Dissent from the Church’s teaching can never offer an authentic path to Church renewal, the Vatican’s apostolic visitation to Ireland has warned.
In a summary report issued March 20, the Holy See also praises the enduring faith of Irish Catholics in the midst of the clerical sexual abuse scandals.
The apostolic visitation was ordered by Pope Benedict XVI in a March 2010 pastoral letter to the Catholics of Ireland as a means to assist the Church in Ireland “on her path of renewal.”
The Holy See used the seven-page report on the visitation’s findings to re-echo “the sense of dismay and betrayal…regarding the sinful and criminal acts that were at the root of this particular crisis.”
The Church in Ireland has struggled to come to terms with revelations of abuse of minors by priests and religious, as well as the subsequent decades of inaction and cover-ups by some bishops and religious superiors. The visitation report notes that “with a great sense of pain and shame, it must be acknowledged that within the Christian community innocent young people were abused by clerics and religious to whose care they had been entrusted, while those who should have exercised vigilance often failed to do so effectively.”
However, while the report gives a lot of attention to victims and the continued need for Church leaders to reach out to those who have been abused, the renewal of the Church in Ireland appears at the heart of the document. It points out that “healing, reparation, and renewal” are what Pope Benedict XVI “so eagerly desires for the beloved Church in Ireland.”
Changes to seminary life
The visitation to Irish seminaries—which was led by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York—noted that while “there are dedicated formators in Irish seminaries committed to the work of priestly training,” bishops needed “to show greater concern for the intellectual formation of seminarians, ensuring that it is in full conformity with the Church’s Magisterium.”
The Holy See reported that while the seminarians themselves “were generally praised for their human and spiritual qualities and for their motivation and commitment to the Church and her mission,” it is imperative that the seminaries offer “a more systematic preparation for a life of priestly celibacy by maintaining a proper equilibrium between human, spiritual, and ecclesial dimensions.”
On a practical level, the visitation recommended that “the seminary buildings be exclusively for seminarians of the local Church and those preparing them for the priesthood, to ensure a well-founded priestly identity.” This is a reference to the national seminary St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, which shares a campus with an 8,000-student secular university dedicated to science and the liberal arts. Earlier this year doors were installed on St. Patrick’s main cloister to partition the seminarians’ living quarters from the rest of the campus. Only members of the seminary community have keys to these doors.
Responding to the visitation’s report regarding changes to seminary life, Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin said the measures did not mean that seminarians would be “locked up.”
“It isn’t cloistered life,” he said. “In a seminary, there must also be that space where the specific formation of priest can take place, and that requires a certain period of time and formation and community.”
Rector of the national seminary Msgr. Hugh Connolly said aspirants for the priesthood needed a place to pray and study, and to have “balance” with their day-to-day lives and preparing for the priesthood.
“Seminarians should continue to have a broad range of experiences,” he said. “They need to have a place to call their own but not to withdraw them from the world.”
Msgr. Connolly told Catholic World Report that he is “trying to get the balance right between the need for the seminary to be a distinctive, prayerful community and [ensuring] that the seminarians have all the benefits that the Maynooth campus has to offer.”
“It is all about striking that balance,” he said. “Seminarians are training to be diocesan priests living in the world, not members of a monastic community.”
The report also specified that bishops must reinforce structures of episcopal governance over the seminaries, and called for the introduction of more consistent admission criteria that “would involve the seminary, in consultation with the dioceses, examining and deciding admissibility of candidates.”
Religious communities called to renewal
On the wider need for theological renewal in the Irish Church, the visitation encountered “a certain tendency, not dominant but nevertheless fairly widespread among priests, religious, and laity, to hold theological opinions at variance with the teachings of the Magisterium.”
“This serious situation requires particular attention, directed principally towards improved theological formation,” the report said.
The document goes on to emphasize that “dissent from the fundamental teachings of the Church is not the authentic path towards renewal.”
On the theme of renewal of religious life, the Holy See has asked religious congregations to begin a three-year reflection on their communities’ “fundamental sources, particularly the following of Christ as revealed in the Scriptures, and contained in the Apostolic Tradition of the Church’s teaching.”
Many Irish Catholics will be heartened by the report’s full acknowledgement of the damage that has been done to confidence in the Church as a result of the mishandling of the scandals. It notes, for example, that “over and above the suffering of the victims, the painful events of recent years have also opened many wounds within the Irish Catholic community.”
Many lay persons have experienced a loss of trust in their pastors. Many good priests and religious have felt unjustly tainted by association with the accused in the court of public opinion; some have not felt sufficiently defended by their bishops and superiors. Those same bishops and superiors have often felt isolated as they sought to confront the waves of indignation and at times they have found it difficult to agree on a common line of action.
There is also an acknowledgement that “this time of trial has also brought to light the continuing vitality of the Irish people’s faith.”
“The visitators have noted the exemplary way in which many bishops, priests, and religious live out their vocation, the human and spiritual bonds among the faithful at a time of crisis, the deep faith of many men and women, a remarkable level of lay involvement in the structures of child protection, and the heartfelt commitment shown by bishops and religious superiors in their task of serving the Christian community,” according to the report.
Structural changes to come?
On a structural level, the visitation report contains the strongest hint made yet that the number of Irish dioceses is set to be cut dramatically. Currently, seven of the country’s 26 Catholic dioceses are awaiting the appointment of a new bishop, raising speculation that amalgamations are on the horizon. The visitation report is circumspect, noting that visitators had “placed in question the present configuration of dioceses in Ireland and their ability to respond adequately to the challenges of the New Evangelization.” However, the document also notes that “the Holy See and the local episcopate have already initiated a joint reflection on this matter, in which the communities concerned are to be involved, with a view to adapting diocesan structures to make them better suited to the present-day mission of the Church in Ireland.”
It has long been argued that with a population of just six million people, 26 dioceses are just too many, and combining several dioceses would encourage renewal and growth to take place.
Prominent theologian Fr. Vincent Twomey, SVD points out that dioceses exist “to enable that collective enterprise to achieve its goal, which, in the case of the Church, is to carry out the mission entrusted to it by Jesus Christ.”
Fr. Twomey believes that smaller dioceses “create their own serious problems for the mission of the Church, namely the question of clerical cliques and dynasties within dioceses.”
“There are simply too many dioceses in Ireland, and most of them are too small,” Fr. Twomey insists.
Laying the groundwork for renewal
The visitation report also contains a call-to-arms of sorts for Irish Catholics to be more engaged with the secular culture in which they live. There is a “great need,” the report states, for “for the Irish Catholic community to make its voice heard in the media and to establish a proper relationship with those active in this field, for the sake of making known the truth of the Gospel and the Church’s life.”
This is surely a response to the often hostile tone of the Irish secular media in relation to the Church, exacerbated by some politicians who have sought to use the suffering of victims to push an agenda against the Church.
Above all, the apostolic visitation was about laying the groundwork for getting the Irish Church’s house in order, in a bid to restore public confidence. No one expects that this will happen overnight, or be achieved by the apostolic visitation alone. What the Holy See has made clear, however, is that even if the future of the Church in Ireland is characterized by smaller numbers than in the past, it must be a community of believers true to the Catholic tradition in the spirit of authentic renewal.