Monday 27 January 2020

Crisis of faith

Maynooth was once the biggest seminary in the world. But the decision by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin to stop his student priests going there, amid rumours of gay activity, showed a deepening crisis in the Church.

A window at to the world: A glimpse inside Maynooth seminary. Photo: Mark Condren
A window at to the world: A glimpse inside Maynooth seminary. Photo: Mark Condren
Influential: Papal nuncio, Archbishop Charles John Brown. Photo: Damien Eagers
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

The hugely popular gay dating app Grindr is banned or blocked in countries such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia. This week the embattled Irish Catholic hierarchy would be forgiven for wishing that it was also outlawed in Maynooth, the location of Ireland's only seminary.

Grindr boasts that it is the world's largest gay social network, enabling men to see pictures of "100 guys on a location-based grid… chat, make a date, and have some fun anytime, any place".

Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin this week announced that he was not sending students of the priesthood to the 200-year-old seminary at Maynooth.

Part of the reason given was that some students in the seminary were allegedly using Grindr.

The dating app has become part of normal gay culture among two million users worldwide, in the same way as Tinder is used by heterosexuals to hook up online.

But in the eyes of Archbishop Martin, the app was "inappropriate for seminarians" as it was "something which would be fostering promiscuous sexuality". Other senior bishops, however, refused to join in the Archbishop's condemnations, on the basis that all there was to go on was rumour and tittle-tattle. This embarrassing public stand-off has divided the troubled Church even more.

With Martin, the country's second-most powerful churchman, refusing to send trainee priests to the only seminary in the country, the Church has hit yet another crisis and it could not come at a worse time.

Pope Francis - through his influential Papal Nuncio, the Irish-American Charles Brown - is attempting to revive the Church by reconnecting the clergy with their flock and appointing younger Bishops.

While the sexual proclivities of trainee priests naturally attracted the most attention, one of the startling statistics to emerge was that there will only be three new student priests for the whole of Dublin who are going for training.

That in itself is a much greater crisis threatening the future of the church than any gay activity.

As Archbishop Martin indicated that these young priests would be trained in the sunnier climes of Rome instead of Maynooth, Fr Brendan Hoban of the Association of Catholic Priests accused him of ­"moving the deck chairs on the Titanic".

While the Church engages in an increasingly bitter struggle about how and where seminarians are trained, one of the core problems is that there are so few young priests interested in joining the Church.

As Fr Hoban points out, in Diarmuid Martin's archdiocese, there are 99 parishes, serving over a million Catholics, and only one diocesan priest under the age of 40.

Father Seamus Ahearne, the 69-year-old parish priest in the Finglas area of Dublin, says the average priest in the capital is - like himself - "touching 70".

"There are hardly any priests in their thirties, very few in their forties, quite a few in their fifties and the majority in their sixties, seventies and eighties."

The public response to the latest revelations about "strange goings-on" in Maynooth was itself revealing about the esteem in which the Church is now held.

Thirty years ago, the response might have been one of moral indignation and shocked outrage. Now it is one of mild ridicule. To many under 50, it might as well just be another episode of Father Ted for all the relevance it has to their everyday lives.

On social media, observers light-heartedly pointed out that sending seminarians to Rome to avoid a gay scene was perhaps ill-judged. One compared it to David Bowie moving to Berlin in the 1970s to give up heroin.

While the Twitter generation cracked jokes about priests on Grindr, there were more serious allegations about behaviour at the Maynooth seminary.

A former trainee priest, now happily married, went to gardai to allege that he had been sexually harassed by a member of staff in the seminary.

As well as complaints about the alleged sexual behaviour of some seminarians, there is also a debate about how priests are trained.

Traditionalists in the Church have long complained that Maynooth does not maintain sufficient Catholic orthodoxy.

There have been grumbles in the past that the seminarians were not trained to kneel, and mutterings about Conservatives trying to reintroduce a Latin Mass and old-fashioned modes of dress.

Fr Hoban believes Maynooth has been the focus of unfair and unwarranted attention.

"I suspect that the gay issue is being used to target Maynooth, because its standards are very high. It isn't accepting anybody who turns up," he tells Review.

"There is a group of people who are getting at Maynooth because its theology is fairly loyal to the theology of the Second Vatican Council [which introduced large-scale reforms in the Church].

"You have right-wing commentators who are unhappy with the reforms, and would prefer more traditional and conservative students being accepted in greater numbers."

Simmering in the background is this conflict between the more liberal priests, who want to get women more involved in running the church, and those who want to stick to traditional orthodoxies.

