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 Proprio “Sacramentorum 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.