Thursday 29 September 2016

Church's reality check won't be very pleasant

Diarmuid Martin has to get his clergy asking 'What would Jesus do?' or there's no future

Published 31/05/2015 | 02:30

Minister for Health Leo Varadkar shakes hands with Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin at an event on Sunday a day after the landslide referendum result. Photo: Damien Eagers
Minister for Health Leo Varadkar shakes hands with Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin at an event on Sunday a day after the landslide referendum result. Photo: Damien Eagers

A long time ago I was a young reporter working in a small newspaper office in Navan. There were just four of us, two facing the door and two with their backs to it.

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I had my back to the door so had to turn round to see why Garret Fox, a senior colleague facing me, was looking excited and rising from his seat. Garret was an old school gentleman, with impeccable manners and dress - tweed jacket, yellow waistcoat, cavalry twills and a pair of elegant suede shows.

He was also old school in his reverence for anything to do with the Catholic church, and what he had seen through the little window in the door was the face of the head brother from the local De La Salle school. Like the host of a Papal visit, Garret all but ran to the door and wrenched it open with one hand while the other was outstretched in greeting. Then he shrieked.

I turned round to see the head brother soaking Garret's lovely shoes as he continued taking a very long piss in our doorway, all the while gently swaying.

The head brother had been in a pub that backed on to our yard, and in those days there wasn't much difference between going to the pub toilet and going out into the yard. I learned some lessons from that incident. I learned not to be too reverential to those in authority, just because of who they were. If you do, they will piss all over you. But I also learned that we are all human.

Growing up in Ireland in the Fifties and Sixties you had a lot of contact with clergy of one kind or another. At first your small self was put in the care of the nuns - some kind, some savage. Girls were stuck with the nuns till they were 18, but boys got to escape to the aforementioned De La Salle brothers after a few years, and that was a lottery. I and my classmates won the lottery because we got Brother Norbert, a gentle and intelligent soul, whose idea of punishment was to put his head in his hands and let you know you had disappointed him. Others were not so lucky. They got the sadist/kiddie fiddler (now deceased) who could not wait for summer and short trousers. Kids learned to be light on their feet around him. But with Brother Norbert you were safe and you learned to love learning - something several of us were lucky enough to carry into secondary school.

St Patrick's Classical School in Navan, which is now run by Colm O'Rourke, was then almost totally staffed by priests. Fr John Walsh taught Latin and history. Fr Joe Dooley taught English and geography. Fr Sean Kenny taught mathematics and science. And the headmaster, Fr Conlan, had specialised in classical Greek and mathematics, but by now, probably through age and ill health, he was confining himself to administration.

These were men without exception who were not only excellent teachers, but were also very good examples of what a mature human being is supposed to be. So you can see that I don't write from a position influenced by some terrible experience of the clergy. But I can still see how, today, most priests are sadly irrelevant and inadequate and unsure of what the hell it is their job is supposed to be.

This chronic condition crystallised in last weekend's same-sex marriage referendum result. The clergy, and especially the hierarchy, allied themselves with those who sought to sow fear. It was the end of the traditional family. It would finish the institution of marriage. No couple would be safe, much less so their children. Sex would cease to be the normal method of procreation, being supplanted by surrogacy. And gay couples would be hoovering up every spare child through adoption.

But they lost anyway. And many of those who had espoused a No vote, appeared gracious in defeat, congratulating the Yes side. And some of the Yes side were heard to say that they know not everyone who advocated a No vote did so for reasons of homophobia. They had genuine fears. Well, that's probably true, but it's also almost certainly the case that there are many among those who advocated a No vote who just can't stomach the idea of two men or two women having sex, let alone that they might be trusted to act as the parents of children. That's the nasty side of things. But you need to confront the nasty as well as the nice when you are trying to get real.

Diarmuid Martin, the Archbishop of Dublin, suggested that the Catholic clergy need a reality check following the referendum decision. It seems that young Ireland - not the political parties - was responsible, in large measure, for the success of the Yes campaign; which puts the Church completely out of touch with the young people. But the news is worse. There is also a large swathe of middle-aged and older people who would shed no tears if the whole of the institution that is the Catholic Church disappeared down a sink hole for eternity.

Many Irish Catholics today could best be described as nominal. The Church still has a grip through the education system, but that is loosening. Nominal Catholics connect with their church only through birth, marriage and death; and now the bishops are threatening to cut themselves off from civil marriage, forcing any couple wanting a church ceremony to have two weddings. How many will use this as an excuse to save a lot of money? Civil ceremonies, including those performed by Humanists, are on the increase, especially as you can pick any beautiful setting now and not be confined to a grotty registry office. And the Humanists are doing funerals too.

So what can Archbishop Martin do? A reality check is not always a pleasant experience. But let's go back to basics. Forget about St Paul and his epistles telling all and sundry what to do. Go back to the other guy, the originator, Jesus Christ. There can be very few of good heart - believers or unbelievers - who would disagree with most of what Jesus had to say. "Do unto others"… and… "thou shalt not kill." Yes, Jesus did like a good sermon, but he didn't set himself up as a moral policeman or an enforcer (aside from that time in the Temple, but we're all allowed one rush of blood to the head - he was human after all.) A large part of his message was the way he lived his life, the example he set. He felt it was as important for people to do as he did, as much as it was to take to heart what he had to say.

How many of today's clergy, at all levels, could say that that is how they have chosen to live their ministry? How many can say they have affected people's lives for the better by good deeds and example? Most priests today would seem to prefer the role of regulator, castigating those they disagree with, firmly directing those they hope will still take direction and content to try to function in a patriarchal (ie anti-women) and celibate institution. Many priests are gay - probably about the same proportion as the rest of the population. Priests have sexual urges, exactly like their lay counterparts. But celibacy makes coping with these urges an unnatural challenge.

There are probably no greater proportion of sexual perverts among the clergy than in any other walk of life, but greater opportunity allowed them to indulge their perversions in greater numbers. They are like the rest of us, no better, no worse. But the artificial unreal world they live in makes them pretty useless members of society today, which is ironic given that their mission is supposed to be all about helping and being useful. What they feel they have to offer is not in demand. This is especially true for the young who believe they can think for themselves. They have the law of the land for justice and order and their own sense of right and wrong to guide them.

When you get the odd cleric like Peter McVerry or Br Kevin Crowley applying themselves to helping the poor, the homeless, the disadvantaged, the disabled, we treat them as if they were some kind of saint. They stand out because they are unique. But if the priests of Ireland actually tried to follow the teachings of Jesus, if they once in a while asked themselves: "What would Jesus do?" they might find themselves noticed for their actions as much as their words. And if they had actions to back up their words, they might find they were being listened to again.

That could be a starting point for Archbishop Martin's reality check. If not, maybe just pull down the shutters now and accept that it's all over.

Sunday Independent

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