Colum Kenny: What Difference Will Pope's Men Make?

Irish Independent
October 17, 2010

When the Pope's men arrive in Ireland, what difference will it make? And to whom will they listen? They are due here any time before the end of next month.

Ireland's Catholic archbishops clashed last week with the editor of Ireland's main Catholic newspaper, the Irish Catholic. Its editor, Garry O'Sullivan, had reported that they recently sought in Rome to limit the terms of reference of the planned Vatican inquiry. They describe his claim as "seriously misleading".

Pope Benedict XVI is sending two cardinals and three archbishops to investigate the Irish archdioceses and seminaries. Later will follow two priests and two nuns to visit religious congregations.

There is no lay presence among the papal representatives. With their names -- Murphy-O'Connor, O'Malley, Collins, Prendergast and Dolan -- his episcopal visitors sound like they could have romantic delusions about the old sod.

At St Patrick's College, Maynooth, last weekend, I walked corridors hung with massive and gloomy portraits of various princes of the Irish church.

Among the pictures, to my surprise, hangs a fresh and full-length painting of Cardinal Desmond Connell, former chancellor of that pontifical university. Have Irish bishops, who hold their regular meetings there, no mental reservations about this tribute to a living man who dismayed so many Catholics by his response to allegations against some priests?

Whatever it was that a busload of Northern Presbyterians made of Maynooth last weekend can only be imagined.

They had come south for an unusual discussion about two intellectual giants of the Reformation. One was the Protestant John Calvin, and the other the Roman Catholic Ignatius of Loyola. To hear Maynooth ring to the Bible-based teaching of the reformist Calvin, delivered in Northern Irish accents, was both disconcerting and refreshing. But it was Catholic academics, not bishops, who were there to talk.

What difference does dialogue make, either within the Irish Catholic Church or between its members and those of other traditions? The organisation is still run from the top down, with bishops being imposed on both the clergy and laity alike.

Many important matters are not even up for discussion.

The Vatican has said that, "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."

That big letter 'B' in "Bishops" seems like an acknowledgement by the Vatican of where power still resides in terms of the Catholic Church. The clergy, religious and laity just get lower-case letters.

This month, following a preparatory meeting of the papal visitors in Rome, the Vatican announced that its visitors "will give particular attention to victims of abuse and their families, but will also meet with and listen to a variety of people, including ecclesiastical authorities, lay faithful and those involved with the crucial work of safeguarding of children".

So who will those "lay faithful" be? Will it be people belonging to conservative organisations, and those on the secret list of lay people whom the Papal Nuncio consults about matters such as the appointment of bishops? It is still not known.

Will the Pope's men have any potentially bruising encounter with disenchanted lay Catholics for whom Irish bishops seem to meet in another universe behind the Victorian walls of St Patrick's College? These are the many not-so-faithful, who are now closer to Protestantism in their outlook than to the kind of Catholicism that has rolled back attempted reforms.

Pope Benedict has invited the Irish Catholic community to support his initiative with their prayers. He hopes the visitation may be for the faithful "an occasion of renewed fervour in the Christian life, and that it may deepen their faith and strengthen their hope in Christ our Saviour".

But it is going to be difficult for the visitation not to disappoint people. It could be quite technical, concerned principally with new procedures for training and decision-making among bishops.

It cannot depend largely on the existing Irish bishops if it is to contribute to a moral and spiritual renewal as Pope Benedict hopes. For these are the same people who recently treated with scant regard a protest about the role allowed to Irish women in the church.

And will this Pope's men think any differently? For there is something of the same attitude evident in the choice of survivors of child abuse whom the Pope meets on his travels.

These are not representatives of organisations that speak for a range of victims, but are people to whom local bishops have given their informal imprimatur. It is as though a point is being made that the Pope and the hierarchy will not be accountable to Catholic laity or non-Catholic citizens even in matters of church organisation and crime.

Last week in Maynooth, one speaker quoted the more modern Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, who said: "The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all." By mysticism, Rahner meant "a genuine experience of God emerging from the very heart of our existence".

Irish Christians are baffled by the bishops. At a time when a vibrant church could have something inspiring to say, these papal visitors will meet members of a hierarchy stuck in a time warp. The bishops are planning to revisit in Dublin next year the Eucharistic Congress of 1932. It seems more like nostalgia than renewal.

According to the editor of the Irish Catholic, the bishops do not want the Pope's visitors to look at their overall management of the Irish church.

The archbishops insist there has been "absolutely no attempt to try to restrict the mandate of the Apostolic visitors".

Either way, the prospect of radical or inspiring institutional reform seems somewhat remote.

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