"It's the mad liberals versus the crazy conservatives," says Fr Ahearne.

Many of the generation of priests that came of age in the Swinging Sixties want the Church to ordain women and generally lighten up on the rules in order to connect with ordinary people.

"Many of the younger priests who are emerging are very conservative, very rigid and very caught up in the apparel of priesthood. That would be a concern of mine," says Fr Ahearne.

The latest controversy has already spurred a debate about how priests are trained.

Should they be made more street-wise by serving an apprenticeship in local communities, or cloistered away in seminaries like monks and separated from other people so that they emerge uncontaminated by secularism?

One priest recalled how trainees were told to handle women when he was at Maynooth during the seminary's heyday.

If any woman came to their house in the evening, they were to be sure to leave her standing in a draft so that she would not be inclined to stay.

Archbishop Martin painted a picture of a cosseted lifestyle in Maynooth, away from the cares of ordinary mortals.

He suggested that Maynooth was a very comfortable seminary. The pampered inmates have their breakfast, dinner and tea served up to them.

Certainly the seminarians have more spacious accommodation than their counterparts 50 years ago. In its prime, Maynooth College was the largest seminary in the world - an efficient clerical assembly line that has turned out 11,000 priests.

It was built to train 500 trainee priests at any one time but numbers have nosedived to about 60 in recent years with the dramatic fall-off in vocations.

Rooms in the seminary can now actually be rented for overnight stays and are given a four-star rating by travel website TripAdvisor.

William D, a visitor from Southampton, described his room in the seminary as "beautiful" with high ceilings, a Georgian window and a spacious bathroom.

The reviewer also approved of the breakfast in the seminary refectory. "There's plenty to eat, including lots of soda bread. It's rather cold in winter, so be sure to pack a thick woollen pullover. For an additional €2.15 you can have what they call 'superior coffee'."

Archbishop Martin now wants a more challenging environment, where the student priests have more experience of Dublin life by living in a parish.

Whether the seminarians become more worldly-wise by doing their training in Rome is certainly open to debate.

Fr Ahearne, who spent three years of his training in Rome, says it may be better for priests to train in their home country.

"Those who are training to be priests should be immersed in the culture of the country where they are going to minister.

"Sending people off to Rome is worse than being in a seminary here if they are going to lead an isolated life."

Fr Ahearne says training for the priesthood should be similar to nursing, where you are spending a lot of time doing the job as well as doing your studies.

"The student priests need to do their studies, but they also need to be out in the parishes, seeing how people live. It's wrong to lock them away in a seminary in a pressurised, sterile atmosphere."

Revelations of homosexuality in the seminaries will not come as any great surprise to those who have followed closely the history of the church.

The gay novelist Colm Tóibín, who himself considered a life in the priesthood, has described becoming a priest as a "solution to homosexuality" for some.

In an article in the London Review of Books, Tóibín wrote: "Becoming a priest, first of all, seemed to solve the problem of not wanting others to know that you were queer. As a priest, you could be celibate, or unmarried, and everyone would understand the reasons. It was because you had a vocation; you had been called by God."

Of course many gay priests remain celibate, and would hardly be inclined to use the Grindr app even if they knew how to turn it on.

In his book Thirty-Three Good Men: Celibacy, Obedience and Identity, seminarian Dr John Weafer looks in detail at the personal lives of priests, through personal interviews. He found that most of the priests were heterosexual and led celibate lives.

One of the parish priests interviewed confided that he was in a long-term gay relationship.

Another priest, 'Fr L', was ordained in the 1990s. It was only when he was ordained that he finally ended up 'sleeping' with another priest.

"Although we both vowed it would never happen again, it did and I was really very confused," he said.

'Fr L' then "discovered a strong clerical gay scene in Ireland", although it was not easy to access because of the clerics' need for secrecy.

He suggested that there are "quite a lot of gay guys in the priesthood" and on one occasion when he went into a gay bar in Dublin, he recognised at least nine priests in the bar. 'Fr L' later decided to leave the priesthood, as he found the double standards too difficult to cope with.

The Boston College theologian and Kildare native Professor Thomas Groome believes a whole new approach to training priests is needed.

"Taking young men and putting them in hothouses and expecting them to be in tune with contemporary society is problematic.

"The most chronic issue in the Church is the state of the priesthood. We need to scale back the inflated rhetoric around priesthood in Ireland.

"In Ireland, for historical reasons, there is a tremendous reverence for priests, but when you push them that high on a pedestal, when they fall there is an almighty crash."

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