Prepare to receive your visitors

As you’ll recall, a couple of months back Pope Benedict issued his pastoral letter to the Catholics of Ireland, addressing the sex abuse crisis. Of course, this has a broader application than just Ireland, which is why the letter is on the Vatican website in multiple languages, but as the epicentre of The Scandal, what happens here – specifically, what is done to clean up what Benedict calls “the filth” – should be taken as being exemplary for the universal Church. To put it bluntly, the situation here is so bad, the Emerald Isle gets to be the test case.

Which leads us to B16’s three-point action plan outlined at the end of his letter. The first point here was the year of prayer and penance, which should be the starting point for a spiritual organisation that’s gone so far astray. It’s a good idea, as far as it goes, although some very public acts of penance on the part of the clergy and particularly the hierarchy would be most welcome.

The second point was the proposal for a National Mission, in other words a boot camp for clergy. This is causing some elements of the Irish priesthood to go apeshit, and given the abysmal liturgical level here that’s not surprising. You don’t have to spend too long hanging around clerical circles to find reactions like

My God, have you seen what Benedict wants us to do? Prayer! Penance! Adoration of the Eucharist! What is this, the 1950s? We were trained to be social workers, not to waste time on all this sacramental guff! Whatever happened to the spirit of Vatican II?

I exaggerate a little, but not too much. This, remember, is the country where a priest can with impunity offer busy commuters a 15-minute Mass (what is he leaving out?) but where the Extraordinary Form remains effectively underground. This may only seem tangentially related to the abuse issue, but one of B16’s basic premises is that a renewal of Catholic identity can play an enormous role in fighting internal corruption.

Finally, there’s the apostolic visitation. This, for the uninitiated, is an in-depth inspection from head office which then reports back to the Pope with recommendations for change; and it’s this which has sent a shiver up the collective spine of the tainted Irish hierarchy. By way of comparison, there’s recently been a visitation concluded into the creepy Legionaries of Christ, the powerful and wealthy movement founded by the charismatic Mexican paedophile priest Fr Marcial Maciel Degollado. The current situation is that the Legionaries are on what Animal House aficionados would recognise as double secret probation, administered by a Vatican-appointed receiver, until Maciel’s old nemesis Ratzinger decides what to do with them. One option is to suppress the Legionaries altogether, although that would mean a huge headache in disposing of their €25bn assets. (As well as being monstrous in his personal life, Maciel was an incredible fundraiser. But then, what with paying off his victims and the mothers of his several children, he needed to be.) The other option is to thoroughly purge the Legionaries (most of the leadership having been as corrupt as Maciel) and reconstitute them as effectively a new organisation, minus the Maciel personality cult. That carries with it its own headaches.

But that is by the by, and mainly meant to illustrate what a big deal an apostolic visitation is. So we’ve been waiting for some time to find out the details of the Irish visitation, and who’ll be leading it. As it happens, the Holy See has chosen today, the Feast of the Visitation, to announce the five prelates who are being sent in as the crack cleanup squad. All are of Irish descent, and oddly enough, no fewer than three of them are bloggers. Here’s the statement from VIS:

Following the Holy Father’s Letter to the Catholics of Ireland, the Apostolic Visitation of certain Irish dioceses, seminaries and religious congregations will begin in autumn of this year.

Through this Visitation, the Holy See intends to offer assistance to the Bishops, clergy, religious and lay faithful as they seek to respond adequately to the situation caused by the tragic cases of abuse perpetrated by priests and religious upon minors. It is also intended to contribute to the desired spiritual and moral renewal that is already being vigorously pursued by the Church in Ireland.

The Apostolic Visitors will set out to explore more deeply questions concerning the handling of cases of abuse and the assistance owed to the victims; they will monitor the effectiveness of and seek possible improvements to the current procedures for preventing abuse, taking as their points of reference the Pontifical Motu ProprioSacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela” and the norms contained in Safeguarding Children: Standards and Guidance Document for the Catholic Church in Ireland, commissioned and produced by the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church.

The Visitation will begin in the four Metropolitan Archdioceses of Ireland (Armagh, Dublin, Cashel and Emly, and Tuam) and will then be extended to some other dioceses.

The Visitors named by the Holy Father for the dioceses are: His Eminence Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Emeritus Archbishop of Westminster, for the Archdiocese of Armagh; His Eminence Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston, for the Archdiocese of Dublin; the Most Reverend Thomas Christopher Collins, Archbishop of Toronto, for the Archdiocese of Cashel and Emly; the Most Reverend Terrence Thomas Prendergast, Archbishop of Ottawa, for the Archdiocese of Tuam.

