Tuesday 24 April 2018

Future of Maynooth seminary in balance as number of student priests plummets

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin Photo: Kyran O'Brien
Archbishop Diarmuid Martin Photo: Kyran O'Brien

Sarah MacDonald

In 2011, Pope Benedict XVI's SWAT team of apostolic investigators swooped on the national seminary in Maynooth in search of immorality.

A year later, a summary of their findings was published. The report's venal criticisms undoubtedly prompted a collective sigh of relief within the Irish hierarchy. Nothing too untoward was uncovered and with a few screens and locked doors installed, seminary life went on as usual. But, as we all know, a wound left to fester is not likely to heal.

The future of Maynooth as a seminary hangs in the balance. A college which once catered for the spiritual needs of up to 500 men has seen the number of student priests plummet to roughly 50 this year. Fourteen men embark on six years of training this week.

Some will stay and some will drop out. Even if all of them stayed, it wouldn't be nearly enough to meet the needs of a church facing a vocations crisis and a rapidly ageing clergy.

The series of directives which emerged from the emergency meeting of the national seminary's trustees on Tuesday confirm what many have suspected for a long time.

Dysfunctional behaviour within the hallowed walls of this 200-year-old college has ruptured the camaraderie among the student body and the staff. It has shocked the faithful and diminished the priesthood in their eyes. Pockets supporting the training of priests may prove less deep in the future.

Some commentators have criticised the prurient interest in what seminarians get up to, arguing that as they are not ordained, they should be free to have the space to explore themselves.

If they are on Grindr - so what?

But the days of hordes of seminarians joining the college straight from school are long gone. Most of these men are at least in their late 20s and therefore they know what they are getting into. If they can't hack celibacy, then they should realise that this calling is not for them.

What many lay people find galling is the hypocrisy of conservative men pontificating to them on marital fidelity and no sex before marriage while indulging in no-strings-attached sex themselves.

The research for the book, 'Thirty-Three Good Men: Celibacy, Obedience and Identity', which was carried out by former seminarian Dr John Weafer, interviewed Irish priests on a number of issues. The research showed a difference between the ages on the issue of celibacy with older and middle-aged priests finding it difficult to see any positive side to celibacy, while younger priests regarded it as "key" to their priesthood.

That doesn't stack up with the "strange goings-on" in Maynooth.

One of the interesting directives to emerge from the trustees is the request that the bishops "urgently" develop a uniform national policy for admissions to Irish seminaries. No such uniform policy currently exists, which means the criteria for prospective seminarians vary from diocese to diocese. That can result in haphazard standards among candidates.

The introduction of a propaedeutic (pre-seminary) year for all applicants for priestly training is an attempt by the trustees to distil those who are serious about this life of service from those who may be drawn to priesthood for the wrong reasons. If Archbishop Diarmuid Martin's proposal for an apprenticeship model gains traction, then those keen to retain Maynooth as a seminary will need some good arguments to hold sway.

Irish Independent

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