Mass Boycott Was Foolish, but It Did Show Action Is Needed

By Garry O'Sullivan
September 27, 2010

Boycotting the Mass in Ireland was always going to be a flop; it's akin to asking people to boycott the GAA on Sunday. In terms of Irish rural politics, parish and pump rule supreme when it comes to God and local heroes.

Jennifer Sleeman (81) had called for the boycott after a letter in a national newspaper received widespread attention. However, the call was unwise and politically naive from a Church point of view.


At least 42pc of the population attend weekly Mass, not to prop up the bishops or errant priests, but to fulfill their religious obligation and to pray to their God. If the Catholic Church collapsed in the morning, their faith and the Mass would still continue. Also, many Catholics are at best lukewarm to the idea of women priests, and for good reasons.

What Ms Sleeman didn't factor into her campaign is that the last thing the Church in Ireland needs is more priests, male or female. What it needs are involved lay people who have a real say in the workings of the Church.

Cardinal Newman, beatified by the Pope last week, once famously said to Cardinals who wanted to 'include the laity' in their deliberations, that the "Church would look foolish without the laity". It was his riposte to the hubris of the clerical mind. By ordaining women, the clerical culture which has been so damaging to the Irish Church would be reinforced and solidified. The laity would find an equally cold shoulder from decision making whether the priest is a he or a she.

In the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People it suggests that people learn to operate in their sphere of influence. You cannot change an area of concern in which you do not have influence. In terms of women's ordination, every woman in the country could have boycotted Mass and it would have made not an iota of difference as the bishops here can, quite legitimately, say that it is up to the Pope to change that rule.


If Ms Sleeman really wanted to rock the Irish hierarchy she would have steered clear of the emotionally and spiritually sensitive subject of the Mass and organised 100,000 signatures calling for a Synod in the Irish national church. Canon law makes it clear that the Irish bishops cannot appeal to Rome on this, they have to make the decision themselves and an overwhelming call for debate and discussion would inevitably rollercoaster into some form of engagement with the laity.

Under Vatican 11, the laity have an obligation to make known what they think is important to the running of the Church.

If Ms Sleeman wants to beat the bishops at their own game, she ought to play by the rules.

When it comes to women's ordination, let's start at the things we can change. Right now in the Irish Church there is a crying need to be listened to and to have one's say.

The Pope has held up Cardinal Newman as a man who is a witness to the Christian life well lived. Yet Newman was a champion of the laity, and the exploration of faith and reason.

Irish society and the Irish Church are stuck in an adolescent 'either or' approach to religious debate. It is time that the Catholic hierarchy stopped running and actually engaged with people in the here and now.

What Jennifer Sleeman has done is raise a flag, however ineffectually, to show that Irish people are not prepared to lie down like croppies and take orders from above.

Cardinal Newman would be proud. It is a start.


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