In its desire to accompany the process of renewal of houses of formation for the future priests of the Church in Ireland, the Congregation for Catholic Education will coordinate the visitation of the Irish seminaries, including the Pontifical Irish College in Rome. While special attention will be given to the matters that occasioned the Apostolic Visitation, in the case of the seminaries it will cover all aspects of priestly formation. The Most Reverend Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, has been named Apostolic Visitor.

For its part, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life will organize the visitation of religious houses in two phases. Firstly it will conduct an enquiry by means of a questionnaire to be sent to all the Superiors of religious institutes present in Ireland, with a view to providing an accurate picture of the current situation and formulating plans for the observance and improvement of the norms contained in the “guidelines”. In the second phase, the Apostolic Visitors will be: the Reverend Joseph Tobin, CSsR and the Reverend Gero McLaughlin SJ for institutes of men; Sister Sharon Holland IHM and Sister Mairin McDonagh RJM for institutes of women. They will carry out a careful study, evaluating the results obtained from the questionnaire and the possible steps to be taken in the future in order to usher in a season of spiritual rebirth for religious life on the Island.

His Holiness invites all the members of the Irish Catholic community to support this fraternal initiative with their prayers. He invokes God’s blessings upon the Visitors, and upon all the Bishops, clergy, religious and lay faithful of Ireland, that the Visitation may be for them an occasion of renewed fervour in the Christian life, and that it may deepen their faith and strengthen their hope in Christ our Saviour.

All five are pretty high-profile figures, too, and there’s some specific expertise there, which demonstrates a bit of seriousness. I’m pleased about the two Americans, both of whom I rate highly. Cardinal Seán O’Malley, who’ll be taking charge of the Dublin end, is the guy who was drafted into the Boston archdiocese to clean up Bernard Law’s mess and has done a pretty good job of it. Meanwhile, Archbishop Tim Dolan of New York is one of the Church’s best communicators and would be one of the people I would immediately think of in terms of Catholic prelates who actually get how bad the abuse crisis is. He’ll be taking on seminaries and priestly formation – for a few clues as to his thoughts on the matter, check out his recent lecture at Maynooth. While he’s about it, Maynooth could do with a beady eye trained on it.

The two Canadians I know less about. Terry Prendergast is quite an eminent theologian, a pillar of the SJ, and also took part in an apostolic visitation of Canadian seminaries in the early 1990s, which may be useful. Tom Collins is well thought of as a quiet, prayerful and understated figure, which is just as well since he took over the Toronto gig from the (ahem) colourful Cardinal Alojzij Ambrožič. Interesting point about episcopal politics – since Ambrožič turned eighty at the start of the year, Anglophone Canada has been minus a cardinal elector, and it would be surprising if one or other of these two didn’t get a red hat at the next consistory. They’re prelates on the up, at any rate.

Finally, we have Val Doonican Cormac Murphy-O’Connor. I must be honest, I’m not so thrilled about this. Yes, +Cormac is a distinguished prince of the Church, and yes, he does have the background of presiding over the implementation of the post-Nolan child protection norms in England and Wales. And yet, he exemplifies the backslapping old-boys’-club school of ecclesial politics that’s done so much damage here. CMOC is taking the primatial see, which raises the question of whether Brady can be gently persuaded to get out of the way. Which, however, can’t be separated from the issue of who might replace Brady, and watch out for Noel Treanor angling for position.

That’s your cast of characters. What substance they’ll come up with as a result of the visitation is another matter. There is, as I’ve mentioned previously, the musing of B16’s friend and former student Fr Vincent Twomey on cutting down the number of Irish dioceses from the current twenty-six to something like eight. With quite a lot of episcopal retirements and resignations coming up, it’s entirely possible that vacancies will be left vacant. And, while the decline in vocations lessens the old problem of people getting into the priesthood who should never have been ordained, there’s still a big issue surrounding formation that Dolan will have to give some serious thought to.

I stick by my view that what’s needed is a cultural revolution in Irish Catholicism, possibly in tune with what B16 used to talk about when he was just Cardinal Ratzinger – a Church that may be smaller and leaner, but would be more rigorous and more faithful. Better fewer but better, as someone once said. But that’s a reflection for another day.


  1. June 1, 2010 at 12:11 pm

    this “visitors” commission reminds me a bit of post-1956 stalinists investigating the crimes in which most of them were deeply involved before 1953

  2. PamDirac said,

    June 1, 2010 at 7:15 pm

    Another analogy might be BP executives investigating BP’s role in the Gulf oil gusher.

