrop to the battle is a Roman Catholic Church in crisis in Europe and North America. Vocations to the priesthood are drying up and sex abuse scandals reveal a hierarchy often more interested in protecting the institution than protecting children.
“The church is 200 years behind the times,” Cardinal Carlo Martini told an Italian journalist in comments he approved before his death in late August. “Why doesn’t it stir? Are we afraid?”
“Our culture has become old,” the highly respected cardinal added in his missive from the grave, “our churches and our religious houses are big and empty, the bureaucratic apparatus of the church grows, our rites and our dress are pompous.”
In this atmosphere of crisis, rebellious reform groups are multiplying. Hoban’s association began two years ago and already represents 1,000 of Ireland’s 4,500 priests. In Austria, a group called Preachers’ Initiative, which says it represents 10 per cent of the country’s Catholic priests, has issued a “Call to Disobedience” manifesto that demands the ordination of women and an end to priestly celibacy. Groups in Germany and the United States are making similar noises.
Parishioners are making themselves heard, too. In Ireland, where the church faces its most dire survival challenge, lay Catholics are in the throes of forming an umbrella group that brings together existing reform organizations, such as We Are Church, and parishioners active for the first time.
“For too long we’ve had no say in the church,” says Noel McCann, 61, a member of the fledging organization’s steering committee. “It’s time that the rights and roles of the baptized be recognized and given an appropriate place.”
McCann has been a churchgoer in Howth, near Dublin, for much of his life. For years he helped celebrate Sunday mass with bible readings. If a church event needed organizing, McCann was there. Then the sex abuse scandals shook Ireland, the faithful left in droves, and McCann witnessed a church “very slow to apologize.”
The final straw for McCann came when the Vatican introduced a new translation of the mass late last year without consultations. Some priests have described the new wording as sexist and awkward, and are refusing to use it.
“People won’t come back to a church that is totally clerically based and hierarchical, that marginalizes women or divorced people or gays,” says McCann, a retired commandant in the Irish military. “I don’t think Jesus would have marginalized these people. That wasn’t his message.”
“We’re not arguing for women priests or married priests, but we want those issues addressed,” he adds. “This is our last chance. If we don’t do something about this, in 20 or 25 years there won’t be anything left of the church.”
Pope Benedict XVI, whose pontificate has been marked by missteps, scandal and jostling to succeed him, has responded with a characteristic No. He has silenced dissident priests, and in his Holy Thursday homily this spring, told rebels to practice a “radicalism of obedience.”
In April, the Vatican cracked down on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which focuses on issues of social justice and represents 80 per cent of U.S. nuns. The Vatican department that once led the Inquisition accused the nuns of espousing “radical feminist” views, of violating church teachings on homosexuality and the ordination of women, and of staying silent about abortion. It appointed a team of bishops to straighten out the nuns’ “doctrinal confusion.”
The nuns responded with respectful defiance. Their work for alternatives to patriarchy and unbridled competition, they insisted, is “heeding the call of Vatican II.” In August, the group’s outgoing president said the Vatican’s move triggered a “groundswell of support” for the nuns from priests and laity.
“Clearly, they share our concern at the intolerance of dissent,” Pat Farrell told the group’s general assembly in St. Louis, “(and) the continued curtailing of the role of women.”
Increasing the anxiety of reformers is the Pope’s push to bring the ultra-conservative Society of St. Pius X — cast out because it rejects Vatican II — back into the fold. Benedict lifted the excommunication of its four bishops, including one who denies the Holocaust, as part of unity negotiations.
To Ryan, the Pope’s reaction is a bit of a mystery. He knew Benedict in the early 1960s, when the future pope was a professor of theology name Joseph Ratzinger. A large black-and-white photograph of a younger Ratzinger — handsome, with thick hair combed back — hangs framed on Ryan’s living room wall.
In 1963, a freshly ordained Ryan won a scholarship to the University of Munster in Germany. Ratzinger, who was 36 at the time, became his academic mentor.