    Dolan seems a very decent sort but his record in the abuse saga is a mixed one.

    Currently America’s nuns are also undergoing an apostolic anal probe at the behest of a cardinal suspicious of a “certain feminist spirit” at loose among the womenfolk, and a Sister Margaret McBride of Phoenix received an excommunication, a demotion, and a public scolding from her bishop for approving an abortion for a desperately ill mother.

  3. Fr Paul said,

    June 1, 2010 at 10:07 pm

    Cormac being sent to sort out an ecclesiastical mess? Holy shit! He can’t string a coherent sentence together, and he doesn’t know an altar boy’s are from a paedophile’s elbow.

  4. shane said,

    June 1, 2010 at 10:19 pm

    Archbishop Dolan is a charismatic figure but very much of the ‘JP2 generation’. Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor is a depressing choice but has handled the implementation of the Nolan recommendations well. It’s clear the Vatican’s priority here is to clean up the mess from the abuse scandals (which is good) but it’s not addressing the wider ‘cultural’ problem, which SS hints at – and the collapse of the Catholic Church in Ireland since the Second Vatican Council.

    Here are a few thoughts as to how I think the Church could procede…

    a) the average priest in Ireland was formed in the 60s and 70s, at the height of the post-conciliar fallout, when it was widely assumed rules on celibacy and contraception (to name just two) would be ditched. Many joined the priesthood anticipating that they’d soon be able to marry and that Church doctrine would radically change. It was also a time of liturgical anarchy and architectural philistinism. These priests are now the church Establishment and for all practical purposes should be written off as a lost cause. It’s hopelessly optimistic to believe you can ‘reform’ them by means of a ‘national mission’

    b) instead of seeking to change them, the Church must actively promote their resignations. Traditionally it was assumed that a priest who was ordained was sacrificing himself for life and a very low view was taken of those who didn’t, but because of the culture of the times, it means we have to be more lenient. The Pope should offer to dispense religious priests, who so wish, from their vows and, likewise, secular priests from their oaths. Instant laicisation should be offered to any priest who wants one. Indeed it should not be a mere offer, they should be actively encouraged to laicise. This would be an ideal way to get rid of some dead wood, and clean stables. Ideally we need about 95% of priests currently in ministry to resign in order to have at least some hope of restoring order.

    c) there are too many churches in Ireland and many will have to be abandoned fairly shortly because of a lack of man power. This includes the vast majority of churches currently being used. We need to identify what churches are unnecessary. Those that are of little architectural merit or historical significance should be sold and the money made put into a fund that can help both abuse victims, help priests and religious who want to resign and also the development of the Church. Within each diocese, we need to strategically plan central churches and close superfluous ones, while ensuring as much a fair and balanced distribution as possible.

    d) abolish, inter alia, the Irish Episcopal Conference, the National Centre for Liturgy, the Council for Ecumenism, the Council for Catechetics, the Episcopal Commission for Pastoral Renewal, the Episcopal Council for Immigrants, the Council for Marriage and the Family, the Commission for Justice and Social Affairs, the Episcopal Commission for the Missions, the Catholic Healthcare Commission, and the Council of Vocation Directors. All money saved (no doubt, tens of millions) can be put into the Fund.

    e) close Maynooth seminary (which is hopelessly beyond repair) and lease it out to the NUI. Send all seminarians to Rome, but massively reform the Irish college in a Thomistic and traditionalist direction.- ensuring an actual Catholic formation, rather than the half-assed nonsense currently inculcated

    f) force all bishops to resign. Even those who are not tainted by scandals need to go because every single one of them is incompetent. Rationalise dioceses down to about 8 (by amalgamation, not abolition). Appoint young foreign bishops, preferably not from the Anglosphere and necessarily traditionalist-ish, which would give the Church a new start and fresh image.

    g) transfer about 70-80% of schools under (nominal) episcopal patronage to Educate Together, Irish-medium sector, community groups etc, while again ensuring a balanced distribution. Then work out an agreement with the government to ensure the remaining schools can maintain a real Catholic ethos.