Ratzinger was directly involved in Vatican II, working as theological adviser to Cardinal Josef Frings of Cologne, Germany. Ryan recalls him flying from council sessions to lectures at Munster, where he would update students on the talks in Rome. For the young graduate of the Maynooth national seminary near Dublin, Ratzinger was a revelation.
“At Maynooth the textbooks were 40 years old,” Ryan says. “We were studying the creation one day and the teacher, the head of theology, proudly told us he got two paragraphs further in the text than he did three years before. Can you imagine?
“Then I go to Germany and here’s Ratzinger quoting poetry. It was a joy listening to him. He was brilliant,” Ryan adds, his eyes brightening.
“The Irish bishops were coming home and saying, ‘People ought not to be disturbed by the council, we’re spending our time in prayer.’ But Ratzinger brought Vatican II alive. . . I really felt that this was the liberation of my kind of priesthood.”
For Ryan, Vatican II pointed the way to “a church that’s closer to the people; a church with a more human face.” It was a time full of hope and possibilities.
In 2005, Ratzinger was elected Pope after 24 years as the Vatican’s doctrinal enforcer, heading the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where he attracted names such as “Cardinal No” and “God’s Rottweiler.” He called himself Benedict XVI.
Ryan used the occasion to write in an Irish newspaper about his days with his illustrious mentor. Next thing Ryan knew, he was invited to Benedict’s exclusive annual gathering of some 40 theologians, most of them former doctoral students of Ratzinger’s.
Ratzinger has been holding the week-long gatherings for years. He chooses topics of discussion such as Islam and ecumenism. During his pontificate, they’ve been held at Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer residence.
“In one of the sessions,” Ryans says, “the sex abuse scandals had just erupted in Ireland and I was saying that the church that got us here will not be the church to take us where we now want to go. I feel very strongly about that.”
Ryan made clear that rigid hierarchy preventing lay people from playing the role Vatican II expects of them was one aspect that needed changing.
“And (Benedict) kind of corrected me. He said, ‘There are certain things in the church that cannot change!’ Now, I knew that, but I think he thought I was too radical in saying that,” Ryan says.
Asked if he detects a change in Ratzinger’s interpretation of Vatican II from his days as a Munster theologian, Ryan looked at the portrait of his one-time mentor: “What happens to a man when he gets imprisoned in that Vatican? It must do something to him.”
Pope John XXIII announced his plans for the Second Vatican Council on Jan. 25, 1959, three months after being elected. Bishops and cardinals were shocked.
Seventy-five-old Angelo Roncalli, the son of a sharecropper, succeeded Pius XII, whose pontificate had lasted 19 years. Cardinals largely assumed they were electing a transitional pope who would restrict himself to some tidying up. Besides, Vatican I had decided in 1870 that popes are infallible. So what was the point of talking?
The church Pope John inherited was described in a 1906 papal encyclical as an “unequal society” where “the one duty of the multitude is to allow themselves to be led, and, like a docile flock, to follow the pastors.” Roncalli understood the world had changed.
There had been two world wars and the horror of the Holocaust. The Cold War threatened nuclear annihilation, modern science and philosophy challenged church teachings, the sexual revolution dawned and decolonization opened spiritual markets beyond the church’s Western base. The church seemed terribly out of sync.
Pope John wanted the council “to address the whole world and not just the Catholic faithful,” theologian Lavin writes in her new book, Vatican II: Fifty Years of Evolution and Revolution in the Catholic Church. One of its main goals, she adds, was to “work for a better world and not simply a better church.”
It was the church’s 21st ecumenical council. Previous ones had been convened to debate and resolve matters of doctrine. Vatican II would instead be “pastoral,” focused on renewing how the church proclaimed the gospel — the way mass was celebrated, for example, and how sacraments like baptism were conducted.
It lasted three years. Sessions were held each fall in St. Peter’s Basilica, fitted with bleachers to accommodate participants. Pope John died eight months after it began and his successor, Pope Paul VI, completed what would eventually redefine the Roman Catholic Church.