    h) abolish the so-called religious education in place, and return to the Penny Catechism ( Train a competent set of catechists to instruct children, instead of giving the task to teachers. Also establish centres of adult catechesis, which can also be based on the Penny Catechism. Promote the historic work and travails of Irish missionaries and the early Irish Church to help capture peoples’ imagination and restore a sense of identity. Reinstitute something along the lines of Radharc films to develop such documentaries. [it’s sad that we had to rely on RTE to produce that wonderful documentary on Irish missionaries a few months ago – the Church needs to be on the ball here]

    i) withdraw from all ecumenical and inter-faith initatives and organizations

    j) require secular priests to publicly wear their garb (clerical suit or soutane) and religious their habit

    k) restore and encourage traditional devotions, sodalities, and confraternities

    l) restore to the greatest extent possible all high altars, sanctuaries and statuary which fell victim to post-conciliar wreckovations

    m) actively encourage the Traditional Latin Mass, and plead with Traditionalist orders to send as many priests here as possible. Where the Novus Ordo is said, ensure that it’s done according to the books. Also devote resources to held train choirs and congregations in chanting the propers.

    n) abolish the right of communion in the hand, and the needless involvement of laity in liturgical functions. Abolish readers (lectors) and Extraordinary Ministers. Priests should give communion at the altar rail.

    o) commit to the eventual creation of an Irish Catholic University.

    • ejh said,

      June 2, 2010 at 11:48 am

      actively encourage the Traditional Latin Mass,

      Hurrah! Bring it on.

      • June 2, 2010 at 2:35 pm

        the latin mass has one advantage: you do not understand what the guy is talking

      • ejh said,

        June 2, 2010 at 3:11 pm

        Unless you have Latin.

        (Or indeed, since they’re not making it up as they go along, unless you’ve looked up a translation.)

      • WorldbyStorm said,

        June 2, 2010 at 7:05 pm

        Shane I genuinely understand your sincerity, and I always respect your opinions, but to be honest all that was tried before, it didn’t work, and it’s not going to work now (it’s rather like neilcaff says re fundamentalist market capitalism), bar making the Catholic Church on this island a tiny supposedly orthodox outfit talking to itself and its rapidly diminishing numbers rather than engaging with anyone else. I don’t believe that the Church is a reductionist as you suggest, in fact it reminds me of the old Neil Young lyric that you need a right and a left wing to fly. I have always believed the strength of the Church was in its breadth, its ability to encompass many strands – although preferably without antagonism between them – and so on.

        It’s also a pity how seemingly dismissive you are of people who vary even slightly from your proscriptions and who remain inside the Church doing what, by any standard, is a tough old gig these days. Your thoughts about how priests in the 60s and 70s expected to marry seem to me to be a little bit close to projection – no? I know quite a few of that generation and my sense is that those who really wanted marriage got out. Those who didn’t stayed in.

        There’s an awful lot of nostalgia at work here (not necessarily with you) I suspect for things that in truth didn’t really exist, or if they did they existed in somewhat different forms. I’m more than old enough to have experienced that in truth the wave of Vatican II never quite splashed across the Irish church – sure in one or two places there was a bit of trendiness – but in reality the sort of hyper devotion you seem to think characterised the past or the true face of the Church wasn’t the reality any more than the opposite – a crass anti-tradition liberalism – now is.

        Taking a practical example, I have no problem with the Latin Mass whatsoever, what I don’t think though is a solution is to impose that any more than one should forbid it.

    • neilcaff said,

      June 2, 2010 at 12:16 pm

      You know shane you kind of remind me of some of the free market fundamentalists who argue the financial crisis wasn’t caused by derugulation and free markets but because free markets weren’t derugulated enough!

    • shane said,

      June 2, 2010 at 7:01 pm

      or you could do like 99% of people do and use your missal

  5. Fr Paul said,

    June 1, 2010 at 10:36 pm

    wholesale restoration of the pre-conciliar status quo is not the answer. Where do you think the pathological character of Irish clericalism comes from in the first place?

    • shane said,

      June 2, 2010 at 1:18 am

      Clericalism comes from human pride, not adhering to the liturgical norms of the Church. Most clericalism from priests I have witnessed was exhibited by those who have championed the post-conciliar cause. Such as in Longford where the arrogant Council of Priests (which have no canonical standing) successfully lobbied the Bishop to ban provision for the Latin Mass, which had been established following repeated petitions from laity. The priests thought they knew better.

      Rome overturned his decision 🙂

  6. De Northside Socialist said,

    June 1, 2010 at 11:10 pm

    “There’s no reason to bring religion into it. I think we ought to have as great a regard for religion as we can, so as to keep it out of as many things as possible.”
    Sean O’Casey (1884-1964), Irish dramatist. Fluther Good, in The Plough and the Stars, act 1.

  7. Fr Paul said,

    June 1, 2010 at 11:30 pm

    The problem is precisely that it’s been kept for too long out of the one place where it belongs – the Catholic Church.

  8. Ciaran O'Brien said,

    June 2, 2010 at 11:26 pm

    Shane, are you Gerry McGeough in disguise?

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