Two words described the ambitious exercise: the Italian aggiornamento — updating — was used by Pope John when he announced the council. It largely meant adapting the church to modern times. The other, the French ressourcement, meant a return to the church’s sources; the gospel and the traditions of the early church. In other words, council fathers looked forward and back at the same time.
“This was the genius of the Second Vatican Council,” Lavin writes. “It moved the church into the modern world by going back and reminding itself of what the church was in the first place. . . In this sense, it changed not by presenting new doctrinal teaching, but by modifying its practice and mentality.”
The paradox would eventually develop into today’s deep divisions. During the council, however, extraordinary consensus emerged around the 16 documents voted. Dissent was restricted to a small group of arch-conservatives, including French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who established the Society of St. Pius X in 1970 and was excommunicated in 1988 along with four bishops he ordained.
“Fortunately, there is no crisis in the church,” Pope Paul told the Corriere della Sera newspaper as the council ended in December 1965. “Even the formation of two parties — the so-called progressives and non-progressives — is not a sign of disloyalty to the church. The discussions have all been for the good of the church. There have been no signs of defections or internal dissension.”
The council changed the language of the mass from Latin to the vernacular. It defined the church as the whole “people of God,” rather than an institutional hierarchy. It described lay people, for the first time, as part of the church’s structure and crucial to its survival. It enshrined the principle of “collegiality,” which suggested a decentralization of power.
The council also paved the way for historic talks with other religions by implying that salvation can be found outside of the Roman Catholic Church. It lifted the charge of deicide against the Jews and firmly deplored “displays of anti-Semitism.”
Finally, it set the stage for a church more engaged in social justice. It denounced war and called for the change of economic systems that benefit the few and leave many in squalor.
“The task of the church is to help to transform these structures so that all people can live in dignity,” Lavin writes, summarizing reforms noted in the Vatican II document, Gaudium et Spes. “Some reforms that could help in eliminating the roots of economic disparity are land reform, co-management, the right of workers to unionize and a just wage for all.”
It’s a stretch to see the council’s reforms as radical. But much was done in the name of “the spirit of Vatican II” — a notion fuelled by progressive social winds of the time.
Rev. Richard Delahunty, parish priest of Dublin’s Our Lady of the Assumption, experienced its impact. From 1968 to 2002, he was a Redemptorist missionary in Brazil, first in the midwest and later in the northeastern part of the country.
He arrived the year of the Medellin conference in Columbia, called by Latin American bishops to discuss Vatican II. Spearheaded by Brazilian Archbishop Helder Camara, a key figure at the council, the conference spoke of a church “listening to the cry of the poor and becoming the interpreter of their anguish.”
It gave birth to liberation theology, a Marx-inspired movement that cast Jesus Christ in the role of revolutionary. It focused on social justice and resulted in some priests backing revolutionary struggles.
Delahunty describes the movement as “linking day-to-day life with the word of God.” He and his colleagues helped fight land grabs, organized youth groups and unions, and trained people to be community leaders.
“Awakening of consciousness used to be a big phrase at the time,” says Delahunty, a tall, robust 71-year-old with glasses. “It was about getting people to believe in themselves.”
Brazil’s military dictatorship made that dangerous work. “I would hear of refrigerated trucks bringing bodies north,” says Delahunty, who became superior of 40 Redemptorists in Brazil in 1979. A rural guerrilla war was under way and Redemptorists would at times hide wanted men. Some priests were accused of being communists, jailed and tortured.
“Sometimes I would have be aware of what our men were doing and other times I told them I didn’t want to be aware,” Delahunty says.
In 1972, Pope Paul VI expressed concerned about the church Vatican II had unleashed, prompted, church historians believe, by a curia fearful of losing power. He described the church as wracked with doubt, dissatisfaction and confrontation.
“Satan’s smoke has made its way into the temple of God through some crack,” he said in a homily.
By then, reformers who had found common cause during Vatican II had split into factions.
“After the council, the ressourcement people were fearful that the aggiornamento people were selling out the traditions of the church,” says American theologian, Charles Curran, adding that Ratzinger was squarely in the traditionalist camp.
The election of John Paul II in 1978, the most charismatic pope in modern times, began a steady and firm clampdown on progressives.
On one hand, John Paul II gave full breathe to the Second Vatican Council’s ecumenical thrust, becoming the first pope, for example, to visit a synagogue. On the other, he centralized power in Rome and imposed a more conservative church, particularly in matters of doctrine. Ratzinger was his point man.
Key theologians were disciplined, including Rev. Hans Kung, a high-profile reformer and Vatican II participant. He rejected the doctrine of papal infallibility and was banned from teaching Catholic theology. In 1984, Ratzinger imposed a year of silence on leading liberation theologian Leonardo Boff, a Franciscan priest who was also suspended from religious duties. Faced with further punishment in 1992, Boff left the priesthood. In 1986, Ratzinger banned Curran from teaching at Catholic universities because of his contrary views on sexuality, including his rejection of the ban on contraceptives.
The Vatican mainly reasserted control through the appointment of conservative-minded bishops, who, as Curran puts it, “never once challenged any church teaching.”
Delahunty saw its effect in Brazil.
“What surprised me was how a group in Rome could be so negative at times toward a very serious group of bishops in Latin America in general and in Brazil in particular,” Delahunty says. “John Paul II, with all his charisma, (had) a kind of suspicion of what was happening, that it was ‘merely’ social action.”
The activist bishops were not anti-Vatican. Yet, one by one, they were replaced by people “chosen with obedience to Rome being a big hallmark,” Delahunty says. The most striking example came in 1985, when, as required by canon law, Camara resigned as archbishop of Recife at the age of 75. He was replaced by Jose Cardoso Sobrinho, an ultra-conservative accused of eventually dismantling what had become known as Camara’s “church of the poor.” Some of the activist work priests were doing stopped.
“The appointment of (Camara’s) successor was a disgrace,” Delahunty says flatly.
In 2009, Sobrinho was widely criticized for excommunicating a 9-year-old girl who got a legal abortion. She had been raped by her stepfather. Her mother, who helped the girl, was also excommunicated. Sobrinho described abortion as “a silent Holocaust.”
As Pope, Ratzinger reinforced the conservative momentum. He eased restrictions against celebrating mass in Latin, ushering in the return of a Good Friday prayer that calls for the conversion of Jews.
In 2009, he lifted the excommunication of bishops with the Society of St. Pius X, which continues to hold Jews responsible for the killing of Christ. Days later, one of them, the Briton Richard Williamson, publicly denied the existence of the gas chambers used in the Holocaust. The outrage that followed forced Benedict to admit that progressives in the church were now in open revolt.
“Some groups,” he lamented in a letter to bishops, “openly accused the Pope of wanting to turn back the clock to before the (Second Vatican) Council: as a result, an avalanche of protests was unleashed, whose bitterness laid bare wounds deeper than those of the present moment.”
The Pope added that the Society of St. Pius X must accept Vatican II if it hoped to return to the church. But he rejected any interpretation of the council as a break with the past.
“Some of those who put themselves forward as great defenders of the council also need to be reminded that Vatican II embraces the entire doctrinal history of the church,” the Pope wrote. “Anyone who wishes to be obedient to the council has to accept the faith professed over the centuries, and cannot sever the roots from which the tree draws its life.”
Rev. Gilles Routhier, a theologian at Laval University and an expert on Vatican II, argues that behind the Pope’s effort to avoid a schism with the society is this Vatican calculation: “Liberal Catholicism is in any event a lost cause. It’s a Catholicism that no longer attracts vocations; it’s a Catholicism that’s losing speed, that no longer has people practicing. . . Vocations are found in a more demanding Catholicism, a fundamentalist one. Therefore, we don’t sacrifice much by sacrificing these progressive eccentrics.”
It’s a calculation Routhier rejects, insisting it’s opposed to a central theme of Vatican II — adapting the church to modern times.
“When confronted with changing times, the temptation of all religions is to retrench and reconstitute themselves as groups opposing that culture,” Routhier argues. “The danger for the Catholic Church is that it marginalizes itself and simply becomes sectarian.”
What’s clear is that Benedict believes a good dose of doctrinal discipline is required.
When the sex abuse scandals erupted in Ireland, he wrote an open letter to Irish Catholics that partly blamed pedophile priests on council reforms being “misinterpreted.” He said penalties under canon law were avoided and priests adopted “ways of thinking and assessing secular realities without sufficient reference to the gospel.”
That, too, scandalized reformers.
Nowhere is the battle and crisis more apparent than in Ireland. Nowhere has the church fallen so much, so fast.
“The church has lost the confidence of its own members,” says Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, who compares the scale of change to Quebecers turning away en masse from the church during the “Quiet Revolution” of the 1960s.
In the 2011 census, 84 per cent of Ireland’s 4.5 million people described themselves as Catholic. In the 1960s, almost all Catholics went to mass. In June, a survey found 34 per cent of Catholics say they attend mass once a week. In Dublin, the archdiocese says 14 per cent attend a service on the weekend. In some parishes it’s 2 per cent, and most are elderly. Collections are at a trickle and church maintenance costs are rising.
In different studies, Dublin sociologists Betty Hilliard and Tom Inglis have argued that the change began with women regaining control of their sexuality. During the 1970s, mothers began urging daughters to choose education over uncontrolled fertility. And they stopped pushing children toward religious vocations.
Globalization and economic growth further changed attitudes. Then came the most devastating blow: since 2005, four government inquiries have revealed extensive sex abuse of children by priests over a 60-year period, and shocking cases of indifference or coverup by church authorities.
In the Dublin archdiocese, 98 priests have been accused of sexual abuse. Ten of them have been convicted in court. So far, 199 civil suits have been launched. They cost the diocese 10.3 million euros in settlements and 4.9 million euros in legal fees.
The 2011 Cloyne report revealed a secret letter from the Vatican which, the report said, “effectively gave Irish bishops the freedom to ignore” sex abuse guidelines drafted in 1996. The letter sternly warned that the obligation to report abuse to civil authorities might violate canon law.
Shortly after the report’s release, Prime Minister Enda Kenny rose in the Irish parliament to denounce a Vatican culture dominated by “disconnection, elitism (and) narcissism.”
The state itself, however, is not blameless.
Colm O’Gorman was sexually abused by a priest for 2-1/2 years, beginning when he was 14. “It made me feel that everything I was told about the world was a lie,” he says. He left home and slept on the streets before picking himself up and founding One in Four, an agency that supports victims of sexual abuse.
In 1995, he went to police with accusations against his abuser, Rev. Sean Fortune. Other victims came forward, and the priest committed suicide in the first week of his trial. The case resulted in the first government inquiry into clerical sex abuse. O’Gorman sued the pope and won a 300,000-euro settlement.
Today, O’Gorman heads the Irish branch of Amnesty International. Last year it issued a 430-page report, In Plain Sight, detailing not only the church’s responsibility, but also how the state failed to investigate and prosecute allegations of sex abuse against children.
“We weren’t a country that questioned power,” O’Gorman says. “The authority the church had in Ireland was an authority granted by us, and those who came before us. We handed that over and we need to reclaim that.”
A notorious serial abuser was Rev. Tony Walsh, a popular Elvis impersonator dubbed “the singing priest.” Allegations against him began when he was in the seminary. In 1978, the year he was ordained, he was posted at Our Lady of the Assumption, which Delahunty now runs in Ballyfermot, a Dublin neighbourhood where people struggle with unemployment and crime.
The church was built with cement blocks along a traffic circle in 1953. It’s rafters are exposed and it would feel a bit like a hangar were it not for a ceiling painted a warm blue and walls a warm red.
Walsh would abuse children next to the altar, where there now hangs a long banner with words of Jesus: “Love one another just as I have loved you.” Within months of his arrival, a complaint that he sexually abused a child reached the archbishop’s office.
By 1985, seven priests, as well as an archbishop and bishop, knew of sex abuse allegations against Walsh. When church authorities investigated, Walsh admitted to abusing three children. Yet he was transferred to another parish “to avoid further scandal,” a government reports says. He left with an archbishop’s letter: “I take this opportunity to thank you for your dedicated work in Ballyfermot.”
His housekeeper at the new parish told church authorities of boys sleeping overnight in his room, of condoms and syringes found there, and of Walsh “using” her underwear.
He was sent to counselling in 1988 and was finally thrown out of the priesthood in 1996. A government inquiry said it knew of 40 people who had complained of child sexual abuse by Walsh. “He has admitted to using children for sexual gratification once a fortnight over an eight-year period,” it concluded. In 2010, Walsh was convicted and sentenced to 16 years in prison for sexually abusing three boys.
Not surprisingly, attendance at Our Lady of the Assumption has suffered. Before the sex abuse became widely known, its 1,600 seats were packed. On a recent Sunday, about 150 were at the 11 a.m. service, most of them with grey or white hair.
Hoban, the co-founder of the reform group of priests, insists the sex abuse would have been sharply reduced, if not eliminated, if Vatican II had been implemented.
“A key part of Vatican II was that the church of the future was a people’s church,” he says. “The people are the church and the structures should give life to that theory.
“Decisions should not be made by a group of celibate men in Rome but by people representative of the church right across the board, including lay people.”
If mothers and fathers were included in decisions about clerical sex abuse, Hoban adds, you can bet those priests would not have been transferred to other parishes, where they preyed on more children.
Archbishop Martin is widely credited with bringing a different tone to the church hierarchy. He handed over 60,000 documents from the diocese to a government inquiry and held a service of atonement, where he washed the feet of sex abuse victims.
Still, all priests are paying a price. Wearing a Roman collar in public has become a test of courage, if not a test of faith. Even an elderly priest like Seamus Ryan isn’t spared. One day, he hurried out of his Dublin parish, also in Ballyfermot, to reach the post office before it closed.
“You see, I had my collar on because I just rushed out with my letter,” he says. “These three fellas come up against me on the street and one of them says, at the top of his voice, ‘Oh, another effing pedophile.’
“My instinct was to say, ‘Do you really know me?’ But it was a bit fearsome because these big fellows could just whack you. So I didn’t say anything.”
Another day, Ryan found himself in the lobby of a hotel.
“I was going to the toilet and this boy was going to the toilet, too,” he says. “And his mother saw me and she raced after her son and pulled him back. Oh God — you feel so terrible. Honest to God that was awful. I’ll never forget that.”
Jane Mellett, a pastoral worker at Our Lady of the Assumption parish, hesitates to even admit she’s connected to the church.
“I’m out at a pub chatting with someone and I’m thinking, ‘Please don’t ask me what I do,’” says Mellett, 33, who says she cherishes the church’s social work with the poor and would have happily become a priest years ago if the church allowed it.
“A lot of my friends think I’m half-cracked,” she says, referring to her work and strong Catholic belief. “I’ve got a friend who wears a T-shirt that says, ‘So many Christians, so few lions.’ It really annoys me. When he wears it I’m like, ‘You wouldn’t wear it if it said Jews or Muslims.’”
Hoban puts it bluntly: “Priests have become almost demonized in Ireland.”
Hoban’s parish of St. Cormac’s is in Moygownagh, a rural community of 150 homes in western Ireland. The name in Gaelic means “the plain of the cows.”
The only pub, grocery store and post office are all in the same building, outside of which are two gas pumps. There were splashes of excitement in September, with red and green flags noting County Mayo’s first appearance in 60 years in the All-Ireland Gaelic football final. But young people are moving to the city and the place is slowly dying. One primary school is set to close; the remaining one has 55 children.
Hoban lives in a comfortable church-owned Victorian home on three hectares of land. He thought at one point it could have been sold to pay for the 300,000 euros needed to restore his parish. Hoban is 64 and won’t likely be replaced when he retires. Parishioners know it. They admire his passion for reform, and if it breathes new life in the parish, all the better.
The average age of Ireland’s 4,400 priests is 64. Retirement age for priests is 75. Last year, six men were ordained. This year, 12 seminarians began their studies at Ireland’s national seminary, St. Patrick’s College Maynooth. It has a total of 64 seminarians.
In Hoban’s diocese of Killala, 30 priests work in 22 parishes. In 20 years it’s expected there will be eight. At what stage, Hoban wonders, will there be no priests left in Ireland to celebrate mass?
Is it sensible, then, that in one western parish seven priests have been banned from practicing because they’re married, Hoban asks. Particularly since the Vatican allows married Anglican priests to become Catholic priests.
Likewise, the ordination of women and the dumping of celibacy becomes a matter of church survival, Hoban argues. Still, those reforms are not included in the Association of Catholic Priest’s manifesto, which simply calls for a “re-evaluation of Catholic sexual teaching” in ways that reflect the experience of ordinary people.
“We’re not going to give people sticks to beat us up with,” says Hoban, sitting in his sunny living room.
Five priests in the association have already been silenced by the Vatican or told to submit all writings to Rome for approval. The Vatican ordered the association’s co-founder, Rev. Tony Flannery, to stop writing a monthly magazine column, apparently because of his views on contraception, celibacy and women’s ordination. It advised him to go to a monastery for prayer and reflection.
At what Dubliners call the archbishop’s “palace,” Martin says the Irish church is in the middle of a “culture war.” The Association of Catholic Priests, he says, is a voice among others on the battlefield.
“I celebrated a mass on Sunday for the Latin rite traditionalists — it’s another world. But they have more people coming to mass; they have 500 every Sunday,” he says.
“We need areas of dialogue, but it would still be difficult,” he adds. “The people I was with on Sunday — put them together with the Association of Catholic Priests (and) I don’t know who would win the battle but there would be a battle.”
He agrees that a more decentralized church would have made it more difficult for child abusers to continue operating. But talk of different power structures isn’t enough. He says the question to ask is, “What sort of church is compatible with the change in Irish society?” And the answer must have limits.
“In the Catholic Church, it isn’t that everything goes,” he says. “You can’t just make up your own church. We don’t own the faith; I don’t as a bishop, nor does the pope. Faith is a gift, and we receive the gift. But I don’t receive it just for my own interpretation.”
The key is to reach out to young people, Martin says, and confront the fact the church is no longer transmitting the faith. “Young people come out of Catholic schools and they don’t know the Our Father,” he complains.
“What I want to see is a faith formation that treats people as adults, that helps them live their faith in the adult world,” Martin adds, describing a Catholicism that inspires in the home and at the office. “Your faith isn’t about what you do on Sunday.”
Hoban believes that kind of Catholicism must respond to what Pope John XXIII, citing Jesus, called the “signs of the times.”
A survey earlier this year commissioned by his association found that 87 per cent of Irish Catholics disagreed with the church’s ban on married priests, 77 per cent thought women should be ordained, and 60 per cent disagreed with church teachings that gay relationships are immoral.
“My predecessors used to tell people how to vote,” Hoban says. “Now people are much more educated than priests.”
“The Second Vatican Council was not the reason I went to Maynooth,” he adds, referring to the Dublin-area seminary, “but it is the reason I stayed.
“My generation feels betrayed,” Hoban says. “I feel we have been sold a dummy. We were told, ‘This is what the church would be,’ and then it was blocked.”


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